By Linda Rex
During Christmas we often read or hear quoted the prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Messiah. We are caught by the foretelling of the birth of One who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. Into Israel’s darkness, Isaiah said, would come a great light. This prophecy was meant to comfort the nation Isaiah was warning to repent of their sins.
In between these descriptions of the Messiah is a reference to the battle of Midian. I thought this seemed so out of context to the rest of the passage—what does the battle of Midian have to do with the Messiah?
So I went and read about this famous battle in Judges 6 and 7. Typically, the people of Israel had been “doing what is right in their own eyes” and ended up being overrun with armies from other nations. These armies from Midian and other nations would come at harvest time and strip the land of all the food and animals. So the Israelites were starving and had to hide anything they wanted to keep.
Eventually the nation of Israel cried out to God and he sent an angel to Gideon. This man was hiding in a winepress, trying to thresh his wheat while hiding it from the invading armies. He, like the other Israelites, was fearful and just trying to find a way to survive.
I was struck by the conversation Gideon had with the angel, because the first thing the angel said was, “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior!” Obviously, valiant wasn’t probably the first thought anyone would have about Gideon. The youngest son of his family, he was hiding in a winepress, hoping no one would find him and his wheat.
His reply to the angel is so classic: “If the Lord is with us, then why has all this happened to us?” It is so like us as humans to blame God when things don’t go well in our lives. Even when the angel told him he would lead Israel to victory over the invading armies, Gideon demanded sign after sign from God—he didn’t believe that God really was with him.
In this story, we see God allowing Gideon to participate with him in his deliverance of Israel. But when he first called the people to battle, God had him whittle the 32,000 volunteers down to only 300. And when those 300 men went down into battle that fateful night, they merely blew trumpets and broke jars covering torches, and shouted “For the Lord and for Gideon!” And God did all the rest. It was only after the enemy was on the run that Gideon called for others to help in the mop-up process.
This story really fits in with the Christmas story because we believe the lie that God is not with us and doesn’t care about the oppression and suffering in our lives. We believe that we are weak and cowardly and without favor in God’s eyes. We deny that our struggles are as a result of our resistance against God and not living in agreement with the truth of who we are as God’s beloved, redeemed children.
But God comes and speaks truth into our lives—he even sends angels. And we still don’t hear him. We question the truth of who God is, if he even exists and if he really cares. God’s Word to us is “I am with you” but we believe he is not. We believe we are all alone and masters of our own fate.
But the zeal of the Lord is to accomplish the coming of his Word to show us once and for all who he is: He is a supernatural counselor, a mighty God, an everlasting loving fatherly ruler, a prince of never-ending peace and prosperity—and he is God with us, Immanuel.
The Word of God to humanity came to Mary (Luke 1:28-38) first through an angel, then through a tiny baby. The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” God spoke the truth into Mary’s heart—she was favored by God and God was with her. And through Mary, God’s Word has come in human flesh—Immanuel—God with us—sharing every part of our human existence.
God cared enough about the suffering and oppression in our lives even when sometimes we deserve it to share it with us by sharing our humanity.
God cared enough about our failure to live according to the truth of who we are that he became one of us and lived the life we are to live perfectly so that we are all accepted in him—the beloved Son of the Father.
God cared enough about us being able to live in union and communion with him as the Triune God that he became one of us, lived our life, died for our sins at our hands and rose the third day, and ascended to heaven, carrying us with him into the presence of the Father.
And that wasn’t enough—he sent us the Holy Spirit so we could share in his abundant life, and have the living, indwelling Presence of the Holy Father and Son right now through the Spirit. God who is Light entered our darkness, the darkness of this world and the darkness of our souls—He shines on us, in us and through us.
He calls us to be heralds of his deliverance—to blow the trumpet and break the jars of our humanity that hide his light, to call others to join us in the battle—and to watch God do the deliverance.
God will finish what he has begun in sending his Son into human flesh and sending his Spirit into the world. He is zealous to bring many sons and daughters into glory—and he will finish this when Jesus returns in glory. One day we will be like him for we will see him as he is. Maranatha! May he come soon!
Hallelujah! You are an awesome and great God, full of all glory and Majesty. Thank you, Father, for sending us your Son and your Spirit—so that you, God, might be with us forever! Amen.
“The people who walk in darkness
Will see a great light;
Those who live in a dark land,
The light will shine on them.
You shall multiply the nation,
You shall increase their gladness;
They will be glad in Your presence
As with the gladness of harvest,
As men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
For You shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders,
The rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian.
For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult,
And cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire.
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,
On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness
From then on and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” Isaiah 9:2–7 NASB
By Linda Rex
This past Sunday was the Advent service at Good News Fellowship during which we lit a candle for peace. As we moved into the time following the sermon, and we listened to Casting Crown’s powerful song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,”1 I couldn’t help but think how feeble our words and efforts are at keeping peace.
Truly we are so dependent upon something outside ourselves to live at peace with one another. I think that we all recognize our inability to be at peace with God, ourselves and one another—if we don’t, we ought to. Our do-it-yourself peace nearly always falls short in some way.
In Romans 12:18, my New American Standard Bible says this: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” The New International Version is very similar: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This particular verse says that to the best of our ability, whatever depends upon what we say or do, we are to live at peace with one another.
And truly, that is often our approach to how we live in relationship with one another. We just do the best we can, but we can’t always guarantee there will be peace, especially if the other party doesn’t want to live at peace with us. They might be nasty, horrible people to be around, and living at peace with them is just an impossible thing to do. So sometimes we can’t help but be nasty back.
But there is another translation that kept coming to my mind as I thought of these things. The King James Version, which is taken from the Latin Vulgate, puts it differently: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” The Catholic Bible, which has the same source, puts it this way: “If it be possible, as much as is in you, have peace with all men.”
The thing that struck me in these translations were the words, “as much as lieth in you” or “as much as is in you.” From this vantage point, this seems to be a call by Paul for us to draw upon an inner peace that lies within us.
So that brought up another question. What did Jesus mean when he told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27)? In some way, Jesus gave us his peace and this peace is in us, and as much as that peace lies within us, we are to have peace or live in peace with one another.
Indeed, the Apostle Paul talked often about a mystery he was given by God to preach to the Gentiles—the mystery “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27) He calls this same mystery “the mystery of godliness.” (1 Timothy 3:16) It is Christ in us, by the Holy Spirit, who enables us to be the peace-filled people that we were meant to be. It is Christ’s peace in us that we draw upon so that we can and will live at peace with God and others.
Our ability to live at peace is a participation in Christ’s peace. The question then, is not in our ability to live at peace with others but in our willingness to respond to the Holy Spirit’s gift of the peace of Jesus Christ placed within us. Paul says to the Colossians, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts….” The peace of Christ has been given to us—the question is, does that peace rule in our hearts?
God has shown us great love and grace—extreme good will. He has even shared with us his very own nature, his life in Christ through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. And that was not enough for him—he sent the Holy Spirit so that we could participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. Therefore we have God’s peace within us by the Holy Spirit. The peace of Christ is in our hearts. But do we let Christ rule?
Our struggle is with the reality that sometimes being at peace means that we have to suffer, to be taken advantage of, to be harmed and devastated by the evil others do to us. We forget that Jesus Christ took everything humanity could throw at him and bore it on the cross. It is not enough that we only take the good from others—to share in Christ’s sufferings and in his glory requires our willingness to take the evil as well, and to respond with love and grace.
We have many brothers and sisters today who are willingly sharing in Christ’s sufferings for his sake. They believe that to respond to the atrocities being done to them with violence is to participate in the evil themselves. They refuse to deny the Savior who rescued them and drew them into relationship with the God who loves them. God has poured into them by his Spirit the ability to bear with grace severe persecution and genocide.
Jesus Christ did not give us his peace as the kind of peace the world gives. Our human peace exists only as nation forces another nation into submission, or buys another’s cooperation through trade agreements. Or we silently allow ourselves to be destroyed while others take advantage of us, use us and abuse us. When these fragile methods of peace fail, we are often at war with one another again. This kind of peace is false and futile. It is not the divine shalom God calls us to and has given to us in Christ by the Spirit.
There is the peace of God present in the world today—this mystery of godliness—Christ in us, our hope of glory. This peace that God gives us passes all understanding when we turn to Christ in the midst of our struggles, disagreements and suffering. There is a capacity to live in peace in impossible situations that comes from beyond us and fills our hearts and minds. This is the gift of God poured out on us in the Holy Spirit.
The question is not, is peace possible? The question is, will we let God’s peace rule us? Will we, as much as lies within us, live peaceably with one another? When God’s peace rules us, and we live with all that is within us of Christ in the Spirit—there will be a change in the whole fabric of our human existence.
In the meantime, we only see the surface—the wars, the suffering, our broken humanity. The mystery, though, is at work. Deep beneath it all is a peace that passes understanding, that we can draw upon now to live at peace with one another in difficult and impossible situations. This is the true peace we have in Christ and in the Spirit. May you experience that peace in a real way this Christmas and on into the New Year.
Heavenly Father, our Prince of Peace, remind us again of the peace you have given us in your Spirit that passes all understanding. Renew our hearts and minds, and enable us to live in your peace with one another. Thank you for being gracious to us in the midst of our refusals to live in peace with one another—grant that we would surrender to your peace at work in us and in our world. And grant your grace and deliverance to all to suffer today because others near them refuse to live in your divine shalom. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.” Colossians 3:15 NASB
by Linda Rex
Yesterday I was watching with interest the speech given by Pope Francis to Congress. I was impressed by his finesse in taking the stories of four Americans and drawing from them positive principles by which our leaders and our people could move forward into the uncertain future.
As he was speaking, someone said to me, “Well, there’s our enemy.” It took me aback for a moment, but then I remembered how for centuries some Protestants have seen the pope and the Roman Catholic church as being exactly that—as being the anti-Christ spoken about in the Bible. Of course, this requires a misinterpretation of Scripture, but it has been assumed to be true by many and is still believed to be so by some today.
I’m a little ashamed to say today that I used to be one of those people who believed the pope and the Roman Catholic Church were the enemy of all that is truly Christian. This was born out of ignorance and false teaching I had adopted as a child. But God was not content to leave me in my ignorance.
One of the first things he did was to place me in a relationship in high school where I grew to know and respect a teen who was the daughter of Polish immigrants. She had attended Catholic school in her youth and was a devout believer. She had a crucifix on the door to her room and she would cross herself every time she passed it to go in and out. I saw a devotion to Christ that was different from mine but equally, or perhaps even more, genuine. Although I had other friends in school who were Catholic, she left an impression on me that was not easily forgotten.
As time passed, I had a family member who married someone who was Catholic. I still remember the beautiful ceremony in her church. I could feel the presence and power of God there in a way that amazed me. The song that invited the believers to communion with Christ was inspiring and captured my heart. God was slowly and surely destroying the arrogance in me that kept me believing my faith was superior to and more real than these Catholic believers.
In the years since then, God placed me in the position of coming to know more and more people of the Catholic faith. Many of them were devout, and some were actively pursuing a relationship with Jesus Christ. Sure, there were an equal number who were merely nominal Christians, whose faith was just something they adopted as part of their family heritage. But what God did over the years was to bring me to a repentance, a change in my mind and heart and in my beliefs, about the Roman Catholic Church and its followers.
The way God changed my mind and heart was by placing me in relationships with people in which I was forced to reevaluate what I believed and why I believed it. I could have been stubborn and refused to acknowledge and repent of my prejudice. But my personal integrity would not allow me to do that. The truth was—I was wrong—and I needed to admit it and change accordingly.
I have found as time has gone by that God keeps me in a continual state of needing to reevaluate, repent and change when it comes to what I believe about certain people, their beliefs and cultures.
Technology is making our world smaller by bringing together people and cultures that would probably otherwise never interact. We are being forced to build relationships with people of all faiths and political, economic backgrounds. We are being forced to reevaluate what we believe about them and how we should interact with them.
This is actually a good thing. Because one day, in our future, lies a time when all peoples of all nations and all cultures will be joined together in a world that has no political, religious, cultural boundaries. In this place, what will matter most will not be what clothes we wear, how much money we make, or what kind of foods we prefer to eat. Rather what will really matter will be our relationships with one another and with God. What will really count is how well we love and care for one another.
This is why Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…” To have these heavenly values is more important than seeking the earthly values that are transitory and passing. We look beyond the human designations that separate us into the heavenly qualities that unite us. We are all one in Jesus Christ—he is our humanity—our unity, our equality, our diversity. He joins us together in such a way that all these other things we count as important become truly insignificant in the long run.
Our challenge is to remain in an attitude of a willingness to see and admit to our prejudices, and to consciously make an effort to change when we see we are wrong. When we respond to the work of the Holy Spirit as he brings us together with others we may feel uncomfortable with, we will find an amazing harmony and healing that can only be explained as divine.
God wants his children to be joined together with him in Christ, and when we respond to that, miracles happen in our relationships. We experience his divine life and love in a multitude of ways as we yield to the Spirit’s work to bind us all together as one in Christ. May we always respond in faithful obedience to him.
Thank you, God, for the amazing ways you bring healing and restoration in our broken relationships. Grant each of us the heart and mind to repent of our prejudices and to open ourselves to making room for others in the divine fellowship. We have so far to go! May we always turn to you for the love and grace we need so that we may love and forgive others. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33 NASB
By Linda Rex
I was reflecting the other day on some of my experiences out on the farm. When you live with and interact daily with animals of any kind, you experience the realities of life and death. Death of humans and animals is inevitable and can happen at the most inopportune times, creating the unpleasant task of finding a place for burial.
And death normally isn’t a very pleasant experience. After a day or two, the dead body will begin to bloat and stink, and the scavengers will begin to make a meal off of it. The stench of a rotting corpse, to me, is quite nauseating and disgusting, even though it is the normal process of decomposition. I prefer to get as far as I can from any dead body.
It’s interesting that the apostle Paul uses this stench of death as a way of describing how those who reject Christ see the lives of those who are living in communion with God. In one way we are seen as a fragrance—a lovely scent—of Christ rising to God. In the other, we are seen as a “dreadful smell of death and doom”. How can we be both at the same time?
Really it comes down to perception. What is real about each of us is not readily apparent to everyone all at once. Our new life in Christ—which is true for each and every person—is hidden with God in Christ. This means that it is a spiritual reality, an objective truth that may or may not be subjectively evident in each of our lives. In Jesus Christ each and every person lived, died and rose and again. God sent the Spirit to all. But what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and by sending the Spirit is not necessarily immediately obvious because not everyone believes or receives the gift of God in Christ and lives it out.
When a person meets and comes to know well someone who is actively participating in a new life in Christ, they are faced with the truth of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus, in which we are all included, means that Jesus, and all of us in him, died. There was a time when Jesus’ body was a corpse—he died—and so we each died. And we all rose from the grave in him.
The thing is—if we died in Christ—what we used to be is now, dead. That scripture that says “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9) no longer applies. Sure, it can certainly look as though this old way of living and being is still alive. We can live and act and talk in a way that implies this is still the case. But God has declared in Jesus Christ a definite “No” to this being our nature any longer. He has given us the new heart he promised his people.
But what if we don’t want a new heart? What if we think the heart we have is just fine? What if we don’t see any problem with the way we are living now? What if we don’t believe that God has done any of this for us?
If this is the case, we will perceive this way of being—of living a new life in Christ—as something it is not. We will see it as being a lie, or as being something offensive that we want no part of, and so we will resist and reject the Spirit and his work of renewal. To us it will be a stinking, rotting mess. Because the evidence of this new life in Jesus tells us that without Jesus, a smelly, rotten corpse is just what we are.
We don’t like to be told the truth about ourselves. If we concede that in Jesus Christ we are made new, that means we have to die to our old ways of being and doing. If we agree that Jesus Christ defines our new humanity, that means we have to give up being lord of our lives and submit to his ways of being and doing. And that just stinks!
Jesus pounded out the importance of death and resurrection over and over in his ministry. We die with Christ and we rise with Christ—he is our life. Apart from him we have no hope. We are just old rotting corpses that God never meant for us to be.
God created beautiful things when he created human beings and he didn’t create humans to be the mess we are today. This is not who we are. In God’s purpose we are made to reflect and bear his image. When others look at us, God intends for them to see a reflection of his perichoretic nature of unity, diversity and equality. God’s purpose is for us to be creatures in whom and with whom he will dwell, who will participate with him in a relationship full of love and grace.
But because evil and sin and death has entered our cosmos, God sent his Son to take it all on himself and in the process create a new humanity with God’s nature hidden within. Then he sent his Spirit to awaken each of us to faith in Christ, so that we can participate in this new humanity. God has replaced all the dead corpses with vibrantly alive beloved children—but not everyone is willing to make the exchange. Some still want to hang on to their old dead bodies.
Personally, I’m more than happy to participate with God in the process of replacing the old with the new. The old me, which is dead, was not a very pleasant person to be around. She was pretty stinky and disgusting. As far as I’m concerned, this new life he has given me is what I want to be a part of and share with others, even if to them I am a reminder of the death of their old selves in Christ.
To a culture enamored with old ways of living and being I may be offensive and disturbing, like an old rotting corpse that stinks. But in the end, this old rotting corpse will dissolve into the ground from which it was made, and I will shine, like so many others who share Christ’s new life, as the stars in the heaven. To me, that seems to be the better, more satisfying choice.
Thank you, Father, for the gift you have given us of new life in your Son and by your Spirit. Awaken each of us to the new life that is ours. Grant us the grace to participate with you in your divine life and love as your beloved children, and to leave all that died with Christ buried with him in the tomb. Through Jesus, our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?” 2 Co 2:14–16 NLT
Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at Good News Fellowship, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?
What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.
These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.
God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.
The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.
For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.
We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.
Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.
Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?
That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.
Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.
So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.
Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.
We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.
Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5