by Linda Rex
This season of year has its ups and downs. It can be so heartwarming and inspiring, while at the same time full of stress and anxious care about shopping and decorating and family complications. I have a special fondness for this time of year since God has awakened me to the wonder of its deep meaning. Understanding the mystery of the incarnation (can one truly understand a mystery?) carries me through all the hassle and frustration which can come from the external efforts to celebrate Christmas.
At this time of year I’m especially mindful of the time in my life when I distained Christmas as being a pagan holiday we should not celebrate if we are true Christians. While I’m still trying to determine exactly what a “true Christian” is (as compared to a “false Christian”), now I see a whole lot more clearly how we can get so caught up in a religious paradigm we cannot see what is right in front of us. We can be so focused on the “truth” that we miss seeing the living Truth who has entered our world and has begun to transform it from the inside out.
Today is Epiphany, and the gospel reading from the lectionary for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Here we read about the magi from the east who traveled many miles seeking to find a newly born king of the Jews. They followed a star and ended up in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was quite unnerving for King Herod to have these men asking about a king he knew nothing about. And no doubt it made him feel quite insecure about his throne.
So Herod called all together the chief priests and scribes—the ones who were supposed to know the Hebrew scriptures and history—and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. The high priests and scribes were the ones who probably would know the answer to the magi’s question, so Herod addressed the question to them.
They told the magi to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem. Now, it seems to me, if they had a real interest in knowing about the Messiah or in seeking him out, they would have been alert to what was really going on. They would have joined the search party, or would have maybe even led it. But King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and told them to look for the child and to tell him if or when they found him. And the magi left all by themselves, with no Jewish people in their party.
These people who were trusting in astrology to guide them, who were in essence, pagan Gentiles, were seeking to find a child who was Jewish. Now there were some Jews who were pagan enough that they believed the stars ordained certain events. But the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles, and because of this they missed something very important which was happening in their world. Their religious paradigm did not allow them to believe that someone other than a Jew might know something about the Messiah they had been expecting for centuries.
Is it possible to have the light of God available to you and still wander around in darkness? Apparently so.
The gospel story we read in the Bible shows us that these Jewish leaders were a whole lot more interested in retaining their positions of power and influence and in restoring the Jewish nation to prominence than they were interested in finding out if the messiah had arrived and had something important to say to them as his people. Their paradigm assured them the messiah would appear in a certain way, he would do certain things, and he most certainly would not look, talk or behave anything like Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, I was told a lot of things about the Christmas holiday and what it meant and why it shouldn’t be observed, but no one ever told me the truth. I was told a lot of superstition, a lot of hearsay, and a lot of heated explanations of why observing Christmas was a sin, but none of those things turned out to be based on facts or on a mature, well-examined explanation of Christian history.
I remember one afternoon sitting in the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium listening to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. It stirred something deep within me. I knew the event of Jesus Christ coming to us and dying on the cross was significant, but I still missed the crucial point—God came into human flesh to live and die and to rise again, and now he bears our perfected humanity for all eternity in the presence of the Father. Forever, we are with God, in Christ by the Spirit. We are embraced, held, in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by God’s infinite grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
We can focus on whether or not something is pagan, and miss the light of God in the midst of the darkness. Whatever we observe as human is bound to be pagan in some way because we are all broken people. All our righteousness ends up being filthy rags to God—we must never forget God reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus.
Whatever we offer to God is broken and flawed—our efforts to get it right are feeble at best. This is why we follow the lead of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We count on God’s grace to carry us. We need to be alert to the living Truth in the midst of all our darkness and brokenness. The Light has come—we need to pay attention, turn to the Light and allow him to show us what is really going on, and to follow where he leads us rather than stay in our misguided paradigms.
Who we listen to is crucial. The magi listened to God when he spoke to them in a dream (would we ever consider doing that)? These people who the Jews distained listened to God and obeyed him, and went home a different way, and in the process, they were kept safe from King Herod’s evil plot. They had followed the light of a star, had worshiped the Light who had come and offered him gifts, and by the light of the revelation of God in a dream, found their way safely home.
When Jesus grew older, the scribes, the high priests—this group of people who should have known, recognized and received him as the Light of God—were the very ones who rejected him and crucified him. As John wrote in his gospel: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:9–11 NASB) Their preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be, and their preoccupation which the things of this life—money, power, prestige—blinded them to the true Light which was in their midst.
On this day of Epiphany, it would be good to pause for a moment and to consider this Light of God who has entered our world and brought to us a whole new way of being—the life of God in human flesh. It would be good to ponder the ways in which we close our eyes to the light he wishes to bring into our world: What paradigms do we need to set aside? What old ways of thinking and believing do we need to suspend in order to embrace the possibility we could be wrong or might need to change? What things are we trusting in which have nothing to do with God’s values and God’s desires and what he wants to accomplish in this world?
God’s Light has come, and he is renewing our broken world and existence from the inside out. We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace this New Year in a new frame of mind and heart—one in which Christ is the center rather than us. May your 2017 be full of an abundance of all God’s blessings in Christ!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the gift of a new year ahead of us. You are always working at creating new beginnings. Grant us the grace to keep our life and our being centered in your Light, in Christ your Son, and to stay in tune with and obedient to your Spirit of Life, through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.” Isaiah 60:1–3, 19 NASB
by Linda Rex
The other night in our weekly discussion group, we talked about why God allows bad things to happen to innocent children and to “good” people. I put “good” in quotes because in reality, the goodness any of us do have is merely a reflection of and participation in God’s goodness. So why does God allow people to harm others, especially the innocent and those who are defenseless?
This can be a difficult question to answer sometimes, because not everyone is open to the possibility of owning responsibility for the way we as humans live our lives and the many ways we hurt and abuse one another. It is as if we want to hold God responsible for our faults and shortcomings.
It’s God’s fault, we say, that so-and-so abused his neighbor’s child, and so he grew up to be an abuser of children. It’s God’s fault that priest or pastor was unfaithful to his wife and destroyed his marriage. Sounds whacky, doesn’t it? Is it really God’s fault we make stupid choices and hurt each other?
Think about it. Say, you are a parent and you have three children, and you send them to play outside. You tell them to behave themselves and to not get into trouble. You want them to get along and have fun while they are out there.
In about an hour, you begin to hear screaming and crying, so you go out to investigate. One child is on the ground, with a big bump on her arm, obviously in great pain. Another child is yelling at the oldest child, tell him what an idiot he is. The oldest child is holding a large stick, with which he quite obviously hit his sister. Now I ask you—how could it possibly be your fault that your daughter got injured and all your children are quarreling?
Well, we could say it is your fault, because you sent them outside to play by themselves. You didn’t go with them. We could say it is your fault because you didn’t watch them every minute they were out there, telling them what to do and what not to do as they were playing. We could say it is your fault this happened because you allowed your children to play with sticks. There’s a lot of ways in which we could place the blame on you—but would you really be at fault?
Placing blame nearly always happens when we are not willing to be responsible for what is ours. If you want your children to grow up into healthy adults, they need opportunities to learn how to play nicely with others. Part of that learning process is having minimally supervised playtime where they have to apply what they have learned about getting along with other children. As they negotiate the rocky road of relationship building, they will make mistakes, and injuries will happen. As parents, we just try to minimalize the hurts while maximizing the learning.
God didn’t just send all humanity out to play though, and then ignore them. That’s the difference. What he did was to take on a human body in Jesus Christ, and join us in our humanity. He experienced, just as we do, the ups and downs of human life, including the unjust and degrading imprisonment, torture and crucifixion at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities. He allowed us as human beings to dump our worst on him so he could redeem it and turn it into his best.
Because, in Christ, the worst we as humans have done has been turned into our transformation. We have a new humanity which Jesus forged in the midst of all he lived and suffered while he played with us here on earth. We don’t have to stay in the brokenness which is ours, but can embrace the gift of a new way of thinking and being, and Christ’s way of living together. He illustrated for us and formed in us the unity amid diversity in equality the Father, Son and Spirit live in, and sent his Holy Spirit so we can live in this way with one another.
But we as human beings have always insisted on doing things our way. Just like stubborn, rebellious children, we believe we know what is best, and that our way is the only way that matters. And we are reaping the results of this way of believing and behaving. And God is not at fault in this—we are.
It’s okay to accept the reality we are messed up human beings. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves. We do not live the way we are meant to live. And that’s why Jesus came—so we could share in the truth of real loving relationship with God and one another.
God doesn’t prevent all the bad things from happening to us, but rather takes them and uses them as a means to heal and restore relationships with him and with others. These bad things, if we are willing to place them where they belong—at the feet of Jesus, become our stepping stones to a greater maturity and a deeper walk with the God who created us.
Assuming responsibility for what is ours is key. We need to own the truth when we mess up our lives. As human beings, we need to accept the reality we are broken and flawed people. This is not God’s fault, other than he allowed us the freedom to choose, so he would not have robots or animals, but persons who could live in loving relationship with the divine Persons.
God has given us personhood. And this personhood means there are things which are ours and things which are God’s—and the line really doesn’t become blurred, except in Jesus. He, as the perfect God/man, is the one who takes what is ours and transforms it, healing it, and restoring it to the place where God meant for it to be in the first place. Jesus made and makes for us the decisions we ought to have made but didn’t—and then by the Spirit—he gives them to us.
But we are always responsible for what is ours—God doesn’t do for us what is ours to do. We receive what Jesus has done and begin to live in the truth of who we are in him. We no longer live as bratty children who stubbornly want our own way. We begin to play nice, and to get along with our siblings the way we should so we can have a happy family.
We take the bumps and bruises, the encounters with hurtful people, and allow God to transform them into compassion, understanding, and a willingness to help and heal others. We comfort others who are suffering with the comfort we receive from Christ in the midst of our own suffering. And stronger, healthier relationships of love and acceptance result.
In Christ, all these negative, hurtful experiences can become the means by which God binds us to himself and to one another—if we are willing. When we stop blaming God and put the blame where it really belongs and receive the grace given to us in Jesus Christ, we find ourselves beginning to heal and to have a heart to help others who are in need of healing and restoration. May God give us compassionate, understanding hearts as he works to heal and restore all we have broken and wounded.
Heavenly Father, thank you for forgiving us all the times we do not get along with one another, and when we hurt and abuse one another and ourselves. Grant us the grace to bring our wounds and broken selves to you, to allow you to transform and heal us with the life you have given us in your Son Jesus. May we become more and more like you each day, learning to live in the truth of who we are as your beloved, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:3–7 NASB