Light of God
by Linda Rex
This season of year has its ups and downs. It can be so heartwarming and inspiring, while at the same time full of stress and anxious care about shopping and decorating and family complications. I have a special fondness for this time of year since God has awakened me to the wonder of its deep meaning. Understanding the mystery of the incarnation (can one truly understand a mystery?) carries me through all the hassle and frustration which can come from the external efforts to celebrate Christmas.
At this time of year I’m especially mindful of the time in my life when I distained Christmas as being a pagan holiday we should not celebrate if we are true Christians. While I’m still trying to determine exactly what a “true Christian” is (as compared to a “false Christian”), now I see a whole lot more clearly how we can get so caught up in a religious paradigm we cannot see what is right in front of us. We can be so focused on the “truth” that we miss seeing the living Truth who has entered our world and has begun to transform it from the inside out.
Today is Epiphany, and the gospel reading from the lectionary for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Here we read about the magi from the east who traveled many miles seeking to find a newly born king of the Jews. They followed a star and ended up in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was quite unnerving for King Herod to have these men asking about a king he knew nothing about. And no doubt it made him feel quite insecure about his throne.
So Herod called all together the chief priests and scribes—the ones who were supposed to know the Hebrew scriptures and history—and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. The high priests and scribes were the ones who probably would know the answer to the magi’s question, so Herod addressed the question to them.
They told the magi to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem. Now, it seems to me, if they had a real interest in knowing about the Messiah or in seeking him out, they would have been alert to what was really going on. They would have joined the search party, or would have maybe even led it. But King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and told them to look for the child and to tell him if or when they found him. And the magi left all by themselves, with no Jewish people in their party.
These people who were trusting in astrology to guide them, who were in essence, pagan Gentiles, were seeking to find a child who was Jewish. Now there were some Jews who were pagan enough that they believed the stars ordained certain events. But the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles, and because of this they missed something very important which was happening in their world. Their religious paradigm did not allow them to believe that someone other than a Jew might know something about the Messiah they had been expecting for centuries.
Is it possible to have the light of God available to you and still wander around in darkness? Apparently so.
The gospel story we read in the Bible shows us that these Jewish leaders were a whole lot more interested in retaining their positions of power and influence and in restoring the Jewish nation to prominence than they were interested in finding out if the messiah had arrived and had something important to say to them as his people. Their paradigm assured them the messiah would appear in a certain way, he would do certain things, and he most certainly would not look, talk or behave anything like Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, I was told a lot of things about the Christmas holiday and what it meant and why it shouldn’t be observed, but no one ever told me the truth. I was told a lot of superstition, a lot of hearsay, and a lot of heated explanations of why observing Christmas was a sin, but none of those things turned out to be based on facts or on a mature, well-examined explanation of Christian history.
I remember one afternoon sitting in the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium listening to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. It stirred something deep within me. I knew the event of Jesus Christ coming to us and dying on the cross was significant, but I still missed the crucial point—God came into human flesh to live and die and to rise again, and now he bears our perfected humanity for all eternity in the presence of the Father. Forever, we are with God, in Christ by the Spirit. We are embraced, held, in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by God’s infinite grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
We can focus on whether or not something is pagan, and miss the light of God in the midst of the darkness. Whatever we observe as human is bound to be pagan in some way because we are all broken people. All our righteousness ends up being filthy rags to God—we must never forget God reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus.
Whatever we offer to God is broken and flawed—our efforts to get it right are feeble at best. This is why we follow the lead of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We count on God’s grace to carry us. We need to be alert to the living Truth in the midst of all our darkness and brokenness. The Light has come—we need to pay attention, turn to the Light and allow him to show us what is really going on, and to follow where he leads us rather than stay in our misguided paradigms.
Who we listen to is crucial. The magi listened to God when he spoke to them in a dream (would we ever consider doing that)? These people who the Jews distained listened to God and obeyed him, and went home a different way, and in the process, they were kept safe from King Herod’s evil plot. They had followed the light of a star, had worshiped the Light who had come and offered him gifts, and by the light of the revelation of God in a dream, found their way safely home.
When Jesus grew older, the scribes, the high priests—this group of people who should have known, recognized and received him as the Light of God—were the very ones who rejected him and crucified him. As John wrote in his gospel: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:9–11 NASB) Their preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be, and their preoccupation which the things of this life—money, power, prestige—blinded them to the true Light which was in their midst.
On this day of Epiphany, it would be good to pause for a moment and to consider this Light of God who has entered our world and brought to us a whole new way of being—the life of God in human flesh. It would be good to ponder the ways in which we close our eyes to the light he wishes to bring into our world: What paradigms do we need to set aside? What old ways of thinking and believing do we need to suspend in order to embrace the possibility we could be wrong or might need to change? What things are we trusting in which have nothing to do with God’s values and God’s desires and what he wants to accomplish in this world?
God’s Light has come, and he is renewing our broken world and existence from the inside out. We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace this New Year in a new frame of mind and heart—one in which Christ is the center rather than us. May your 2017 be full of an abundance of all God’s blessings in Christ!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the gift of a new year ahead of us. You are always working at creating new beginnings. Grant us the grace to keep our life and our being centered in your Light, in Christ your Son, and to stay in tune with and obedient to your Spirit of Life, through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.” Isaiah 60:1–3, 19 NASB
By Linda Rex
Lent: Many years ago I used to have recurring nightmares of trying to hide from scary people or events by hiding in the walls of my home or escaping over the backyard fence. This was during a time in my life where I was starting to come to understand the magnificence of God’s grace to me while also going through some very difficult personal experiences.
I began some studies related to abuse and co-dependency, but also came across some information regarding dreams and how sometimes they are related to the internal struggles we may be going through. One of these sources indicated that dreams involving one’s home of origin spoke to the need to resolve inner issues that had not been addressed or with which one is wrestling.
The idea that I had some inner issues that needed resolved was not a new concept for me. I had already concluded that I needed to bring some light into some very dark places in my life—places where I had been abused, shamed and broken. But up to that time I had never felt safe enough to acknowledge them, much less to admit to them and begin to deal with them. I was busy hiding behind all the walls I had built up throughout my life, and spent much of my time and effort escaping my problems and pain rather than facing them.
But healing of this nature does not occur until such a time as a person is willing and able to open dark places to the healing light of God’s presence and grace. Indeed, Jesus said we experience real freedom when we measure ourselves against the light of the truth of Jesus and allow him to set us free. There is an appropriate place for us to practice the spiritual disciplines of examen and confession.
First, I’m always having to remind people that spiritual disciplines are not rituals or rites. They become rituals or rites when we misapply them, using these practices as a means of trying to make things right with God or to get God to do something for us. A spiritual discipline is very different.
When a person is walking closely with God, they will sense that God is wanting them to open another area of their lives up to him for the Holy Spirit to go to work. Often he places a desire in their heart to grow up in Christ in a new and different way. Such growth only occurs, though, by the Spirit’s transforming power and work in a person’s heart and mind, and life. So, when a person feels this sense of God’s leading, they can open themselves up to a new work of the Spirit by practicing spiritual disciplines. This creates space for God to go to work.
There are many spiritual disciplines Christians have practiced over the centuries. One of these is examen. This spiritual discipline involves “discerning the voice and activity of God within the flow of the day. It is a vehicle that creates deeper awareness of God-given desires in one’s life” (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, pg 52).
An example of this practice in action would be when at the end of the day, a person would reflect on his or her experiences and consider how and when they experienced God’s presence throughout the day, and what brought, as some describe it, “consolation” or “desolation”. In examen we reflect on what was life-giving and what was life-draining, where we gave and received love and where we failed to do so.
It is an opportunity to consider our relationship with God and to invite the Holy Spirit to show us those things we can be grateful for and those things which may need to be changed, and to invite him to make those changes in us. As you may see, this spiritual discipline is a way to open our life up to God’s light and allow him to go to work. Practicing it regularly can help us to become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and in what ways we are actively participating in Christ’s work in the world and in us.
The other spiritual discipline I mentioned is confession. We often associate confession with the Roman Catholic practice of confessing one’s sins to a priest, but confession as a spiritual discipline is quite different. Self-examination is not meant to be, as Calhoun puts it, “a neurotic shame-inducing inventory.” Rather it is a way of opening up ourselves in the context of God’s love and grace so that we can in a real, authentic way, seek his transformation.
Confession carries this process of self-examination forward in a two-sided way. One is the declaration of what is true about ourselves—we are broken in some way and fall short of who God created us to be. The other is the declaration of who we are in Christ, the real truth of our being—that we are redeemed and in Christ we have and do experience renewal and transformation.
Our confession begins first between us and God. The light of God penetrates that dark place and we open up to God and agree that yes, this is true about me. But for real healing to be found and true freedom experienced, we may need to carry that confession forward to a friend, a safe person such as a counselor, or in the context of public error, there may need to be public confession. (James 5:16)
But talking about our faults and places of brokenness is not enough. We can talk about them until we are blue in the face, bemoan them, flagellate ourselves about them, but nothing will change in our lives. At least, not until we confess Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord who did something about them. He has freed us from our brokenness and given us new life—we begin to confess that, and begin to invite others to share in that forgiveness, healing and restoration, and we will begin to experience transformation.
This is why so often God brings light into some dark place in our lives and then begins to bring us into relationship with others who are struggling with the same things. As I began to deal with the abuse I experienced, bringing it into the light by being honest and truthful about it, and by sharing this struggle with others, God began to allow me to help others along on a similar journey. And in the process we all experienced God’s grace and healing.
In my case, the dark dreams stopped. Walking in the light of God’s grace and healing meant I didn’t need to hide behind my walls any more. I could be genuine and real, and broken, and I was still loved, forgiven and accepted by God and by others. I began to recognize God’s presence throughout my days in the positive and the negative experiences of my life. And in sharing my broken places with others, I could help them on their journey of healing.
All of this occurs and did occur within the context of relationship. God calls us to love him and to love one another. It is in the light of spiritual community with God and others that we can stop the hiding and begin to live freely and joyfully, as well as transparently, and with authenticity and integrity. May God give us the courage and faith to come out behind our walls, and to quit running and hiding.
Dad, thank you that you are so tender with us when we are broken. And you want us to feel safe enough with you that we can and will open up our dark places to your light so you can mend and heal them. Grant us the grace to be brave enough to let others join with us in this journey of transformation and to respond obediently to your calls to open ourselves up to the light of your love and grace. Thank you, that through your Son we have redemption and restoration. In his name we pray, amen.
“So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, “You will become free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.’” John 8:31–36 NASB