Peace & Joy

Peace. What is it? How do we find it? How is it connected to joy? On Sunday, Pastor John led us into the last chapter of Philippians, and he focused on the parts of the passage that speak to us about peace.

“My dear and precious friends, whom I deeply love, you have truly become my glorious joy and crown of reward. Now arise in the fullness of your union with our Lord. . . Be cheerful with joyous celebration in every season of life. Let joy overflow, for you are united with the Anointed One! Let gentleness be seen in every relationship, for our Lord is ever near. Don’t be pulled in different directions or worried about a thing. Be saturated in prayer throughout each day, offering your faith-filled requests before God with overflowing gratitude. Tell him every detail of your life, then God’s wonderful peace that transcends human understanding, will make the answers known to you through Jesus Christ. So keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always. Follow the example of all that we have imparted to you and the God of peace will be with you in all things. . . I know what it means to lack, and I know what it means to experience overwhelming abundance. For I’m trained in the secret of overcoming all things, whether in fullness or in hunger. And I find that the strength of Christ’s explosive power infuses me to conquer every difficulty. (4:1, 4-9, 12-13, TPT)

Both occurrences of “peace” in the above passage are translated from the Greek eirēnē. Eirēnē is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Shalom. Shalom is one of our favorite words at Enter In, which you already know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time. It means wholeness, completeness, it carries within it a sense of equity, and the restoration of all things to their original design; it also means to destroy the authority of what is causing chaos. When Paul tells us that peace will guard us, and that the God of peace will be with us, his words are pregnant with meaning–all of the meaning of the word Shalom that he was deeply acquainted with as a dedicated scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peace in this context goes far beyond the white-dove-on- a-Christmas-card kind of peace we’re familiar with. It’s everything Shalom means… and more.

Let’s look at more words from Paul, from his letter to the Ephesians:

For He Himself is our peace and our bond of unity… (AMP)

Our reconciling “Peace” is Jesus! (TPT)

For Christ is our living peace. (JB Phillips)

(Ephesians 2:14, emphases mine)

Jesus IS. OUR. PEACE. I wrote about this verse recently, about how it takes my breath away every time I consider it. Peace is not conditional or circumstantial. It is not a fleeting emotion, or something we have to strive or grasp for. Peace is… Jesus. I’ll never, ever get over that. Again, the word here is eirēnē. Jesus is our eirēnē. Our Shalom. What does it mean for Jesus to be our Shalom?

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows—
light! Sunbursts of light! You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they’re so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings. The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants— all their whips and cudgels and curses—Is gone, done away with, a deliverance as surprising and sudden as Gideon’s old victory over Midian. The boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood, will be piled in a heap and burned, a fire that will burn for days! For a child has been born—for us! The gift of a son—for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness. His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings. He’ll rule from the historic David throne over that promised kingdom. He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going with fair dealing and right living, beginning now and lasting always.”
(From Isaiah 9:2-7, MSG)

I love The Message paraphrase of these verses. What Eugene Peterson translated “Prince of Wholeness,” we more frequently see translated “Prince of Peace,” especially at Christmastime. Both are an accurate translation–the original Hebrew word here is–you guessed it–Shalom. The incarnation of Jesus was the embodiment of the hope the prophets of Israel said would come. The Shalom they longed for, the restoration they believed for–when Jesus was born, that Shalom, that eirēnē, became flesh that would dwell among us, that would tear down dividing walls and reconcile all things. And we would not only have access to this peace–it would live within us and be produced by us, a fruit of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus…

“. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace (eirēnē), forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV)

We can have peace this Christmas, this day, and every day–even in 2020, even when divisions widen and a pandemic plagues the earth, even when so much feels broken beyond repair–because peace is not a feeling. Peace is a person. A perfect person. The God-man himself. Peace is Jesus. He is Emmanuel, God with us and God in us. He himself is our peace

This morning’s reading in one of my advent devotionals connected beautifully the concepts of peace and joy. It feels like a great way to wrap up my portion:

“The joy spoken of and so prevalent in the life and teachings of Jesus is something perennial, an immutable, unstealable, internal peace, that, like a friend, simply stays regardless of what’s happening. It allows us to feel secure in the shaking, to laugh when everything hits the fan, and to experience abundance even when we should be lacking. Today, don’t feel any pressure to be happy, but do feel invited into great joy.” (Low, Pavlovitz)

Do feel invited into great joy… because we have a friend, a peace, who remains with us regardless–forever. Grace, joy, and Shalom to you, dear friends…

–Laura

I love what Laura wrote so much, I am tempted to not add anything; however, a few thoughts are floating in my head, so I’ll continue.

After reading Laura’s portion, I am stirred deep within by this thought: What if we could truly grasp the concept of shalom, of eirēnē–what if we could really understand that Jesus is the embodiment of shalom and we are the embodiment of Jesus, how different would things be?

Like Laura, I love the Eugene Peterson paraphrase of Isaiah 9:6 and his choice to translate the familiar title “Prince of Peace” as “Prince of Wholeness”. The word wholeness causes me to think of John 3:17 which says For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. “Save” is the Greek word “sozo”. It is used over and over in the New Testament and it means heal; made whole. So, God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but to heal the world, to make it whole through him. He is the Prince of Wholeness, and we are invited to participate with him in our personal healing and wholeness and in his ministry of healing and wholeness in the world. Saving the world in Jesus, healing the world in Jesus, bringing wholeness to the world through Jesus, is our mission as his church, his ecclesia, his called out ones.

Revisiting Philippians 4, this week’s passage, Paul addresses a conflict between two women in the Philippian church. Paul pleads with them to “be of the same mind in the Lord” (4:2) Unity is important to Paul; he knows Jesus taught that our love for one another shows the world who Jesus is and what his followers are like (Jn 13:35). Encouragement toward unity under our one Lord (Gal 3:28) appears in many of Paul’s letters. In his letter to the Romans he writes: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Rom 12:18) Sit with that for a moment.

Think about the phrase as far as it depends on you… Unfortunately, in this life there are some conflicts that won’t be resolved, but have you done your part? Each of us is encouraged to do our part in seeking healing and wholeness. I’ll say it again, we are participants in the ministry and mission of the Prince of Peace–the Prince of Wholeness. Are we seeking peace? “Peace” in Romans 12:18 is the verb form of eirēnē, and includes the definition make peace, cultivate peace; harmony. Jesus’ peace, healing and wholeness are not static. Jesus’ peace is developed and worked–cultivated– like soil before planting. It leads to harmony–not sameness, but wholeness in our differences, like a chord in music. Are we doing what we can to cultivate peace? Are we like-minded in Jesus? Do we have the same mind in us that was in Jesus? (Ph 2:5) Are we renewing our minds in Christ by changing the way we think or are we thinking like the world? (Rom 12:2) Are we cultivating peace in our inner lives? Are we cultivating peace in the world?

Paul, right after addressing the conflict, seems to switch gears and says “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” Did you know that rejoice (chairo) doesn’t only mean “be glad”, it also means “be well; thrive”? I didn’t know that until just now when I looked it up. Could that be the definition Paul has in mind? Could “be of the same mind in the Lord” and “Be well; thrive in the Lord always…” be connected? I can certainly see the connection, especially paired the words that follow: Let your gentleness be evident to all

Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit and evidence that we are well and thriving in the Lord. Even when conflict arises, can we be well, thrive in the Lord, speak gently, be kind, seek harmony, seek peace? We all know that it’s not easy, but Paul reminds us in that same verse, the Lord is near. We are not left alone to figure this out. Jesus is right here, and he will empower us to bear the fruit of the Spirit when we abide in him. How beautiful is that? The results don’t belong to us, but have we done what we can do?

The rest of this week’s passage addresses anxiety, circumstances, contentment, partnership in ministry, taking care of one another’s needs, and confidence that the Lord will supply all we need in him, but I’m not going to dive into those things. I want us to sit with what Laura focused on-Jesus is our peace, and contemplate where we are with that. Are we well in Jesus? Are we thriving in Jesus? If we are, we will experience his shalom, his healing work of wholeness in our lives, and we will be harmonious instruments of his peace to those around us.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

Prayer of Peace: St. Francis.

As we celebrate Christmas in a few short days, may we lean into our gentle, approachable, loving, humble Prince of Peace. May we thrive in him, be healed in him, be made whole in him, become like him, and cultivate God’s Kingdom of Peace on the earth.

Jesus is our peace.

–Luanne

Jesus Alone Offers Peace and Hope

Joy: Press On; Grow

Look at how much encouragement you’ve found in your relationship with the Anointed One! You are filled to overflowing with his comforting love. You have experienced a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit and have felt his tender affection and mercy. So I’m asking you, my friends, that you be joined together in perfect unity—with one heart, one passion, and united in one love. Walk together with one harmonious purpose and you will fill my heart with unbounded joy. (Ph. 2:1-2 TPT)

Our passage this week is actually from Philippians 3, and we’ll get there, but I think it is important to sit with Philippians 2:1-2 for a moment. Reflect on your relationship with Jesus, the Anointed One. Has it encouraged you? Are you filled to overflowing with his comforting love? Are you experiencing a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit? Have you felt the Spirit’s tender affection and mercy? If not, take some time and ask God to meet you in this space.

It’s been a hard year on many fronts. I have found myself wanting to pull away, to self-protect, to “shrink” many times during this last twelve months; however, when I take the time to lean into God (who Richard Rohr refers to as The Trinity of Love), and spend time in that intentional space, I soften. The softening allows me to get more in touch with my actual feelings, and allows me to be more human being than doing. The softening allows us to move toward being joined together in perfect unity with one heart, one passion, and united in love. The softening allows us to move toward walking together with one harmonious purpose. Those are the things that filled the Apostle Paul’s heart with unbounded joy. Why? Because the people of Jesus look like Jesus and the world experiences the joy of Jesus.

Philippians 2 continues with Paul encouraging the Philippians to be imitators of Christ and what that looks like. It’s always worth it to read through that passage; however, in this blog post we will move on to Chapter 3.

As weird as it seems, Pastor John has chosen Paul’s letter to the Philippians for our Advent series. Why? Because a recurrent theme in this letter is joy. On the night of Jesus’ human birth, an angel spoke to the shepherds and said: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” (Luke 2:10). We are part of the all people who are offered the gift of great joy because Jesus lives in and among us. Paul had experienced that joy personally, and his desire was for everyone to experience the joy that comes with knowing Christ.

Chapter 3 begins with: My beloved ones, don’t ever limit your joy or fail to rejoice in the wonderful experience of knowing our Lord Jesus!

Do you ever limit your joy? I do. Why do we do that? Researcher and author Brené Brown says of joy: “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience, and if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.” In other words, we limit our joy. Brown says people who have a “profound capacity for joy” are those who don’t shy away from joy but instead feel grateful in the joy. She writes: “Instead of using [joy] as a warning to start practicing disaster, they use it as a reminder to practice gratitude.” Hmmm. Sounds similar to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Without question, life is hard, bad things happen, and leaning into joy is hard. All true. Or is it? It’s true if we believe joy is dependent upon us and our circumstances. How did Paul hang on to joy? How did Paul hang onto joy while writing this letter from a Roman prison. How did Paul hang on to joy while he was isolated from people he loves. Paul was a “go-getter”, a guy on the move, yet had been stopped in his tracks and locked up. How can he have joy? What nuggets does he teach us in chapter 3? Let’s look.

Paul writes: I don’t mind repeating what I’ve already written you because it protects you—  beware of those religious hypocrites who teach that you should be circumcised to please God.  For we have already experienced “heart-circumcision,” and we worship God in the power and freedom of the Holy Spirit, not in laws and religious duties. We are those who boast in what Jesus Christ has done, and not in what we can accomplish in our own strength. (3:1b-3)

I imagine in every generation since Christ’s ascension there have been those who want to lay down a list of rules for Jesus’ followers. Things like: you have to pray these words, you have to study the Bible this way, you have to go to this type of church, you have to avoid these certain behaviors, you have to avoid these certain people, you have to do it like us or you’re doing it wrong. Paul says–don’t fall for that. We don’t worship God through a set of prescribed rules…we worship God in the power and freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Paul goes on to describe how very good he was at following all the religious rules–if anyone could boast in doing it right (according to man-made standards), it was him. I don’t know if we can fully grasp how privileged and powerful Paul was–and how much he used that privilege and power to elevate himself and oppress those who worshiped differently than he did, especially those who had met Jesus. And then, Paul met Jesus. His encounter with Jesus changed the entire trajectory of his life–so much so that he writes to his Philippian friends: Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord!  To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past and throwing all my boasting on the garbage heap. It’s all like a pile of manure to me now, so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ and embrace him as Lord in all of his greatness. My passion is to be consumed with him and not clinging to my own “righteousness” based in keeping the written Law. My “righteousness” will be his, based on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ... I continually long to know the wonders of Jesus more fully…(3: 7-9, 10a TPT)

Wow! This is Paul’s secret. He is completely enamored with Jesus. He has experienced freedom from religious law, and has come alive in Christ. Oh, Lord Jesus–may this be our experience with you as well!

Paul admits: I haven’t yet acquired the absolute fullness that I’m pursuing, but I run with passion into his abundance so that I may reach the purpose that Jesus Christ has called me to fulfill and wants me to discover. I don’t depend on my own strength to accomplish this; however I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead.  I run straight for the divine invitationlet us all advance together to reach this victory-prize, following one path with one passion. (3: 12-14a; 16 TPT)

Or in the more familiar language of the NIV:  I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me

Joy comes from pressing on toward Jesus. Joy comes from knowing Jesus. Joy comes from pursuing Jesus. Joy comes in Jesus. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit of Jesus. Joy can be experienced no matter the circumstances because joy is based in Jesus.

One more thing before I pass the reins to Laura–Paul’s letter makes it abundantly clear that a relationship with Jesus is dynamic; it is not static. When we are in a real relationship with Jesus, we have a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit. Friendships that deepen are friendships that grow and change over time. To be a Christian, to be a Christ follower, means to be one who grows and changes over time. This growth happens as we stay close to Christ, rooted in Christ, grounded in Christ.

As we grow in Christ, our fruit will look like Christ, and the things Paul wrote about in Philippians 2:2 will happen. Our personal deepening friendships with the Holy Spirit will allow us to be joined together in perfect unity—with one heart, one passion, and united in one love. [We will] walk together with one harmonious purpose (and you will fill my heart with unbounded joy)...And our hearts will be filled with unbounded joy and we will fill the world with unbounded joy by living out the good news that because Jesus came to earth, great joy is available to all of us.

And friends–it’s not about obeying man-made religious laws, or trying to make all of Jesus’ followers across the nation and across the globe, who represent every ethnic group and culture look the same, act the same, interpret scripture the same, sing the same songs, etc. It’s about rejoicing in the freedom that we and others have found as we experience an ever deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit. It’s about learning with and from one another. It’s about growing to love Jesus who is reflected in all of this diversity and beauty across the earth. It’s about loving others and leaning in to the things that matter to God’s heart. We are free to do all of this. It is for freedom Christ has set us free–free to be uniquely who we’ve been designed to be–and free to reflect an aspect of his nature and character through our unique design. This kind of freedom, that comes from our deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit, is full of great joy and that is very good news.

–Luanne

What does it mean to know someone? We use the word “know” often in conversation to describe so many different situations. It is important as we consider this beautiful passage from Paul that we have a grasp on what “knowing” meant to him. Chapter three begins with this verse:

My beloved ones, don’t ever limit your joy or fail to rejoice in the wonderful experience of knowing our Lord Jesus! (TPT)

The word Paul uses in this verse has a root word in the Greek that means: to learn to know; come to know; get a knowledge of; perceive, feel; to become known; to become acquainted with. The same word was also used as a Jewish idiom to refer to sexual intercourse–an interesting point when we consider how many times the Bible records Jesus–who was raised Jewish–using this word. I mention this to emphasize the depth of connection implied with this kind of knowing. The intimacy and vulnerability the word carries are worth noticing here. Here are a few of the times Jesus used this same word:

“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (John 10:14-15a, MSG)

“If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” ( John 14:7, NIV)

And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Savior, the Holy Spirit of Truth, who will be to you a friend just like me—and he will never leave you. The world won’t receive him because they can’t see him or know him. But you will know him intimately, because he will make his home in you and will live inside you.

(John 14:16-17, TPT)

Eternal life means to know and experience you as the only true God, and to know and experience Jesus Christ, as the Son whom you have sent. (John 17:3, TPT)

But continue to grow and increase in God’s grace and intimacy with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May he receive all the glory both now and until the day eternity begins. Amen! (2 Peter 3:18, TPT)

All of these verses speak of an intimate knowing, an ongoing relationship. Take a look at this footnote included in The Passion Translation of the 2 Peter verse:

“The Aramaic does not use the imperative but makes it more of a decree: “You continue to be nourished in grace and in the intimate knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Messiah, and of God the Father.” Spiritual growth is yielding to the grace of God and having passion to know Jesus Christ intimately. In time, we grow into his beautiful image.”

Spiritual growth is yielding to the grace of God and having passion to know Jesus Christ intimately... Read that again… Maybe one more time… How gorgeous is that? We grow spiritually as we yield–what does that mean here? In The Greek, yield simply means I give way. Webster’s unabridged dictionary expands the definition: to admit to be true; to allow, permit, grant passage to; to comply with; cease opposition; to be no longer a hindrance to…

You all, this is not where I was going–I did not expect to find this little footnote in a verse I wasn’t even looking for, but here it is, so we’re going to stay here a minute… Spiritual growth happens when we choose to no longer be a hindrance to, to cease opposition toward, to grant passage… to what, again? The grace of God. Spiritual growth happens when we grant passage to the grace of God. To grant passage to where? To ourselves. There was a second part, too… having passion to know Jesus Christ intimately.” Where does passion to know Jesus come from? A collision with Grace. Somewhere we collide with Grace, and we get to choose whether we oppose and hinder the work of Grace in our lives, or grant Grace passage into the depths of us. When we choose to admit that God’s grace is true and we comply with that truth, our passion to know Jesus intimately grows. And then? In time, we grow into his beautiful image.”

Pastor John described this intimacy as “connection that pulls you into relationship.” I love that. We all know what that’s like, right? When you make a connection, and something about that point of contact draws you deeper, pulls at you to come back, come closer, connect again. It is how relationships are born, and with every point of connection, relationships grow.

Luanne wrote it this way, “Paul’s letter makes it abundantly clear that a relationship with Jesus is dynamic; it is not static. When we are in a real relationship with Jesus, we have a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit. Friendships that deepen are friendships that grow and change over time. To be a Christian, to be a Christ follower, means to be one who grows and changes over time…”

I will wrap this up soon, but I want to go back to one of the definitions of the root word Paul used that I mentioned earlier, to become known.” I think this one scares us a bit. I know it can make me uneasy. And when we’re thinking about human relationships, there’s good reason for that discomfort. Allowing oneself to become known–intimately known–by another involves risk. It is profoundly vulnerable, and leaves us woundable, which is really what vulnerable means: “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” (Oxford Dictionary) Who among us wants to sign up for that?? I suspect that some of you can feel a tightening in your chest as you read that definition. Maybe that’s just me…

Putting ourselves in a position that we are fully aware leaves us open to attack, harm, pain, betrayal…we resist it. I resist it. But if we refuse to be vulnerable, to pull away–like Luanne wrote about in the beginning of her portion–rather than lean in, we cannot experience the intimacy that only comes with being soft, open, exposed. Sometimes, with one another, we will regret our choice to be vulnerable. Sometimes we will be hurt. Sometimes we will wish we hadn’t opened so far, hadn’t let someone so close. But, sometimes… we’ll find connection. It’s what we crave. It’s what we are all built for–whether we want to admit it or not. Because it’s what we already have, what existed in the Trinity of Love before any of us ever came to be. It is the nature of God, the nature of Love itself. When we lean into the possibility of connection with one another, it can go either way. We will be hurt and disappointed at times. But when we lean into connection with Jesus, when we’re moved by Grace toward deeper intimacy with the Living Expression (John 1, TPT) alive within us, we will not be left wanting.

There is a Love who knows us fully, because that Love formed us, lives within us, and wants us–always. Love pursues us and keeps coming back for us–Love never rejects us. There is nothing hidden from Love’s sight, nothing so ugly within us to make Love turn away, because we were seen and known before we came to be–we have never once been out of Love’s gaze. We don’t have to be afraid, we are already known–that side of the relationship is not a mystery. Jesus has chosen to know us, fully, in every intricacy that makes us each who we are. But we don’t yet know him fully. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV) There is mystery to explore, there are treasures to discover as we grow in knowing Jesus. If we embrace the mystery, continue to yield to Grace, and if we are passionate about knowing Jesus intimately, we will grow in our knowledge of him, in our relationship with him, and into his beautiful image. What a powerful, lavish love. I am kind of undone by it all. Within a love like this, there is fullness of joy–despite what is going on around us. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he spoke these words:

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. (John 15:9-11, MSG, emphasis mine)

That is my prayer for us as we continue on in this season of Advent, that we will make ourselves at home in Jesus’ love, that his joy will be our joy, and that our joy will be whole and complete as we remain intimately at home in him.

May you be blessed with fullness of joy as you journey, friends.

–Laura

Fullness of Joy 16 – "God > Our Hearts" - Cross Connection Church

Joyful No Matter What

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.

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…

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 completeMy 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.

Good news.

Great joy.

For all.

–Luanne

Joy Christmas Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

Answered Prayer

What happens in us after we pray? What is our heart attitude? What is our mental attitude? What about those things that still hover in our periphery but we no longer pray about? What do we do with seemingly unanswered prayer? What do we do with answered prayer, especially when it’s not answered the way we expected? What do we really believe about prayer? What do we really believe about God?

Put yourself in this scene: Zechariah has just learned from a heavenly messenger that after years and years of praying, his deep desire to have a son will happen, and not only that, his son is going to be appointed by God to prepare the way for the messiah. How did Zechariah respond to this news? Did he jump for joy? Nope. Quite the opposite in fact:

 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  (Luke 1:18-23)

As Pastor John was preaching on this passage, and as I was pondering Zechariah’s response,  I thought of researcher Brene Brown’s thoughts on joy. She says:

 

“If you ask me what’s the most terrifying, difficult emotion we feel as humans…I would say joy. (We fear) something bad’s going to happen’… we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’  we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.

I’ve been there. Have you? Zechariah most certainly was. He was not in a mental position or heart position to get his hopes up again. He knew the odds were stacked against him, that he and Elizabeth were too old to have a child, and he had experienced too much pain over their barrenness to let this angel, this messenger from God, erode the protective wall he’d built around his heart over this particular subject.

Since an angel appearing in the holiest place of the temple wasn’t proof enough that God was about to do the impossible, Zechariah asks “how can I be sure?” He then speaks his “I am” statement; his rational argument as to why the angel’s words can’t be true…”I am old; my wife is old…”

The messenger responds with his own “I am” statement: “I am Gabriel”.  Gabriel’s name would not have been unfamiliar to Zechariah the priest. Gabriel was the angel who visited Daniel in the Old Testament. Gabriel goes on to say: “I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to tell you this good news…”

What on earth went through Zechariah’s heart and mind at this revelation? I feel fairly certain that, had it been me, I would no longer be standing. Despite the fact that Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah were “Don’t be afraid”, I think at this point in the encounter I would have been terrified.

What follows for Zechariah’s doubt is the consequence of silence until John the Baptist’s birth; however, God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. That’s an important thing for us to remember. Yes, there was a consequence for Zechariah, but God’s kindness, God’s miracle, and God’s purpose were not thwarted by his doubt. Zechariah and Elizabeth were still going to have the son who would be the forerunner of the messiah.

What about us? What is our posture around prayer–especially over those things that come from the deepest parts of us? According to Sunday’s sermon:

  1. We can lose hope.
  2. We can hang on to a glimmer of hope.

I have definitely experienced both. I have lost hope on dark journeys. Hopelessness leads to despair, and in those dark places of despair, faith dies. Our perception of God’s character gets warped to the point that God seems cruel, distant, not worth pursuing. I’ve been there. What those seasons in my life have led to is self-destruction which spills over into others-destruction. None of us is an island.

Hanging on to a glimmer of hope is a better option. Henry Blackaby, in his classic Bible study “Experiencing God” reminds us that Truth is a person. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life. What does it mean for truth to be a person? The way I understand it is that no matter what we see–what seems obvious to our physical beings and our limited understanding–God always has the final word. In the gospels, when Jesus showed up, humanly impossible situations changed in an instant.  The incurable were cured. The dead were raised. The outcasts were embraced. God always has the final word, and in this case, an old barren husband and wife were going to bear a son.

Zechariah had lost hope in this dream. It would appear that he believed God listened to the prayers of the people, but had given up hope that God listened to his personal prayer…after all, years had passed.

What about you? Are you full of faith when you pray for others but when it comes to yourself do you struggle to believe that God even cares? Do you struggle to believe that some of the huge things you are praying about can change? Do you believe that you (and the deep desires of your heart) matter to God?

I’m not going to say that any of this is easy. We certainly don’t always get our prayers answered in the ways we desire; God is not Santa Clause, but what we do get is deep connection with God, the assurance of God’s “withness” even in the hard seasons. Is that enough for us? If so, no matter the outcome of our prayers, we can experience joy, and there is a secret to that joy…

Brene Brown states: “I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”

Can we muster up gratitude even in the dark? Can we thank God for being with us in the dark? Can we thank God for hearing us? Can we thank God because we know He himself is Truth, and therefore, there is always a glimmer of hope?

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Zechariah’s son was the forerunner to that light who shone into our deep darkness . Zechariah’s son was impossible in human terms…but he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth anyway, for nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that The Light clothed himself in flesh and showed us what God really looks like? Is there enough of a glimmer of hope that we believe the message of the angels who said that Jesus’ birth brought peace and good will for all of us? Do we believe?

Practice gratitude. Hold on to hope. Your prayers have been heard, and our loving God, in His time and His way will respond.

–Luanne

On Sunday, as I listened to Pastor John talk about losing hope, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ephesians 2:14. The verse begins with the words, “For he himself is our peace…” (NIV) Paul is referring to Jesus here. In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul writes about Jesus as “our hope”. Luanne wrote about God himself being truth. She referenced John 14:6, where Jesus (the visible image of the invisible God) states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These verses don’t say that Jesus gives us peace, or that he offers hope, or leads us to truth. They state that he IS our peace, our hope, the truth.

This is so significant to me. It has been years–going on a decade now–since I first discovered Ephesians 2:14. I remember how it felt to my heart to let those words wash over me. I had been married five or six years, was mommy to four littles (all born within five years), and life was chaos. We had just experienced a season in our marriage that wreaked havoc on my heart, we were adjusting to a new church family, and we were struggling with jobs, finances, and our own obvious lack. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was starving for a real, authentic relationship with God. Despite my lack of time, the chaos around and within me, and the exhaustion of mothering a baby and three toddlers largely on my own in that season, I was chasing after God. I got up early and stayed up late because I was desperate for him. I was trying so hard to be everything I thought I needed to be, and my mind was a land mine. Peace was seemingly out of reach. And then…

“For he himself is our peace…” 

This changed everything for me. I began to see Jesus differently, and I began to find freedom from trying to force a peace I craved, but couldn’t seem to muster up. The recognition that Jesus is our peace led me to understand that he is the embodiment of all that we are not. He is our joy when we are grieving, our hope when we are hopeless, our truth when lies spin our minds crazy, our way when we’re lost in the dark, our life when we feel dead inside. He is not simply the giver of these good things–he IS these things. And if we know him, regardless of the desperate state we may find ourselves in, we have access to all of it at all times. The glimmer of hope that Luanne wrote about that can keep us from despair, it doesn’t come from us. That hope that shines in the darkness is Jesus himself. 

Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet. I feel a lot of compassion for this man in his doubt… God had been silent for 400 years. For all we know, Elizabeth could have been all the way through menopause, making it physiologically impossible for her womb to be open and able to carry a baby. Perhaps they had prayed fervently for decades, maybe long after her body went through changes that rendered child-bearing an impossibility. It’s possible that for them, to stop praying for a child felt like a hard-fought surrender, like the death of a dream that they had to grieve. Maybe they thought that laying it down was their way of trusting God’s will for them in the wake of their despair. We don’t know the details. We do know from Luke’s account of this couple that they were righteous and blameless and followed all of God’s commandments. We know they, in their old age, continued to seek God, despite their disappointment and the presumed curse of barrenness that marked them culturally. And we know that, like Luanne wrote about, Zechariah faithfully lifted prayers for his people.

I can’t imagine what 400 years without a word from God felt like to the priests who continued to pray. That’s almost twice as long as our country has existed. The United States of America is 243 years old. Let that sink in. When I really pause and think about it, Zechariah’s doubt makes so much sense to me. I’d like to think that a visit from an angel would be more than enough to resurrect any lost hope in me… but I probably would have reacted in a similar way.

I’ll mention again here that Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet–not in the way that we do. He hadn’t yet come on the scene, and the people didn’t have the access to him that we have now.

But I can still doubt like he did… Even on the other side of the resurrection, with the Holy Spirit living within me, I can find it hard to access the glimmer of hope that is Jesus alive in me.

I’m so grateful that doubting doesn’t cause God to remove his good gifts from us. Luanne wrote, “God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. “ I wrote similar words in my notes on Sunday. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving from God. It did cost him the ability to speak for a while. Which was probably not a lot of fun. But you know what? I’m so thankful that scripture has this record of his humanity… his failure of faith, his doubting. And I’m even more thankful for the record of God’s faithfulness. I’m glad the story doesn’t record a perfect man reacting perfectly in a moment of shock and fear and disbelief. It makes the story relatable, believable, and it speaks to the heart of a good and loving God.

Because we all doubt. We all experience moments where hope seems out of reach, and the heaviness of despair settles in and stays a while. I wasn’t sure if I’d write about this or not, but I can’t seem to shake it (even though I’d like to)… So, I’ll tell you a bit about my own crisis of hope.

When my mom was dying, so many people prayed for her to be healed. Including her. She prayed with hope and expectation and she believed her God would answer. She never wavered, and there were many alongside us who lived out that same unshakable faith.

I wasn’t one of those people. I prayed faithfully for healing early on. But as her disease progressed–somewhere along the way–I stopped asking. I lost sight of any glimmer of hope.

It still grieves my heart to write those words, more than five years after losing her. I couldn’t pray for her healing because I couldn’t grab onto enough hope to say the words. What I was seeing with my eyes told me that we were approaching the end of her days with us. I had also experienced dreams and conversations with God during which I believed he was preparing my heart for the coming loss, but I still wish I could have prayed with hope and faith and believed for her healing. I believe that God can do the impossible. I’ve seen him work miracles in the lives of many–including myself. But I couldn’t find hope enough to believe it for my mom. I tried, but my heart couldn’t rise to pray. I prayed for mercy, for relief from her pain, for so many other things–but as she got sicker and sicker, I stopped praying with hope for her miracle.

There were those who, in the wake of her death, had the audacity to suggest that we didn’t have enough faith, and that’s why she died. Even though I know God doesn’t work that way, you can imagine the way that hit my heart. The questions that swirled… The what-ifs… I struggled with feeling responsible for her death–for so many reasons. One of those reasons was my own lack of hope, my failure to ask for a miracle I didn’t have the courage to believe God for.

I’m so grateful that I know we don’t have a transactional God. This is what the story of Zechariah reminds me of, and why I’m so grateful it’s recorded with all of the messy included. His doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving the gift of his son, just like my doubt didn’t cause my mom’s death. Our God is not an “if this/then that” God. He is a good Father and he gives good gifts. There is so much we’ll never understand about why things happen the way they do, but we can trust that our God, as he was revealed in Jesus, is good. He is our truth, our peace, our hope, our life. He is all that we are not, and we have access to all that he is--even when we can only see a glimmer. Even when we can’t see at all. He never ceases to be all of this and more, so we are never truly hopeless. Because he is always with us. 

As we approach Christmas Day and the celebration of the arrival of our God in human flesh, I pray that we’ll each be able to see the glimmer of light that is Jesus. I pray that as his light dawns, we’ll find the hope that we need to hold on and keep believing–even on the darkest nights–and that we’ll be assured by the gracious love of our Father that he does hear and answer our prayers, even when we doubt.

–Laura

Image result for jesus is our hope

JOY II (Like Never Before)

Joy. We found it last week–unnamed as such, yet present in a story that connected fasting with a wedding celebration, fabric, and wineskins. We began looking at what joy is–and what it isn’t. Here’s an excerpt from last week’s post to remind you where we ended up:

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. JOY (Like Never Before)

Joy cannot be experienced apart from Jesus. Last week Pastor John laid the foundation for our understanding of joy, and this week Pastor Beau built upon it. Our exploration of joy took us away from the book of Mark for a week and into a story found only in the book of Luke. More than likely, you are familiar with this story in Luke 19:1-10. It is the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. If you don’t remember the actual story, maybe these lyrics will jog your memory:

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, And a wee little man was he… He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”

Do you remember the song? Likely, many of us sang it as children. Pastor Beau pointed out that while the song serves its purpose to help us remember the story, we have sadly reduced this complex, beautiful story into a sing-along song. And we’ve probably missed some key points.

Take a moment to read the story the way Luke recorded it in his gospel:

Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”  Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

There are so many directions to go in discussion of this story, but our focus this week is joy, so we’ll start there. The word joy shows up about midway through the story. In some translations, the word joy is replaced with words like gladness or excitement, but the original Greek word in this passage is “chairo”, which does mean “joy” or “rejoice”.  When does joy show up in the story? When Jesus shows up, sees Zacchaeus–the one who was desperate to see Him, calls him by name, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Pastor Beau highlighted for us that “The joy didn’t come until Jesus showed up.” Zacchaeus had been living a joyless existence–we’ll look at why in a moment–but as soon as Jesus showed up, joy was present, too. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11)–Wherever you find Jesus, you find joy also.

But what about the others who were with Jesus? Those in the crowd? Their response to Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus was not joyful. The text tells us that they were “displeased”, and that they “grumbled”. How is this possible if there is fullness of joy in Jesus’ presence? In another gospel, the book of Matthew, Jesus addresses a similar situation:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But                    blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:15-16 NIV)

The crowd was with Jesus physically, but they couldn’t see him or hear him the way Zacchaeus was able to. Because Zacchaeus was looking for him. He was desperate to see this One he had heard so much about. I imagine he had ideas about him, ponderings… But the crowd had expectations. We know this because the parable Jesus tells immediately after the story of Zacchaeus is told to address the crowd’s expectation that He would, in his power and glory, soon set up an earthly kingdom that would defeat their political and military enemies. Their expectations got in the way of them seeing and hearing him rightly. So when he spoke and acted in ways that were contrary to their expectations, their response was one of anger and confusion–not joy.

In this particular story, I think the peoples’ anger hinged not so much on Jesus choosing to stop to talk with Zacchaeus, but on one of the words Jesus chose to use. We have learned as we’ve studied the ministry of Jesus that nothing he says or does is by accident. His words are carefully chosen–always. In this story, Jesus uses a word that shows up as “must” in our English translations. This one tiny word packed a punch in the original language. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today”, he is saying, “it is necessary, right and proper, a necessity of duty and equity for me to come to your house today. 

Right? Proper? Did Jesus know who he was talking to? Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. A filthy sinner guilty of grievous crimes. A thief among thieves. Certainly it’s not right or proper for Jesus to dine with his kind… I imagine they bristled. Maybe their mouths fell open and they took a step back. While these words may have agitated and confused them, I belief it was the sense of equity that the word carried that stirred the crowd’s anger most of all.

We haven’t written about equity in a while, but it is crucial that we understand what it is if we want to see the bigger picture of the upside-down kingdom of Jesus. Equity is the quality of being impartial, doing whatever it takes to set things right for each one individually. It is not equality. Equality treats every person the same regardless of circumstance. Equality can create further injustice, whereas equity is synonymous with biblical justice–the justice that is about wholeness and making things right, the restorative justice that is at the heart of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.

So when the crowd heard Jesus speak a word that implied the necessity of setting things right for Zacchaeus–the one who acted unjustly (and with impunity) toward their community, they were mad. They had in mind the kind of justice that we broken humans have a proclivity toward–the retributive kind. This desire for retributive justice is what fueled the people’s expectation of Jesus setting up a powerful, enemy-crushing kingdom rather than the one he actually brought with him.

Back to Zacchaeus… his joy was uncontainable. He hurried to the ground and hosted Jesus in his home. We even see Jesus’ equitable treatment of him extend through Zacchaeus as he changed his mind about how he’d been living and vowed to set things right with those he’d treated unjustly.

This is the power of the presence of Jesus.

An encounter with him changes everything. Zacchaeus had been living a life of marked by stealing from others. And it was stealing any sense of joy he may have had prior. Pastor Beau told us there are five “Joy Stealers” present in this story. Maybe some of these are familiar to us, too…

Secrets: What we think/say/do that no one else sees; what you decide isn’t necessary to share. Zacchaeus made up charges as he taxed his community. How he came up with each charge was hidden from them.

Separation: Being pushed out or isolated from your family, friends, community; a sense of being disconnected from what you were once connected to. It feels like rejection or abandonment, and once it happens, it can get historical when it happens again. Zacchaeus lived a life of isolation from everyone in his community. He lived among them, but was not included as one of them. He was more than disconnected–he was hated.

Shadows: Different than separation. You live in the shadows when you refuse to step in. This is a place of invisibility, a life of being unseen. It is hiding who you are, backing out of the picture and refusing to let others in. (Side note that Beau highlighted: Jesus is always willing to step into the shadows to find you. Always.)

Shame: This one is connected to all the others, and can cause you to move into the shadows. Shame is when you form a negative identity (who you are) based on your mistakes (what you’ve done). It’s complex, and it is brutal. It is trying to separate yourself from what God sees in you. Interestingly, Zacchaeus’ name means “pure”. Not a word that anyone would have chosen to describe the life he was living before he saw Jesus. But what he’d been doing didn’t define him–it wasn’t his identity. After meeting Jesus, he lived into the meaning of his name.

Status Quo: The antithesis of growth. Sameness. No change. Living in the status quo, holding tightly to “normal” can feel safer than changing. Change is hard. It’s scary. It means stepping out of our own neat and tidy boxes into a space where Jesus can reframe the picture we see. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into thinking that there is joy in our static, unmoving, safe existence. But there can’t be. Because life with Jesus is ever-changing, always growing, and completely uncontainable. We simply cannot box him in. If we try, we end up following (and worshiping) our idea of him and the safety that we’ve slapped his name on as “blessing” or “favor” rather than following Jesus himself.

Zacchaeus sees Jesus. Hears him speak his name. And in a moment, he trades in all these joy-stealers for the fullness of joy found in Jesus alone.

It’s important to note that we don’t have evidence in these verses of Zacchaeus acknowledging his many sins and asking for forgiveness prior to his salvation. We do see that he changes his mind (repents) and decides to make amends, but that’s all we are given. Yet… Jesus says, “salvation has come to your house today”. This is one of many stories that Luke includes in his gospel that stands in opposition to a formulaic plan for forgiveness and salvation. And it’s interesting to ponder. We don’t have time to dive into theological debate here, but I think passages like this one challenge us to look outside of the theological structure we were handed and explore for ourselves what the often familiar words mean.

Jesus gives us one more thing to chew on in this story before he moves on. He says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” This is fascinating, because again, if we take a closer look, it challenges some of what we think we “know”. Pastor Beau asked us to remember the parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, lost son… In all of these stories, the word “lost” implies prior possession. These things belonged to the one who was looking for them. Before they were lost. While they were lost. After they were found. Being lost didn’t remove their belonging. I’m not going to walk that out further this week–I’ve already written a lot of words. But I hope all of us will think about it, pray about it, and read Jesus’ words with fresh eyes–eyes that are seeking him rather than focused on our expectations of him. 

Where have you lost your way? What is stealing your joy? Look up at Jesus. He’s already looking for you.

–Laura

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