By Linda Rex
Many years ago, I attended a mega church for a while. It was located a little distance from me but provided some important counseling resources which were not available in my neighborhood, nor with the other church I normally attended.
One of the first things I noticed about this church was that nearly every car in the parking lot was only two to three years old and in good condition. I was a little embarrassed to have to park my old clunker next to the shiny minivans and SUV’s, but I did it anyway. As I walked inside the building, the people around me seemed friendly, though preoccupied. They were good folks, and I found it quite easy to melt into the crowd and not have to engage anyone in conversation.
After a few weeks, I became more and more aware of the subtle difference in financial status between me and the other people in the church. Most of the conversations between the people in the study group I joined involved decisions about a second or third car, a summer home, or a long vacation in Hawaii. I did not feel able to contribute anything to these conversations because I was still wondering how on minimum pay I would handle all the bills I had coming due in the next week. It was rather awkward for me, but I was there to study the Word of God with fellow believers, not to wrestle with financial inequities. So I let it go.
As the years have passed I have on occasion experienced more of this disparity between the wealthy church, and the broken community within and without the church who needs helped and healed. I have met and grown to love some pretty amazing people for whom the distress of suffering financially or physically is a foreign concept, or one they have experienced only briefly in their lives.
These people are compassionate and generous, but they can sometimes be completely out of touch with the everyday struggles of the needy. It’s not that they don’t care or are indifferent, but that it’s either not a part of their everyday experience, or they feel it would not be genuinely helpful for them to take on responsibilities which belong to the people who are struggling. And they have a valid point.
The culture we live in today often looks perplexedly at the Christian church, wondering why we are not more helpful to those who are suffering. I have no doubt there is room for us to grow in our generosity and helpfulness towards the poor and needy. But it may be that those who are being critical of us have a skewed view of what it means to have life and to have it abundantly. In other words, it’s possible we value different things than they do.
Historically the church understood that divine abundance doesn’t necessarily involve monetary wealth. The kind of abundance Jesus spoke of has a whole lot more to do with the generous outflowing of love and grace from the God who made us and redeemed us than with physical wealth, popularity, and material goods. True abundance involves growing in our relationship with the God who made us and growing in Christlikeness, which involves struggle and sometimes suffering. It involves our participation in a spiritual community which has Christ at the center.
Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor is it a sin to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood where everyone has large homes, big yards, and a swimming pool in the backyard. These blessings provide ample opportunities which would not exist otherwise, and include their own unique set of dangers and temptations. There are benefits and potholes in every walk of life.
Throughout the centuries the church as a whole and individually has at times fallen prey to the subtle deceit of greed in all of its forms. The financial well-being of churches and their leaders sometimes preempts the care of the poor and needy. The health-and-wealth gospel distorts the truth about the Word of God, equating financial and material success and abundance with proof of goodness, success, and godliness. It’s easy for well-blessed Christians to slide into a place of spiritual apathy or an unconscious desire for more and more when all their needs are supplied and they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Because of all this, those who are critical of Christians have been well-supplied with ammunition to find fault with us.
But the calling to the Christian church, whether wealthy or poor, still is to preach the gospel to those we encounter on the roads of life. We are to share with others the good news about Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, or in what situation we may find them.
In some ways it can seem easy to preach a meaningful gospel to someone who is starving or homeless. We can offer them what they are needing at the moment and then tell them about Jesus and his love for them. I would imagine it must be much easier to see God’s love in a real way when you are in real trouble and someone offers you love and grace in the midst of it.
It also seems to be much more difficult to preach the gospel and be heard by those who really have no need for God in their lives. When a person is reasonably content with their life, and is able to handle everything they face day by day, God is extraneous to them. In their lives, he really serves no purpose except perhaps to limit them in some way. Or their faith may just be something that is part of their family heritage and really has no personal impact upon their lives.
This is why as I see the material abundance in this country and encounter financially successful people in every walk of life, the question arises in my mind: How in the world do you share the gospel with people who feel no need for it? What do you offer to those who believe they already have all they need or can earn enough to supply it themselves? What if these people are much more generous to the needy and poor than those worshipping in your own church down the street? Why should they care about becoming a Christian when Jesus or those who represent him seem indifferent to them, as well as to those who are suffering or doing without?
The gospel we need to tell must offer something much deeper than just relief from suffering or freedom from sin. The gospel must touch at the core of our humanity. We need to help people personally encounter in Jesus Christ the amazing God who created us and sustains us and who calls us into relationship with himself.
The gospel we offer has great power. It is such good news! In Jesus Christ, we are given the real presence of God in our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and raising us to new life, a life which is at this moment hidden with Christ in God and offered to us right now in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely, there is a deep hunger hidden somewhere in the human heart, longing to hear this good news, no matter how distracted a person may be by their abundance and blessings.
And so, we pray. We serve. We love. We pray and care for each and every person we meet, helping them see God is offering them the same gift which was given to us. And we trust in God’s good time, he will enable them to encounter the truth of their need for him, and the wonder of his precious gift of life in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and for all the abundant blessings we receive from you. Thank you for the gift of both prosperity and poverty, for in the midst of each of these we can come to know you and learn to trust you more. May we always be on guard against greed and indifference, and freely share with others all you have provided for us, through Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 NASB
“For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 NASB
By Linda Rex
A cedar tree stands in the yard behind my neighbor’s house. Its dark green pungent branches droop a little and sway gently in the breeze. Every day that tree stands in the same place, allowing the wind to blow its boughs back and forth. The tree never seems to tire of its simple task of just being present, breathing in the carbon dioxide and breathing out the oxygen we need to survive.
In fact, as I sit here in my flimsy patio chair, the tree doesn’t seem to express any anxiety or concern about whether or not it’s doing a good job, or if it’s producing enough oxygen each day. Granted, its ability to grow to its full height and expand to its full breadth has been limited by the neighboring deciduous trees. But this doesn’t hinder the cedar from just being what it is—a cedar tree—and from doing the one simple thing it was created for—being a living, breathing contributor to the well-being of the planet, a genuine participant in God’s gracious daily provision for his living creatures.
The cedar tree seems oblivious to my neighbor talking to her plants and her spouse. It seems indifferent to my gaze as I stare and it and wonder which side of the fence it is located on. It just continues to be who it is, day in and day out, rain or shine.
I am a little jealous of the cedar tree. It doesn’t have to worry about whether it can pay the bills this month, or whether the car tires will hold out for another month or two. The tree doesn’t really have any concerns, for it doesn’t have a memory of the past, nor does it have any concept of its future. It doesn’t even know it could be cut down tomorrow—that’s not even on its radar. It’s just living right now, being who it is, doing what it’s doing in this particular moment.
The tree has this incredible capacity to just rest in Jesus. Its existence is totally dependent upon the God who made it and who supplies its daily soil, water, air, and light. And that’s okay. That’s all it needs. It doesn’t need or even know to ask for anything more.
It does me good to slow down to the pace of the cedar tree, and to silence my mind of all the myriad thoughts and concerns which consume my inner world. How hard can it be to take an hour and just be? What’s it like to just rest in the One who made me and redeems me, and to let that resting be enough in and of itself?
Five seconds into my time of silence I find this concern and that issue popping up in my thoughts. “Okay, Lord,” I think, “I’ll give these things to you for a bit. I can deal with them later.” And I can be silent again. But it’s a wrestling match with my inner self.
Silence as a spiritual discipline, as coming into God’s presence and opening ourselves up to his Spirit’s inner work, can be a real challenge for us. We often find reasons to stay too busy to stop and be silent. We know that to do so would be to open ourselves up to the possibility of having to deal with our problems, losses, or our faults. Quieting ourselves in the presence of the Living Lord may mean we have to stop running away from ourselves and the harm we have done or are doing to ourselves or others.
Yet, silence as a spiritual discipline is a real opportunity to be filled with presence and power of God in a new way. It creates an inner space for the Spirit to enable us to listen to our Abba’s heart, and the Word of Life speaking in our hearts. When we are quiet before God, that inner voice of the Spirit grows louder and our assurance of our Abba’s love grows stronger.
It seems foolish to pause in the midst of our busy schedule to just sit and be in the presence of God. And yet, I have found this is the best possible use we could make of our time. In having done so, we find a greater inner strength, a clearer vision and insight we would not have otherwise. We pause to take a deep breath of the Spirit, and in breathing out, we find ourselves participating more fully in God’s life and love.
Perhaps we are more like the cedar tree than we realize. Yes, God has gifted us and given us many opportunities and abilities the cedar tree does not have. After all, we do reflect the being of God himself. But we are still here as participants in God’s story—sharing in his care of this world and everything in it. We each have a place in his life where all he asks of us is just to be who we are—his beloved and redeemed children.
Acknowledging the simplicity of our existence as God’s beloved and redeemed children, participants in his life and love, means we can rest. We can trust God to hold all things together by the Word of his power, to care for each and every living creature. Our failures as humans do not prevent God from accomplishing anything he has intended from the beginning.
Yes, we cause harm to each other and to this world. We fail to care for what we’ve been given. But none of that prevents God from loving us and drawing us to himself through Christ and in the Spirit. Nothing we can say or do is sufficient to stand in God’s way. Jesus’ prayer stands forever hung in the air: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” And he did what was necessary in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension so we can be assured of the outcome—a new heavens and earth and perfected humanity in which righteousness dwells.
We can for a moment have a deeper grasp of this spiritual reality when we pause in the midst of our existence and just be in the presence of the One who made us and sustains us, and breath in deeply the living Spirit—our Breath of Life. As we are silent and present in the moment, drinking in the living Presence of God himself, we can taste just for moment the blessing of the cedar tree—our eternal rest in Christ who is our Life and our real existence in this broken world. In him we have our being—our peace, hope, and joy—our past, present, and future, for he holds all things in his hands.
So, pause for few moments, and take in a deep breath of Divine Air. Lean back, resting in the Everlasting Arms. For Abba is holding you, and singing over you his songs of joy and love. Listen carefully, and you just might hear him singing…
Abba, thank you for your love, for your gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for holding us and caring for us, whether we realize it or not. Grant us the grace to rest in you and in your perfect love, Enable us to just be, as we are always and forever yours, your beloved and redeemed children, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Zephaniah 3:17 ESV
By Linda Rex
Because you blew my mind
With your unfathomable love
You felt my pain
And shared my tears
The twisted paths
Of the tortured years
How can I not pour out my love?
Your grace—it overwhelms me
O loving Lord, it’s not enough that you
Should fill the evening sky with stars
But then you must
Fill my life
With all your healing grace
It’s not enough that you should fill my glass
With sparkling liquid wet
But then you must
Pour over me
Your deepest inner peace
Wretched though my life may be
You feel my sorrow
You share my pain
Over every mountain you carry me
And now I’m here
Stunned by the grace you’ve shown me
Because you blew my mind
With your unfathomable love
You felt my pain
And shared my tears
The twisted paths
Of the tortured years
How can I not pour out my love?
Your grace—it overwhelms me
© 3/15/2016 Linda A. Rex
By Linda Rex
It’s very interesting to me the many ways in which God works in our lives in order to get our attention and help us to learn things about ourselves we would not otherwise see. Often, we go about our daily business, dealing with life as usual, never realizing there are significant issues with the way we handle certain things. We may not want to admit it, but we each have blind spots which are obvious to others, but which we cannot see.
One of the ways God brings light into these areas of blindness is by challenging our preconceived ideas regarding certain people, places, or things. By placing us through various circumstances in situations we would not have chosen for ourselves, or situations we did choose but they turned out differently than we expected, God exposes parts of our character which we are often able to hide under the glitz of performance.
Another way God pours his light into areas we are blind to is by placing people in our lives with whom we have to interact whether we like it or not. For example, an introvert such as myself may find herself forced to sit in a big circle of seventy people and have to tell how she feels about being present at that particular event at that particular moment whether she likes it or not.
Would I normally have chosen to tell such a personal feeling to that many people who are strangers to me? No. But the requirements of my situation have forced my hand—I will do it whether I want to or not. And I have to own that I would prefer to gloss over the way I really feel rather than expose myself to all those people and admit I’d just rather not be present in that situation. I’d rather be hiding somewhere else where I can just be me, away from the inspecting, critical examination of myself by people I don’t know and don’t believe are safe.
So, in just a few brief moments, I have gained insight into my own heart and mind, and into how I react in difficult and uncomfortable situations. I have learned something about my own character and my propensity to fudge the truth rather than to make other people feel bad or myself look bad. If I pay attention, then I will make note of this response and determine when faced with this situation again, I will act with boldness and integrity, and speak the truth in love.
If, however, I’m not paying attention when this happens, but ignore what is going on inside my head and my heart, I will react to the situation in a way which isn’t necessarily healthy or loving or honest. I might spend much of my life in this way, reacting to similar situations, and not realizing what is really going on. Blinded to this truth about my character, my behavior, and my responses to certain stimuli, I might go on oblivious, depriving myself and others of the opportunity to live in and experience God’s best.
But what if I took a different approach? What if I stopped in the midst of what is occurring and paused long enough to see things as they really are? What if I took the time to feel what is going on in my heart and to pay attention to what is going on in my mind, before reacting to the situation?
One of the things they told me in Christian counseling classes about bad habits is the need to place some significant distance between the stimulus or trigger and the behavior it leads into. The larger this gap is, the more distance there is between what triggers our response and the response itself, the more opportunity there is for the Holy Spirit to get in there and go to work.
I was listening to a young lady today, Kayleigh Vogel with Explore What Matters, talk about this very thing. The more they study the human brain and the psychological/physiological responses to stress stimuli, the more they realize there needs to be a proactive effort to create this distance and to enter into it in such a way we choose our response rather than just doing what comes naturally. She was saying the current studies in the neuroplasticity of the brain show over time our response can be changed as new pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced.
But there must be some effort to pay attention to what is going on inside of us. What drives our decisions? What drives our responses? Is it a gut-reaction, or is it a true expression of what we really value and believe is most important? This is worth reflecting on.
One of the things we do as we get to our adult years is to choose a career or find a job. More people are being intentional about what they choose to do for a living, while others grab what is available, just being thankful they have a job. But at some point, it would do each of us some good to consider this question: Does this job or career bring me joy? Does it really resonate with something deep inside me, with my values and what I care about most?
This is true also about what we do in our daily life, or how we respond to the stress we experience day by day. We all have choices we face. They teach us things, and we grow as we make those choices. We should not be afraid of them, but realize—these are opportunities to learn about ourselves and other people, and about this wonderful world we live in—opportunities to grow as human beings and open ourselves up to the refining, transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
As we make choices and other people make choices, and we experience the reality of life in an imperfect world, we can embrace all this as a wonderful opportunity to learn things about ourselves we would not know otherwise. And we can embrace it all as an opportunity for God to mature and refine us, and to transform us more perfectly into the nature of Jesus Christ.
And we can thank God we have new opportunities to see the blind areas of our character and lives as God’s light shines in those dark places, and opens them up to the redeeming power of God’s grace through Jesus our Lord by his Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for all the ways you bring us to see things about ourselves and our hearts we would not otherwise see, were it not for your love and grace. Thank you that by your Spirit, you continually shine your light in all our areas of blindness and bring us into a deeper understanding of who God are and who we are in you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [or overpower] it.” John 1:5 NASB
by Linda Rex
Sometimes it’s hard to accept the reality God knows us much better than we know ourselves. We like to believe we are good, well-meaning people who will always do or say the right thing in every circumstance we face. We hope we would never do or say anything cruel or hateful. We think in our heart of hearts we would never betray a friend or ruin a friendship because of greed or resentment.
But indeed, God does know us better than we know ourselves. One good example which comes to mind at this time of year is the story of Peter, Jesus’ disciple. Here Jesus was facing his death by crucifixion, knowing the reality of what he would be facing in the next few hours at the hands of people like you and me. He’s giving his disciples his last words, and says, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
Peter is a good friend of Jesus—a real pal. He says to Jesus, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” (John 13:37) Peter is in earnest. He really means it. He’s going to be the best friend Jesus ever had—he’s going to go all the way with Jesus. He’s just like you and me. We have the greatest intentions in the world to go all the way with Jesus, to go all the way with our family, our friends, our spiritual community.
But Jesus is very pragmatic about our humanity. He says to Peter, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.” (John 13:38) Jesus just calls it as it is—“Peter, you don’t really know yourself as well as you think you do. You’re going to betray me and deny me just like any other human being would.”
Indeed, Jesus knew and accepted Peter’s brokenness as a part of who he was at that point in his life. Jesus knew in a few short hours, he would be on his own, wrestling with the evil one in a spiritual, physical and emotional battle he did not humanly want to fight. He was not unfamiliar with the failures of the human race, but felt keenly the weakness and frailty of his flesh.
It is instructive that Jesus quoted from Psalm 22 during his last hours on the cross. I was reading this psalm again this morning and was struck by the way King David put down in words the way we as human beings would treat the Lord when he came in human flesh. How many times as he was growing up did Jesus hear this psalm read? Did it put him in mind of what he was going to have to endure at the hands of the human beings he came to save? This psalm certainly describes in many ways what Jesus ended up experiencing before and during his crucifixion.
Isn’t it interested how the God who inspired this psalm, knew us better than we know ourselves? In fact, he inspired the writing of this psalm, he ensured it was preserved, and he used it as an instructive tool during his last moments before he died. The Word came to earth, knowing we would do these things to him. He was not put off by our brokenness or our capacity for betrayal and animosity. He allowed none of our human capacity for evil to prevent him from keeping his word to us that he would save us from evil, sin and death.
That the Word who is God would take on our broken humanity expresses the true reality of God’s love. As God, he had the capacity to submit himself to our human experience while remaining pure of heart, soul and mind. Rather than rejecting us or turning away from us, God joined us in our darkness and brought us up and out into his Light.
It is unfortunate that often we portray God as being so offended by sin he cannot be in the presence of it. If that were the case, we all would have been annihilated millennia ago. Seriously—what makes us think God is this way?
I think one thing which makes us think God is this way is we are this way. We get offended by a person’s problems or faults, and so we reject the person who does not meet up with our standards. We draw lines in the sand and when someone crosses them, we count them unworthy of a relationship with us.
But God doesn’t do this. He comes into our brokenness and works from within to transform and change us. He sends his Spirit into faulty human hearts so God can take up a permanent habitation there, healing us and transforming us from the inside out. He comes to the one, who like Peter, betrays him or denies him, and reconciles with him. On God’s side of the equations, there is nothing left standing between us and him.
Because God already knows us so thoroughly and completely, and loves us anyway, we can be upfront and honest about our failures and weaknesses. We can own our brokenness, telling the truth about our “messies” to God and to others. One day there won’t be any secrets—so we might as well learn how to be transparent, open and honest with ourselves and one another—living in the grace and love of God now as we will for all eternity.
Our heavenly Father has not allowed anything to come between us and his love. There is nothing which stands between us and him. This Good Friday we remember the gift of love God gave by embracing us in our broken humanity and drawing us up into life in the Father, Son and Spirit. We are beloved, cherished and held in God’s love and life, both now and for all eternity. Praise God!
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take all our evil and broken ways upon yourself and redeeming them. Thank you, Spirit, for working all this out in Christ and in us. For your glory, God, and by your power, in your name. We thank you. Amen.
“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations.” Psalm 22:27–28 NASB
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
When I was growing up, I learned at an early age that God had rules for everything. He decided what I could eat and what I could not eat, when I could eat certain foods and when I couldn’t. He decided what I should wear and what I shouldn’t wear, and when certain things should be worn and when they shouldn’t. In fact, it seemed as though God was making sure I did everything exactly right so he could bless me and I could be happy, or punish me if I went astray.
I suppose, looking back, there was something helpful about having some order to my existence. But I realized early on I had an inner resistance to this constant dictation as to what I had to do or not do. There was a rebellion deep within me to being controlled in this manner. And of course, this was seen as being sinful and evil. I did a lot of repenting and I worked really hard at “being good.”
The irony in all of this was I wasn’t made any better or any worse by all this effort. If anything, I was so busy putting on my appearance of having my life in order, I was missing out on real life—real relationship with God and with others. It was only in those relationships where I dropped the façade—with my high school buddies, for example—and where I was genuine and transparent I actually experienced true communion with others. The rest was just pretense.
When God finally got through to me with the reality of his grace and Who he actually was for me, with me and in me, I realized I was one of those people Jesus quite adamantly criticized when he was here on earth. I was a Pharisee—a white-washed tomb—a viper in the woodpile.
To come to the realization that you have all the glitz but none of the reality is a painful, difficult process. It takes experiencing the loss of all the things you cherish and coming to the end of all the things you count on to carry you through and to make you “good enough.” It means discarding all your previous notions about Who God is and who you are as his creature. And this is a tough road to travel, because our humanity and the culture we live in encourage us to stay where we are—in the façade.
One of the things I had to learn about God was he is truly free—free to be Who he is, apart from my expectations of him or preconceived notions about him. He is free to do whatever he wants in this world—which is often the exact opposite of how I was taught and believed he would act in certain situations. God is free to be Who he is, not Who I think he is. The Lord of the universe is truly that—Lord—and I am not (shockingly enough!).
But that freedom God has is always tempered by his boundless, deep love, which surpasses our comprehension. The God I grew up with was punitive and angry. And it was not helpful my personal experience of a father reinforced this belief in many ways. But when God revealed himself to me in Christ by the Spirit, I came to see this wasn’t Who God really was. The God of grace and love has always loved me and you and meant for us to be included in his divine life. This is amazing!
The other amazing thing is God gives each of us freedom—freedom to choose, to embrace or reject him, to live in harmony and unity with him and others, or to live in opposition to everything which is good and honorable and to experience the consequences of living in that way. It is hard to image God doing that, but he did and he does. Freedom to live in loving communion with him and each other, or not—it’s as simple as that.
One of the topics which kept coming up last night at a social gathering I attended was the way each of us has a unique history or genesis, but we are all intertwined and interrelated in some way. Indeed, it seems a person cannot assume someone they do not like is not at all connected with them because we have, as the centuries have passed, intermingled our DNA with one another. We are all bound together in a common humanity.
The joys of fellowship and community are a consistent thread throughout human existence. And this is what we seem to cherish most about our family and community celebrations such as Christmas. At the core of our being, we are drawn to one another in ways we don’t even realize—we are created for community and so we are drawn to it as a part of our very being.
This type of loving community, this interweaving of lives with one another in harmony and grace and peace, cannot be built by making rules and enforcing them. This is a work of the Spirit which takes place in the heart. God does not control us or force us into relationship with him and others, but invites us, draws us close, and compels us by his deep, perfect, and gracious love.
I pray you will each experience the blessing of true spiritual community this Christmas in many ways in your lives. I pray your families will experience healing and comfort and encouragement in the midst of all which pulls us apart and divides us. And I pray you will have a blessed and wonderful Advent season, through Jesus, our Lord, and by his Spirit. Amen.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1–3 NASB