joy

Pending Judgment–Part III

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By Linda Rex

When it comes to God’s judgment, we saw last time that God has done all that is necessary for our salvation. God frees us in Christ to participate fully in this gift of grace, enabling us by the Spirit to live in the truth of who we are as God’s beloved children. At the same time, though, we are free to embrace or reject the gift God has given us in his Son Jesus Christ.

In essence, we judge ourselves—we come into the Light of God’s penetrating gaze and allow him to cleanse and restore us, or we turn from him and continue to walk in darkness, thereby experiencing the consequences of turning away from Christ.

Adam, and all humanity since his time, has turned away from God—but God, in Christ, has turned humanity back into face to face relationship with himself. Jesus Christ is the right relationship each of us has with our heavenly Father.

But God does not force us into relationship with himself. He has secured our relationship with himself in Christ, but does not force us to participate in it. Rather, he invites us. He woos us. By his Spirit, he draws us to himself. We are beloved, held, cherished, and yet free to turn and walk away.

I do not know why people choose to resist and walk away from this awesome relationship, but they do. And if a person insists on resisting and turning from this relationship, God will eventually yield to their decision, while at the same time never ceasing to love and forgive them.

What’s interesting is that people who do not know or believe in Christ are still participants in God’s life and love. They do not recognize or concede that this is so, and may even resist any attempt God makes at drawing them closer to himself, but they are still included in God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. God allows them to be a part of what he is doing in the world, even if the part they play is a negative one.

The struggle we have with reading the Old Testament is seeing God at work among the nations, allowing the destruction of people groups, wars, and genocide. We find it difficult to accept God ordering certain people to be killed or allowing others to suffer famine and other hardships. If the God of the Old Testament is just like Jesus Christ, then why did he allow or cause these things to happen?

The modern-day Jesus is often portrayed as soft, kind, gentle, and loving. Our pictures of the long-haired, white American Jesus give us the impression he was full of compassion, understanding, and was sensitive to every possible issue and feeling of the human heart. He loved little children and working with his hands. Yes, he might have had a moment of anger in the temple when dealing with the buyers and sellers, but this wasn’t his usual response to such things.

We don’t usually get the impression that the Jesus of scripture is a real, flesh-and-blood man who was strong, decisive, and oozing masculinity. It seems that the Jesus we think of who is powerful and comes to deliver and help is the One who sits in glory ready to condemn and judge the world, who in his second coming is expected to punish and eliminate all the evildoers in the world. This Jesus more closely resembles the God of the Old Testament.

Jesus favored the use of “I am” statements during his time here on earth. He made it quite clear that he was the God of the Old Testament here in human flesh—the “I Am” in person. Over and over he went out of his way to show the truth of this, and that he was the perfect embodiment of God in our humanity. And this is where we begin to struggle. Just who is Jesus, and just how does he jive with the God of the Old Testament? They almost seem like two different people.

There also seems to be a dichotomy between the Jesus of the first coming and the Jesus of the second coming. And this also reflects on how we view the God of the Old Testament. There are inconsistencies between each of these God-views because we do not see Jesus Christ clearly, and we do not see God himself through the correct lens.

And we see events almost always in terms of this life alone. We don’t usually keep a kingdom perspective about things. When someone dies, we think or feel that’s the end, even if we believe in an afterlife. But the apostle Paul tells us we need to keep our minds and hearts on heaven, not on things of the earth which are passing and fleeting. What happens in this life needs to be kept in the context of eternity and the eternal purposes of our Living Lord.

This is the same perspective we need to use when looking at the events in the Old Testament. We need to realize that this is God’s story. It is the story about all he did in preparation for and in bringing about the salvation of the world in and through his Son Jesus Christ. God’s ultimate judgment on sin and death was fully taken up in Jesus Christ and resolved once and for all.

The Old Testament tells the story of God’s covenant relationship with the people of Israel from whom the Messiah came. These scriptures tell about God’s love for his people, and indeed for the whole world, and his deep compassion as they wandered away from him, and his longing for them to be faithful and obedient to him. It tells how he defended and protected his people, providing for them in the midst of difficulty and struggle, and in the midst of hostile, pagan nations. It also tells how he allowed them to experience the consequences of turning away from their covenant relationship with him, while he still called them back and sought their change of heart and mind toward himself.

Everything which happened as recorded in the Old Testament must be viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ, and from the perspective of God’s eternal purposes. God judged all humanity worthy of the gift of his very own unique Son—Jesus Christ is God’s judgment on sin and death. God’s redemption of his own chosen people Israel set the stage for his redemption of all humanity.

In Hebrews 9:26 we read that Jesus, rather than being offered over and over like the temple sacrifices were, was offered just once “at the consummation of the ages.” When the time was exactly right, after specific events and circumstances had taken place, and after certain prophecies had been fulfilled or were prepared to be fulfilled, Jesus came and offered himself in our place. This was to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” Jesus took care of sin once and for all—so we do not have that hanging over our heads any longer. Romans 8:1 says, “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” In Jesus Christ we are free from sin and death.

Judgment, for those who are in Christ, is not a thing to be feared. In Hebrews 9:27-28 we read, “…inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Christ’s coming is meant to be a celebration. It’s meant to be the time when we all gather together, rejoicing in his return, and having a merry time at his banquet, clothed in his garments of righteousness. Death is not to be feared, but to be celebrated as the transition between this life and the life in eternity Jesus purchased for us to be spent with our loving God and all those near and dear to us.

Jesus Christ, being God’s judgment on sin and death, is the One we welcome with open arms and happy faces when we see him in glory, because we are trusting in all he did on our behalf. But it is equally possible that in that moment—in death or at Christ’s return—our hearts might condemn us. We may, when face to face with the glorified Jesus, be like those described in the book of Revelation who try to run and hide from him. We may come face to face with the glorified Savior in that particular moment and realize our way of being is a far cry from that ordained for us by God in creation as made in his image, and renewed by Christ in his redemption. And we have nowhere to turn if we refuse Jesus Christ since he is our salvation, and he is God’s judgment on sin and death. And so, our hearts will be filled with fear, fear of God and fear of his punishment.

But fear is not what God meant for us to have in that moment. In fact, God meant for his perfect love for us expressed to us in Christ to cast out all our fear. God has reconciled us to himself in Christ, and merely asks that we be reconciled in return. How often God has said to us as humans, “Don’t be afraid!” God means for our response when we see Christ in glory to be receptive, heart-felt love not fearful dread—this is why Jesus came and did all that he did and this is why God sent his Holy Spirit into human hearts.

This unhealthy response to God was something he battled with from the very beginning. Case in point was when Israel came to Mt. Sinai and God spoke with them. They were terrified and begged to have Moses speak in God’s place. And while Moses was receiving the terms of the covenant, Israel decided to play with idols. These people who were very special to God never really grasped the real nature of God. God wanted them to get to know him, but they constantly set up barriers between themselves and him.

God called the patriarchs and then the nation of Israel into covenant relationship with himself. He would speak to them through prophets. He would speak of bringing them to the place where they would “know” him—come to be intimately aware of and obedient to his loving will. He defended and protected them. He chastened them, and allowed them to stubbornly go their own way even when it was to their detriment. God’s heart from the beginning has been eternal life—this knowing and being known intimately as Abba and his Son in the Spirit.

We need to understand that God’s judgment ultimately is meant to restore, renew, and heal broken relationships—between us and God, and between us and each other. The purpose in judgment is not to destroy or punish so much as it is to bring us into truth so we can experience the true freedom which is ours in Christ. We were meant for life, real life, in fellowship with God and one another—and God’s purpose is for us to experience that both now and forever. We are free to refuse to participate in this kingdom life—but we will experience the consequences of having done so—and that is another conversation altogether.

Abba, thank you for your loving heart and the gift of eternal life in your Son Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to embrace all you have done for us in Jesus. Let us turn away from ourselves and the things of this life and place our dependency fully upon Christ. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Hebrews 9:26-28 NASB

Misguided Introspection

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By Linda Rex

I remember the first time I ever participated in a sacred service which involved eating bread and drinking wine in communion with others of like faith. I had just been baptized and was new at the whole process. At that particular time, our church only observed this once a year. That particular observance stands out in my mind because it was so solemn and so serious. Hundreds of us stood in line to participate and everyone was completely silent.

Back then I heard many a sermon prior to this observance telling us that we were to examine ourselves so we would not take of the elements in an unworthy manner. Examining oneself meant comparing oneself against the law, including keeping food laws and holy days. By the time I was through with this kind of self-examination, there was no way I could ever come away believing anything positive about myself. It was a one-way trip towards discouragement, humiliation, and defeat.

Then one day, I heard a pastor bring out another verse which talked about self-examination, 2 Cor. 13:5-6: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.” That particular passage put the whole discussion on another level.

The first type of self-examination is really easy for an introvert like myself. I can go down a million rabbit-trails in my head where I see all the things I’ve said or done wrong, and beat myself up for each one as I go. It is a lot more difficult to do the second type of self-examination, because it involves looking beyond my broken humanity to who I am in Christ.

To see Christ in oneself is to see the truth about one’s being. First, we were created in the image of God in his likeness, to be his image-bearers—adopted children who live in loving relationship with God and one another. In Christ, God redeemed our broken humanity, restoring our fellowship with him and one another—and in the gift of the Spirit, God came to work this out in us individually, enabling us to live and walk in Christ, who was and is the perfect image-bearer of God.

When we look within, not to see ourselves but to see Christ in us, we come up against the reality we indeed fall short of Christ’s perfection. But in the same moment we find Christ stands in our stead and on our behalf. Grace triumphs over judgment in that moment. Not only does Christ intercede moment by moment in every situation. He also works to heal, restore, and renew our relationship with God and each person in our lives as we turn to him in faith and respond to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives.

Self-examination, then, becomes not a negative thing, but an encouraging, anticipatory experience in which we begin to see what Christ did on our behalf and what he is doing right now in each moment on our behalf. And we begin to have some hope in what he will do in the future because we are learning he is trustworthy and faithful as well as loving, and he, by his Spirit, is at work within us, transforming us from the inside out.

The first type of self-examination tends to create an outlook which is self-absorbed rather than one which is outward-looking and other-centered. The life of the Trinity is other-centered and focused outward—towards God’s adopted children who are being brought into the life and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Within the inner relations of the Trinity, there is a mutual pouring out and receiving—a movement which is unending, and which we were drawn into by Christ, and participate in through the Holy Spirit.

We were meant, not to be self-absorbed or self-conscious, but to be focused on Christ and conscious of his indwelling presence as well as aware of his work in the world around us. Attending to God in Christ and what he is doing by the Spirit in us and the world around us keeps us from being self-centered and self-absorbed. Indeed, it is best that we come to have no thought of self-at all, but rather find our self in Christ, who by his Spirit enables us to be truly ourselves.

This does not mean we negate ourselves or diminish ourselves, but rather that we begin to truly believe we are those people God intended us to be in the first place—his beloved, adopted children who with their own unique selves live as equals in loving fellowship and harmony. And in believing, we begin to act as if this is indeed the case. In this way we image the God we were created to reflect, and find in doing so, we experience the love, joy, and peace God meant for us to participate in from the beginning.

To examine ourselves and find Christ within is a far cry from examining ourselves and ending up discouraged, defeated, and despairing. We are reminded by the apostle Paul, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).” Our life in Christ is a journey in which we grow—it is not a static position or a place we come to and stay in. This is an existence where all of life is a participation in Christ’s life. We find our everyday tasks and experiences take on a whole new meaning as we realize we do not live alone and on our own, but share all things with Christ in the Spirit, and join in with what God is actively doing in the world around us.

Then when we come to the communion table to eat bread and drink wine, we are seeing Christ much more clearly. The body of Christ takes on a whole new meaning, including not only the human body of Jesus Christ, and the bread and the wine, but also the group of fellow believers with which we share a common faith. It also makes room for us to welcome all others to the table, since we were all taken up with Christ in his hypostatic union with God when he bore our common humanity to the cross, died, and rose again on our behalf.

Our participation in communion is a reminder, not of our failures and shortcomings, but of the gracious gift of Christ in our place and on our behalf. By the Spirit, we put on Christ, and we live in the assurance of his mediating presence with the Father, as now we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. This makes sharing communion with others a pleasant remembrance of joy and warm fellowship, rather than a silent, serious, painful experience we would rather forget.

Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son, and the pouring out of your Spirit. Thank you we are in Christ and by the Spirit we are able to share in your joy, peace, and loving fellowship. Free us from our self-focus and self-absorption, from our self-centeredness and self-condemnation. Enable us to see and embrace our true self—forgiven, accepted and beloved in Christ—and live in the truth of who we really are. In examining ourselves, may we discover we are in Christ and Christ is in us, and that by the Spirit, we are bound up in you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 NASB

Take Nothing for the Journey

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By Linda Rex

It’s been quite a few years since I have had babies and toddlers traveling everywhere with me. Now they are full grown, and it’s getting harder to imagine carrying them on my hip and holding their little hand as we walk down the sidewalk. I had such joy watching them explore their world, seeing new things and learning new tasks. It was and is a privilege to be their mom.

In the early days, I recall that every trip to the store and to church involved stuffing a diaper bag full of necessities “just in case”: diapers, wipes, extra clothes, toys, a bottle—the list went on. I didn’t want to be caught without something which might be needed. But no matter how prepared I was, it seemed like there was almost always something I forgot to bring.

And going places was not simple. When the children were really little, it seemed like everything took so much longer and required so much more effort. Most of the time it took at least half an hour to an hour just to get the kids ready to go out the door. And then we would only succeed in leaving on time if we were lucky enough to avoid a last-minute disaster such as a dirty diaper.

But going to all that effort was worth it. The point of packing all the necessities was so that we could all be together as a family, doing something important together. We were sharing life together and that meant going through whatever was necessary so that we could be together doing the things which mattered.

At one point while Jesus was instructing his disciples, he sent them out in pairs to share in his work of ministry. Now, I can imagine Peter and James sitting there listening to Jesus say that he was sending them out on this journey. In his head, James began to form a list of what would be necessary—a couple of fishing rods, the stuff he needed for fixing the fishing nets—just in case he would need to catch a few fish when they were hungry. Peter began reviewing which of his favorite tunics he would have his wife mend so he could have an extra one on the road.

But right away Jesus tells them they were to “take nothing for their journey.” They were not to carry any extra baggage, “no bread, no bag, no money in their belt.” They were to just take a staff and wear a tunic and a pair of sandals, and they were good to go.

In their mind, no doubt, the disciples were thinking, surely, we could take a few things “just in case”. And that’s what speaks to the reason for Jesus’ instructions. The “just in case” concern is the one in which we as humans feel as though we must do everything necessary to hold things together so nothing will go wrong. So, we need this, that, and the other thing “just in case”.

Previous to Jesus sending out his disciples in this passage, Mark describes how Jesus in his own hometown, because of the unbelief of the people there, was unable to do any miracles except a few healings. They did not believe Jesus was the person he said he was. No, he was the carpenter who fixed their door, and built them a stable, and roofed their house. He was no messiah.

But here, Jesus is calling on his disciples to believe—to literally walk by faith—to move forward into the ministry of the gospel trusting that Jesus is their Messiah and has indeed empowered them to heal the sick and cast out demons. They were not to depend upon their own ability to provide for themselves, but to completely depend upon Abba and allow other people to provide for their needs. No doubt, this would have been difficult for these independent, self-reliant men who in the past had always provided for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when God expects ministers of the gospel to pay their own way. But this was a special missionary journey Christ was sending his disciples on, and he did not want them distracted by the cares and concerns of daily life. And they also needed to learn to trust in Abba for their daily needs and to not depend solely upon themselves. There were lessons Jesus was trying to teach his disciples and they were best learned by doing the work of preaching the gospel, healing, and casting out demons without being distracted with the mundane cares of life.

Too, having to depend upon the people they were ministering to was a way in which these men were placed in a position of needing people to help them. This created space for relationship. If they wanted something to eat or drink, they would need to ask for it or receive it from someone if it was offered to them. If they wanted a place to stay, they would need someone to offer it to them. They would need to be humble and receptive to whatever came their way. Their life became fully a life of service, of giving. They would be laying down their self-sufficiency and be fully dependent upon Abba and others.

No doubt Jesus, and Abba, took great joy in watching these men undertake this mission and learn to share the gospel in everyday life with new people in new places. They were spiritual toddlers who were just learning to walk in the ways of Jesus, growing in their faith and in their service to God.

And Jesus had every intention of seeing them through this experience—he gave them the authority to do what was needed in their situation, and he was with them in Spirit as they went about preaching the gospel. And he was thrilled they were moving forward into their calling as his apostles—the ones set aside to bear witness to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In the same way Abba and Jesus enjoy watching us grow in our spiritual walk and service to God. Each of us is called to share the gospel in word and deed and we are given all we need to take on our journey. We don’t really need anything else “just in case” because, in Christ, we have been given all we need for life and godliness.

We are to walk by faith, not by sight. We are to trust in God, not in our own ability to save ourselves. Our hope isn’t in having everything under our control and fully provided for, but fully in Jesus Christ who stands in our place and on our behalf. We can drop the diaper bag or the suitcase of our human efforts to save ourselves and travel lightly, fully dependent upon God’s grace. Jesus Christ is sufficient for us. We don’t need anything else.

Thank you, Abba, that you provide for our every need and often even the true desires of our hearts. Thank you for empowering us to share your words of life with others and to help them find healing and wholeness in your Son Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to trust in you and your great love and faithfulness, and to lay down our futile efforts to save and provide for ourselves apart from you. Thank you that because of your love and faithfulness, we don’t need to take anything along our journey “just in case” but can trust fully and solely in you. In Jesus’ Name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“And He summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits; and He instructed them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belt—but to wear sandals; and He added, ‘Do not put on two tunics.’” Mark 6:7-9 NASB

Rising With Christ

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By Linda Rex

Ascension
I was reading an article this morning about the decline and mortal end of a famous actor who committed suicide. I remember the world being stunned by the news of his sudden death. He was, by all appearances, a warm and caring person who was trying to make the world a better place through the medium of film. He had been struggling in his career and personal life, yet this did not seem to warrant taking his life.

The unfortunate reality of show business is the inevitable fall which comes after the flight into stardom. Some actors and music artists spend their entire career trying to keep their place in the sun and doing whatever it takes to stay there. We see them having plastic surgery and following intense diet regimens, while looking for their next opportunity to ascend in their career.

The unfortunate reality is actors and music artists are dependent upon the approval of their audience, and human beings are unreliable when it comes to things such as music and film. Their tastes change, and the culture is always in flux. Hoping for continued success is a tenuous thread which may at any moment break.

What is it which drives the human heart to want this type of success? There must be an underlying yearning which causes people to tread this difficult, and in many ways, dangerous path.

King Solomon said, God “places eternity in our hearts.” Indeed, we each have a deep, internal yearning for paradise, which drives our efforts to create little heavens on earth. We find ourselves dissatisfied with the status quo—most probably because we were created for something so much more wonderful than this. There is a world we were meant for, created for even, and this broken, evil-filled world just doesn’t seem to be it.

Jesus took the path of a rising star, and in his final days was met with praise and acclaim as he entered Jerusalem that last Sunday. He had been followed by the crowds who loved his miracles, and to some extent, his preaching. Here was a man at the height of his “career.” Soon, if the crowd were to have their way, he would be crowned king of the Jews.

But crowds are fickle, and Jesus had many enemies. There are always those who do not want to share the spotlight, or who feel they are best able to run the show. Jesus encountered the worst in our human hearts as the tide turned against him and the crowd demanded his crucifixion.

The crucifixion of Jesus, however, was not the end of his story. The reality was, he was not who they thought he was. There was much more going on than was visible at first glance. Jesus was not just a rising star which fell from heaven. He was the Lord who created the stars, and moon, and sky. He sustained all things by the word of his power. He was God in human flesh.

His death was not the end, for he rose from the grave. And, after showing himself to those who would be witnesses to his glory, he ascended to his father in heaven. Stephen the martyr, saw a vision of Jesus standing next to his Father in heaven. He was alive, dwelling in inexpressible light, in Abba’s presence.

The great miracle which accompanied Jesus’ ascension was, he did not ascend to his Father’s throne alone. Because Jesus bore our collective humanity in his Person, his ascension meant all humanity ascended into the Father’s presence with him. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” (Col. 3:1-4 NASB) The objective reality of our human existence is our real life is in Christ, in his hypostatic union as the God/man. We are, even now, at this moment, in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

What we believe about Jesus Christ is critical. Our participation in the heavenly realities is in Christ, so we do not experience the truth of our heavenly inclusion apart from faith in Christ. Do we believe the truth of our existence? We died with Christ. We rose with Christ. We share in his glory both now, and forever. We are in Christ. By faith, we participate in his perfect relationship with the Father in the Spirit and share the glories of eternity with him.

Our longing for bigger and better things is at its root a longing for life as it was meant to be. We were created for eternity, for the Garden of Eden, for more than the best our human life has to offer. We were meant for flowing streams of crystal clear water and stunning, star-filled night skies. We were created to dwell in harmony, unity, and peace. This is the root of our human longings and is what we really seek, if we are willing to admit it.

We have the promise in the Scriptures that one day Jesus will return in the same way in which he left. We can look forward to his return with joy and expectation, as we trust he is the Person who is our redemption, our salvation, and our deliverance. If Jesus indeed holds within his Person the truth of our human existence, that we were created for life with God forever, then his return means we will finally experience our true heaven on earth. And this is definitely better than anything we could create for ourselves, since it will never come to an end.

It is true: We were meant for so much more than this. Our promise of a future in the new heavens and new earth is the gift of the Spirit. Embracing the Spirit of life in Christ enables us to begin to live in the truth of our existence right now. At this very moment, we are able, in the Spirit, to participate in the inner relationship between the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. By faith, we can live, even now, in the truth of our existence as God’s adopted children. And God has done everything necessary to make sure we will shine as the stars forever and ever (Dan. 12:3).

Thank you, Abba, for your great heart of love and grace. Thank you for offering us true life in relationship with you and one another, in a glorious future we cannot even begin to imagine. Grant us the grace to seek our true life in you and not in the temporary, transient things of this world. Thank you for giving us your precious Spirit, and your beloved Son, in whose Name we pray. Amen.

“And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.’” Acts 1:9-11 NASB

Looking Forward

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By Linda Rex

I apologize for not writing a blog last week. My goal is to write one every Friday or thereabouts, but last Thursday I took my family to a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains to spend a long weekend. This was the first time we had done this together as a family, and I appreciated this opportunity for a change a scenery and some time away from my ministry responsibilities.

At Clingman’s Dome Visitor Center

During our visit there I visited the Clingman’s Dome visitor center. The view from there was stupendous. The mountains stretch out as far as the eye can see, and they were just beginning to come alive with new spring growth and blossoming trees.

This may sound odd, but I was impressed with the numbers of people who were there just to see the sights. Some were all decked out in hiking regalia, ready to take on the challenge of a mountain trail. Others were there with family, taking pictures of one another, with the mountains as a backdrop.

There was a constant bubbling hum of joy—of sharing the common appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the creation. To me, this is the calling we all have and that we share in, whether we realize it or not—to bear witness to the glory of God, and all he has done and all that he is. In many ways, this is a hint as to what we are called to as God’s adopted children—to revel in and celebrate the wonders of God’s goodness, love, and grace.

This theme continued on throughout the visit for me. One afternoon I went over to Cherokee to sit by the Ocanaluftee River and do some personal reflection. The water was swift and clear, running over rocks and creating little spurts of white here and there. The trees were just beginning to put on leaves, and some were filled with flowers. The birds were singing their hearts out, creating a pleasant atmosphere. The place where I sat was surrounded on all sides by the mountains, so it seemed tucked in and cozy.

Down the river from me, a man was fly fishing, without much success that I could see. A couple of children were playing in the water opposite from where I was sitting, pretending their dolls were swimming. Upstream, two girls were relaxing in the water where it was deeper, coming up occasionally, soaked and laughing. A couple was pushing an elderly lady across the pedestrian bridge in a wheelchair, stopping occasionally so she could enjoy the view. Groups of families were having lunch together, their voices carrying across the water to where I was sitting.

It occurred to me after a while that I was experiencing one of those moments in life which are foretastes of our future with God in the new earth. We’ve been talking about the new earth and heaven at our Wednesday night discussion group, and we’ve seen the scriptures which describe the new earth where God comes to dwell with humanity forever.

The apostle John describes a river, the water of life, flowing from the presence of Abba and his Son—the ever-flowing river of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. We find our life, our renewal, and our healing in him. The life we live together forever will be the perichoretic life in which the Father, Son, and Spirit have existed for all eternity. Their way of being is filled with outgoing love, generosity, and creativity, and we have been made to share in this through Jesus and by the Spirit.

Our future life as glorified humans will be filled with such beauty and joy, we can only catch little glimpses now. We anticipate the day when we all will live together in each moment in the truth of our existence as human beings—loving God with all we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves. There will be ongoing joyful celebration of all God has made and all God has done through Jesus and by the power and presence of his Spirit, forever.

It is essential for us as broken people to take time to slow down enough to catch these “glimpses of joy.” It is good for us to be attentive to the signs of eternity which are evident all around us, but we often are too busy or too broken to attend to. When we allow ourselves to have eternity on our minds, we will find ourselves recognizing these moments more easily, for they are all around us, happening all the time—but we are usually too busy, distracted, or pain-filled to notice them.

What the Word of God did in coming into our human flesh and joining our humanity with the divine Being, made possible for each of us a sharing in the life and love of God even now. We have the future to anticipate, but we also have the present to enjoy. God has brought us into relationship with himself. He has done in Jesus Christ all that is needed for us to share both now and forever the blessing of living in his presence.

But God does not force himself on us. He has reconciled himself to us in Christ, and he invites us by the Spirit to reconcile ourselves with him. He has brought us into oneness with himself in Christ, and by his Spirit invites us to accept, embrace, and live in the truth of this. He has created a future for you and me which is filled with joyful celebration of all God has done and all he has made, and offers it to us to receive it and begin to participate in it even now.

By the Spirit, Abba calls to us right now, saying, “Come rejoice with me! All is well! Drink up—the water of life is all yours! Don’t just take a sip—soak in it, play in it, build your life around it, let it affect and influence all of your relationships, decisions, experiences—from now on into eternity.” We are to trust in the blessedness of the gift of God’s Son and live, both now and forever, in the truth of our being as God’s adopted children, in and through Christ and by his Spirit. This is our real life, and one we can begin to experience right now, as we are willing.

Abba, thank you for the blessed gift of joy and celebration we have in your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Thank you for all your blessings, all you have created for our enjoyment and pleasure. Grant us the grace to be attentive to the glimpses of glory you give us in our everyday lives, and the grace to always live gratefully and joyfully in your presence both now and forever, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Revelation 22:1-2 NASB

The Exception Clause

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By Linda Rex

This week has been a busy one and when I am overwhelmed timewise in this way, I find it very easy to slip into unhealthy habits of losing sleep or eating things I wouldn’t, and probably shouldn’t, normally eat. The magical thinking begins with this one little phrase “just this once won’t hurt.”

If I was honest, I would have to say this magical phrase too often governs such decisions. For the most part, “just this once” isn’t a bad thing. Really, such impromptu delights bring joy to our lives. We can take pleasure in the here and again treasures we encounter in our daily life—and I believe God meant us to. Life was meant to be filled with such moments of delight in the presence of Abba.

However, when such pleasures begin to govern our decision-making and begin to rule our thoughts and passions, we find ourselves in the midst of what the apostle John calls the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” This is why he says we are not to love the world or the things in the world—it is very easy to become enslaved to anything we put in the place in our hearts, minds, and lives which was meant for God alone.

God is so emphatic or passionate about this because he knows this is not what we were created for. The things we lust after or become addicted to do not fill up the empty place in our hearts and lives we attempt to use them to fill. They may temporarily numb the pain we are experiencing or dull the anxiety we may be feeling, but ultimately, they do not resolve the real issues we need to face and in which we need to experience God’s healing or help.

Our momentary personal pursuit of happiness often actually derails our experience of true joy. In dulling or avoiding the pain, anxiety, or anger we feel, we may lose opportunities to deeply engage God (or others) in some serious one-on-one conversations which may resolve long-lasting resentments, false beliefs, or disagreements. In not engaging these negative feelings, we may be missing out on opportunities to experience healing, renewal, forgiveness, and cleansing—all of which are paths to true joy in the presence of Jesus.

Sometimes I think our culture encourages two extremes with regards to this. On the one hand, we are willing to put people on national television so everyone can see and talk about their messed up thinking and messed up lives. On the other hand, there are people who end up going on a shooting rampage because they’ve never gotten proper help with or healing for their mental and emotional struggles—often we hear no one even knew or cared they were struggling.

In this culture which celebrates indulging our pleasures and passions, we can find it difficult to pursue true joy in our life with Christ. We can be derailed in so many ways, not realizing we’re bound up in unhealthy ways of living or being until we are caught and find it’s not so easy to get out. And the solution isn’t always just as simple as “repent and believe”. It may require something more—relationship. It may require getting up-close and personal with someone about our struggles, failures and pain. And this we avoid.

When God calls us by his grace into relationship with himself, he places us by his Spirit into the Body of Christ. He joins us with other believers. He means for us to live in spiritual community and not to isolate ourselves. He wants us to experience the true joy we were created for, and he know this can only be found within the context of faithful, loving relationship, specifically as children held together within the inner relations of Father, Son, and Spirit.

God does not intend for any of us to have to go through life wounded, broken, and forsaken. He does not mean life to be a depressing, empty struggle. Yes, life will be tough and bad things will happen, but when we engage such a life from within the context of loving, committed relationship with God and our spiritual community, it becomes bearable and even joyful. We may find in the middle of our struggles we experience a deep, inner joy—not because of our human attempts at medicating our pain, but due to Christ indwelling our hearts by the Holy Spirit and us experiencing loving relationships with others within our spiritual community.

As a classic avoider, I have learned there comes a time when the price we pay for avoiding our issues becomes much higher than what it would cost for us to face up to our issues and deal with them. There comes a time when we need to embrace the truth and speak the truth in love or get professional help for our issues. At some point we need to delve into the unpleasant, slicing the festering sore open again so the accumulated pus can be removed and the wound cleansed—this may be what is needed to let real healing start. And this may require professional help, or it may only require healthy the intervention of Christ by his Holy Spirit within the context of spiritual community.

At other times, though, we may just need to experience the little joys of life. The “exception clause” may actually apply in these cases. God sometimes places these little moments of joy in front of us and means for us to experience little tastes of heaven to increase our anticipation of what is to come when we are truly living as glorified humans in the presence of Abba forever. He reminds us in this way of his affection for us and of his faithful love and grace, drawing from us the gratitude and praise he deserves to receive in response.

All the things we attach ourselves to in this life and believe are necessary for our fulfillment and pleasure must be seen within the context of eternity. Some are just passing pleasures which will one day be supplanted by the genuine eternal pleasures of life in Christ.

True lasting joy may be found in what will endure beyond this life on into the next—giving to, sharing with, serving, helping, forgiving, and loving others. Notice these are all ways in which we pour out from ourselves and into others, and in which we receive from others what they have to give. This is the divine perichoretic life—and this is what we were created to participate in forever. In this life, there are no exceptions—there will be no “just this once”, but an eternal participation in the life and love of Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit which is filled with joy and peace, and all God’s blessings through Jesus our Lord.

Thank you, Abba, for all your good gifts and for sharing with us the life you share with your Son and your Spirit. Grant us the grace to face up to the truth as we need to and to get the help which may be required for us to get well and stay healthy. Enable us to find, experience, and live in the true joy you created us for—pour into us your joy, for all our springs of joy are found in you. May we celebrate now and forever, in perfect joy, the gift of eternal life with you, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.” Psalm 51:12 NLT

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17 NKJ

Christmas Sorrow, Christmas Joy

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By Linda Rex

Lately I’ve been going out the door in the morning saying to myself, “We need to take the tree down—it’s been up long enough.” I don’t know what it is about putting away the Christmas decorations, but I just don’t like doing it. Not because of the work involved, but because of the temporary loss of the reminder of the goodness, joy, and peace God brought in his Son Jesus.

I love the colors and the nativity scenes. I enjoy the way all the decorations remind me of why Jesus came. I have observed the Old Testament holy days, and I have observed the Christian holy days. This particular one, Advent and Christmas, has an amazing ability to capture the heart and mind of young and old. We find ourselves singing of peace, hope, love, and joy. And we feel our hearts warm up towards others in new ways when they wouldn’t otherwise.

This season also has the capacity to bring great sorrow and grief. When the Christmas season is a source of sadness and regret, it can leave such pain in our hearts. The pain, I believe, is so deep and real because it is an expression of great loss—a loss Abba never meant to have happen.

Indeed, it was not God’s purpose we live with sorrow, grief, suffering, and loss. It’s not what we were created for. No, he meant for us to share in his eternal life of intertwined oneness with God and one another. We have all been bound together in Christ, and we all gain our life and being from the God who made us.

Our lives and experiences are all interwoven together, and we are meant to be living in the same uniqueness of personhood with equality and oneness of being God lives in as Father, Son, and Spirit. We were not meant to have to suffer sin’s consequences or death. No, we were meant to share life together as beloved children of God in the hope, peace, joy, and love we celebrate during Advent.

The good news about taking down the Christmas tree is we get to put it back up again next winter. The seasons come again and again, and we are reminded anew of the miracle of the Christ child, of when God came in human flesh.

This year taking down the tree reminds me of how Mary and the disciples took Jesus’ lifeless body down off the cross. No doubt they dreaded the process—and it was very painful for them. Even though Mary knew this probably would happen to Jesus, I’m sure it did not make it any easier for her to accept when it did.

Even though we celebrate the birth of Messiah at Christmas, we are reminded anew of the end which loomed over him his entire life. Abba knew the hearts of humankind—that we would not protect and care for his Son, but would reject and murder him instead. Abba’s love for us, though, was greater than any concern he may have had for Jesus in his humanity. Both Abba and Jesus knew at some point the celebration would be over, and the Christ would take the path to the cross. But they also knew that would not be the end.

When we take the ornaments and other doodads off the Christmas tree, we wrap or box them up, and we lay them in tubs, and put them away in a dark closet for a year. In this same way, the human body of Jesus was taken down off the cross, wrapped in linen, and then laid in a tomb. The door to the tomb was shut and then sealed. As far as the disciples knew, this was the end of the story for Jesus. He was shut away in the grave, gone from their lives.

But it was only a passing moment of time. Jesus told the disciples he would lay in the grave for three days, and then rise. The grave would not conquer Jesus—it had no control over him. For Jesus was God in human flesh—and his Abba was not going to leave him there, but would by the Spirit raise him from the dead.

The story of the infant in the manger does not end with Christmas, but follows throughout the year the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus’ story doesn’t end in the grave, but actually gains momentum—the movement from the grave to his presence with Abba also involves the sending of the Spirit to indwell human hearts. When we look at Jesus Christ today, we find he is busy and active in this world, fulfilling the mission Abba gave him long before any of us existed.

Though the ornaments and decorations for Christmas may lay in the closet again for a while, I know eventually we will pull them out again. We will put up our worn-out tree with its twinkly lights, and be reminded of the ever-living Lord our Light, who was pleased to dwell with men. We will hang our homemade ornaments and colorful ribbons, and remember God so loved us, he gave us his Son Jesus Christ. As we set out one more time the little nativity set, we will be encouraged that God’s love never fails, but is new every morning.

In spite of evil, in spite of death, and in spite of the brokenness of our humanity, we have hope, peace, joy, and love in Abba’s perfect gift. The Spirit reminds me again today not to sorrow, but to be thankful. Whatever prayers I may offer for the suffering and grieving, God has already answered in the gift of his Son Jesus, and he will answer in the presence and power of his Holy Spirit. Whatever comfort I may offer someone in the midst of their sadness and loss is only an echo of the divine Comforter sent by Abba through his Son Jesus.

Whatever these decorations mean to me, they are merely pointers to a greater reality, to a real hope which we have in the love and faithfulness of God as expressed in the gift of His Son Jesus Christ. As they come down and are packed away, I am reminded every death now has a resurrection, because of what Jesus has done. Jesus cannot be stuffed in a box or a tomb and put away. No, he inevitably will rise in greater glory and majesty, for that is just Who he is—our glorified Lord and Savior. And one day we will rise with him. What a joyful day that will be!

Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for joining us in our humanity, and sharing every part of our lives. Thank you, Jesus, for taking us with you through death and resurrection so we may share life with you, Abba, and the Spirit forever. Please be near with your comfort and peace all those who are facing grief and loss. Your heart and mine go out to them, and I know you will send your Comforter to heal, comfort, and renew. Thank you again for your faithful love and grace through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“For those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, recognizing neither Him nor the utterances of the prophets which are dread every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning Him. And though they found no ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed. When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead; and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people.” Acts 13:27-31 NASB