By Linda Rex
September 8, 2019, Proper 18—As I was reading the passage for next Sunday, I remembered a scene from when I was driving home from Cookeville to Nashville recently. It was located in a small farming community nestled between several tree-covered peaks. In the middle of a large pasture near some other houses sat a wooden frame which looked as though it had been abandoned, with new pieces of lumber scattered among broken pieces from an old farmhouse. What had been built looked great, but sat abandoned, with no one working on it, with no equipment around, and no sign from what I would see that anyone was planning to finish what they started.
If we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel like that unfinished building—abandoned, forgotten, with no hope of ever becoming what we believe we really ought to be or could be. We may have had great plans of overcoming this, of developing that, of doing that good deed, but we so often come up short. What we may feel like is worn out, burned out failures at life.
When we think about picking up and carrying our own cross daily, this is often what we feel like. Living life as a Christian and trying to do the right thing all the time is difficult. I’m grateful I do not have to carry Christ’s cross—I’m still trying to fully understand how to carry my own. And this is why it is important to understand what Jesus meant when he said this.
We often assume that the Christian life is meant to be a struggle against sin, a war to overcome the evil within ourselves. This makes our Christian walk rather self-centered, as an effort to become what we are not. But this is not really a helpful way of seeing things, and not what Jesus meant when he told us to carry our cross and to follow him.
What would be helpful for us to understand is that when Jesus told us to pick up our cross daily and to follow him, he was not telling us something we had to do on our own all by ourselves. When a contractor sets out to build a house, he usually does not attempt to do so all by himself. No, he has someone come to do the plumbing, someone to do the electricity, maybe even a few carpenters and carpet layers come to help him out. In other words, he doesn’t attempt the task all by himself—he does it in community.
In the same way, Jesus calls us into community, into fellowship with the Trinity, where we live life in Christ by the Spirit as participants in his own intimate father-son relationship with his Abba. Jesus says no other relationship should have this precedence in our life—we love all others less in comparison. As participants in the divine life and love, we don’t build our lives under our own power according to our own plans. Whatever we do coincides directly with who we are as God’s beloved adopted children who share in Christ’s perfect and holy sonship.
Jesus also calls us into the community of believers. We are not meant to go through the struggles to live as a follower of Christ alone. The Spirit calls us together into a community so that we can encourage each other and lift each other up, and when our burdens become too difficult for us to carry alone, we have someone to come alongside us to help and strengthen us. We aren’t alone, but rather are called into spiritual community, the church, which is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ who, like us, are beloved adopted children of Abba.
In other words, the life of a follower of Jesus becomes a matter of finding and living out our true identity in Christ as Abba’s beloved adopted children rather than seeking to gain acceptance by our religious performance and moral goodness. We don’t depend upon our ability to do what is necessary—the cost is too great because we will fail. We depend solely upon Christ, walking by faith in him, and living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh. Our focus is not on how well we are doing or not doing, but rather on Jesus Christ, and how he has done it, is doing it in us by the Spirit, and will finish it when we are glorified at his return.
What this means is, the cost of our salvation has been paid by Jesus. The cost to us is the laying down of our life and the receiving of Jesus in our place and on our behalf. This means we cease to be the center, other people cease to be the center, and the cares of this life are set completely aside—Jesus Christ himself is now the center of our life. We are baptized in his baptism, acknowledging he lived our life, we died in his death, we rose in his resurrection, and we ascended in his ascension. We eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, thankfully celebrating that he is all we need—his life for our life. He became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
When we count the cost of following Christ, we aren’t examining ourselves to see whether or not we have what it takes to follow through to the end. The reality is we don’t. That’s why God had from the beginning, before all was made, intended to join our life with his life through the incarnation. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is our assurance that we have what it takes—we turn to Jesus, again and again, daily relying upon him to finish what he began in us. We, as temples of the Spirit, are in process, and in the end, the beautiful bride, the universal fellowship of all believers, will shine with God’s glory in his presence forever.
So, the question for today is, what do you need to lay down so that you are solely picking up your daily reliance upon Jesus? What is it that you need to relinquish or surrender control over so that Christ can rule in your heart and life? What relationships need to be given healthy boundaries so Christ becomes your focus instead someone else being the center of your life? You are the beloved adopted child of Abba and by the Spirit you share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with him. Accept your cross of life in Christ daily, and follow him wherever he goes. Let him do the heavy lifting—you enjoy the journey.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your perfect relationship with your Son Jesus. Thank you that by the Spirit, we participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. What a blessing that it is all up to him and not all up to us! Enable us this day, and each day, to lay down all our human efforts at righteousness and surrender fully to dependency upon Christ alone. Enable us to establish healthy relationships, keeping Christ at the center of our lives. Grant us the grace to yield control completely to you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:27 NASB
By Linda Rex
PROPER 12—Reflections on when I was first baptized remind me of the disconnect there was between my baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection and the rest of my Christian life. Even though the baptism focused on repentance and accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, it seems that once that event took place, then the rest was all up to me, even though I was a recipient of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, I had been taught the scriptures since I was a child, and had to memorize many for school. There were instructions about the ten commandments and the way of love, and warnings that I would reap what I sowed. I lived in constant fear that I would fall short of God’s enormous expectations (and I often did) and believed that God would reject me. My participation in taking the bread and wine once a year was often a desperate plea for forgiveness and an acknowledgement of my unworthiness in his sight. Even though I may have felt forgiven as I came to the table, this experience was short-lived—guilt and shame were my constant companions.
Unfortunately, I was laboring under a false concept of what it meant to be baptized and to be saved. In some ways, I understood what it meant, but at the same time I did not grasp the significance of dying and rising with Jesus. I did not realize that my death and subsequent life in Christ was always and ever a participation in Christ’s perfected and finished work. It was not all up to me—it was completely all up to him; I was saved by grace through faith.
Jesus, who was God in human flesh, did not need to be baptized and yet he obeyed his Father’s command given through John the Baptizer to be baptized for the remission of sins. Jesus was not baptized for his own sins, but for the sins of the whole world, identifying with each human being in our broken, sinful humanity. When we are baptized, it is a participation in his perfect work of baptism as well as a symbolic sharing in his death and resurrection.
This participation in Christ through baptism is merely a beginning of the new life which is ours by faith in Jesus. By faith we receive the anointing in the Holy Spirit by which we share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Father. Our life becomes a life of walking in the Spirit by faith in Christ—a new way of being which has its roots in the Son of God.
We do not suddenly become perfect and yet we are at the same time perfect in Christ—there is a paradox, a tension, to our lives. While on the one hand our perfected humanity is hidden with Christ in God, on the other this perfection is being worked into us daily as we live and walk in obedience to the Spirit. We are fully justified in Jesus but are daily being sanctified—we walk by faith, not by sight. We do not always see in ourselves or others the perfection which is ours even now in Christ.
Our focus is so often on moral perfection. This was the struggle in my early years as a Christian. But this is not God’s focus. He has already resolved the issue of moral perfection in Jesus. What he is working on now is our faith in Jesus Christ, our personal walk with him in the Spirit.
In Christ we are caught up into the inner life of the Trinity, of the Father, Son, and Spirit as they exist in perichoretic love and unity. We were created to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Christ this is who we are as God’s adopted children. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the giving of the Spirit, Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, enabling us to participate as God’s creatures in true union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, and in union and communion with one another, expressed most fully within the body of Christ, the church.
What before was a fear and anxiety-ridden struggle to attain a tiny measure of God’s favor has been replaced in our lives by a grace-based relationship filled with God’s love, humor, compassion and understanding. All of life is holy now, blessed by and healed by the presence and power of God through Jesus in the Spirit. Our lives are a participation in the perfect relationship Jesus has with our Father and his perfect expression of love for Abba and for others in the Spirit.
We don’t have to beg God for the least bit of his attention. No, he anticipates and looks forward to our encounters, for Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, bringing us into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We feel his pleasure as we pray and sense his joy in our everyday life. We know his presence and sense his comfort when we grieve or go through painful experiences—he shares all of life with us. Whatever evil we may encounter in this world, we find he is already at work within it to redeem, restore and renew. And whatever praise or prayer or gift of obedience we bring—it is already perfected in Jesus.
We do not need to spend all our time in abjection or slavish attention, but rather in real moment-by-moment relationship, in the true love, humility and service which come in a complete dependence on God, knowing and accepting our need for Jesus, and rejoicing in the power and presence of the Spirit in our lives. We can live our lives in joy, drinking in of the blessings God richly showers upon us for our enjoyment—the beauty of a new spring day, the glory of a mountain vista, the pleasure of a pet’s affection, and the ecstasy of an intimate relationship with a spouse. In moments of sorrow or struggle, we can rest in his arms, trusting he is holding us and helping us through them, working all things for our best benefit.
What God has given us is true participation in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Abba. We have a loving, adoring, compassionate Father who has done everything necessary for us to have a personal, intimate relationship with him and to share in what he is doing in this world to bring the fullness of his kingdom into every area of our existence. We get to share in Christ’s mission by the Spirit through prayer, loving others, resisting evil, and caring for God’s creation. All of these are a true participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, of which baptism is the initial step and our weekly communion the ongoing sacrament.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Thank you for allowing us to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his life in the Spirit, symbolically showing our participation through baptism and our sharing in the bread and the wine. May you finish what you have begun in us through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him,…” Colossians 2:6 NASB
By Linda Rex
PROPER 10/PROPER 11—The most significant way to change a person, and therefore a society, is to change what that person believes about themselves and the people in their lives. Often our response to a given situation is habituated by our belief system. We may not even realize why we do some of the things we do, even though we may realize they are inappropriate or unhealthy. We may not be even be aware of the belief systems that are at the root of such behavior.
Reflecting back upon the garden of Eden, we may see that Adam and Eve illustrate this point in how they responded to God after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. Before then they had freely walked and talked with God in the garden. But after they ate the fruit, they began to believe things about themselves and God which manifested in shame, fear, and hiding themselves. What a change occurred when they adopted the wrong frame for their view of God and themselves!
We see this at work in the nation of Israel as well. God told them on Mount Sinai that they were his people and he was their God, and this reality would be reflected in the way they lived their lives. But when God approached near to them, they responded in fear. They didn’t want God to speak to them personally—they wanted a mediator. What they believed about God caused them to distance themselves from their covenant partner who loved them with deep devotion and commitment. Over the centuries following, the nation of Israel acted out their mixed-up belief system, turning away to other idols and then turning back to God in remorse when things got tough.
One of the things Israel believed was that God was a fearful, judgmental God who needed appeased. They had adopted the belief system of the nations around them rather than the truth that God had chosen them as his adopted nation, his beloved people. They refused to believe and live in the truth that God had committed himself to them in covenant relationship. They wanted to live as though they were independent of God and yet at the same time have all the benefits of a good relationship with him.
They also did not grasp the need to internalize the word of God. The law was something external to them, becoming a prescription of how to be a good Israelite. In actuality, it was meant to be a description of what life looked like when lived in communion with their God. Love for God was to be so written on their hearts that their lives would resemble his law, his way of being, the way of love.
At one point, God bemoaned their lack of a heart of obedience and devotion to him. He said, “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!” (Deut. 5:29 NASB) Many centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah told the people about a day when God would make a new covenant with the people. He said that God would put his law within them and write it on their heart. He would be their God and they would be his people. God’s word would cease to be external to them and would become the core driving force of their being. But this could not happen apart from God’s intervention—our humanity on its own is lost in unhealthy belief systems and a determination to operate on its own apart from God.
The apostle John opens his gospel with the good news that God the Word joined us in our humanity, becoming flesh and living among us. Getting to know God by coming to know Jesus Christ is fundamental to changing our belief system. To know Jesus is to know the Father. To know Jesus is to know and begin to experience the reality of God’s real presence in our humanity. The Holy Spirit, God’s presence in us and with us, reveals Christ in us and brings us into union and communion with God.
Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, worked the word of God into our human flesh. He lived in complete oneness with his Father while here on earth. He forged a new humanity which would love and obey his Abba by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus, our humanity is capable of new ways of being and living. As we turn to Christ in faith, as we respond to the Spirit’s work in us, repenting of our wrong beliefs and our wrong view of God and ourselves, God’s word hidden in our hearts through Jesus by the Spirit begins to be expressed in new ways. There is a new inner drive to love God and love others.
The living Word Jesus Christ, written on human hearts by the Holy Spirit, is the basis for our new belief system. In Christ we have new life. We are forgiven, accepted and beloved. What we were as broken, sinful people has been declared dead and buried with Christ, and raised into new life.
What we believe about ourselves and God, then, is critical. Do we see ourselves as included in Christ? Or are we living out a belief system that says we are evil, sinful, and broken—forsaken and rejected by God? Do we believe that the wretchedness of our life is the fault of everyone else and all they did to us over the years? Or do we admit our own guilt and shame, knowing we are freed in Christ? And what do we believe about God? Is he a fearful, judgmental overseer or did he come himself to rescue us out of our wretchedness and to make us his own? Is he present, forgiving, loving, and accepting in every situation and difficulty we have?
If we are struggling with some unhealthy behaviors or are having a lot of negative thoughts, perhaps it is time to reconstruct our inner belief system. We can participate with Christ in doing that by internalizing the written word of God. If you struggle to believe God loves you or that you are worthy of love, dig deeply into the written word to find all the passages that tell you the truth—you are forgiven, beloved, accepted, and cherished. Write them on cards and begin memorizing the passages—give the Holy Spirit some ammunition to use in this battle.
And ask God for the faith to believe—to write this word on your heart. Thank God that he has given you Jesus’ heart—a heart which fully understands and receives his Abba’s love. But understand, any spiritual discipline in itself will not change you. It is the Word written on human hearts—Jesus Christ by the Spirit poured into you—that will change you. It is God at work within you that will make the change. You start by embracing the process of participating with Christ in his work by the Spirit. And allow God to do the rest. And he will, giving you abundant reason for praise and gratitude.
Abba, thank you for writing your word on our hearts, for sending us your Son and your Spirit to do this amazing transformational work. Today, give us a hunger for your word and your ways. Give us a desire to grow in our relationship with you and to study your Word—to learn more about you and your Son Jesus Christ, and the awesome Spirit who transforms our hearts by faith. Heal, restore, renew—bring our deep inner beliefs into agreement with the truth, the One who is our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Deut. 30:14 NASB
“…the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Col. 1:15-28 NASB
By Linda Rex
Last week I asked the question: If Jesus is indeed the exact representation of the Father, does that mean that our heavenly Father is a really nice guy who never did or does anything in anger or that might be hurtful to us as human beings? I wrote about how Christ is our reconciliation and perfect relationship with our Abba, but often we seek to hide our sin and brokenness rather than humbly bringing it into the light of God’s love so we can live fully in the reconciliation which is ours in Christ Jesus.
God loves all people everywhere and has reconciled them to himself in his Son Jesus. We read in John 3:16-17 that God gave his Son for each human being, not so they would be condemned, but that they would be saved. And yet we also read in the Old Testament conversations and situations in which it seems as though God loves some people more than others.
I was sitting on a sofa in someone’s living room one day talking with a gentleman who loved God and wanted to live rightly, but more often than not was unkind and uncaring to his family and others. This person had such a low opinion of himself, it was reflected in how he treated others. He told me that God loves some people and hates others, and wondered whether or not some people were born already unloved and unblessed by God.
The example he pointed to was the story of Esau and Jacob in a passage in Malachi. In Malachi 1:1-2 we read, “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have You loved us?’ ‘Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ declares the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.’” Here, in most translations, it says that God hated Esau but loved Jacob.
Now my understanding of the language (I’m not a Hebrew scholar) is that what is being said is not that God hates or abhors Esau, but that comparatively, he loves him less. But that still doesn’t seem to jive with our understanding that Jesus came because of God’s love for every human being. How could God do that and love some more or less than others?
The thing to avoid here is “either/or” thinking. It is better to turn to “both/and” thinking, understanding that both things are true at the same time. God “so loved the world” and he “loved Jacob, but hated Esau.” Both of these are true statements and neither is contradictory of the other. Indeed, the whole outcome of God choosing Abraham, then choosing Isaac (over Ishmael), and choosing Jacob (over Esau), was so that God could fully express his love for the whole world in his son Jesus Christ, who bore the humanity which had its roots in these patriarchs.
The apostle Paul actually writes about what God did in choosing Jacob over Esau. In Romans 9:10-13 he wrote: “there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Paul’s point here was that what God did in showing his mercy and love was not because of any particular person’s performance, but genuinely from his own heart of love and grace.
We don’t earn God’s love or forgiveness. It is fully a gift. Some have refused it. Others have not. God loves both Jews and Gentiles, and even though the Jews were his chosen people, he offered salvation to them and to the Gentiles. During Paul’s missions to the Gentiles, though, often it was the Jews, God’s very own chosen people, who refused to receive the gift of forgiveness in Jesus. The Gentiles, who had for centuries been excluded from the fellowship of God’s people, warmly received the gift of grace. They were willing to come into the Light and live in the Light, while the Jews continued to deny the truth of who Jesus was as their Savior and Lord, the Messiah of all.
Salvation is a gift from God, and the Holy Spirit, who has been poured out on all from Abba through his Son Jesus, works to bring each and every human being to saving faith in Christ. We do not know why some people come to faith now and others don’t. God has his reasons. The Holy Spirit works in ways we do not understand. But if we look at things from the view of eternity and God’s perfect love expressed to us in Jesus, we can see God has no desire to leave anyone out or reject anyone.
We are forgiven and accepted in the Beloved. But we are also free to reject and turn our backs on that gift of love and grace. We are included in God’s life and love but are free to live our lives as though we are forgotten, unloved, and unwanted. We exclude ourselves—God doesn’t exclude us.
The reason Jesus Christ is the Elect or the Chosen One is not so that only people who are Christian can be saved or go to heaven when they die, but rather so that each and every person might be included in God’s love and grace right now as well as for all eternity. Jesus Christ is our perfected humanity, and whatever may happen in this life that may make us feel as though God loves us less, as though we have been left out in some way, is a lie—a deception which Satan has suckered us into since Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden.
The question which arises now is whether or not someone who has refused God’s grace before death will be offered grace after death. This is a great question full of all types of complications. But I would, at this point, simply point out that death and Hades were defeated in Jesus, and will ultimately be tossed into the lake of fire. Death is a place Jesus has already been to and returned from, and so death is not a barrier to eternal life. God’s heart is that each and every person be saved: “God so loved the world.” And his Son Jesus Christ is his final and ultimate Word in this regard.
Thank you, Abba, for loving each and every one of us so much that you sent your Son and your Spirit for our salvation and our communion with you. Grant us the grace to believe we are included and accepted in Jesus, and to live in the truth that each and every other person is also included and beloved in Jesus. We trust you to finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His 1conly begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” John 3:16-17 NASB
By Linda Rex
One of the little known facts of my existence is one year I was Miss Sadie Hawkins at the yearly high school Sadie Hawkins dance. To this day I believe the only reason I received this special bouquet of roses was solely due to the efforts of my best friend to dress me in one of her mother’s traditional square dance outfits, and the blessing of having a date who was an energetic and skilled dancer.
Square dancing is both challenging and fun. One has to pay attention to the caller, follow his instructions, and do so at the same time he or she is interacting with seven other people in the square. When everyone is all in tune with the caller and one another, the group can do very intricate movements in time with the music. But all it takes is one person stopping to do a do-si-do in the middle of an allemande left, and you have bruised shins, broken toes, and lot of unhappy people.
Square dancing is a good illustration of what it’s like living in the divine dance with Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit. In Christ, God has given us a way of living and being in Jesus Christ which involves each and every person around us. As we listen to the Spirit and obey the living Word, we move together in the intricate dance of life.
It is the Spirit who interlaces us together in spiritual community. The binding together of people in spiritual community can and does happen just about anywhere, whether at the office, a family gathering, a meeting of neighbors, or a high school prom. When there is this communion of people who would not necessarily be joined together otherwise, we see the Spirit at work creating community.
The Spirit’s communion-creating work is meant to be most evident within the church community, the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, the humanity of any of us can get in the way of healthy spiritual community. So even the church, whose members are supposed to reflect the divine communion, can be filled with do-si-doers who are disrupting the allemande left of the Spirit.
Now, let me clarify something here. There is a profound difference between someone who is selfishly disrupting the dance, and someone who just hasn’t figured out the steps yet. We’re all at a place of learning when it comes to the divine dance, so we all need to accept the reality there are times when we just don’t have a clue as to what we are doing. This is when we need to be surrounded by grace.
We need to realize the living Word is willing to start the set over anytime we get too tangled up to keep going. Abba never stops singing over us, and the Spirit always is at work to bring us together and keep us in tune with God and one another. So the group we are dancing with needs to have the grace to laugh off our stumbling faulty efforts and keep going, picking up where we left off and listening to the living Word as he gives us the next direction for the dance.
Keeping in step with Abba’s music and the living Word’s direction requires an alertness, a constant paying attention to what is going on within us and around us as the Spirit moves. The grace to truly love other human beings in real relationship really does require death and resurrection—a constant dying to our own agenda and moving in full agreement and participation with God in his, in harmony with all those around us.
Participating in the divine dance is also a journey in which each of us grows more and more skilled in following the call of the Word upon our lives and keeping in time with Abba’s song. The Spirit is ever at work, and we are free to embrace and obey the Spirit in each and every moment as he moves.
We have also been, in God’s love and grace, given the freedom to squelch, reject, and disobey the Spirit and the divine Word of God to us. Why would someone want to disrupt the dance when they could have such a really good time dancing with everyone? I don’t know, but we do it, don’t we?
Our human proclivity is to jitterbug in the middle of a promenade, or to start shouting our own calls for everyone to follow. Let’s just be honest about this—joining in the dance is often something we only want to do on our own terms. This is why God calls us to repentance and faith, and this is why Abba sent his Son to join with us in our dance.
So not only does the Word speak to us the steps of the dance, he also came and danced our steps with us, in us, and for us. God was not content to just sit up on the stage and call the dance—he came down into the crowd and began dancing with us. He knows how easy it is to miss a step, or to not understand an instruction for the next movement of the dance. He’s shared this dance with us in person, from the moment of his birth on through his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. He knows how hard it can be to stay in tune with Abba and obedient to the Spirit.
In Jesus Christ we find we are all experienced and skilled dancers. He, by his Spirit, keeps us in tune with Abba, and helps us recover when we miss a step or get out of sync with those around us. Jesus gives us hope that we will never be left out of the dance, and he, by the Spirit, enables us to freely join in this dance of God’s love and life.
This time of year we are reminded of the great gift of love God gave us in sending us his Son to dwell in our humanity, in our midst—Jesus Christ who is fully man and fully God. We are reminded of how God values each and every one of us, and includes us in his divine dance. The call to us at Christmas is to come and celebrate this precious gift of love. Embrace the wonder of Abba’s perfect gift, and join with us and others in dancing with delight to Abba’s glorious song of love.
May you all have a blessed and joyful Christmas!
Thank you, Abba, for singing your song of love over us, and for welcoming us through Jesus and by your Spirit into your divine dance. Grant us the grace to again embrace the joy of life with you, and to listen and obey your living Word and ever-present Spirit. Keep us in step with the beat of your heart, and move us to live in harmony with one another moment by moment. And do give us joy in your dance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever!” Psalm 30:11–12 NLT
When I was growing up, I learned at an early age that God had rules for everything. He decided what I could eat and what I could not eat, when I could eat certain foods and when I couldn’t. He decided what I should wear and what I shouldn’t wear, and when certain things should be worn and when they shouldn’t. In fact, it seemed as though God was making sure I did everything exactly right so he could bless me and I could be happy, or punish me if I went astray.
I suppose, looking back, there was something helpful about having some order to my existence. But I realized early on I had an inner resistance to this constant dictation as to what I had to do or not do. There was a rebellion deep within me to being controlled in this manner. And of course, this was seen as being sinful and evil. I did a lot of repenting and I worked really hard at “being good.”
The irony in all of this was I wasn’t made any better or any worse by all this effort. If anything, I was so busy putting on my appearance of having my life in order, I was missing out on real life—real relationship with God and with others. It was only in those relationships where I dropped the façade—with my high school buddies, for example—and where I was genuine and transparent I actually experienced true communion with others. The rest was just pretense.
When God finally got through to me with the reality of his grace and Who he actually was for me, with me and in me, I realized I was one of those people Jesus quite adamantly criticized when he was here on earth. I was a Pharisee—a white-washed tomb—a viper in the woodpile.
To come to the realization that you have all the glitz but none of the reality is a painful, difficult process. It takes experiencing the loss of all the things you cherish and coming to the end of all the things you count on to carry you through and to make you “good enough.” It means discarding all your previous notions about Who God is and who you are as his creature. And this is a tough road to travel, because our humanity and the culture we live in encourage us to stay where we are—in the façade.
One of the things I had to learn about God was he is truly free—free to be Who he is, apart from my expectations of him or preconceived notions about him. He is free to do whatever he wants in this world—which is often the exact opposite of how I was taught and believed he would act in certain situations. God is free to be Who he is, not Who I think he is. The Lord of the universe is truly that—Lord—and I am not (shockingly enough!).
But that freedom God has is always tempered by his boundless, deep love, which surpasses our comprehension. The God I grew up with was punitive and angry. And it was not helpful my personal experience of a father reinforced this belief in many ways. But when God revealed himself to me in Christ by the Spirit, I came to see this wasn’t Who God really was. The God of grace and love has always loved me and you and meant for us to be included in his divine life. This is amazing!
The other amazing thing is God gives each of us freedom—freedom to choose, to embrace or reject him, to live in harmony and unity with him and others, or to live in opposition to everything which is good and honorable and to experience the consequences of living in that way. It is hard to image God doing that, but he did and he does. Freedom to live in loving communion with him and each other, or not—it’s as simple as that.
One of the topics which kept coming up last night at a social gathering I attended was the way each of us has a unique history or genesis, but we are all intertwined and interrelated in some way. Indeed, it seems a person cannot assume someone they do not like is not at all connected with them because we have, as the centuries have passed, intermingled our DNA with one another. We are all bound together in a common humanity.
The joys of fellowship and community are a consistent thread throughout human existence. And this is what we seem to cherish most about our family and community celebrations such as Christmas. At the core of our being, we are drawn to one another in ways we don’t even realize—we are created for community and so we are drawn to it as a part of our very being.
This type of loving community, this interweaving of lives with one another in harmony and grace and peace, cannot be built by making rules and enforcing them. This is a work of the Spirit which takes place in the heart. God does not control us or force us into relationship with him and others, but invites us, draws us close, and compels us by his deep, perfect, and gracious love.
I pray you will each experience the blessing of true spiritual community this Christmas in many ways in your lives. I pray your families will experience healing and comfort and encouragement in the midst of all which pulls us apart and divides us. And I pray you will have a blessed and wonderful Advent season, through Jesus, our Lord, and by his Spirit. Amen.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1–3 NASB
by Linda Rex
As I was driving through the Tennessee countryside this morning, I was soaking up the inherent beauty of the fall colors in the leaves of the trees and the deep blue of the clear sky. There is such a sense of God’s presence and nearness in his creation, especially when the plants, trees, animals and earth are just being who they were created to be. And how cool it is that we, as human beings and God’s creatures, get to be a part of reflecting God’s glory!
Last night I participated in a discussion at the Highland Heights Neighborhood Association meeting in which we talked about being aware of and sensitive to the needs of the people in the community who are marginalized and forgotten. In the light of this, as a neighborhood group working to improve our community, we asked the question, “Where do we go from here?” and “What can we do to help?”
Truthfully, there are people down the street from our church who live every day in such poverty and squalor they are not able, even if they wished, to soak up the beauty of the Tennessee countryside. They live in housing which is uninhabitable by modern standards, and have little hope for anything better. How, in the midst of the struggle of daily life, can they enjoy the best of life? What does it mean for them to just be who they were created to be? Is it even possible for them?
And indeed, how are they any different from you or me? They have this existence they have found themselves in and they, like you and me, seek to do the best they are able to along the way, trying to find and create life in the midst of death and poverty and struggle. They, like we do, breathe the same air, need the same food and water we do, and long to love and be loved, for that is what they, like we, were created for.
It would be easy to say, for example, that a particular group of people being considered last night as being in need were not part of our neighborhood therefore not a part of our responsibility. But indeed, we must never forget we are neighbor to each and every person in this world in our Lord Jesus Christ. In him we are connected at the center of our being to every other person who exists, no matter whether we like them or not. There is a core relatedness which Jesus Christ created in us and in himself which demands we treat each other as brothers and sisters, not as strangers or aliens.
And this is hard to do, because we as human beings are broken. We have addictions, mental and emotional and physical illnesses, and quirks which make us unpleasant people to be around. We have character flaws which sometimes make it unsafe for others to be around us. We have generational and personal habits and ways of being and talking which do not line up with who we are created to be in Jesus Christ, and they divide us from one another.
This morning I was looking at some photos from around the world taken over the last year which illustrated something significant which happened on that particular day. Most of the photos told the story of people in the midst of struggle—of war, refugees, destruction, natural disasters—all the ways in which people were wrestling with their desire for life in the midst of death and loss. Here and there was a picture of someone celebrating or worshiping, but they were few and far between.
It seems, apparently, struggle is a part of the human existence, whether we like it or not. Poverty, displacement, homelessness, and war plague us no matter where we live. Jesus said at one point, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:8 NLT). There is a reality about our human existence and it is we do not live as we ought and we do not treat others as we ought, and so people end up living in ways they were never meant to have to live. Our human existence today is a reflection of how we seek to find life in the ways which only create destruction and death, and of how our earth is broken and reflects the harm we humans have done to it over the centuries.
It is no wonder the youth of our day sometimes feel a sense of despair and hopelessness. What kind of future do they have to look forward to? And what about our marginalized neighbors who expect to only see more of the same in the years ahead? What hope do they have?
I believe this is where we run into a fundamental flaw in our thinking as Christians. We see all this and can say, things are so bad we must be near the end of the world, so Jesus is going to come and punish all the bad people and establish his kingdom. This conveniently places everything back into the hands of an angry God who will deal with all this stuff so we don’t have to. It removes any need for us to encounter and deal with on a face-to-face basis the suffering of our neighbor right now, today, in our everyday lives.
I thought it was instructive last night that the heads more than once turned towards our end of the table and it was indicated that the churches in the neighborhood were expected to do something about the problems in the neighborhood. At the NOAH meeting, I heard the city officials say the non-profit organizations were the ones who ought to be solving the homelessness problem. Why do communities turn to God’s people with the needs of those who are homeless and poverty-stricken rather than to the government? What is it they believe we have and can do which cannot be found elsewhere?
At this point, I’m not really sure. But I do know this—when God goes to work in a human heart and mind, things change. When God goes to work in a community, things change. When God goes to work in a family, a church, an office or a city, things change. And one of the biggest changes to occur is a change in human hearts and minds.
It seems at times God doesn’t care as much about the poverty of our circumstances as he does about the poverty of our soul. The path to new life is through suffering and death, whether we like it or not. When he goes to work though, as hearts and minds are healed and renewed, circumstances in peoples’ lives change as well.
We as Christians need to realize the magnitude of what we bring to the table in the situations we face in our neighborhoods and in our world. We may have no power to fix the problems faced directly. But we do have the power of prayer and the community of faith. We do have the ability to walk with people through their times of darkness and to share with them the Light of life. We do have the ability to ease their suffering in some ways, even though in other ways we are impotent in being able to help.
The greatest thing we can do for others is to offer them a relationship of love and grace in which Jesus Christ is the center. We can come alongside others and share in the divine Paraclete’s ministry of counsel, intercession and comfort. We can share with others the blessings we have received from Abba so they may also experience the joy of thanksgiving as we do. We can work to help others to be and become those people God created them to be, so they may begin to enjoy the best of life, which is living in loving community with God and one another.
This is my heart and desire for the people of Tennessee, and for all people, for that matter. And I know it is also the heart and desire of our members at Good News Fellowship. We have been given our Abba’s heart of love and grace and we want to share it with others. We want all people to be overwhelmed just as we are with the overflowing joy of thanksgiving for our Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have given us true life in their presence both now and forever.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness, and for drawing us to yourself by your Son and in your Spirit, so we each and all may participate with you in a communion of love and grace both now and forever. Renew in us your heart of love and grace so we may love others with your perfect love and forgive as we are forgiven. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.
“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” Colossians 1:9–12 NASB