A Response to Tragedy, Part 1

How do we respond to tragedy? These are the thoughts I have been wrestling with and the string of Christian faith to which I have been clinging through my sorrow.

Recently, my sister lost her unborn child, Liam, at 20 weeks pregnant. Around the same time, my 32-year-old cousin, Ashley, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and died within two weeks. This was not my family’s first encounter with deep and unexpected tragedy. In 2002, Ashley’s younger brother, mom and unborn baby sister died in a car accident on the way home from a family vacation. This was my introduction to grief. I was nine years old. Ashley’s brother who passed, Jonah, was not only my cousin but my best friend at the time.

I remember when they told us that Jonah had died in the hospital following the accident. My aunt had been declared dead at the scene with her baby. Jonah was in critical condition but was flown to the hospital. We all had converged on my grandparents’ house to pray and comfort each other. The next morning after the accident the kids were called down to the kitchen. They told us that Jonah didn’t make it, he was dead. There was palpable sorrow in that kitchen. The bright yellow walls did nothing to brighten the pall that hung over us. The only consolation in that moment was the comfort found in my dad’s arms as I wept.

Why? At some point, the question wells up in our soul as we process our pain. If God is good, if He really loves us, then why would He allow us to experience the overwhelming grief of losing a beloved friend, family member, child…? Why would He allow the incomprehensible suffering that we struggle to understand as we observe the weight of tragedy in the world? Answers abound. Some are good and true, some are false and depressing. None are satisfying. I mean this in the way that we all know we are not yet truly Home. There is no answer to grief that satisfies in this fallen world. We must live with the tension between faith in the truth and life in the pain. Hope remains.

I have found comfort in Job, in the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, and in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. As Job cries out against the unjust tragedy in his life, God holds it not against Him, but listens and then arrives in the midst of Job’s suffering. He does not explain away Job’s grief, He does not give reasons for Job’s loss. God shows up and demands that Job trust Him. God is worthy of it all. God is over it all, His timeless perspective redeems all our pain. He sees the order of the universe and, by His very being, He defies the totality of our pain. Job’s encounter with God is enough to bring him back into trust with God. This encounter does not alleviate or take him out of his suffering, but it returns him to trust. We need to encounter God in our suffering.

At the tomb of Lazarus, we get another glimpse of God’s response to our tragedy: Jesus wept. Here we see the further revelation of God’s response to Job. He shows up in our pain and He participates in our suffering. Jesus has enough knowledge of God to know the theological answer to suffering, the idea that God is worthy of it all, the idea that God will resurrect the dead and redeem all things in the end, but he does not use that knowledge to attempt to shield himself from the reality of tragedy. Jesus responds in His divinity and humanity as we respond in the face of death, with tears of sorrow. He had felt the same gut-wrenching pain that I felt when my best friend died. But He goes beyond this and calls forth God’s resurrection. I’ve heard some great sermons at funerals. I’ve been blessed in the midst of my grief to hear from preachers who have tapped into the heart of God for me and my family in those times of loss. The best sermons share that God is the enemy of death, that God takes no glory from man in the grave. They appeal to the fellowship of Christ with us in our suffering. They proclaim that death itself has been conquered and overcome; that death is now the pathway to life; that our fallen brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters are now more alive than we can imagine as we look through a mirror dimly.

At the cross of Jesus, we get the full unveiling of God’s ultimate word on our suffering. God does not merely empathize, God enters into and transforms our suffering. The mystery of the incarnation is not merely God clothed in flesh, but the embrace of our humanity so total that it finds its truest expression in the crucifixion. The moment that the incarnation completes its embrace of humanity is in the suffering and death on the cross. By the cross, our suffering and death are transfigured into fellowship with God and with His divinity. Then the resurrection proclaims our eternal answer: All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. There is not the slightest pain or disappointment that shall not have its answer in the resurrection. God has done what God does. God has embraced our suffering in His love and has made all things new. And so we cling to the fellowship of Christ in our suffering, we glimpse the hope of time that shall lead us to eternal resurrection, and we release our need to answer the question of “why.” He is worthy of it all.

These words do not solve the problem of grief. An intellectual understanding of these concepts doesn’t go one whit towards holding our pain at bay when we encounter tragedy. We need to meet the reality of these words. Only an encounter with the God who is love can bring us consolation in our trials. The only consolation in those moments is the comfort found in my Dad’s arms as I weep.

So we live through grief. We speak with muted tones and the world looks grayer for a while. We gather and give what comfort we can (remember we are to represent Christ to the world). We avoid platitudes and answers, we listen and sit with each other. Compassion calls for silence, for diversion, for conversation all at different times. Listen, be sensitive (in the sense of the word that is closer to “be discerning”) and grieve. Never try to excuse or diminish the tragedy. It sucks. Food helps, music helps, friendship helps, hugs help, just being around people who are in it with you helps. Memories resurface and stories are told. It is good that we celebrate and honor those who have passed on. It is right that we should grieve at our separation from those we love. Throughout the process of grieving remember foremost that this is not the whole story. What looks like the end is actually a beginning. Wherever you are in the process remember: God is faithful, God is present, all shall be well.

The Road Goes Ever On and On

Daily Office Meditation: 7th Week of Easter – Friday

(18) This will be written for the generation to come, That a people yet to be created may praise the LORD.

Psalm 102:18

(27) “Then the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield her increase. They shall be safe in their land; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bands of their yoke and delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. (28) “And they shall no longer be a prey for the nations, nor shall beasts of the land devour them; but they shall dwell safely, and no one shall make them afraid.

Ezekiel 34:27-28

(5) who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things,

(10) “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

Hebrews 8:5; 10

(41) “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.

(42) “But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:41-42

 

Just a quick note to start: it appears that my readings have been off by a day occasionally. The calendar for the website I use to get the Daily Office is set to EST and that is 3 hours ahead of PST. So if I am doing the Office after 9pm, it automatically shows me the following day! Whoops! I’ll be aware of that now. If you’d like to do the Office, you can join me in using this link: http://mysaintmichaels.com/readings/.

Today the lessons are all about the new covenant. First, I chose the verse from the Psalm because it is so fabulous to imagine the psalmist penning those words, “This will be written for the generation to come, That a people yet to be created may praise the LORD.” The psalmist could not have imagined the impact his words would have and how many hundreds of generations would be praying and reading the words of the Bible. We cannot imagine the wisdom of God. I think that is why the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. If you truly contemplate the vast and alien nature of God’s thoughts, then you cannot help but be in awe of Him. His plan is for generations, we struggle planning for tomorrow.

In Ezekiel we see God expanding on the nature of His promised New Covenant: the earth is bountiful, the yoke has been thrown off and broken, the nations shall not have the power to oppress His people, and there shall be no reason to be afraid. It’s easy to look at that passage and fall into a sense of longing for that day. The truth is, the New Covenant is here now! We are called to walk according to the principles of the New Covenant, yet we often submit to the ideologies of the Old Covenant. We are obsessed with success and performance, we look for punishment when we fail, and we do not come boldy before the throne of grace to confess our faults.

The Hebrews passage elaborates as it quotes the promises in the Old Testament to show the new reality we are invited to live in. Everything before Christ is but a shadow of the truth. Plato writes of Socrates speaking of the man who truly knew virtue as a man who walked among shadows. Jesus came to be the signpost, the embodied truth, and the pioneer of the truly Human life.

We see a glimpse of how to live in the kingdom vs. the world in the Gospel story. Jesus responds to Martha’s legitimate practical concerns with a kingdom principle of His own. There is one thing that is needed, that is sitting at the feet of Jesus. This can be literal, but it appears to mean different things to different people in the Bible. Symbolically, in my own life, it means leaning not on my own understanding, but resting in and actively pursuing His wisdom.

The New Covenant means that relationship is 100% good between God and ourselves. This is a reality that needs to be lived out. We need to experience God’s unconditional love on a regular basis to feel secure in our identity and ministry.

Ultimately, the idea that we are not experiencing our New Covenant with Christ to it’s fullest manifestation only means that there is so much further to go with God.

The road goes ever on and on…

I Will Behave Wisely in a Perfect Way

Daily Office Meditations: 7th Week of Easter – Tuesday

(2) I will behave wisely in a perfect way. Oh, when will You come to me? I will walk within my house with a perfect heart. (3) I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; (6) My eyes shall be on the faithful of the land, That they may dwell with me;

Psalm 101:2, 3, 6

(4) In return for my love they are my accusers, But I give myself to prayer.

Psalm 109:4

(19) “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, (20) “that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God. (21) “But as for those whose hearts follow the desire for their detestable things and their abominations, I will recompense their deeds on their own heads,” says the Lord GOD.

Ezekiel 11:19-21

(21) “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. (23) “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see; (24) “for I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see, and have not seen it, and to hear what you hear, and have not heard it.”

Luke 10:21, 23, 24

All of life is about your heart. We know this instinctively. If a man is said to be unintelligent, but he has a good heart, then he is considered “good” in our minds. If he is considered intelligent, but cruel and pitiless, then we have no problem judging him. Looking at the Scriptures today, we can talk about two aspects of the heart. First, we can talk about the prophecy in Ezekiel that God would replace our hearts of stone with hearts of the flesh. This is accomplished through baptism as we are “buried with Christ in baptism and raised to a new life in Him.” We are said to be “born again.” This is the most fundamental reality of our Christian identity: God has given us a new heart, we have been transformed completely as a part of our salvation.

Second, we have a responsibility to cultivate and tend our hearts. When Jesus tells the parable of the sower, He talks of the different soils (or hearts) that the seed (which is the word of God) falls on. In order to avoid the rocky soil, we must walk through the healing and redemptive work in our hearts to address past woundings and sin. To avoid the weed infested soil we must keep temptation and sin from our hearts. To avoid the path-soil, we must meditate on the word of Scripture and walk out the word of God in our lives daily. This hard work will till the soil and cause a deeper and enriched heart capable of resisting the lies of the enemy, represented by crows (“did God really say…”).

We see some hints of how to cultivate good soil in the Scriptures today. In the Psalm, “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes.” So we must be wise about what we are taking in with our eyes. More than ever, this needs to be a huge emphasis for a Christian. There are more evil and disturbing and tempting images in this world than there has ever been, and they are more easily accessed. This means we need a revelation of the goodness of God and those things that our eyes can look on without reproach.

“My eyes shall be on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me.” This is a concept easily forgotten, “bad company corrupts good morals.” There is a disturbing trend in our culture that seeks to destroy anyone who would potentially be put on a pedestal in our culture. While there have definitely been terrible role models posing as leaders deserving of respect, the level of cynicism has risen to absurd levels. If someone asks who your hero is, there is definitely a piece of “journalism” somewhere on the internet seeking to tear them down. Most people just ditch the idea of admiring anyone or choose to admire terrible people (vacuous celebrities, violent rappers, Jesus-complex politicians). There’s a satanic glee on twitter when someone is torn down from admiration or their career is destroyed. I mean “satanic” technically. The spirit of the Enemy is one of accusation, the Holy Spirit is one of advocacy. We need to find faithful men and women to admire, look up to, and surround ourselves with in order to guard and improve our hearts.

In the second Psalm, we pray instead of reacting our unfair accusers. This would save us a lot of misery. Don’t respond in anger, stop and pray. Ask God for deliverance, guidance, and favor. We are even challenged to pray for those who persecute us.

In Hebrews, we get the New Testament affirmation of the tithe. A tithe is 10% of your income given to the church to support the minister, pastor or priest. Without diving into one of the cooler theological insights in the Bible (Jesus is the high priest of the order of Melchizedek), I want to merely say that the tithe is for our hearts and not because God needed a way to provide for His priests. The tithe helps us keep our money in perspective. Our money is, first and foremost, a gift from God. When we give Him back 10%, it shapes our hearts to trust His provision instead of our own.

All of these things are for training our heart to “love what God has commanded”. We are blessed beyond belief to see the kingdom of God expanding in the earth. As Jesus was saying, the Hebrew people lived and died for thousands of years hoping for the coming of the Messiah. We live in the world of the resurrected Christ every day. Keep your eyes on this fact and your heart will transform by the power of the Holy Spirit. As I remember the little song from a Christian kid’s show called “The Donut Man” (really weird show/premise):

Be careful little eyes what you see
Be careful little eyes what you see
For the Father up above
Is looking down with love
O, be careful little eyes what you see

What Is Man That You Are Mindful of Him

Daily Office Meditation: 6th Week of Easter – Thursday

3) When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, (4) What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him? (9) O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8:3-4; 9

(28) Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of One speaking.

Ezekiel 1:28

(10) For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (11) For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, (12) saying: “I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.”

(17) Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (18) For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.

Hebrews 2:10-12; 17-18

(18) “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. (19) “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

Matthew 28:18-20

The passages today illustrate one of the reasons I love the Daily Office of Prayer. We see in reading the Psalms, Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel lessons the overarching design and purpose of history. In particular, the Hebrews passage today gives us insight into the role that Jesus fulfilled.

In the Psalms, we see the divine order, God in all His glory is still mindful of mankind. All of God’s purposes revolve around mankind and when we encounter the glory of God, this reality shocks us. The God who made the universe is mindful of humanity, even mindful of you yourself.

God purposed from the beginning that we should be raised up to rule and reign over the cosmos with Him. He designed that we should be a royal priesthood, offering up sacramental worship to Him as we enjoyed and cultivated His creation. Instead, we abdicated our thrones in rebellion and God has been pursuing us ever since. The psalmist is rightly awed by the notion that the God of all that exists is caring of us. Carl Sagan’s point that is often brought up about the insignificance of our planet (and us on it) in comparison to the vastness of the universe is inverted in God’s economy. Out of all that exists, God has preordained that man should be the heirs of eternity with His Son, Jesus Christ.

In Ezekiel, the prophet receives a vision that illustrates the magnitude and majesty of God. He sees the famous four living creatures and the throne of sapphire, but he also sees the promise. God has revealed Himself in the beauty and wonder that we find in the awe-inspiring expanse of galaxies and the exquisite beauty of a dahlia. We do not need visions of heaven to see the glory of God. In the midst of that glory, Ezekiel sees the “son of Man” (whom we now know is Jesus) who is like a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. This is the promise of God. Originally, God establishes the rainbow after the flood subsides and Noah disembarks the Ark. He says it is evidence of His promise never to flood the earth again and as Ezekiel sees it in the throne room around the son of Man, we see God’s alternative to the flood. Jesus takes the devastation of the flood into Himself to rescue us sinners on the cross.

In fulfilling the visions of the Old Testament, the writer of Hebrews shows that Jesus had to come as a man, be made perfect in suffering, and die to destroy death. This identifying of God with man elevates man to the divine status always purposed for him. Pope John Paul II wrote, “Jesus is the human face of God and the divine face of man.” God did not hoard His glory or reject us as we rejected Him. Instead, He sent His son to identify with us in our suffering and temptation, pay the price for our sin by taking our place on the cross, and then rise to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords that we might be fellow heirs with Him.

Jesus, Himself, shares His authority with the disciples in the Matthew passage and puts in motion the final chapter in the redemption of the world. God’s plan includes us. We are to go into the world and redeem it with the authority of Jesus. This divine plan reaches concrete practicality as Jesus tells us to make disciples of Him, a continuation of His mission on earth. Like Him, we are to bring love, acceptance, forgiveness, and healing to the poor, the sinners, the broken in our midst.

Jesus also said that many desired to see the fulfillment of the promises of God, and now we can see it every day. God’s promise to redeem the world, to bring heaven to earth, to arrive at a day where every tear shall be wiped from every eye and all shall see the glory of God. We get to do the tear wiping, the redeeming, and the healing with Him until that day. We go in His authority and the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.

P.S. His purpose is clear in Scriptures that we should do this work as a part of the Church. That means we need to plug into a local church and be apart of Christ’ body on earth… there are no lone wolves in the kingdom. Also, it’s hard to share the kingdom if you haven’t experienced it in your life. If you need healing, restoration, invigoration, Jesus has bought it for you, pray to Him. If you’ve never given your life to Jesus, then now is the time. Jesus has been given all authority on earth, He is able to help you in ANY situation and He longs for a relationship with you. Pray that He will encounter you right now and bring healing into your life. Confess that you are a sinner and ask for His forgiveness. Declare your belief in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. And go to a church and talk to a pastor, they’d love to meet you and pray for you.

All Good Things Come From God

Daily Office Meditations: 6th Week of Easter – Tuesday

 

(5) For He established a testimony in Jacob, And appointed a law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers, That they should make them known to their children; (6) That the generation to come might know them, The children who would be born, That they may arise and declare them to their children,

Psalm 78:5-6;

 

(11) ” Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today,

Deuteronomy 8:11

 

16) Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. (17) Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.

James 1:16-17

 

(2) When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. (3) Give us day by day our daily bread. (4) And forgive us our sins, For we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one.”

Luke 11:2-4

The most helpful thing that I have found for keeping God in the proper place in my life is a daily acknowledgment of the ways He has provided for me. We see in the Psalm and the Deuteronomy passage this same principle. We need to see God’s character in His provisions for us. The two lies that the devil attempts to get us to believe are lies about 1. The character of God, 2. The power of God.

When the Israelites were complaining in the desert, right after God rescued them of decades of slavery in Egypt through miraculous means, they lost sight of either the character or the power of God. When He provided food and water in the desert, they asked: “Can God provide meat for His people?” It’s easy to write off the Israelites as terrible people, “a stubborn and rebellious generation,” but we can so easily fall into this same trap.

When I was leaving for college, I didn’t have the funds for my first year. My mom called me the day before I was leaving to tell me that an anonymous donor had provided the funds. The following year, the same thing happened. My third year, I bought my books, registered for classes, and even attended one day of classes in faith, but no money came. It was so easy for me to doubt God that week. He had miraculously provided thousands of dollars for me to attend that school and the first time He didn’t I doubted His plan and resented Him.

I had to remind myself at that moment of what He had done for me. God has never forsaken me, He has provided above and beyond what I have needed and there is no circumstance that can separate me from the love of God. I never finished school and that still grates on me to this day, but I have learned to stop questioning God, as He has used every aspect of my story to propel me into His purposes. His track record towards me is just too good.

James reminds us to count all good things as coming from God. Ann Voscamp wrote a book on how gratitude changed her life. When we put God in His rightful place as the provider of all that is good in our life, it is impossible to live in fear or resentment. How do we put God in His rightful place? We remember everything He has done for us and for those we love. We write down our testimonies (big or small) and we share them with others. We read of the marvelous works He has done in Scripture and in Christian books or blogs.

And we pray the way Christ has taught us to pray. “Our Father” affirms the good identity of God. Later in this same passage, Jesus talks of how we give good gifts to our children and how much more God will give good gifts to us. “Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” Puts God in His proper place in reference to our daily struggles. God is bigger and greater than anything we are to face. “His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts.” We may not see the big picture, but we can be assured that “all things work together for our good.” “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” Here we see our mission and focus. Because we acknowledge God’s rightful place through our gratitude and worship, we are automatically oriented towards His will and His kingdom. And since His kingdom is heaven, we are called to bring heaven to earth. This is amazingly encouraging to me as I build my family and establish the small slice of the kingdom that God has given me: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” “Give us this day our daily bread” God is the provider. Your job, money, family, success, fame do not provide for you. God is the one who provides for your daily needs, look to Him. “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” Easy link: If we are fully convinced of the greatest miracle of God’s forgiveness and grace towards us through the death and resurrection of His Son, then how can we hold anyone’s sin against them? Our forgiveness and their forgiveness are linked and bought with a price. “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil” This is the result of following the principles above. If you acknowledge God as your good, all-powerful Father, then why run after that which does not satisfy. Tonight my son longed to touch the blazing-hot metal part of the oven door as I was removing our fully-cooked, home-made pizzas. I kept him from that and he was convinced that I was withholding his deepest desire at that moment. We are much like Rowan in that regard. Any time we face temptation, we are questioning whether God really knows our good and cares for our good above all else.

So we see today in the Daily Office a call to orient our lives around God and what He has accomplished for us. I pray that each and every person reading this will take the time to allow God to reveal the depth of His love for us, that type of revelation will transform you from the inside out.

Many are the Troubles of the Righteous

I recently sat down to do devotions. I had skipped a few days and had been tempted to fall into the mindset, “it’s not that helpful to read the Bible every day.” Note that this generally happens when I haven’t done devotions in a few days. Well that morning, every passage was speaking to me. 

First, Psalms 34:19, 22: “Many are the troubles of the righteous but the Lord will deliver him out of them all. The Lord ransoms the life of his servants and none will be punished who trust in Him.”

Hold up. I thought only wicked people had troubles, or people with not enough faith. If you listened to my recent podcast with Fr. Ken Tanner, then you heard us discuss this troubling tendency in our minds as Western Christians. Calamity is too often treated as a matter of punishment. Just last night, my wife and I were talking about our own tendency to look for a reason in our own life when times are difficult. The question, which is also dealt with extensively in the soon-to-be film-adapted Silence by Shusaka Endo, is “what have I done to deserve this?” 

But the scripture says, “many are the troubles of the righteous…” and “…none will be punished who trust in him.” and, elsewhere, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” So why do we think that difficulties or tragedies in life are somehow punishments? Is God the impartial judge handing out cruel and unusual punishments to those he supposedly loves? Well maybe a misunderstanding of the Cross has distorted our view of God.

We often use judicial or economic language to metaphorize the cross: “It’s like if you were going to be condemned to death for your crimes, but the son of the judge jumped up and said, ‘I will die for him.’ And the judge said, ‘oh perfect, let me take out my wrath on you. As long as I have someone to kill for this crime, I will be satisfied'” Wait what? That’s kind of terrible. How should we feel about a God like that? 

Instead, we should look at the cross like this: We turned from God. God never gave up on us, but sent prophets and eventually his son to turn us back to him. Except that we could not accept God’s redeeming work but had to take out our guilt and anger on those who came to reconcile us. We continually persecuted and killed his prophets in our attempt to alleviate our own guilt and have our own way. So, Jesus took on himself all of our anger and hate and fear(the iniquities of us all) and gave himself up for us in perfect union with the Father. So the Father watched and wept as we put all of our sin onto him who knew no sin. It was not the Father’s wrath that was appeased that day, but our own wrath was absorbed by love and forgiven by grace. The Father somehow thought it was worth the sacrifice of his son to gain us. We were the pearl of great price and he went and sold all he had and bought that pearl. 

Yet we think that God is doling out punishment on us for our sin or our lack of faith. We think that our negative circumstances are due to our failures to live up to the impossible standard of perfection. In a similar mistake of ego, we think that our success is due to our great faith and works. Again, scripture says, “Many are the troubles of the righteous but the Lord will deliver him out of them all.” 

That’s the story of redemption. So when we fall, when times are hard, when we think that God has forsaken us, we can turn to the cross and know that God loves us, God is not mad at us, and God will never leave us or forsake us.

Advent Gratitude

There are many people who have explored this idea in better ways than I, (most notably, Ann Voskamp) but I have been thinking a lot about gratitude lately. As a manager in the restaurant industry, it is hard not to become a utilitarian manipulator who encounters your staff members as a means to an end: running a great shift. When someone calls out and we know we can get Susie Q. to cover it for us if we ask just the right way, we can lose our sense of engaging a person. We say “thank you so much!” and we mean it, but it can become just a part of the transaction. If we don’t make them feel appreciated now, they may not do A, B, or C for us later.

This mindset ends up eating its own tail as we begin to view people’s interactions with us as merely a means to an end. We go out of our way to help someone who is useful to us and we ignore the needs of those who ask too much or don’t benefit us in any way. Even with your friends, people who entertain us or encourage us are foremost amongst our friends and those who annoy us or are “needy” are held at arms-length. True gratitude and a realization of that which Advent teaches can help turn this utilitarian model on its head.

In Advent, we encounter the brokenness of the world before Christ came to enact God’s plan of redemption. God made the world good and beautiful, but we perpetuated brokenness and evil. We created the world of “might is right” and took advantage of our fellow man as often as helping him. We ran from the loving embrace of God and were self-centered above all else. The truth of Advent is that even in the midst of a world filled with suffering and widespread oppression, Jesus became one of us to emphasize and fulfill the value of every human being.

Jesus came to be the “human face of God and the Divine face of man.” Every man was embraced at the cross where a political torture device was used to kill a man who had done no wrong but was condemned by the religious crowd who had stripped him of his humanity as they used him as a scapegoat for their own guilt and shame. The irony was that Jesus still encountered each individual on his way to the cross with love and gifted each of them value.

Advent shows us that no matter how useful or useless we are, no matter how oppressive or oppressed, no matter what our origin, we are all sought after and valued as a “pearl of great price.” Where does gratitude come in? Well, we must be grateful for each person we encounter. We must learn to look in the eyes of our enemy and see our brother. We must see the world as God saw it when he sent Jesus. We must see through the eyes of God during the Advent before Jesus. The world was groaning and yearning for the true, the good and the beautiful. The world was broken and people were perpetuating that brokenness. Into this, God looked and He loved. He looked and he was grateful for our existence. He looked and he sent Jesus to restore relationship with those broken individuals whom he adored. So now, we must see Jesus in every man and woman, in every situation and system. Jesus came for the redemption of the world.

So now, we must see Jesus in every man and woman, in every situation and system. Jesus came for the redemption of the world. He came to strengthen the feeble knees and make glad the faint hearted, to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives. If we are not encountering people with this heart, if we are not truly acknowledging from whence we came and to where we are going, if we do not live out of gratitude for every  person we encounter, then we will not be living the kingdom Jesus established.

Let’s be grateful. A simple moment of showing someone that you are truly grateful for them as a person can make all the difference. Let’s acknowledge every person as the pursuit of God in Christ Jesus. And let’s enjoy the anticipation of the coming of the redemption of the world this Christmas and in eternity to come.

He was Tempted in Every Way as We are

One of the most remarkable stories in the Bible is the story of Jesus’ temptation. It is written, “[He] was tempted in every way as we are, yet he did not sin.” (Heb 4:15) And yet, we only have one instance of temptation recorded, and we have that same instance recorded in three of the four gospels. I am not saying that Jesus wasn’t tempted elsewhere in his life, but it seems that this was a very important example of temptation. In fact, I would venture to say that the story of Jesus’ temptation is one of the most important stories in the gospel for Christians. In it are the principles for how we navigate temptation and challenges in our life. 

Before we look at his temptation, it is important to to think through the implications of the theological concept of “Kenosis.” This is a Greek word that means to self-empty. It is used in Phil 2:6-7,

“[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” 

The crucial idea within Kenosis is that Jesus came to earth as a human without access to his Godly powers. “He made himself nothing…” This is the emptying of all God-qualities. Jesus was not a super-baby. All the iconography of Jesus blessing people as a baby is misleading. He did not have some sort of supernatural intelligence or power as a man. Rather, he lived his life as we lived, learning and growing as a young Jewish male in the first century AD. This means that he could actually experience temptation. If he were God, with the knowledge of all that is and was and is to come, how could he be truly tempted? If he had the unlimited power, knowledge and communion of the Trinity, how could he be tempted by anything?

Instead, he had to learn of his identity as we do. He searched the Scriptures, he learned of God from his parents, he was brought up in the way of the Lord by his local community. I am sure that he grew up hearing the stories of his miraculous birth. He had promises spoken over him. He grew in “wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.” So when we get to Jesus’ baptism, we can imagine that he was working from his relationship to God at that point. He seems to have had some idea of his identity. When he was eleven he replies to his mother and father after going missing for three days, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) So when he turns thirty, God tells him to go get baptized in the Jordan. This perfect man gets baptized as a representation of all of the new creation. John tries to turn him away, but Jesus knows enough by now to know that this is for the “fulfillment of all righteousness.” And then he gets the clear call of his identity as the dove decends upon him and the voice of God speaks, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” 

The firstborn of the New Creation gets baptized into his true identity as the Son of God. He has been reading about the Messiah his whole life. His knowledge of the Torah is shown throughout his ministry. He knows the prophecies about Messiah and now he has been confirmed and commissioned in his call. Throughout the Bible, as people are called into their identity and given promises about their life, they enter into a period of testing. Joseph was promised to be a ruler with the stars of heaven and sheaves of wheat bowing down to him then he was sold into slavery by his own brothers, then he was falsely accused and thrown in prison. It says in Psalms 105:19, “the world of the Lord tested him.” So now, Jesus is tested by the word of the Lord. 

He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness and after forty days of fasting he is hungry (ya think??). So in his weakest moment, the devil comes and tests him. The fascinating part of this dialogue is the nature of the temptations. There is no obfuscation here, the entirety of his temptation is about the identity and the promises God has spoken over Jesus. Jesus, the presumptuous Jewish man who has the audacity to believe that God has called him “Son” and to promise him the salvation of the world. 

Satan begins, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

Hold up. This isn’t even a sin! The tempter is merely asking him to perform a miracle of provision in confirmation of the word God spoke to him. But we know better. This about whether Jesus trust the identity God spoke over him and his answer shows how tightly he is holding to God’s word.

He answers, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

All of our temptation to doubt the word of God, to be anxious for provision, to want proof of God’s favor, and Jesus clings to the Word of Truth. 
Again, Satan tries a different tact. He takes him to the Jerusalem and sets him on the pinnacle of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you trike your foot against a stone.'”

Satan throws Scripture in Jesus face. You can imagine him thinking, “Two can play at this game…” Now Jesus has a promise and Satan is only asking him to test the promises of Scripture. 

Jesus answers, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Not only is he choosing to believe God’s word of identity over him, he is choosing to believe in the promises God has made about him without any proof, without seeing their fulfillment. “Blessed is the one who believes without seeing…”

Lastly, the devil goes after the destiny of Jesus. Ok, maybe you know who you are, but now you have to decide whether you can trust God’s calling on your life. Jesus has an impossible task before him. The Devil takes him to a very high mountain and shows him the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Now, remember, Jesus knows that, “Kingdoms shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isaiah 60:3) So Jesus is seeing the smallness of himself in the light of what God said he would do. Satan offers him a shortcut. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 

Ok, so we all know not to sell our soul to the devil, but how often do we make small compromises to get what we want? God promised to provide, but I don’t see the provision so I am going to go apply for a credit card. God promised to fulfill me, but I feel unfulfilled so I will enter into a relationship without consulting him to see if the relationship is one that God wants for me. These are broad examples, but every day we are confronted with choices of priorities. Are we going to worship God or _____? 

Jesus shows us once more the power of the Word: 

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”

One more note about this last temptation. Idolatry is the most confronted sin in the Old Testament, and we often think that we have not struggles with that. We would never worship a statue, but the nature of idolatry is far more insidious than that. The pastor of my church is always saying, “Idolatry is when we say, ‘I will be happy if I have God and ____.'” Whatever is in that blank–romance, money, a career, security, children, etc.–is the idol that we are serving.

How many of us have know our identity in Christ? How many of us know the promises and prophecies that have been spoken over us? We should hold fast to these words and not give in to fear when the words test us, when we don’t yet see their fulfillment. Jesus was unwilling to shortcut God’s process even though it led through suffering and death. Because he held to the promises of God over his life and the specific words God had spoken to him about his identity (both through prophecies directly to him and through the Scripture), Jesus was able to walk in the power of God and not stumble. We should do the same. When confronted with our various challenges and temptations, let us focus on the promises and the identity God has given us and cast our mountains into the sea. 

 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:24-25) 

Life and Death are in the Power of the Tongue

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God.”

It’s hard to overemphasize the attention the Bible gives to the power of our words. Jesus is the Word. God created the world through words. Our world is still being created through words. The most valuable resource in the world is intellectual property which is communicated through words. Books from Nietzsche to Plato to Malcolm Gladwell to Ray Bradbury change the way that we see the world and what we envision as right or good or possible. Blogs and newspapers serve as our window into the world around us. There is no end to literature on the power of words to shape our internal and external realities.

And yet, we think that venting and complaining is a healthy part of life. We will say things like, “My life sucks, this sucks, everyone has it better than me, I hate this.” Well if that is the narrative you tell yourself every day from the moment you get out of bed until the moment you go to sleep, then that will become your reality. I recently heard a preacher say, “We will recreate externally our internal environment.” So if you are negative internally, you will create negativity around you. Our brains are shaped by what we consume, but they are transformed by what comes out of our mouths. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” We can actually choose the abundance of our hearts by picking our words carefully.

When we encounter a situation that is challenging, we can speak life and not death. To give a seemingly mundane example, we can look at two responses to car troubles. My car has only been owned by me for a year. It is two years old and has 45,000 miles on it and the engine light is on and it has difficulty shifting gears even though it is an automatic. One response, “I just got this car a year ago and it’s already having issues! This sucks. It’s probably a poorly made car. What if it’s not covered under the powertrain warranty? I am sure that there will be more and more problems as it gets older. This is just my luck!” or “Hmm. I should take this in and get it looked at. Good thing I am noticing this now before the power train warranty is up! That’s totally God’s favor because if I had noticed it in a few months I may have been over the 50,000-mile limit. If it’s not covered, then I will just have to trust God to provide like he always has.”

OK, I know, that’s a cheesy example, but it illustrates the big difference between people who have been transformed by God’s truth that you are accepted, provided for abundantly, and equipped for good works and people who are stuck in the world mindset that says prepare for the worst and give up hope because if you don’t you are just pretending and lying to yourself. The cynical spirit is more pervasive and destructive to God’s transforming work in our life than any other attitude, and you regularly encounter it in the Church.

Instead of complaining and prophesying destruction over our situation, we need to speak life and prophesy the promises of God over every situation. This is no hopeless optimism or prosperity Gospel. Paul learned to praise God and be content in all circumstances: whether being beaten for the faith, imprisoned, feasting with friends, or doing the work of ministry. Prosperity Gospel says that you will be happy because your circumstances will be what you want them to be. Paul was joyful and content and worshipful in spite of his circumstances. And this is no naive optimism, it is faith in the promises we have received that God will work all things for our good (whether we think it is our good or not) and that we have been created to love Him and enjoy Him forever. So, today why don’t you evaluate your inner monologue. Is it based on convincing yourself of your difficulties and your right to be upset? Or is it encouraging your soul to praise God in all circumstances and reminding yourself of His truth and promises?