JOY (Like Never Before)

Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?”  Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:18-22, NLT)

This short passage, which can appear a bit confusing at first glance, was the foundation for this week’s message. These five verses, Pastor John asserted, point us to joy–and show us the danger in making our religious rituals our focus.

Some people came to Jesus and asked… Who were these people who questioned Jesus? Our passage doesn’t identify them. Some translations use the word “confronted” rather than “questioned”, which could give us a clue about who they were. I think it’s also pertinent to our discussion to glance back at the previous passage and to look ahead to what comes next–setting these five verses in context will help us see what’s going on.

Last week, we read the story of the calling of Levi (Matthew), and the subsequent meal Jesus shared with him and his friends–the other tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw his blatant disregard for the Jewish laws and customs, they attempted to sow seeds of doubt among his disciples, questioning them about why their leader would do such a thing.

This week, just a few short verses later, we see “some people” questioning Jesus about why his disciples don’t observe the ritual of fasting that John’s (this is John the baptizer, Jesus’ cousin) disciples and the Pharisees observe regularly.

If we look ahead to the verses that follow this week’s passage, we see the Pharisees question Jesus again–this time regarding what they considered to be his disciples breaking the law of the Sabbath by picking grain. After this encounter, we see Jesus heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath–once again disregarding a tradition that had become a burdensome rule to follow.

All of these encounters happen within nineteen verses. Jesus calls a tax collector as a disciple. Jesus eats with “unclean sinners”. Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And those who had made a life of keeping and enforcing the rules and rituals of that day had a big problem with what they saw as an affront to their traditions and laws. They wanted to silence this new voice that had exploded onto the scene; they wanted to catch him, defraud him, expose him… Somewhere along the way, they had forgotten that the rituals (which, as Pastor John pointed out, are not inherently bad things) were designed to point to–not to become–the real focus. Their traditions were originally intended to keep them aware of the God they served, and focused on his presence among them. Instead, it was their traditions that kept them from recognizing the presence of God sitting among them, as one of them.

In this week’s passage, “some people” asked Jesus a question regarding fasting, a ritual that the Pharisees had begun to observe twice a week–with very visible displays of their extreme devotion to “God”. Jesus answers their question a few different ways:

 “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 

He employs here an example that a Jewish audience would absolutely understand. A Jewish wedding was the culmination of great anticipation, and it was enjoyed by friends and family during a week-long celebration. The friends of the bridegroom shared in the couple’s joy–a joy that was made complete by their union, and celebrated in their presence. In the gospel of John, John the baptizer uses the same example when his disciples realize (with jealousy, confusion, and frustration) that Jesus’ following is growing larger than John’s. In chapter 3, verses 28-30, we read John’s response to his disciples’ concerns:

You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

Both Jesus and his cousin John use the context of a wedding to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers (what we now call the Church). Jesus was telling those who would listen: I am the groom and I am here. Now. Present with my collective bride. And my followers, the friends of the bridegroom? They can’t fast now, because they are celebrating the arrival of me, the groom, who has come to live among you and to bring you into union with my ways–the ways of my new kingdom that has arrived.

In the text, we don’t see Jesus giving them any time to react or respond before he launches into his next two examples:

“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We see Jesus, in these two examples, expand upon the first. He is doing here what we’ve seen him do throughout this study in Mark. He is inviting his hearers to change their way of thinking, to become aware of who he is and of the new kingdom that has now come. He distinguishes the new from the old not by calling the old “bad”, but by explaining–again, in terms they would understand–that the old ways could not contain the new. The old cloth of exclusive laws that had defined the Jewish culture up to that point was not compatible with the new, inclusive kingdom ways. The old wineskins that had held the wine of self-promoting ritual and tradition could not hold the new wine of upside-down, self-sacrificing love for God and all others.

His answer to their question was a progression. Why didn’t his disciples fast like the others? First, they recognized Jesus as the one they’d all been waiting for, and their joy was complete in his presence. He was there, among them, living life with them. Fasting was intended as a way to focus on God, a way to show devotion to him over the things of this world. And now Jesus, God in human flesh, was with them! Focusing on him meant being with him, listening to him, learning from him–to fast while he was in their presence would have been unthinkable. Secondly, because they recognized him as the groom–as the one they’d been waiting for–they were participating in the new way of living that he was teaching them. (The laws of this kingdom–love of God and love of others–were not new for Jesus. The way of self-giving love has always been the way of the trinitarian God among us. We couldn’t seem to grasp that, though, so Jesus came to show us what has always been his way…) Jesus was explaining to them that the original focus of their old rituals and traditions was present among them. But because their focus had shifted away from God and onto the rituals themselves, their old cloth was shrunken and could not be merged with the new fabric of his kingdom. Their old wineskins had lost their elasticity and had become hard and brittle. They could not hold the new, rich, full-bodied wine of the kingdom without exploding into pieces.

He was showing them a picture of their hearts and minds… They had shrunken. They’d become hard and brittle, unable to expand or bend. I see the example of the wineskin as yet another invitation from Jesus to those who continued to question him. He let them know that the new wine he came to bring would burst the old, would completely replace it.

Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if they had asked him for it? If they had said yes to this new wine and let it explode their immovable hearts and minds into a million pieces so that bendable, elastic flesh could grow where all the stone had been? 

Some of them did. Later, many stories down the road, we read the story of one such Pharisee, whose heart and mind were exploded by the new wine of the kingdom. We know him as Paul. These are his own words:

 You have heard of my career and former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to hunt down and persecute the church of God extensively and [with fanatical zeal] tried [my best] to destroy it. And [you have heard how] I surpassed many of my contemporaries among my countrymen in [my advanced study of the laws of] Judaism, as I was extremely loyal to the traditions of my ancestors. (Galatians 1:13-14, AMP)

Paul cared about the traditions and rituals more than anyone. He was consumed with zeal for the law. But we know him now as an apostle, as the author of much of what we call our New Testament. So what happened? What changed his mind? Once again, here are Paul’s own words:

The Gospel I preach to you is no human invention. No man gave it to me, no man taught it to me; it came to me as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ(Galatians 1:11-12, J.B. Phillips)

Paul experienced the presence of Jesus Christ himself. And rather than cling to the rituals and laws that he had been so focused on, he let the new wine of Jesus and his kingdom explode his old ways of thinking and being in the world into something brand new. And later, he would pen these words, that we have referred to a few times throughout this series:

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NIV)

Hope. Peace. JOY…

Paul, when his focus shifted from the rituals and laws themselves to the One they were designed to point to, found that these–hope, peace, and joy–among many other things, are found only in the Presence of Jesus. They are cultivated by the power of the Spirit within us, but we cannot encounter them outside of the presence of the One who defines them.

We sang these words on Sunday:

I have nothing more than all you offer me;
I have nothing else that’s of worth to me.
I love you Lord, you rescued me
You are all I want. You’re all I need.

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. No ritual–regardless of how good and how holy it may be–can bring us real joy. Only Jesus can do that. Our joy has to be in him–not in anything we do for him. If we try to find him in what we do, we’ll end up detached and discouraged. He is here. Now. His kingdom lives and breathes among us. His disciples were experiencing the fullness of that truth as he lived and breathed among them. We can, too. If we realize that there is nothing else worth having apart from him, nothing more than what he offers to us. If he is all we want, we’ll find that he really is all we need. And our joy will be made complete in him.

What rituals are you clinging to, as though they can bring you joy? What old wineskins are you drinking from? Where do you need the new wine of Jesus’ kingdom to pour in and burst old ways of thinking and being in the world? I pray that we will all become more aware of what we’re focusing on; and if we find our focus is anywhere but on Jesus, I pray we’ll be brave enough to change.

–Laura

Image result for psalm 16:11

Advent #3: Joy

In September of 2011, my book club read Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts. Her book fell into my hands during a confusing season in my life, just a few months before a very dark season in my life. I began to practice very intentional gratitude, writing down three things a day for which I could be grateful. This practice of counting gifts– being grateful, ended up saving my life. Ann writes, As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. 

Joy. The theme of the third Sunday of Advent.

Pastor John took us on a journey through Colossians 2:6-7:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened (established) in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

He highlighted four truths from these verses that will lead us to joy.

In order to live our lives in Jesus, we first must identify who is Lord of our lives. Is it Jesus or is it me?  For Jesus to be Lord means that I yield my will to his, my desires to his; I  walk with Him, spend time with Him–He is the focus of my being.

1. Live in Jesus: The Apostle Paul encourages us–once we have settled who is Lord– to continue to live our lives in him. To continue signifies an ongoing action. I think sometimes in modern day western Christianity, we emphasize the gift of eternal life , but de-emphasize living our everyday lives in him. We check our quiet time or our prayer time off of our “to-do” list, and carry on with our day any way we want to. To truly live in Christ means that my choices, my behavior, my attitudes, my thoughts, the way I influence and am influenced all show that Jesus is my Lord. And may I point out, that Jesus doesn’t make us mean. One can not look at his life in the gospels and come to the conclusion that his followers are to be hateful and mean, so if my life is lived in Him, my behavior and choices will draw people toward him–but this absolutely can’t be manufactured. It is an overflow of the life source of Jesus in us, which brings us to our second truth:

 

2. Rooted:   At this time of year, there are Christmas trees all around us. Some are real, some are artificial, neither one is alive. The real trees, once they’ve been cut, begin the dying process immediately because they’ve been separated from their life source. They no longer have roots that are bringing them nourishment and the ability to grow. The artificial ones never had a life source. They are pretty, but they are fake.

Jesus tells us the importance of staying connected to Him as our life source. He knows that connection to Him leads to life and to joy. He says:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, …you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples… Now remain in my love...If you keep my commands, you will remain in my 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… This is my command: Love each other. “(Excerpts from John 15: 1-17)

Connection to Jesus, our life source, leads to His joy, which is the only real joy that exists.

Once we’ve settled who is Lord–which source we will draw our life from, which source our roots will tap into– we can then be:

3. Built up: To be built up means to grow or build upon the foundation that has been laid.  I’ve said this before, and it will probably come up again, but I can not emphasize strongly enough that we do not transform our own lives. Christianity is not a behavior modification program. Jesus transforms our lives. Our part is to intentionally connect to Him. I can look back over my life, and easily see that I am not the person I used to be. (Praise His Holy Name!) He has changed me. I don’t know how, but I know that it’s real. Spending time with Jesus has changed me. Loving Jesus has changed me. Being rooted in Him as my life source, knowing that apart from Him I can do nothing, making time to be with Him, checking in with Him throughout the day, owning it when I mess up (which is frequently), staying connected to His love, has changed not just my life, but me–in the very depths of my being. And the beauty of a relationship with Jesus–there is always more to know, more mystery to explore, more layers to allow Him to peel back, more growth to be had. It’s a living relationship. Pastor John worded it this way, he asked us to ask ourselves “What’s your next step?” We all have one. Take the step. Build. Grow.

My dad is one of the most beautiful examples of a life being built on Jesus that I know. He had his 89th birthday last month, and do you know what his one requested Christmas gift is? A new study Bible. His roots go deep. He and I still have wonderful conversations about new things being revealed to him. As long as you are still living and breathing on planet earth, there is more of Jesus to know; however, living in Him, being rooted in Him and built on Him is not “rule” following. That does not lead to life. Being connected to Him, the resurrected, alive, very present Jesus,  leads to life.

I won’t pretend like there aren’t (many) times a day that I have to make a conscious choice to make decisions that honor Him, but I don’t do that out of obligation or “have-to”, or performing. It comes from being in love with Jesus, with determining that He is my Lord, and asking the Holy Spirit to strengthen me and help me in my choices. True, the ultimate decision lies with me–God has not made us robots–but choosing His way, His life, leads to my life, and to joy.

4. Strengthened (Established) in the faith:  I’m not going to lie, sometimes I don’t like the phrase “in the faith”, because of what it sometimes implies; something boring, stagnant, fixed, but to be established in the faith means that my beliefs are actuated into something real and living. My beliefs that God is who He says He is, that He fulfills His promises, that He loves me unconditionally, that my life is founded on a very real, very alive, very active resurrected Savior with whom I visit every day, leads to living differently, seeing the world differently, seeing people differently–and that relationship allows me to:

Overflow with thankfulness, which leads to joy: the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6), righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17),  I get to be a disciple  who is  filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52).

Remain in the vine, be filled with the Spirit, be grateful, and the fruit of God’s joy will overflow in your life, and people will be drawn to Him through you–no matter your circumstances.

As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. 

–Luanne

What does a tree do when it is thirsty? Its roots reach and twist and search for water. It knows it has to have water. It’s built into the DNA of the tree. If it finds water, it drinks and it grows. If it doesn’t, it eventually withers and dies.

We are a little more complicated than a tree. We are born into this world and as long as we are breathing, and our organs are all functioning, we are considered “alive”. But we come into this world spiritually dead. Dead things can’t reach for anything… So how do we ever come alive?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart… (Ecclesiastes 3:11a, NIV)

There is a longing in each heart that we can’t explain away. There is a reaching of our roots for soil that will satisfy… a desire not created or contained in our humanity but placed there by the Divine, that we might discover all that our eyes cannot see. It is Jesus, the Word that breathed creation, that was with God in the beginning; the Word made flesh that dwelt among us–it is He who wakes us up and reveals our need for Him.

“Even as He exposes the need, His is the Presence that meets it.” (Emily P. Freeman, The Next Right Thing podcast)

Zephaniah prophecied these words more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus:

On that day the announcement to Jerusalem will be,“Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! For the Lord your God is living among youHe is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:16-17, NLT)

That day that Zephaniah spoke of came. We remember the angst of the waiting and the Glory of His coming with lyrics like these:

“O come, O come, Emmanuel… and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here–until the Son of God appear…

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining–til He appeared and the soul felt its worth!”

He set eternity in our hearts that we might wake up to our neediness. And then He came. He appeared in the flesh as the One who meets our need.

But… we don’t always reach for what we need. We don’t always reach for the right water. Sometimes we wake up to our need, by the grace of God, but reach for everything but Him to meet it. We drink from stagnant ponds of self, performance, others, approval, riches, fame, and many more… in a futile attempt to find the life our souls long for. Instead of plunging deep into the soil of Christ, our roots sometimes crawl around on the surface, frantically searching for what is readily available to us if we would only stop reaching higher and higher… and instead, allow our roots to go down and be hidden in Him…

The soil of Christ is the only place we’ll find the living water our souls crave. Rivers of living water flow just below the surface, and we are all invited to tap into this source. But the life of Christ and His Kingdom always involves going down. The upside-down way of the Kingdom requires that self be buried in Jesus, fully submerged in His life. It’s only when we willingly go low that He can raise us into “…oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His Glory.” (from Isaiah 61:3) We must be rooted in the soil of Christ, continually drinking from His rivers of living water. This is the beginning of living in Him. Luanne wrote:

“…if my life is lived in Him, my behavior and choices will draw people toward him–but this absolutely can’t be manufactured. It is an overflow of the life source of Jesus in us…”

Behavior modification and all attempts at finding life anywhere but in Christ are part of living above the surface. Manufactured life eventually repels others rather than drawing people in, because every one of us is searching for the one thing that is real to satisfy our thirst. People may buy an act for a while–but the eternity set within our hearts will cry for more when we drink for too long from what is artificial. What will draw others, Luanne said, is the overflow of the life of Jesus in us that is revealed in our changed behaviors and choices.

But first, before we can overflow, we have to drink. We sink our roots deep into the soil of Christ and–because He doesn’t make it difficult to come to Him–we find that, as soon as we break through the surface, as soon as we acknowledge Him as our Lord, as the One our souls ache for, we find ourselves surrounded by rivers of life. We don’t have to dig around in this soil, performing for and pleading with Jesus to satisfy our thirst. It’s immediate. And who is invited into this immediate satisfaction of our desperate thirst?

On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.” (John 7:37-38 Message)

Anyone. All of us. And in case we weren’t certain after those words, there are these words:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. (Revelation 22:17 NLT)

Anyone can come. And not only once… The verse says “let anyone who desires drink freely… As much as we want.  If we accept the invitation to freely drink in deep draughts from our source, if we continually go to Him, drink in His life, we’ll find that “… Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way…” We become what we continually consume. If our lives are hidden in the soil of Him, and if we are continually drinking in His living water, we’ll find that–as Luanne said before–we will overflow. Rivers of living water will spill out of us. Rivers move and flow, carrying life, and growing new life, both within and all around them. Ezekiel 47:12 says it this way:

 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.”

Beautiful… Life. Change. Growth. And none of it on our own… Luanne wrote:

“He has changed me. I don’t know how, but I know that it’s real. Spending time with Jesus has changed me. Loving Jesus has changed me. Being rooted in Him as my life source, knowing that apart from Him I can do nothing, making time to be with Him, checking in with Him throughout the day, owning it when I mess up (which is frequently), staying connected to His love, has changed not just my life, but me–in the very depths of my being…”

I could say those same words about my experience with Jesus. Our experiences are unique to each of us, of course, but the result is the same: I have no idea how He’s changed me, but I know that He has. I know I’m nothing like the me I was before I was rooted in Him. Somehow, my life was absorbed into the life of Jesus and step by step, He is working His life and ways through every fiber of who I am. He is rewiring my heart, renewing my mind, refocusing my thoughts, restructuring everything about me so that as time goes by, I’m a display of HIS glory, not my own. This transformation process is what grows His fruit in my life. Because of His life in me, love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and JOY can grow and exist in me… and then, overflow out of me.

This assurance of His life working in me, changing me, is why thanks is always possible. Because regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, regardless of the sorrows of this life, if we are rooted in Him, that’s a forever thing. Nothing and no one can remove us from our life source. Roots planted in Him, hidden in Him, cannot be separated from Him. Even if we are cut down above the surface, our roots remain connected to our source… And even a stump can grow again…

But on this humbled ground, a tiny shoot, hopeful and promising, will sprout from Jesse’s stump; A branch will emerge from his roots to bear fruit… (Isaiah 11:1, Voice Translation)

When we’re rooted in Christ, we’re connected to life that will never end. For this reason, no matter what, thanks is always possible. So, joy is always possible.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come…”

And He keeps coming, and bids us, “Come, and drink freely from the water of life.”

Repeat, repeat the sounding JOY…

–Laura

Image result for living evergreen tree in snow