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
by Linda Rex
As I was driving through the Tennessee countryside this morning, I was soaking up the inherent beauty of the fall colors in the leaves of the trees and the deep blue of the clear sky. There is such a sense of God’s presence and nearness in his creation, especially when the plants, trees, animals and earth are just being who they were created to be. And how cool it is that we, as human beings and God’s creatures, get to be a part of reflecting God’s glory!
Last night I participated in a discussion at the Highland Heights Neighborhood Association meeting in which we talked about being aware of and sensitive to the needs of the people in the community who are marginalized and forgotten. In the light of this, as a neighborhood group working to improve our community, we asked the question, “Where do we go from here?” and “What can we do to help?”
Truthfully, there are people down the street from our church who live every day in such poverty and squalor they are not able, even if they wished, to soak up the beauty of the Tennessee countryside. They live in housing which is uninhabitable by modern standards, and have little hope for anything better. How, in the midst of the struggle of daily life, can they enjoy the best of life? What does it mean for them to just be who they were created to be? Is it even possible for them?
And indeed, how are they any different from you or me? They have this existence they have found themselves in and they, like you and me, seek to do the best they are able to along the way, trying to find and create life in the midst of death and poverty and struggle. They, like we do, breathe the same air, need the same food and water we do, and long to love and be loved, for that is what they, like we, were created for.
It would be easy to say, for example, that a particular group of people being considered last night as being in need were not part of our neighborhood therefore not a part of our responsibility. But indeed, we must never forget we are neighbor to each and every person in this world in our Lord Jesus Christ. In him we are connected at the center of our being to every other person who exists, no matter whether we like them or not. There is a core relatedness which Jesus Christ created in us and in himself which demands we treat each other as brothers and sisters, not as strangers or aliens.
And this is hard to do, because we as human beings are broken. We have addictions, mental and emotional and physical illnesses, and quirks which make us unpleasant people to be around. We have character flaws which sometimes make it unsafe for others to be around us. We have generational and personal habits and ways of being and talking which do not line up with who we are created to be in Jesus Christ, and they divide us from one another.
This morning I was looking at some photos from around the world taken over the last year which illustrated something significant which happened on that particular day. Most of the photos told the story of people in the midst of struggle—of war, refugees, destruction, natural disasters—all the ways in which people were wrestling with their desire for life in the midst of death and loss. Here and there was a picture of someone celebrating or worshiping, but they were few and far between.
It seems, apparently, struggle is a part of the human existence, whether we like it or not. Poverty, displacement, homelessness, and war plague us no matter where we live. Jesus said at one point, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:8 NLT). There is a reality about our human existence and it is we do not live as we ought and we do not treat others as we ought, and so people end up living in ways they were never meant to have to live. Our human existence today is a reflection of how we seek to find life in the ways which only create destruction and death, and of how our earth is broken and reflects the harm we humans have done to it over the centuries.
It is no wonder the youth of our day sometimes feel a sense of despair and hopelessness. What kind of future do they have to look forward to? And what about our marginalized neighbors who expect to only see more of the same in the years ahead? What hope do they have?
I believe this is where we run into a fundamental flaw in our thinking as Christians. We see all this and can say, things are so bad we must be near the end of the world, so Jesus is going to come and punish all the bad people and establish his kingdom. This conveniently places everything back into the hands of an angry God who will deal with all this stuff so we don’t have to. It removes any need for us to encounter and deal with on a face-to-face basis the suffering of our neighbor right now, today, in our everyday lives.
I thought it was instructive last night that the heads more than once turned towards our end of the table and it was indicated that the churches in the neighborhood were expected to do something about the problems in the neighborhood. At the NOAH meeting, I heard the city officials say the non-profit organizations were the ones who ought to be solving the homelessness problem. Why do communities turn to God’s people with the needs of those who are homeless and poverty-stricken rather than to the government? What is it they believe we have and can do which cannot be found elsewhere?
At this point, I’m not really sure. But I do know this—when God goes to work in a human heart and mind, things change. When God goes to work in a community, things change. When God goes to work in a family, a church, an office or a city, things change. And one of the biggest changes to occur is a change in human hearts and minds.
It seems at times God doesn’t care as much about the poverty of our circumstances as he does about the poverty of our soul. The path to new life is through suffering and death, whether we like it or not. When he goes to work though, as hearts and minds are healed and renewed, circumstances in peoples’ lives change as well.
We as Christians need to realize the magnitude of what we bring to the table in the situations we face in our neighborhoods and in our world. We may have no power to fix the problems faced directly. But we do have the power of prayer and the community of faith. We do have the ability to walk with people through their times of darkness and to share with them the Light of life. We do have the ability to ease their suffering in some ways, even though in other ways we are impotent in being able to help.
The greatest thing we can do for others is to offer them a relationship of love and grace in which Jesus Christ is the center. We can come alongside others and share in the divine Paraclete’s ministry of counsel, intercession and comfort. We can share with others the blessings we have received from Abba so they may also experience the joy of thanksgiving as we do. We can work to help others to be and become those people God created them to be, so they may begin to enjoy the best of life, which is living in loving community with God and one another.
This is my heart and desire for the people of Tennessee, and for all people, for that matter. And I know it is also the heart and desire of our members at Good News Fellowship. We have been given our Abba’s heart of love and grace and we want to share it with others. We want all people to be overwhelmed just as we are with the overflowing joy of thanksgiving for our Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have given us true life in their presence both now and forever.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness, and for drawing us to yourself by your Son and in your Spirit, so we each and all may participate with you in a communion of love and grace both now and forever. Renew in us your heart of love and grace so we may love others with your perfect love and forgive as we are forgiven. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.
“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” Colossians 1:9–12 NASB
By Linda Rex
The house is quiet tonight. All I hear at the moment is the sound of the concentrator as it pulls oxygen out of the air and pumps it through the line into my mother’s lungs. She’s been sleeping for hours now, and I’ve been unable to coax her to eat anything since lunchtime yesterday. Although I am sad about all that’s going on, I am happy that I can be here for her. Right now, being by her side is more important to me than the sleep I sorely need.
How I wish that rest were so easy for me at this moment! It would certainly help me to feel better, and to have more energy when I get up in the morning. But it doesn’t look like sleep is going to happen any time soon.
I read a devotional yesterday that spoke about rest as being a way in which we worship God. Now that is a spiritual discipline I could really get into at the moment—a true, deep rest would be really nice.
But such a rest isn’t going to happen unless and until I am ready to fully let go of all my concerns and give them all up to my heavenly Father. There is a rest that is mine that I have in Jesus, but I can’t participate in it until I’m willing to let go of my insistence upon handling everything myself. God calls each of us to take Christ’s yoke on and to learn from him—this is how we find rest.
Even in the midst of heavy, weighty issues in our life, we can feel light-hearted and at peace when we are fully trusting in the love and faithfulness of the Father, and are turning to Jesus Christ for all we need. Somehow, through his Spirit and by his living Son Jesus, God gives us the ability to weather catastrophes and griefs, and to come out the better for having experienced them.
It is this redemption I am counting on. I do not understand the why or how, but I know that God does. All he asks of me is to trust him and to rely on him in the midst of this journey through the dark valley. And I don’t do that alone—Jesus is present with me, in me and is for me as I go through it all. He is my peace.
And the other blessing that comes with this struggle is the nearness of others who are helping to carry the weight with me. The peace and rest that I find in dark times is often best experienced in the midst of loving, caring relationships with others who pray for me and lift me up even when I don’t ask them to. This creates gratitude which quickly turns to praise to God who so blesses me with and surrounds me with such love, compassion and grace. I am truly grateful for all of you who are lifting us up in prayer. May God bless you abundantly in return.
Dearest Lord God, thank you for offering each of us the rest that comes when we lay down our burdens at your feet and take on what you want us to carry instead. Grant grace and peace to those who are struggling even now, and pour out on them the strength they need to walk through the dark valley with you. May we each faithfully trust in you to work all things for our best benefit. We know you are a faithful God and you will do this through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28–30 NASB
By Linda Rex
It never seems to fail that when someone I know is suffering through a really bad experience and is finding it impossible to bear any more suffering, that a well-meaning soul will say, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” I cringe inside because I’ve experienced the reality that sometimes God does give us more than we can bear. So when I hear that phrase, everything inside of me wants to scream out, “He does too!”
This is an unfortunate reading of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which actually talks about temptation to sin, not about suffering or affliction in general. In the NASB it reads:
“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.”
The context of this verse, then, focuses on temptations rather than afflictions or trials. In my opinion, overwhelming trials and afflictions are not what Paul is talking about here.
When reading Paul’s epistles, we see that he talks a lot about trials, afflictions and sufferings that are beyond our ability to bear. He talks about participating in Jesus’s sufferings and death so that we can share in his life. We learn from Jesus and his apostles that it is in dying that we live. It’s all about death and resurrection.
And suffering and grief are not just random events that have no purpose or value. They may be tools of the darkness and be designed to defeat and destroy, but the Light has come in Jesus. All these things must submit to the lordship of Christ, and fulfill the will and purposes of Almighty God. As the scripture says, we overwhelmingly conquer in Jesus.
The point is that God has in mind our perfection, our full reflection of his image. He also has in mind the renewal of all things. We don’t see the things God sees, nor can we fully understand his purposes or his methods. Our view is severely impacted by the pain and sorrow and suffering we may be going through at the moment and we may be unable to see that God does redeem and heal and restore in the end. Our humanity limits our ability to grasp the significance and purpose of all we experience in our lives.
God does indeed allow us to be “burdened excessively, beyond our strength”, even to the point where we despair of life. We are constantly “delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake”, but for a reason. God is refining us “as silver is refined.” He is teaching us to quit trusting in ourselves and to start trusting him completely. He is teaching us to die to ourselves so that he may fully live in us and through us. He is reminding us that we are the clay pots in which his divine Presence dwells.
The key to it all is what we believe about God and about Jesus Christ. Do we believe, really believe, that Jesus is who he said he is—the Son of God and the Son of man, and that he lived, died and rose again in our place? Because in the end, death is destined to end in resurrection. Just as Jesus died and rose again, so we too will have times when death seems certain, if not preferable, but which will in the end result in God raising us up to new life.
There is healing after loss, after divorce, after abuse. There is restoration after brokenness and destruction. We don’t always experience it immediately or completely, but God has declared it done and complete in Jesus Christ. He is our assurance that there is never anything he won’t go through with us, in us and for us. He said that nothing can separate us from the love he has for us in Christ.
So when God gives us more than we can bear, we can ask him for the grace to bear it. We have the opportunity to trust Christ to be for us in the Spirit all that we need in our moments of despair, struggle and grief. God doesn’t always take away the difficulty—we may have to go through it completely from one end to the other. But he will never fail to bring us in the end to the glorious result he had in mind from the beginning. So don’t lose heart. Don’t lose faith. Because Jesus is a risen Lord and God is faithful and he is love.
Dear God, in the midst of our struggle, loss, despair and grief, remind us that you have given us a risen Savior, a resurrected Lord, who has brought us, is bringing us, and will bring us, to new life in himself in the Spirit. Grant us the grace trust you to do what is best in every situation and to carry us through to a glorious and joyful end in your presence forever. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“For You have tried us, O God; you have refined us as silver is refined. You brought us into the net; you laid an oppressive burden upon our loins. You made men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water, yet You brought us out into a place of abundance.” Psalm 66:10-12 NASB
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us,…” 2 Cor. 1:8–10 NASB
“After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” 1 Pet. 5:10
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” 2 Cor. 4:7–11