He is Among Us
By Linda Rex
December 13, 2020, ADVENT | JOY—As I was sitting and writing this blog today, I couldn’t help but gaze through the window at the dark, gloomy sky. The cold, damp grayness of this winter day is a good picture of what so many are experiencing right now in the midst of the pandemic and election limbo. Many of us have experienced 2020 as a year which brought us to the brink of disaster, and for some—tipped us on over into a pit of darkness, depression, and even despair.
Even as we wonder how much deeper we will go into this pit before things get better, we find ourselves moving on into Advent. We’ve celebrated hope and peace, and now we come upon a Sunday when we ponder the miracle of joy. How can one possibly feel any joy in the middle of all we are going through? How can God expect us to find joy when everything we are facing gives us anything but joy?
The spiritual gift of joy is something which isn’t based upon our circumstances. That feeling of happiness or gladness which is induced by positive, enjoyable circumstances and experiences is not the same as the joy that is spoken of by the apostle Paul. When he says to us, “Rejoice always,” it’s not because he is insane or unfeeling. It is because joy’s roots go much deeper than the everyday situations of life. It is God’s will that we always rejoice—he wants us to have a deeper inner joy which will carry us through the most difficult times of our lives, enabling us to bear up under unbearable struggles and losses.
One of the scriptures for this Sunday is Psalm 126. In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. | He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, | Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (NASB). Here we have a picture of a farmer who is weeping while he is spreading seed on the ground in the spring; but when the wheat is harvested, he shouts with the joy of it all.
Understand that the road Jesus, the Son of God, took for our salvation took him through death to resurrection. He was the Seed promised to Adam and Eve and then to Abraham as a solution for the evil, sin, and death we brought into this world. He was buried in the grave like a seed, but when he rose, like a fruit-bearing wheat stalk from the ground, he brought all humanity forth into new life. The author of Hebrews said that “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). Notice that Jesus endured all of the suffering of the cross “for the joy set before Him.” In Christ, God is harvesting many souls—something that brings him great joy even though it cost him a great deal in the suffering and death of his Son.
Jesus described his mission as the One anointed by the Holy Spirit using the prophetic word of Isaiah 61:1–2a: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, | Because the LORD has anointed me | To bring good news to the afflicted; | He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, | To proclaim liberty to captives | And freedom to prisoners; | To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD…” (Lk. 4:18-19 NASB) This passage in Isaiah goes on to describe the work of the Messiah in bringing about redemption to his creation. The purpose of the Word, the Son of God, coming into our humanity that we celebrate at Christmastime is to bring humanity out of the deep dark hole of evil, sin, and death in which we placed ourselves. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings all of us as we trust in him into a new place where we find healing, hope, freedom, and transformation.
In verse 10, Isaiah goes on to say, “I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, | My soul will exult in my God; | For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, | He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, | As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, | And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (NASB). What Isaiah was describing was the day when God in Christ would do for us what we could not do—save us, bring us into right relationship with himself and one another.
This is why the apostle Paul so often uses the language of taking of old garments and putting on new clothing when speaking of the new life we have in Christ. God has already done for you and me all that is needed for our healing and renewal in giving us his Son for our salvation and sending his Spirit for our regeneration. Now we simply, by the Spirit, have to put on Christ the way in which a couple gets dressed up in a tux and gown for a wedding. We turn away from ourselves and our own way to doing things and our own ability to save ourselves, and we turn to Jesus Christ in faith.
This is why it is possible to rejoice in the midst of difficult and painful times. There is an underlying assurance that no matter what may happen, we are held. Christ has come, he is present by the Spirit, and he will come again, to do what only he can do in our situation. However bad it may get, we have the assurance that Christ is present with us and is standing in our place willing to do whatever is needed to carry us through to the other side. We simply need to trust him and continue to pray, to give thanks and to rejoice.
There is a story which children are often taught in Sunday school which comes to my mind in regards to this. It is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These three young Jewish men had been chosen to serve the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar while Judah was exiled to his kingdom. One day some of the Chaldeans told the king that these men refused to bow to the new idol the king had set up and they deserved to be thrown into the furnace. Now the king liked these men and he tried to talk them into simply bowing down to the idol so they wouldn’t die. Well, they chose not to, telling the king that God would save them, and even if God didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to another God but the God of Israel.
What captures my attention so often in this story is that God didn’t keep the men from being thrown in the fire. In fact, the king made the fire in the furnace seven times hotter before having them thrown in. And the fire was so hot that the people throwing in the men died. This is when the story becomes supernatural—when the king looked into the flames, he saw four men walking around, the three who had been tied up and thrown in, and another who looked like “a son of the gods.” The king finally called all of them to come out of the furnace. The three men did and there was no evidence on their bodies that they had ever been in the flames.
I hope you are grasping the point I am trying to make. We have to place our faith beyond our own ability to help ourselves and the ability of others or our government to help us, and to simply place our faith in the God who has done everything in Christ by the Spirit which is needed for us to be saved. This is the God who came into the flames of our human existence to walk and talk with us, and to bring us out with him into new life. Our joy in the midst of our struggles, suffering, and loss is based in the reality that God will bring us out of them to the other side, and that even if he doesn’t rescue us, he will be with us as we go through whatever may be required of us. We are not alone—he is Immanuel, “God with us” now and forever.
This is our hope, our peace, and it is also our joy. Whatever may happen, we are not alone. God is with us, working things out for our best and caring for us no matter how intense the flames of trial and struggle we are experiencing may get. God in Christ holds us. We trust in him, allowing his Spirit to dwell richly in our hearts, giving us the assurance that he is near, providing the guidance and direction we need, and reminding us of his promise of life eternal when this life is over.
Our ability to “rejoice always” is found in Christ’s joy, in his personal presence in us and with us by the Spirit, as we go through every circumstance of life. As we keep our eyes on the heavenly realities, on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, walking with us in the flames, we will be filled with an unexplainable joy that is grounded in the presence and person of God himself.
Holy Father, thank you for holding us in the midst of all our struggles and suffering. Thank you, Jesus, for being ever present by your Spirit and for filling our hearts with your joy. Enable us to rejoice always, remain constant in prayer, and be grateful in every circumstance, as we trust in you now and forever. In your name, we pray, amen.
“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 NASB
Walking Through the Valley
By Linda Rex
Life never ceases to amaze me with it’s twists and turns, and unexpected movements. It is rare that my life has been on an even keel–there’s always something at work in it bringing disruption, or concern, or just adjustment.
Sometimes the difficulty is a long-term illness which ends in death. Its timing may or may not be predictable, but death is the only possible outcome in this life. During a long-term terminal illness the grieving process very often occurs before the death, along with some grieving after. Very often death is seen as a release from suffering, and a blessing to both the loved one and the caring family.
Death was never meant to be a part of the human condition. We were created for life, the life Jesus described by Jesus as knowing the Father and him whom he sent, his Son Jesus Christ. This is life in loving relationship, an interpenetrating oneness of equal yet distinct persons.
Separation, division, or loss of relationship was never intended to be a part our relationship with God or each other. But it is, because of our choice to turn away from the intimate relationship with God we were created for. At Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the tree if the knowledge of good and evil, sin and death entered our human existence. We stubbornly embraced a twisted view of God and who we are, as excluded from relationship with him and in broken relationship with one another. Since then, our human existence has never been the same.
However we may feel about what is written in the Bible in regards to death, we are–no matter what we believe about the afterlife–faced with its reality at some point. Death, and the separation from one another which comes with it, brings heartache and grief. This is because something has occurred which we were not meant to have to experience.
But this need not be a bad thing. Experiences such as these have been redeemed by God in and through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. God can take these experiences and use them to create stronger bonds between us and him, and between us and others.
In Christ not only are we bound to God forever in Christ’s perfected humanity (hypostatic union), but by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, we participate in his perfect union with our Abba by the Spirit. It is in Christ that we are bound together with one another in spiritual community. It is also true that the Spirit is always at work creating community, often in forms we don’t recognize because they may not have any religious trappings.
Family is meant to be a spiritual community which reflects the nature of God as revealed in Christ. When the Spirit is at work in a family, the relationships reflect the inner relations of the Triune God, where there is harmony, humility, mutual submission, and outgoing love. There is a pouring out from and receiving from one another–an endless movement of gracious love which defines God’s very nature as love.
God has always lived in this way, and this is the way of being we were created for, which we lost, but which Christ restored to us in his saving work. This means when we lose someone dear to us through the momentary separation which is death, the best thing to offer the grieving one is loving, gracious relationship. An unconditional relationship–listening, affirming, accepting, and just being present–are critical and essential gifts to offer someone who has lost a dear one.
This means we don’t have to come up with the right thing to say or do, but rather, in the Spirit, we can just be present in Christ with them in the moment. We can remind them they are not alone in their pain, for whatever Satan or our human brokenness has done to attempt to separate us from God or one another has ultimately failed. In Christ we are forever held in the center of God’s love and life. God knows, understands, and participates with us in our loss, suffering and pain. We are not alone.
We have the assurance that there is one relationship which, having been established in Christ, and being brought into reality in individual lives by the Spirit, we will never he separated from. Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ. We are loved simply because we are, and we are his.
And as we face having to redraw the plans of our lives due to a loved ones death, we can be assured that we need not do this alone. Our life is not over–God’s mercies are new every morning and he has new plans for our life which will bring us joy and fulfillment as we participate with Christ in what he has for us.
Finding a new normal is a process which may take years–but there is no set agenda to it. Part of the process may include anger, depression, and denial. The grief may ebb and flow like the ocean’s tide, taking us sometimes by storm or sneaking up on us when we least expect it.
But in the midst of it all, we can be assured we are never alone. We as friends and family of those who have lost a loved one can offer our faithful presence and understanding, with a listening ear and comforting shoulder to cry on. And we can point them to their loving and faithful God who has promised to never leave or forsake them.
Indeed, in Christ, death has been defeated. It has lost its power. And we share in this victory over sin and death as we offer one another comfort, unconditional love, and assurance of faithful relationship in the midst of death and other losses. Just as God in Christ by the Spirit ministers his love and grace to those who grieve, we also share in that ministry to those near and dear to us who grieve.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and grace. Thank you that we can count on you to be with us and to carry us through our losses and suffering. Enable us to bear one another’s burdens when they become too great to be borne alone. Empower us to offer hope, comfort, and faithful relationship to those who have lost loved ones. We trust this is all possible through Jesus our Lord by your Spirit. Amen.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 NASB
Tomorrow Still Comes
By Linda Rex
This morning my pastor friend Carrie and I were driving up I-65 as the sun was coming up. As the sky turned glorious colors of gold, orange and blue streaked with purple and gray clouds, I felt God’s presence and peace in the wonder of a new day dawning.
I thought about the conversations I had had recently with Mom when we talked about what it would be like to live in the new world God has for us beyond death. We talked about how Mom would be able to garden to her heart’s content and not have to worry about the weather and the weeds.
For me, saying goodbye to her these past few days was so much like saying, “See you in the morning!” There is the momentary sense of the loss of immediate companionship. But then there is this delightful sense of expectancy, as the mind and heart begin to look forward to a renewal of the relationship and the opportunity to spend more time together doing things we love.
There is an assurance of a future time when we will share sweet companionship together again. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he said that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Indeed, we have a great hope through Jesus Christ. He has purchased eternity for us, establishing a new humanity through his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
But what about the loss? Doesn’t it hurt?
Yes, actually it does. And how much it hurts and how we deal with that hurt is unique to each of us. For we each grieve our losses and experience our relationships in our own particular ways. Grief is not a one-size-fits-all process.
And how our losses occur and what those losses actually are in our lives is specific to each person in each situation. That means that for some people grieving a significant loss may be a simple and easy process, where others may grieve in a very complex and difficult way because of grief over unresolved losses in the past, or because of complications in the relationship in the past. To compare oneself to another person in how we are affected by our losses is not a wise thing to do.
Sometimes complications in our lives hinder the grieving process. There may be difficult circumstances surrounding our loss of a dear one that may prevent us from being able to deal with our feelings about the loss right away. It may be much later—days or weeks or even years—before we are able to come to the place where we can face the truth of the pain and begin to allow ourselves to feel it, grieve our loss and begin to heal.
As friends and families of those who have experienced a great loss, it is important for us not to be afraid to engage the suffering one in a healthy relationship of comfort, compassion and companionship. What a person who is grieving needs is not instruction, criticism or indifference. The one who has suffered a loss needs to know that they are loved, and that others are sharing in their grief and loss with them. It is important to come alongside them and to offer them our love and support, even if it means just sitting silently with them in the midst of their pain.
I have been very blessed to have family and friends join me and my children in the midst of our loss. I am grateful God brought my mother and me back together after life had taken us away from each other. He redeemed the difficult situations in our home and now I have happy memories to carry with me until I see Mom again. There is much reason for gratitude in the midst of this loss.
So rather than having a great sorrow about losing Mom, right now I am feeling comfort and peace. Perhaps that will change later when life slows down and I can truly grieve the loss of the mother who invested so much in my life. Meanwhile I am looking forward to that new morning when the sky will be even more glorious than anything I saw today. May it come soon!
Heavenly Dad, I am grateful that we are not alone in the midst of our losses, but we have you and each other to carry us through. Thank you that in the Spirit, you and Jesus join with us in our suffering, offering us comfort, peace and hope. Lord, lift us up. Enable us to find and live out the new life you have in mind for us as we let go of the past and our loved ones, and move on into the future. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” 1 Corinthians 15:22 NASB