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
By Linda Rex
November 24, 2019, Christ the King or Reign of Christ—Yesterday I was catching up on a few emails when I noticed one from a publisher. They were wanting to market my book “Making Room” and were telling me how wonderful it was and how it could reach millions of people if only I would sign up with them for their marketing services. When the email reached the place where it said that my book was being considered for being made into a film, I started laughing. Well, I thought to myself, it is pretty obvious that this person never even read my book.
What I found out with a little research on my part was this particular group makes a practice of plagiarizing people’s writing. What appeared to be a wonderful opportunity to share my writing turned out to be a ploy to steal what I worked so hard to put together for the benefit of my readers. Just another case where what appeared to be glorious on the outside turned out to be like the tombs Jesus described—outwardly whitewashed and beautiful, but filled with death and decay on the inside.
It seems that our broken human existence is often like this. Remember the old saying, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch?” We tend to assume that free means free, but more often than not there is a catch of some kind. We end up paying in some crazy way for that thing we thought was a generous and delightful freebie. Because of this, we find it difficult to get our minds around the reality that God has offered us salvation as a free gift in his Son Jesus Christ.
First, the darkness of our human brokenness blinds us to our need for deliverance. We prefer to buy a few cans of whitewash and put a new layer on our evil, sin, and death rather than submitting ourselves to the truth of our humanity—we need Christ. We need to be changed from the inside out—we need a new existence, one in which we are reconciled with God and made whole. The fact that Jesus came in our stead, on our behalf means we were in need of him doing so. In other words, we are sinners in desperate need of rescue. We are, as Israel was, incapable of and unwilling to live in union and communion with our covenant God, and so the Word of God came into our humanity to do what we could not and would not do.
Secondly, submitting ourselves to the transforming power of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ means we are submitting to God as Lord over our existence. Jesus lived our life and died our death, rising again and carrying our humanity into the presence of our Father. Our human existence isn’t defined by our self-determination, our self-will, and self-preservation any longer, but by the self-giving, self-sacrificing, and other-centered being of Jesus Christ. Jesus defines us—he is our identity as adopted children of our heavenly Father. We are called to faith, to trust in him fully, to receive our identity as full participants in the majestic love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
And this is what we resist—Jesus as our King. What we need to come to grips with is our need to surrender to the all-encompassing love and grace of our ever-living Lord. We are so much more comfortable with our fear, our anxiety, and our human efforts to liberate ourselves than we are simply trusting in him, in his goodness, kindness and mercy—that as our Lord and King, he wants only the best for us and is always working things for our good as we trust in him.
As soon as things start to go wrong in our lives, we are tempted to believe that God doesn’t care, that he doesn’t love us, and that he is indifferent to our concerns and needs. We may be dealing with an endless struggle with pain or loss, and wonder why God won’t take it away—how can he really love us when we have to go through this day after day after day? We like to make up our own rules for our existence and don’t like the idea of anyone but us deciding how things ought to be. Why should I listen to God and do things his way, since his way is so hard and difficult? And look at all those people who say they are Christians—what’s the point of following Jesus when it doesn’t change anything?
These are really good questions, and I do believe we need to be asking them. But I also believe we have to be very careful in our search for answers not to ignore the reality of what God has done already in giving his Son Jesus Christ, and what he is doing in each moment right now by the Holy Spirit to bring Jesus’ resurrected life into effect in our human existence as we trust in him.
God is at work in the world through Jesus in the Spirit. He has, in Jesus, delivered all humanity out of the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of light. But our participation is critical. What we believe about Jesus, who he is, what he has done and is doing, is important. Who is Jesus Christ? Who is Jesus to you? Are you in agreement with the spiritual reality that Jesus is your Lord and your Savior? If so, how does this affect the way you live your life?
If we expect it to be all up to us to make the Christian life work, we are going to find ourselves in a very difficult place. God will not allow us to endlessly continue in the false belief that if we do everything “just so” then everything will turn out all right. He will allow us to experience the reality that our rightness is solely dependent upon Jesus Christ. He alone is the sovereign Lord over our whole human existence.
It was our heavenly Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness of the Godhead to dwell in Christ and through him to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth with himself. There is nothing left between us and God—we are fully free to be the adoring adopted children of God we were always meant to be (Col. 1:11–20).
We have been brought out of darkness into the light, so the truth of our existence is that we are children of light. This gift of grace so freely given is meant to be received with gratitude and praise demonstrated by a life lived as those who reflect the glorious image of our loving sovereign King who is Father, Son and Spirit. Let us live and walk in the truth of that, both now and forever.
Abba, thank you for loving us so much that you would not allow anything to come between us and you. Thank you for delivering from the kingdom of darkness and setting us by your Son Jesus Christ in your kingdom of light. Grant us the grace to admit our need for redemption and forgiveness, and to submit to you as the Lord over all things, through Jesus our Lord and Savior. Enable us to serve you faithfully and obediently from now on with gratitude and praise as your beloved children. Amen.
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; And He will reign as king and act wisely | And do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, | And Israel will dwell securely; And this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness.’” Jeremiah 23:5–6
“The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’ Now there was also an inscription above Him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’ And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’” Luke 23:36–43 NASB
by Linda Rex
Last week I did my best to come up with a blog to post, but due to my involvement with vacation bible school (VBS), and other family and work responsibilities, I found myself drawing on empty when it came time to write. But I would like to share what stood out in my mind from our work with the young people in the Old Hickory community.
The topic of our VBS last week was the armor of God. At first, when we were reviewing the curriculum at one of our planning meetings, I and others were struck by the emphasis it had on our human efforts to put away sin and defend ourselves against Satan’s attacks. Our challenge was to revise the curriculum in such a way as to put Jesus Christ as the foundation and center of it rather than our own human efforts.
It is my personal belief what is lost in most discussions and devotions about the armor of God is the reality that each part of the armor is in essence Jesus Christ himself. Even the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, points us to the living Word, Jesus Christ. To separate each part out individually as if it stands on its own is to miss the point of this whole passage.
Paul starts out this section of scripture by saying, “…be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” God’s might is our might, his strength our strength. In Jesus by the Spirit we have the capacity to resist evil and the evil one. It’s not something we have to figure out or do on our own.
We need to beware of any way of looking at scripture which casts us back upon ourselves, as if we are capable of resisting or overcoming evil on our own, or are responsible to do so. Trying to overcome or resist evil on our own by keeping the law or doing lots of good deeds is basically human religion. And such a religion does not save us—rather it can enslave us and bind us to unhealthy and unfruitful ways of living and being.
What Paul seems to be saying here in Ephesians 6 is we have an adversary who is always scheming against us, and there are forces of evil at work which impact our lives on a daily basis. But we have a simply divine outfit laid out on the bed for us—we just need to put it on and stand firm in Christ, while resisting the devil’s efforts to deceive or distract us.
Salvation isn’t something we have to make sure we run to the boutique and buy, but rather something Christ has already done in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have been delivered from sin and death by the Son of God, who was victorious over them. But there is an action we do—we pick up the helmet of salvation, and we put it on. We experience a change in our mind and heart—we repent and turn away from our self-centered ways of thinking and being, and we turn to Christ. We stop trusting in our human efforts to save ourselves and start trusting in Christ instead. We put on Christ.
The thing is, the helmet of salvation isn’t something you take off and put back on. Salvation just is, because Christ has done it and won’t go back on his action of taking our humanity on and redeeming it. So we just receive this gift and live in the truth of it from now on. Our decision to live in the reality of our salvation in Christ does not alter whether or not Jesus saved us. It merely enables us to enjoy all the benefits of what he has done for us and in our place, and what he is doing today by his Holy Spirit. It is life-transforming.
This theme of putting on Christ can be found throughout this whole discussion about the armor of God. When we put on Jesus Christ, we are wrapping around ourselves the truth of who God is and who we are in him. Jesus is our belt of truth. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—we draw our being and life from him as the One through whom and by whom all things were created. As made in the image of God, through the Spirit we reflect Jesus Christ, the One who is both God and man—he is our perfected humanity. The truth about our existence is found in him. Whatever lies may be said to us or we may believe need to be held up against this plumbline, recognized for what they are, and discarded. The truth of our being, which is found in Jesus Christ, orients us toward our true north, our heavenly Father, in every area of our lives as we live and work in community with others.
The gospel of peace—how the Word of God took on our humanity to bring us peace with God and peace with one another—is the story of our lives. This good news, who is our Savior Jesus Christ, has transformed our lives, and we spend our existence sharing this good news with others. We don’t hold grudges or refuse to forgive people’s slights against us because we are living in the reality of and sharing with others the immense gift of grace given to us from God through our Lord Jesus Christ. All the human barriers we place between ourselves are removed in Christ, because he has made us one in himself, taking on our humanity and redeeming it. Because Christ is our life, we walk in him in the Spirit, in this path of grace and peace he has walked before us, in our place and on our behalf.
As we put on Christ as our footwear, we also put him on as our righteousness. Jesus is our right relationship with God and one another. God has reconciled to himself all things in Jesus Christ. In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are brought up into the very life and being of God himself, at one with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and in Christ, made at one with every other human being. We put on Christ by living in the truth of our reconciliation and our right relationship, by being truly reconciled with God and one another, because of Jesus’ finished work.
Even when it comes to faith, we are reminded to turn to Christ for the faith we need when we are being assaulted by the lies of the evil one. The one weapon the devil uses against us over and over again is the lie which says God is not good and is not trustworthy, and he does not really love and care about us. When these lies begin to overwhelm us, we need to draw upon Christ’s perfect faith. Jesus trusted his Father implicitly, even when he hung dying on the cross and it seemed to his human mind his Father had forsaken him. Jesus’ perfect faith caused him to trust his Father even at the very end of his suffering—this faith is ours. All we need to do is ask—to pick up the shield—to put on Christ.
So we have put on Christ, and it seems it is not enough for us just to have our armor on. God also gives us an offensive weapon—the sword of the Spirit. The capacity of the word of God to penetrate down to the core of our being is made possible through the living Word, Jesus Christ, by his gift of the Spirit from the Father. It is Christ at work in us by his Spirit which transforms us and enables us to effectively live out and share the gospel of peace. It is the Spirit of truth at work within which enlightens us and enables us to see and walk in the truth who is Jesus. Any faith or righteousness which may well up within us is the work of the Spirit, who writes God’s ways on our minds and hearts, gives us the heart to obey, and enables us to live in accordance with the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.
The centrality of Christ to this entire discussion on the armor of God can be clearly seen when we start and begin with Jesus as the One who is the Word of God come into our human flesh. This can be a comforting and encouraging study when we do it this way. It’s not up to us to do this battle with the enemy all by ourselves. Rather, it is a battle Jesus already fought and won, and he shares his decisive victory with us as we respond to the Spirit’s work, and put on and use the divine outfit he created for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus Christ is our mighty warrior, and we get to participate by the Spirit in his perfect deliverance against sin, evil, and death. What a blessing!
Dear Abba, thank you for giving us, in Jesus and by your Spirit, total victory over evil, sin, and death. Thank you for giving us this perfect armor to wear, and the sword of the Spirit to wield. Grant us the grace to daily put on Christ and to respond fully to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, and in the world around us. May we trust in you fully, resting in Christ, and drawing upon the Spirit each day. Amen.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:10–17 NASB