By Linda Rex
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?
Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?
We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?
Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.
And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.
A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.
This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.
Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.
Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.
Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?
So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.
Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?
This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?
It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.
May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.
Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB
“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB
by Linda Rex
Lately this has been on my mind a lot—do I really believe God cares about that thing I’m wrestling with at the moment, whatever it may be? What do I really believe down to the core of my being about the kind of Person God is?
Intellectually I can say to myself, God is good and he loves me and he cares about the issue I’m having with my car tire, my teeth, or my finances—you name it. But when it comes down to it, how I act with regards to those things says pretty loudly what I really believe about God and his goodness towards me. The difficulties I run into in my day-to-day life and how I engage them demonstrate what’s going on in my heart and the depth of my faith and trust in the goodness of God.
As I grow older I find myself reflecting back on all the ways God has intervened in my life and circumstances to bring good out of evil and to redeem broken situations. He has protected me from certain disaster over and over again. He has provided for me when I did not deserve to be provided for. And he has placed loving, caring people in my life to demonstrate his love toward me and my family.
If I were to say God does not really care about what is going on in my life or about me personally, I would not be speaking with integrity. My experience over the years has been that he does care deeply about me and my dear ones, and is a faithful, compassionate, forgiving God. But I don’t always make decisions or live my life in the truth of that reality. Often I act as though this were not true.
In any area of life we can act as if God just doesn’t really care even though we believe he does care. We read stories in the Scriptures about people who do this very thing. They show our common humanity, our core sinful nature which Jesus came to deal with and to eradicate.
Jesus did come and demonstrated in a deeply significant way God cares about every detail in our lives, even to the point of sharing our own flesh and blood existence. Jesus did not hold himself aloof from any of our brokenness. He touched the leper to heal him. He defiled himself to call a dead man back to life. He lived our life and died our death.
When the untouchable woman touched his garments, he called her, “Daughter.” He did not reject her or condemn her. But rather, he met her in the place where she came to meet him, in her humiliation, her brokenness, her suffering and loneliness.
She must have believed something about the goodness of Jesus to get her to that place where she was willing to brave the crowds who had isolated her. Mark 5:27-28 says, “…after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind Him and touched His cloak. For she thought, ‘If I just touch His garments, I will get well.’” She acted as though this were true, making her way through all the people so she could just touch Jesus’ cloak, and indeed found in doing so, she was healed.
What’s interesting is it appears in this story as though she was hoping to get away without being noticed, to hide again in the crowds. But Jesus would not allow that. He insisted she be a full participant in his life and in her healing.
He cared about her healing, but also about the relational aspect of her life which was missing. Her rejection by others, her isolation, her loneliness, and her shame needed to come to an end. He made a point of connecting with her, of drawing her out, and of bringing her to the notice of those around her. And he encouraged her to be at peace—a peace which was such a far cry from what she had lived with during all the years she had sought healing from every source imaginable.
Obviously, she thought he didn’t care about those things otherwise she may have been more direct in her approach. So we find this woman acted on what she believed to be true about Jesus, but Jesus took her even farther than she expected to go. Jesus met her where she was and brought her to be where he was. He didn’t just heal her physically. He also healed her in many other ways.
We can learn from this and many other stories in the Scriptures about how we deal with our struggles with believing in the goodness and faithfulness of God. We may be questioning God’s love and faithfulness, and be unsure of God’s goodness. But we can still act as if God were a good God who loves us and wants what is best for us rather than acting as if he were not. It is our choice.
Sometimes God allows us to wrestle with this and we find ourselves having to act as if God really does care about the details of our life and our struggles when it feels as if he does not. When we continue to act as if God really does care about what is going on we may find our whole approach towards the difficulty changes. We may find Jesus meets us more than halfway, and carries us through a difficult time to the other side, while helping us to grow in faith, hope and love in the process.
We just need to remember while on the one hand God cares about what we care about, on the other hand, he is more concerned about our growth as his children into the fullness of who he created us to be. He is working to grow us up into the likeness of his Son, and struggles are a necessary part of this transformation. And he will not stop until he has accomplished what he set out to do—that is something we can count on.
Dear Abba, thank you for being a God we can trust and depend on. Thank you for your faithfulness and your tender loving care. Grant us the grace in every situation, no matter how significant or insignificant and no matter how difficult or easy it may be, to act as if you are the loving, caring, faithful God you really are, through Jesus our Lord and by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I am indeed concerned about you and what has been done to you in Egypt.’” Exodus 3:16 NASB
“And He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.’” Mk 5:34 NASB
by Linda Rex
If I were to summarize the programs currently available on my cable television, I would say that the majority have something to do with either crime and murder investigation, magic and the supernatural, or broken and confused relationships of some kind. If I work at it, I can occasionally find something uplifting and educational, but it seems that any more, movies rarely have community at their core.
Yesterday I was reading an article posted by a family member which showed that tests on mice indicate that the best antidote for drug addiction is healthy relationships with family and community, and meaningful things to do with one’s life. (See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html) This did not come as a surprise to me, since I’ve been told in the past as a parent that the best way to keep my kids off of drugs is to build a strong, loving relationship with them. There is something powerful and significant about relationships based on love and grace.
I believe that society’s current obsession with materialist consumerism, as James Torrance calls it, contributes to the prevalence of addictions in just about every form imaginable. We are preoccupied with taking care of our needs, wants and desires. If we are barely scraping by financially, we can begin to see the world through the lens of how we are going to take care of our needs—food on the table, gas for the car, paying our growing medical bills. Even if we are comfortable financially, we may often still struggle, because we see the world through the lens of desire, passion and loneliness.
In either situation, our focus is inward, toward ourselves. We are preoccupied with taking care of what we believe needs to be taken care of. Taking care of our needs is indeed an important thing to do, but the way we go about meeting those needs is significant. Too many people are trying to meet the needs of their body, soul and spirit on their own, without any faith, hope or love in their lives. So many of us are living as isolated human beings, without meaningful, loving relationships with others.
I saw this many times when I served doing intake at Greenhouse Ministries. When a person or family came in with catastrophic circumstances in their life, they were often at a place of dire need. Those who had some form of relational support, especially those who had a personal relationship with God and with a community of faith, would approach their circumstances with serious optimism and hope. They were just looking for a little help to get over the hump.
Others who had none of these things were often overcome by despair, desperation and could only think about getting their next meal or a place to stay. When asked about a relationship with God, they thought of it only in terms of making it to church, which for many of them would have been problematic, seeing that they probably would not have been warmly welcomed even if they had shown up at church on Sunday. It’s not hard to see how many medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol so that they don’t have to deal with the pain of loss, loneliness and despair.
I believe God is calling the church today to open up our hearts and doors to people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and cultures. He is calling us all back into loving, intimate relationships with him and with others—he’s calling us into Christian community. He never meant for any of us to go through the struggles of life alone.
When we seek first to build authentic, wholesome relationships with others that are centered around a common love and devotion to the God who made us and sent us his Son Jesus Christ and his Spirit of love, we will find that all the rest will fall into place in new ways.
The early church had many of the same struggles with poverty and need that we do today, and they met those needs through sharing and caring. It was that loving community which bore witness to the love and care of God for each and every one of us which he demonstrated in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. This is what is meant by the kingdom of God or universal church. It is a community of faith, hope and love centered in Jesus Christ.
We, as followers of Jesus Christ, have a lot of repenting to do, and a lot of growing as well. It is God’s love and grace given in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit which has been so transformational for us. We dare not try to keep it to ourselves, but rather must begin to open it wide to the world around us which is in such desperate longing for faith, hope and love expressed through relationships. To feed the hungry, visit the lonely and imprisoned—this is more than just meeting physical needs—it is meeting the deep hunger of the human heart for relationship with God and with others that we were created for. It is being truly human.
Thank you, Father, that you have given yourself to us in Jesus and through the Spirit, opening yourself up to us in a relationship of love and grace. Impart to us your heart of faith, hope and love, and pour out from us into others your Spirit so that they may join together with us in Christian community. Bind us together in love and grace. Through Jesus, our Lord and in your Spirit. Amen.
“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:31–33 NASB
by Linda Rex
When I walked into the business office one day, I was greeted by a wonderful floral fragrance. On the desk sat a beautiful bouquet of flowers. The lilies in the bouquet were filling the room with their pleasant scent.
We often associate lilies with Easter or with the passing of a loved one. Lilies remind us in times of death that there is always the hope of new life in Jesus. Lilies begin to bloom in the spring, and are often associated with the seasonal renewal of life. The winter season is when lilies go dormant, drawing their energy back into their bulbs. The cold soil hides the life of the lily until the warm spring sun awakens the bulb again to new life.
During the winter of our lives as our bodies begin to give way to stress and strain, we may feel that we are like the dormant lilies. We may feel lifeless and dull. We may have lost our energy and desire to do much of anything anymore. The aches and pains may overwhelm our desire to get up and face the day. Our loneliness or sadness may feel like a weight upon our soul. Like the lilies, we may withdraw into the cold bulb of our hearts or our room and wish to be just left alone.
God says in these times he will be like the dew to us so that we will blossom like a lily. To find renewal, an ability to keep going in the tough times, the strength to carry on one more day, we go to Jesus. He understands our suffering and our struggles because he bore them in person, in human flesh, just as we do. He will listen to our heart’s cry when we cannot pray, and comfort our spirits when we are overcome with sorrow.
Jesus is the sunlight that melts away the coldness of sorrow and loneliness. He is the friend who is closer than a brother. He comes near and warms us with his love and grace. When we turn to him and bask in the sunlight of his love, we find renewal and strength to face each new day. In the light of his presence, we find encouragement and comfort. In Christ, we find within ourselves the strength and wisdom to share his Light with others so they might be encouraged and comforted as well. Like the spring lilies we will blossom, and the fresh fragrance of God’s love will begin to spread to all those around us.
Lord, thank you for the beautiful lilies of the field. They remind us of your great love that is endless and faithful. Thank you, that in Christ, we may find the comfort, strength and encouragement that enables us to begin again each new day. Please grant that today we like the lilies of the field, will blossom and share the fragrance of your love with all those about us. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
“I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily.” Ho 14:5 (NIV)