Lift Up Your Heads
By Linda Rex
HOPE—Last night I read a post on the local police precinct page which told the story of a missing person. Struggling with depression due to the loss of a loved one, this person left her life behind and disappeared into the metropolis of Nashville.
As I read this story, my heart went out to her. I thought of what I might say to someone in her situation. It’s really hard to find anything meaningful to say to someone who is extremely depressed—I’ve been there, and it just doesn’t help.
My genetic makeup means my postpartum depression with both of my children turned into clinical depression, and in times of extreme crisis, I am susceptible to depression. I remember one day I forced myself to take my newborn son for a walk even though I was in a horrid blue funk. I could barely get one foot in front of the other. When I got home, I received a call from the nurse who helped with my pregnancy—she lived nearby and had seen me out walking. She asked me a few questions and then told me I was depressed. “Call the doctor,” she said.
I made the call and I’m glad I did. I learned that my mother had suffered this same difficulty with having her children and it was a natural response to what had happened to me. Depression is not something to be ashamed of or to pretend isn’t happening. It’s a real thing, and needs to be dealt with. If we need medication to help get our brain readjusted, then that is what we need. If we need counseling to change the way we respond to people or events, then we need to get it and make the changes needed to get well.
We express our love to our family and friends by getting the treatment we need, whether counseling or medication, and we keep with it, even though we may think we don’t need it any more. Some forms of mental illness require ongoing medication—we need to be humble enough to keep taking it even though we think we don’t need it any more. This is a real struggle, and I can understand when a person wishes they could live without this necessary medical intervention.
Taking into account our need for medication and counseling, though, we also need to grasp the reality to the core of our being that we are now and forever held in God’s love. We are entering the time of Advent, the time in which we contemplate and celebrate the coming of our God into our humanity in the infant Jesus, and we begin with hope.
The people of Israel and Judah had wrestled in their relationship with God for millennia. God called them into relationship with himself, explained to them what it looked like to live in relationship with him, and gave them a way of grace, of sacrifices and liturgy, through which they could draw near to him and express their love and devotion to him. As time passed, this nation turned away from God, experienced the consequences of having done so, and then turned back again, only in time to turn away again. Finally, God allowed the destruction of the temple and the captivity of both Israel and Judah.
In time God set the nation free to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. But from that time on, Israel/Judah has always been under the control of another nation. Between then and the time of Jesus, they experienced oppression, the desecration of their temple, and the lack of prophetic leadership. Lost in the darkness of God’s silence, the nation cried out for deliverance. And where there was such darkness, gloom, and despair, God entered.
We can get so focused on our despair, on our suffering or loss or the feeling that we are left all alone, that we often miss what is right in front of us. Indeed, as Luke writes, when we see everything falling apart in our lives or our world, that is when we need to realize that our redemption is near. God’s kingdom is at the door—for the simple reason that God is present, God is near, in the person of Jesus Christ.
God indeed entered Israel’s darkness and suffering, though in a way which was different than expected. God may have had a heavenly choir blessing the event, but God’s coming or advent was the birth of a baby placed in a manger, in humble circumstances, completely dependent upon his mother and father and caught in the midst of a dangerous world which was already seeking his death.
The coming of the Word of God into human flesh sparked the death of Bethlehem’s infants—the evil king Herod could not stand the thought of anyone being king but him. And yet, in the midst of this darkness and evil, the light had dawned. God was present in the person of Jesus Christ. God was experiencing every circumstance we go through in our broken world, coming to know personally the pains and trials of our human existence. He knew laughter and sadness, joy and pain, loss and blessing—everything which makes us what we are. And he did not sin.
It was not enough that God came to us to be where we are and what we are. He gave himself over completely to us, allowing us to do to him whatever we willed. He allowed us to pour out on him all our wrath against God, all our refusal to allow God to be the God he is. Since creation we have sought to make God conform to our will, refusing to submit to his. And Jesus paid the price for it, even though he didn’t deserve it.
Darkness—in so many ways. It may have seemed, as Jesus hung on the cross, that there was only death and oblivion ahead of him. But he knew the secret of hope: When everything is falling apart, our redemption is closer than ever—it is near, right at the doors. How did Jesus know this? Because he knew his Abba intimately. He knew that even though it felt like he was abandoned and all alone, that nothing could ever separate him from his heavenly Father. Nothing, not even death or evil, could separate the heavenly oneness of the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit. God’s love, which binds us to him, never fails.
Because of who Jesus is—God in human flesh—and what he has done—died in our place and on our behalf, rising again from the grave—we have hope. We may lose friends and family members to death, but we are bound together in Christ both now and forever, and death no longer has power over us. In Christ we have the hope of the God’s presence in our every day lives and circumstances in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s ascension to God, bearing our humanity, and the sending of the Spirit, means we are never alone, ever. This is our hope.
In the midst of horrific loss and destruction, God is still near. When we have lost those dear to us, are caught in despair and feeling all alone, the truth is we are never alone. Immanuel—God is with us. When things look as though they are coming to a catastrophic end—God’s redemption is near. Lift up your heads—for here he comes!
Thank you, Abba, for loving us, for sending your Son to dwell in our humanity, redeeming us from all we brought upon ourselves. Holy Spirit, grant us the great hope of Jesus, that we may know with certainty that Abba loves us and will never leave us, no matter how things may look right now. Grant, loving Spirit, that we might experience the reality of Immanuel, God with us, in Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. … So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near.” Luke 21:28 NASB
Our Springs of Joy
By Linda Rex
As one who has suffered on occasion from the blight of depression, I have a sympathetic heart for anyone who experiences living in this dark place. When a person is in the midst of such sadness and grief, it can take all of his or her effort just to do the simplest tasks of life.
This is not a place other people can come to and pull the sufferer out of. It is rather a place where those near and dear can come alongside and offer support, prayer, and encouragement. The best gift a person can offer to one suffering with depression is a constant and faithful relationship—a living presence with a willingness to sit in the darkness with the one struggling.
Sometimes we choose our darkness. Sometime the darkness is a result of other people’s bad choices. And other times, the darkness just is—it exists through no fault of our own. It is merely a result of health issues or circumstances. Darkness—an inner weight of crushing sadness and grief, or just loss of joy—can happen to anyone. Being depressed is not a sin, although it may at times be a symptom of an inner struggle.
For some of us, being depressed comes easily. The negativity through which we see the world becomes a lens which darkens our view each and every moment of our lives. This causes us to miss many opportunities for joy. We can be so used to the darkness that when the light enters, we close our eyes to protect them from its brightness.
Here during Advent, as we approach Christmas and the New Year, we may find ourselves resisting the holiday spirit, and feeling overwhelmed by loss and grief for various reasons. It is hard to feel upbeat when your heart is broken and your thoughts are filled with memories of what was and what could have and should have been. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness during a season which should be filled with great joy.
The Holy Spirit calls to us during Advent to remember the One who joined us in our darkness, who didn’t feel it was enough just to say he loved us, but who actually came and sat in the sadness, grief, sorrow, and death with us. For God it was not enough just to be gracious and loving—he did gracious and loving. He took on our humanity and lived shoulder-to-shoulder with each of us.
God’s judgment on sin and our proclivity to evil and our preference for the darkness was the precious gift of a baby in a manger—the Word of God in human flesh—Immanuel, God with us. God’s judgment on our darkness was a gift of joy in the Person of his Son. He judged all humanity worthy of grace and worthy of salvation, worthy of his presence in the midst of their evil, suffering, and death.
That dark, starry night as the shepherds sat with their flocks on a hill outside of Bethlehem, God entered this broken world welcomed by Joseph and Mary as the fulfillment of the word of God through an angel. This little baby may have seemed insignificant and unimpressive in his humble circumstances, but his birth was the cause of the celebration of the angels. As we read in Luke 2:
“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” (Luke 2:8-14 NKJV)
Here was a message from God to his people—a message of peace and good will from God toward his people—a message of joy. These shepherds were astonished and overwhelmed, but their response was to seek out this baby to welcome him.
In our personal darkness, we may feel as though God has forgotten us, or as though we are lost in a dark night, barely holding ourselves together. But the truth we need to be reminded of is that God’s heart toward us has not changed. He is faithful and he still loves and cares for us. God has come into our darkness in the Person of the Word of God, and in Jesus Christ has lived our life, died our death, and carried us from death into life in his resurrection.
And it was not enough for God to join us in our broken humanity. He also sent his Spirit—pouring out on all the gift of life in his Son. The call to faith, is the call to believe in and embrace the joy, the good will of God toward each and every person in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. God has given us an inner source of joy in the gift of his personal presence in and with us in the Holy Spirit. As the psalmist said: “All my springs of joy are in you.” (Ps. 87:7b NASB)
The reality is, when we are in a dark place such as depression, depravity, or despair, we need a source beyond ourselves to raise us up and deliver us. We need a source of joy which is real and endless, and which will not be squelched by our stubborn desire to remain in the darkness. We need “springs of joy” to draw upon.
And God has given us this in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. We celebrate the breaking in of heaven into our darkness this time of year, and we find in the birth of Jesus Christ the hope, peace, and joy we would never have otherwise. He is the source of our true life, a life which God has lived in for all eternity, a life he is determined to share with you and me for all the eons to come. He calls us to trust—to believe in the truth: God is here. God is near. And he is with us forever. Immanuel—the most precious gift of all!
Dear Abba, thank you! Thank you for the precious gift of joy. Thank you for not leaving us in our darkness, sorrow, grief, and depravity, but giving us a way out—your own Son. Fill us by your Spirit with all your hope, peace, joy, and love—we do not find these things within ourselves. They are a gift. And so we thank you, and praise you with the angels, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“O sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wonderful things, His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him. The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth and sing for joy and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout joyfully before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98 NASB
Indeed, The Lord is With You
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