One of my many Advent readings is Ann Voskamp’s The Greatest Gift. This is the eighth year I’ve picked up the beautiful blue and white book in December and it’s become a space that feels like home. Today’s reading is about Abraham on Mount Moriah, how God not only stopped him from sacrificing his son Isaac, but also provided a ram in the thicket to be the sacrifice that day. Genesis 22:14 tells us that “Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide.” Ann writes of that naming:
“It is a thing: to call a place ‘The Lord Will Provide.’ It is a thing to name where you live Provision, to name the place you call home “The Lord Will Provide.” To take your tired hand and turn the knob of that front door marked Provide and step right into the widening vista of Advent and find that the literal translation of “to provide” means “to see.” God always sees, and He will always see to the matter. Your legs may be weary and your heart may be heavy and your questions may be many, but whatever you are facing, it is always named Mount Moriah: the Lord will appear. The Lord sees. And He will see to it. And He will be seen.”
Have you ever named a place based on your experience of God’s presence there? Ann nailed it–it is a thing. An audacious, bold proclamation that says “This is who God was and is and will be forever.” Abraham didn’t name the place “The Lord Did Provide,” as in, that one thing, that one time. His naming is one that rings true set against the history of ages past and the history that hasn’t been written yet. As much as I love the name Abraham chose, I love the meaning behind it that Ann shares with us even more. “To provide” literally means “to see.” God sees. Fully. Completely. From the biggest, broadest overview down to the tiniest detail of your tiniest cell–He sees. And He will see to it. Even here. Even now.
Pastor John spoke to us on Sunday about the juxtaposition of joy and pain. He said that Christmas tends to be a challenging season for many during normal years. This year has been anything but normal, and the challenges of this season seem exacerbated for everyone. He asked us if there are things we would like to see change, asked us what we wish was different. He shared some of his own answers, and left us to ponder our own. He then led us into Philippians, a letter Paul wrote while in prison, while he was disconnected and isolated from those he loved and longed to be with. We might expect that a letter written under such circumstances would be full of themes like sadness, longing, hopelessness, fear, and even desperation. But the dominant theme in the letter to the Philippians is joy.
Paul models throughout this letter a way to live free, hopeful, connected, and joyful regardless of circumstances. How? We could hypothesize that Paul was just one of those positive, glass-half-full types who could reframe any situation with some well-meaning “Christianese.” We might even scoff a little and attempt to brush off what can sometimes feel like platitudes and tone-deafness in a world that is literally coming unhinged in every possible way. I don’t think that’s the right lens, though. Here’s what I think…
I think Paul was utterly and completely convinced of the nearness of God. I think he was intimately acquainted with our ever-providing, all-seeing God, and that the withness of this Jesus who had radically changed his life was more real to him than anything else. I think Paul knew well that exploring the depths of sorrow and grief is the very thing that expands our human capacity for joy–that you cannot fully know joy unless your heart has known the icy grip of pain. Based on what we know of the human condition and what we saw modeled by Jesus himself, I think it is safe to assume that Paul’s public rejoicing and positive exhortations were born of a private wrestling with his God.
It is a fight to hold onto joy.
It is a battle to stay above the crashing waves of fear and doubt and hopelessness. It takes grit to face each day with a stubborn determination to rejoice. And I’m not talking about the fake, put-on, platitude-infused kind of rejoicing. I’m talking about chara joy, the kind that results from deep gratitude, the kind that is a fruit of the Spirit abiding within us as we live connected to Jesus, our true Vine. Paul’s joy was this kind of joy, one that thrives regardless of circumstance… because it doesn’t depend on us. It is the joy of Jesus–our Living Word, the Living Expression of God, the Light of Advent--alive in us, steady in the depths even when waves crash on the surface.
Real joy can handle our pain, our questions, our tears. It does not negate our grief; it invites it to come inside and stay awhile–to be held within Love’s embrace. Joy knows what we sometimes forget, and beckons us to lean in to hear the whisper: He is here. Emmanuel. God with us. He sees. You’re not alone. Paul knew he wasn’t alone, and he also knew that the presence of God has the power to change any situation. He knew the truth: good work is done in the meantime, in that “interim; interval between one specified time and another” (Online Etymology Dictionary). The meantime... we are in that kind of liminal space right now. We’re not in the before times and we haven’t yet made it to the after. We are in the sticky, undefined tension of the middle. Jesus’ whole human life took place in the meantime, friends. Between being at home with the Father and Spirit in the beginning, and getting back home again after his death and resurrection, was the messy middle of living on the earth as a man. He was the interval between one specified time and another, his human life marked that interim space. What beautiful work was done there…
God can do beautiful work in this difficult, interim season as well. Just as he did while Paul was imprisoned and isolated. Paul was grounded in Christ; Jesus was the source of his joy. So he was able to focus outward and look up–even in the messy middle. Even when he faced so many unknowns. I think that’s really what Pastor John wanted us to hear on Sunday. Yes, times are hard. Yes, we all wish so much was different. And… God is with us. His presence is provision, his vision holds us always in his gaze. He walks with us and ahead of us into the unknowns of this life. Even here, even now.
So ask yourself the questions John asked us. What would you like to see change? What do you wish was different? Lean into the arms that are already holding you, whatever your answers might be…
“In the thin air of Advent, you may not even know how to say it out loud: “I thought it would be easier.” And your God comes near: I will provide the way. You may not even know who to tell: “I thought it would be different.” And your God draws close: I will provide grace for the gaps. You may not even know how to find words for it: “I thought I would be. . . more.” And your God reaches out: I will provide Me.
God gives God. That is the gift God always ultimately gives. . .” (Voskamp, The Greatest Gift)
God gives God. That is reason to rejoice…
Laura wrote above: Paul knew he wasn’t alone, and he also knew that the presence of God has the power to change any situation. He knew the truth: good work is done in the meantime…
She spoke of living in “liminal” space; the in-between. It made me think of borderlands. Borderlands are those spaces in-between. Borderlands can be a melting pot of cultures, of traditions, of people. When I lived in Brazil we often spent time in a city located on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. There was a fabulous open air market on the Bolivian side, so we would cross the border from time to time to shop. We would leave Brazil, and cross the borderland—a bridge that did not belong to Brazil or Bolivia—it was in between. Once we made it through the Bolivian checkpoint, the language changed, the style of dress changed, the food changed, the music changed, even the body type of the people changed, and all we had done was taken a short jaunt across the borderland–which I guess could be seen as both places or neither one.
We live in a spiritual borderland. We have left our before Christ life– we are in Christ, but the Kingdom of heaven has not yet been fully realized. This is where we live–the middle. And as Laura wrote above, this is where Paul found himself. Is it possible to thrive in that space–or is it just a waiting ground? Paul had learned to thrive.
Pastor John expressed on Sunday that a sermon out of the book of Philippians seems odd for a Christmas message; however, without the Christmas story, without the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ there would have been no Paul, and he would not have had reason to write about joy—without Christ, there would have been none. As Laura wrote above, joy is an element of the fruit of the Spirit. Joy is not based on our circumstances.
When the angel spoke to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, the angel said: “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” (Luke 2:10) Paul had experienced that great joy. Once he met Jesus, his entire life had been swept up into embracing God’s love, and sharing the good news of God’s love, and acceptance, and grace, and transformation, and joy, and beauty, and so much more… He shared about it everywhere he went no matter what his circumstances were. Paul (as Saul) had been a slave to the religious law, but once he encountered Jesus, he found freedom and came fully alive. He wanted everyone everywhere to experience that same great joy.
Laura did a beautiful job of writing about joy above, yet she also wrote: It is a battle to stay above the crashing waves of fear and doubt and hopelessness. It takes grit to face each day with a stubborn determination to rejoice. And I’m not talking about the fake, put-on, platitude-infused kind of rejoicing. I’m talking about chara joy, the kind that results from deep gratitude, the kind that is a fruit of the Spirit abiding within us as we live connected to Jesus, our true Vine. Paul’s joy was this kind of joy, one that thrives regardless of circumstance… because it doesn’t depend on us. It is the joy of Jesus–our Living Word, the Living Expression of God, the Light of Advent–alive in us, steady in the depths even when waves crash on the surface.
…the chara kind of joy…the kind that results from deep gratitude…
Here we are. The global pandemic is still raging across the world. People are dying at alarming rates. Economies and personal livelihoods are being affected. We aren’t gathering together. We aren’t hugging. We aren’t traveling to visit those we love. We are wearing masks as a way to care for one another and slow the spread, but we can’t see one another’s faces. On top of that, in this nation we have political unrest, deep division, racial inequities, systemic injustice, and polarized mindsets making it difficult to have “real” conversations about meaningful things that could lead to change. Can we have joy that’s real and face reality at the same time?
Paul did. We can learn from him. Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi from prison. He wrote many of his letters while incarcerated. We can read how Paul’s relationship with the Philippians began in Acts 16. As a quick recap, Philippi was a Roman colony. Paul and his companions were looking for a place to pray, but instead, found a group of women and began conversing with them, one of whom was Lydia. She became the first person in Philippi to believe in Christ and invited Paul and his companions to stay in her home. Paul and Silas had trouble in Philippi when they freed a slave girl from demon possession resulting in loss of revenue for her master. They were attacked over the loss of revenue, ordered to be beaten, and after being severely flogged were thrown in jail. In jail, despite their wounds, they sang and prayed while the other prisoners listened. A violent earthquake shook the jail, the doors opened, and all those who could have escaped remained. The jailer was about to commit suicide because he thought they’d escaped, but when he learned they hadn’t he took them to his home, took care of their wounds, fed them and became a follower of Jesus. Acts 16:34 tells us the jailer was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
So when Paul writes his letter to the church in Philippi, these are the people to whom he is writing. He writes: I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…(Ph. 1: 3-5) Gratitude and joy. Paul is not focused on his own circumstances. His focus is Jesus, his focus is sharing Jesus with his prison guards, his focus is encouraging his friends in Christ. He tells the Philippians he knows Jesus will complete the work he began in them. He tells them his joy comes from knowing that sharing the love of Jesus is their priority too, and he thanks them for their partnership. He tells them that even in chains, he has them in his heart and they share being recipients of God’s grace together. He also tells them that he longs for them.
He writes this beautiful prayer:
I continue to pray for your love to grow and increase beyond measure, bringing you into the rich revelation of spiritual insight in all things. This will enable you to choose the most excellent way of all—becoming pure and without offense until the unveiling of Christ. And you will be filled completely with the fruits of righteousness that are found in Jesus, the Anointed One—bringing great praise and glory to God! (Ph. 1:9-11 TPT)
Then Paul writes about being in actual chains in actual prison. This isn’t a metaphor. He’s in a Roman jail, in chains. He has no rights. He has no idea if he’s going to be executed or set free. He’s not ignoring what’s true about his physical state of being; however, he is in control of his thoughts and attitude and chooses to focus on “things above”.
Former prisoner Andrew Medal wrote: Nobody can take your mind prisoner if you don’t allow it. We are all free to think and feel how we choose. Be wise in your choices.
Paul refuses to be a prisoner in his mind and attitude. His priority is Christ. He admits that to die and be with Christ would be a good thing, it’s actually what he desires; however, while he lives his priority is Jesus, introducing others to Jesus, and encouraging those who already know Jesus to keep going, to keep growing, to keep loving, to keep sharing. His letters encourage us to do the same.
Where are our minds, our priorities, our focus in this borderland space? Is joy possible in this season of isolation, of division, of struggle, of challenge? It is. The angels announced that good news of great joy for all would be the result of Jesus’ birth. They announced this to unimportant men, on an unimportant hill, in an unimportant town under Roman occupation. Good news. Great joy. Even for them.
At Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, after speaking to them about vines and branches and remaining connected to him, he said: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:11)
So what is the key to joy no matter the circumstances? Jesus. Embracing his love, remaining in his love, sharing his love, encouraging others in his love. Being his love.
Right here, right in the middle, we have a home in Christ. We belong. We are lavishly loved. Jesus is here.