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
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit our God-concepts are at their best flawed and broken. We see God through the lenses of our past experiences, the misguided teachings we have embraced, and the hurt feelings we harbor toward others. These lenses may create within us a sense of anxiety and fear toward God when we suspect our behavior doesn’t measure up with what we believe God wants it to be.
What we believe about who God is and who we are in relationship with him often impacts us more than we realize. It becomes the underlying frame by which we measure ourselves and others, and we anticipate a just God giving us or others what is deserved—punishment, damnation, and hell.
We seem to set limits on what God will and can do in this world, whether now or in the future. We believe God is limited by a person’s sin in that God must punish a person for their evil thoughts and behavior, and their depravity. For God to not punish a person in this life or in the next, seems to us to be unjust or at the least, unfair, and certainly not something God would do.
But at the same time, isn’t this the reason Jesus Christ came? Isn’t this the reason Christ took on our humanity, lived the perfected life which is to be ours, and died our death in our place? Didn’t he take upon himself the punishment we all deserve? Then why must a person bear that punishment now or in the future? Why must they get what they deserve when it is God’s heart and will they get what they don’t deserve?
Yes, we are facing the whole issue of participation—of each and every person participating in the perfected life created for them in Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and given to them in the Person and power of the Holy Spirit. This brings into the picture the critical issue of faith. What does a person believe about who God is, who they are, and who Christ is for them personally? This must be answered by each and every human being.
We believe God is limited by death in that God must save a person now before they die, or they are lost for all eternity. For God to work with someone beyond death is unthinkable, because death is the end—now is the time of salvation. A person must come to Christ now, or all is lost. Death in this case, is the winner.
But even the just, fair, holy God confesses in and through his Son Jesus Christ that these limits no longer exist. Death has been conquered by life in Christ Jesus. Salvation has been worked out in him for each and every human being. What they do with that is the question we must all wrestle with. But must this wrestling be completed before death? Or can it continue beyond death into the place where this person encounters the One who stood in their stead and on their behalf, and sees the true realities for the first time in his or her existence?
Such questions may make us very uncomfortable. These questions may even anger us. But I believe that, in wrestling with them, we are brought face to face with the current state of our own heart. We need to ask ourselves, why does this make us uncomfortable? Why does this anger us? Is there someone in our life or in our past whom we believe needs to experience the just deserts of their unbelief and disobedience? Is there someone in our life we feel does not deserve to be forgiven and to be embraced by God and given eternal life?
Whether we want to admit it or not, we like to determine for God whom he can and cannot welcome into his eternal embrace. We’re the ones who feel it is so important that the damnation, and ever-burning fire be a literal reality for every person who denies Christ. Whereas God’s heart is to make sure no human being is left out of his eternal embrace. God’s will is that every human being experience the blessed and glorious life held in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit—the beautiful life in the presence of the true Light which enlightens every person.
And God is free to do this. His unlimited freedom to be as he really is and to do as he really does as our loving, gracious God, is what drives his passion to see that every human being shares in and is held in his loving embrace. God’s freedom to be as he truly is and to do what he purposes in his heart of overflowing love and grace, is not only beyond our comprehension, but also beyond the ability of any of us to resist.
The majesty of God’s love, though, also allows you and me the freedom to resist all of that which God pours out for us on our behalf. The question of whether or not we trust in Christ for salvation is settled on God’s side—but is still in abeyance on our side. Christ stepped up as God in human flesh, and did it on our behalf—he stood in our place. He said “Yes” to Abba in the place of our “No”. But there is still a work God is doing in and through the Holy Spirit to make Christ’s “Yes” a reality for each and every person in their own being and doing.
And this is where the whole issue of faith becomes critical. What is your faith in? Is it in your ability to make sure you say the right words, or do the right things? Is your faith in being a member of the “only” church who believes the correct doctrine? What are you counting on when you come face to face with the living Lord?
Ultimately, it will come down to what Jesus emphasized over and over during his ministry here on earth: It is not about what you have, what you’ve done or not done, or what others believe about what you’ve done or not done. It all boils down to putting your trust outside of yourself, and outside of anything in your life, and solely trusting in the grace of God demonstrated to us and given to us in his Son Jesus Christ.
In embracing Jesus Christ, we find we are embraced by the living God himself, and filled with his very presence by his blessed Spirit. In turning from ourselves to Christ, we discover God has been turned toward us the whole time. He never did leave us or forsake us, but has been drawing us steadily into his love and life, that perfected existence we were created for from before time began.
And in surrendering our life, our future, our will, and our very significance to Jesus Christ, we find our true life, a blessed hope, and a Divine Companionship which we will enjoy for all eternity. And this is what it means when Jesus says repent and believe, be baptized, and receive the gift of God Spirit.
This is what God meant for each and every one of us from the beginning. This is the whole reason Christ came, and the whole purpose for all God has done since he first got the idea to create human creatures who could and would share his life and love. We are held in his embrace, whether we like or not, whether we want to be held or not. All he wants is for us to turn around and embrace him as he is embracing us. So why wait? Why not do it right now?
Dear Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Today, this day, I turn away from my dependence upon anything or anyone but you, God, and I turn towards you. I embrace you, and your ways, and your blessed Spirit, and what your Son has done in my stead and on my behalf in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. I believe—Lord, please free me from my unbelief. Enable me to trust fully in you, and you alone, in every situation of life, no matter how hard things may get. Fill me afresh with your Spirit—make me new. My life is in you, through Jesus my Lord, and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” Revelation 22:12-14 NASB
“‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)” Revelation 19:6b-8 NASB
by Linda Rex
Is it possible for a human to do what only God can do?
What a question! But what if a person does not believe there is a God and believes it’s all up to us as humans to save ourselves? What if we do have to rescue ourselves from this mess we’ve created and there is no help to be expected from any other place?
I suppose too, if a person did perhaps believe there was a God, but believed this God was indifferent or condemning, we would still be in a very difficult position. After all, it has been our choices as humans which have brought us to the place we are facing ecological disaster and economic, immigration, racial, cultural issues—you name it, we are facing it, and it’s due to our decision to do things the way we see fit.
But it is interesting how people have responded during this election season to the question of who should lead our country. It seems on the one hand many people were happy to give the candidates the benefit of the doubt, but at the same time their supporters are expecting them to solve all the issues which face the American people. But can any human being actually do that?
Others are adamant we are just getting what we deserve as Americans because of our decadence, hedonism and greed. So they are assuming God is executing his judgment on our nation because of our sinfulness. But is that really the way God works? What kind God would act like that?
I was reading an article this morning which explained all the changes the president-elect promised to make once he was elected. In the article, it explained how difficult it would be to do any of these things due to the checks and balances in our government, the entrenched bureaucracy and not to mention the immense baggage created by all the leaders before him. No matter which person would have been elected, he or she would have faced this same problem, and would have struggled to bring about lasting change.
The thing is, all any human leader can hope to do is to temporarily alter the physical circumstances of the people in the nation he or she is leading. Bringing about real change requires so much more than just electing a human being to an office in a human government. Giving someone the position, and I suppose even the power, to lead and govern others does not guarantee all of the problems people are facing will be solved.
What is missing from this whole discussion, I believe, is some true introspection about the human heart and mind. Caught in our own humanity, we are blind to the spiritual realities. The best way to bring about change in a nation like ours is to begin with an internal change within ourselves. We need to come to the place in which we realize we are powerless to change and heal what needs to be changed and healed. We need to acknowledge the reality we are broken humans who cannot properly and effectively govern ourselves, much less others.
As long as we seek to be self-sustaining and self-governing, we end up in the same place. Our best efforts to govern ourselves and to discipline our human flesh keep bringing us to the place we are dependent or co-dependent when we seek to be independent. This is because we are missing the point of the whole process which is to live interdependently with God and each other in a relationship of love and grace. We need to understand we are only who we are because there is One Who is above and beyond us and Who has included us in his life and love.
It’s not about creating more rules or getting a bigger police group to enforce those rules. It’s not about punishing people whose race, religion, culture, life choices and life styles differ from our assumptions of what is good and what is evil. It’s about an internal transformation which happened over 2000 years ago in spite of us—a heart transplant given to every human being. Will we live in the truth of that new heart which was given us—the true spiritual reality of our identity as children who are persons in the divine Persons?
The real question is how can we? And that is a really good question—because we cannot. We need to realize we are the humans here, not the God. We need our Messiah to come even now. We need rescued. We need saved. But how? If Jesus isn’t going to return tomorrow, how are we able to go forward into an uncertain and maybe even dangerous future?
See, the thing is, we live as though we and God are separate. We think and act as though Jesus is off somewhere and we need him to come here to fix things. But that is not the case. It is my personal testimony, and the testimony of many others, that God is present here and now in you and in me, in us and among us by his Holy Spirit. He is at work in every situation, and acutely aware of every fear, every bit of guilt and shame which plagues us. Jesus is present, real and near to us—speaking to us his words of hope, encouragement and guidance to our hearts and minds.
We see people interceding for the oppressed and the needy, providing for the hungry, and healing the sick—God is at work in this world. He doesn’t always work the way we think he should work—after all, his perspective is eternal not temporal. But he is busy tending the garden, pulling weeds, tying up vines and trimming off branches, and is working in and through human beings in the process.
Yes, there is a lot more work to be done—so let’s get in the dance and start dancing! As we respond in faith to God’s Word to us in Christ and the inner promptings of the Spirit, we will find our world and ourselves being healed and transformed. We will begin to have a vision of life beyond this life, being able to accept the reality this world is passing away and our true life is waiting for us beyond the grave.
It is our response to the leadership of the Spirit which is the issue here rather than our need to find the perfect president for our country. Are we willing to trust God to do what we as humans cannot and have not done to heal our land and to heal us as human beings? Perhaps we cannot—but that’s okay. Because it is not our faith which saves us, it is the faith of the Faithful One Who did save us, Who is working to save us right now, and Who will save us in the future. He will finish what he has begun in us—growing us up into the fullness of our Christlikeness, the image of God we were created to reflect, as we respond to him with humility and love in gratitude.
Lord, we acknowledge we cannot save ourselves, we cannot keep ourselves safe, we cannot govern ourselves as we ought. We hurt and disrespect, abuse and misuse, ourselves, our earth and each other. Forgive us, Lord, and grant we may live according to the truth of our being and begin to reflect your image as we ought, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord while I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; Who keeps faith forever; Who executes justice for the oppressed; Who gives food to the hungry. the Lord sets the prisoners free. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord raises up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous; the Lord protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, but He thwarts the way of the wicked. The Lord will reign forever, Your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” Ps 146:1–10 NASB