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
By Linda Rex
JOY—Who is Jesus to you? At this time of year, we often focus on an infant, born in Bethlehem, who was placed in a manger. The Christmas story can seem like a sentimental fairy tale which really has no application to real life. How is does any of this apply to those of us who are struggling to find the strength to go through another day, to keep from drowning in sorrow and grief?
This sweet child in reality came into a world under Roman rule which was plagued by unrest and discontent. Jesus Christ was born in a Jewish culture which over the years had mixed with Greek Hellenism, and had substituted a historical religious faith with one based on political expediency, money and power, and faithfulness to a human standard and the seeking approval and applause of others.
The circumstances of this infant’s birth illustrate the difficulties which arise when a couple struggles to obey God’s call upon their lives while living in the midst of an often violent and officially pagan culture. It seems that often their obedience to God was intertwined with their necessary obedience to the government. Joseph found he had to go to Bethlehem, to the region of his forefathers, because of a Roman census. But in doing so, he fulfilled the prophetic word about the Messiah. The family was told they needed to flee the wrath of the king and go to Egypt, and it turns out this was prophetically exactly where they needed to be to fulfill Scripture.
We are often so immersed in our culture, our circumstances, and our experiences, that we can easily believe God is uninterested, uninvolved, and indifferent to our struggles and suffering. We feel as though we ourselves cannot change anything, or that we must bring about change.
In reality, God is the one who must bring about real, lasting change. We forget that whatever we do if it is not founded in God himself, has no enduring value. What this means is that all which God created from nothing was going to return to nothing apart from the entrance of God himself into creation to redeem, restore, and renew it.
God worked even from before the beginning of this cosmos to ensure that what he made would endure and fulfill the purposes for which it was created. This meant orchestrating different events, working with and through different people and patiently enduring their failures, stubborn willfulness, and disobedience. And then, when the time was exactly right, when all was prepared, when the world and the Jewish people were prepared to give birth to the Messiah, the Word took on our human flesh.
The human story is one filled with struggle, pain, suffering, and death. But it is also filled with joy—joy in the midst of sorrow, grief, and dark nights. There is great joy expressed in the Scriptures by those who experience God intervening in their difficult circumstances and saving them in impossible situations. It seems that in reality, our Lord is a victorious warrior who loves to rejoice over us as we experience his love and grace in the midst of our darkness, hopelessness, and despair.
On that dark night when Jesus was born, the shepherds saw and heard the angels share the wonder and joy of God over his Son’s birth. Our heavenly Father had waited and prepared for a long time for this special event—it was a wonderful, joyous occasion which he knew would change things forever. He knew that in giving his one unique Son, he would in time have many other adopted sons and daughters as his beloved children. And this would bring him even greater joy.
Advent is a great opportunity to reflect on our need to wait on God—to learn to wait as God waits. We wait, not apathetically, but intentionally, working to prepare the ground for the planting of the Word of God. John the Baptist came to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah. He had a significant role, for he was to testify that this person who he baptized and who received the Holy Spirit in a special way was indeed the Messiah.
His words seem harsh to us—he was critical of the religious and civic leaders, and called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. But he never pointed to himself—he always pointed away—to the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus would transform our humanity in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and would send the Spirit so that each and every person could participate in that true renewal and transformation he had forged for them.
Today we wait for the return of Christ, the second Advent, in the same way. We prepare our hearts and our lives by removing the weeds of sin, self, and Satan through repentance and allow the seed of God’s Word to penetrate into the core of our being. We receive the gift of God’s indwelling Christ, the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, and we walk in the Spirit day by day. We daily testify to the truth of who Jesus Christ is—our Savior and Messiah, the Redeemer, the One who baptizes with Holy Spirit and fire.
We testify to the reality that Jesus Christ, beyond his entrance into this world as a tiny infant, is our divine warrior who went into battle on our behalf. He left behind all the glories and privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity. And he fought in hand-to-hand combat against sin, evil, Satan, and even death. His weapons of warfare involved submission, humility, and simplicity, and the ultimate weapon—death and resurrection. And he won. He rose victorious, ascending to his Father, carrying all of humanity into his Abba’s presence.
What Advent and the birth of Jesus mean for us today is that in the midst of darkness, loss, sin, evil, and even death, we can have joy, real deep joy. This joy reaches beyond our human experiences into the true spiritual realities where we are held in Christ in the presence of Abba by the Spirit. There is hope, peace, joy, and love in the presence of Abba, and it is all ours—we are fully victorious in Jesus Christ. Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God in Christ. We, even on a dark and gloomy night, can gaze upon the face of the divine Son and rejoice, because he is a victorious warrior!
Thank you, Abba, for the precious gift of your Son. Thank you for not leaving us in our darkness, pain, and sorrow, but for lifting us up and giving us the victory over evil, sin, Satan, and death in Jesus. Holy Spirit, bring us close and enable us to see clearly the face of the Father in the face of his Son, so that we can fully participate in the divine love and life Jesus has created for us. Abba, fill our hearts overflowing with your joy, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD your God is in your midst,
A victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy,
He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.” Zeph. 3:17 NASB
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