Joy: A Prophetic Imagination

“Dashing through the snow, on a one horse open slay, over the fields we go, laughing all the way, “Ha, ha, ha!…” This song filled my heart with joy when I was a young boy. The imagery of being on a Christmas slay going up and down hills like a roller coaster whipping us side to side, laughing and screaming and wanting it to never end; oh, those were the days! The innocent days when joy was so close you could reach out and touch it whenever you would like. Oh, to greatly rejoice so easily and to celebrate without fear of what you looked or sounded like. Maybe the equivalent would be grown, drunk men yelling like children at a football game for their favorite team, all dressed up with foolish make-up on… no shame of how you look (or maybe their should be a little shame in it!).

This type of childlike joy (of dashing through the snow, not being drunk and yelling with a painted face on television) is part of what Advent was meant to bring back into our lives each year. The joy of our imaginations bringing us to the place where the King comes to rescue us and bring us to Neverland with him forever. A rescue that removes the guilt and shame and perversion that the loss of innocence on this side of redemption has created. I’d like to think that this is somewhat close to what the prophet Isaiah was thinking when he wrote this:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations. Isaiah 61:10-11

Oh, the joy of our salvation from God! This joy was not yet a reality for Isaiah, but it was his prophetic imagination that led him in this song that bursts out of his lips and onto an ancient manuscript. Isaiah knew something of his need to be clothed. Isaiah says two key things here in the first verse of this passage. First, he says that God has clothed him with the garments of salvation. Second, he says that he has been covered with the robe of righteousness.

These two things are vitally important for us to understand if we are to experience the kind of joy Christ desires for us during this Advent, and through out our days here on earth. And to fully understand them, we need a little more context from this chapter.

At the very beginning of this chapter, Isaiah 61:1-2, Isaiah says this: 1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 

Then in Luke 4:18-19, we read that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He came to the synagogue in His own hometown, Nazareth, and stood up to read Scriptures as was His custom, and as He stood up, the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him and this is what He read: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the teachers of the Law, sat down and said this: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (v. 21). This is one of the places in the NT where we learn of Jesus being the Messiah, the Rescuer that the Israelites have been waiting for. He is the one who would come and clothe them with the garments of salvation, and cover them with the robe of righteousness. Jesus tells the teachers of the Law that the Scripture that Isaiah wrote was about Him! Now, why did they need to be clothed? Why was that kind of wording chosen?

This takes me to Genesis 3. Now, let me remind you, when we pick up in this passage, Adam & Eve are in the garden of Eden, perfect in the sight of God, everything is good, or very good (Gen. 1:25, 31), and they were naked together and there was no shame in their naked exposure (Gen. 2:25). In verses 1-6 we learn that Satan, in the form of a serpent, came to Eve, enticed her with the fruit of the tree that God said was absolutely off limits….after some dialogue with the craftiest beast of the field, Eve gave in and her husband seemingly stood by and didn’t say a word. Eve ate the forbidden fruit, brought it to Adam and said, “This is good try it!”, and so he did, and now let’s read together what happens after that:

7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. 8 And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:7-11).

No one had to tell them that they were naked; this was the reality of their separation from God. They were given knowledge that God did not want them to attain in that manner. They were informed by their sinfulness, that they were naked and it was not acceptable, so in their shame of being completely exposed, they hid foolishly behind fig leaves from an all-knowing, ever-present, good and gracious God.

They are broken and naked because of their rebellion. They are separated from God and thrust into a world of greed, pride, selfishness, and abuse. At this point, they desperately need to be clothed so their shame will not condemn them. Then, as broken people who are separated from God, they had babies, who had babies, who had babies…you get the point. Broken people can’t make whole people. No, but someone who is perfect and whole can redeem broken people.

This is a God-job! He is sending a Rescuer to cover our nakedness not with perishable clothes that will not stand in the fire, but with imperishable clothes that will be received by this great God of justice and mercy. This is what Jesus was going to do, and this is why Isaiah says: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…

How did Jesus accomplish this? How could He make them (us) whole and perfect before God and clothe us with salvation, and robe of with righteousness? Turn to 2 Corinthians 5:21 with me: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” There it is! That’s how it happened. 

God sent His Son, Jesus, who was perfect, who knew no sin, and had Him become sin (bear the weight and the consequences of our sin and treated by God as if all that sin was His own); so that Jesus’ perfect life and death and resurrection would be transferred to us by faith in Jesus’ work, not man’s work (and we would be treated as if all Jesus’ righteousness was our own). He has covered our shame and nakedness and sin and made us right with God again!

This is means for rejoicing this advent season! I once was lost, separated, broken, and poor… Now I am found, joined with God, redeemed from my brokenness, and rich in Christ! Hallelujah! With this in mind, let’s re-read together Isaiah 61:10-11 together:

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations. 

Through faith in Christ, we can be clothed in salvation and robed in the righteousness of Christ so that we will be accepted by the God of the universe! Then in verse 11 Isaiah says that this will surely happen just as surely as the earth brings forth sprouts and a garden causes what is sown to sprout up… those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus will assuredly be clothed with salvation and robed in righteousness.

So this is what I want to do as we close. I want to clarify what this righteousness is and what it looks like. Because depending on the way you view your righteousness in Christ, will depend on whether or not you truly get what Christ has done. And if you don’t get the kind of righteousness that is spoken of here in Scriptures, then you will come up short in the joy factor and will wonder what the big deal about Jesus is.

Practically, to rejoice in God, you rejoice in what you see and know of God in the portrait of Jesus Christ. And this comes to its fullest experience when the love of God is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and we are clothed in salvation and robed in righteousness.

So hear this closing advent point. Not only did God purchase our redemption through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, but He also causes us to receive His righteousness through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Look to Jesus this Christmas. Receive the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus. Don’t put this gift on the shelf unopened this Christmas.  And don’t open it and then make it a means to gain other pleasures and powers. Open it and enjoy the gift. Rejoice in God. Make Him your pleasure. Treasure this gift above all others. Let it be a type of resistance to the culture of forgetfulness and lusts that rob our joy in God.

Have faith in Jesus and allow Him to clothe you in salvation and cover up the shame of your nakedness. Then preach the gospel to yourself every day and may God, who is our joy, remind you that you stand perfectly righteous before Him, now, today, because of Jesus’s works, not your own works! Oh, this truly is joy for the world!

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God’s Not Dead

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Jesus is alive, therefore the church is alive! If Jesus is dead, then the church is dead. The Apostle Paul speaks to this in 1 Cor. 15:17, 19: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (literally, incapable of producing any useful results) and you are still in your sins… If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

But Christ has risen!

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:58)

Paul’s “therefore” comes on the heels of talking about the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of the body, and the great mystery of our work here on earth not being in vain. If our work is not in vain, then it is actually accomplishing something for God’s kingdom.

When Jesus comes onto the scene at the beginning of Mark’s account of the gospel (MarK 1:14:15), He said “…the kingdom of God is at hand”, which basically means, “Good news, the King is here and so is peace!” Imagine for a moment with me, the reality of the Kingdom of God being at hand: shalom (peace with justice, new life, goodness, beauty, redemption, reconciliation, etc…). And then after this announcement, Jesus did justly among the poor and marginalize, he corrected the religious leader who thought they had the corner on doctrine, he healed and touched the untouchables and the dark horses, then he proceeded to move towards the cross to pay for (literally, to take on himself) our sins and the consequences we deserve for thinking we can play the role of God, so that God’s Kingdom could be realized (seen) in and through our lives.

But Jesus was not only satisfying the payment for sin… He was at that moment while dying on the cross, preparing and displaying for us a new way to be human. the weak become strong. The foolish confound the wise. The last become first. The powerless become powerful. And through the resurrection, Jesus began creating a new people who will be mediators of God’s redeeming power for other people, cultures, and creation itself. He’s building an army, not just laying out a plan of salvation.

“Atonement, redemption and salvation are what happen on the way (of God launching His kingdom, the cross) because engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they can in turn be rescuers.” N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 204.

Those who stop trusting in themselves and other futile things, and begin trusting in Jesus, they are being made into an army that fights not through force and persuasion, but through selflessness, death, weakness, and sacrifice.

We are redeemed not just to receive what God has for us (although we desire what He has for us), but so that others may as well be delivered from the clutches of Satan, sin and death. We, having been called into God’s kingdom, are now summoned to advance this public truth about God’s kingdom (Matt. 11:12), his good and gracious rule, and partake with Him in the gathering of His church (present and eternal).

So… therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:58).

God is using His army of redeemed people, not only to display His kingdom, but also to create and build the new heaven and new earth, through every righteous deed done in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, this is not our doing because we have died in Christ and live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ Jesus, through the Spirit, has been working on the new heaven for over 2000 years through redeemed lives here on earth (us!), sowing seeds of righteousness that will produce a thousandfold return!

Oh how this has the ability to change our view of the resurrection and Christian mission. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness, proclamation of truth in love, every act of justice done in the name of Jesus, is us partnering with God in storing up treasures in heaven that will never pass away and will be for all of the redeemed to enjoy! This is our mission in light of the resurrection!

But here’s the sad part of this story. Many people say with their lips that God is not dead, but then live most of their lives as if He is dead. This is not the kind of witnessing army that Jesus dies to give life. The life God gives through faith in Christ is life that moves in rhythm with God’s kingdom: mercy, justice, forgiveness, confession of sin, standing up for dark horses, sharing, trusting, loving. We are called to live as if God is not dead. May we be a people who live as if God’s alive before we dare proclaim it.

We are called to plant “kingdom-signposts”, to display the beauty and worth of Jesus, to walk in freedom, love, humility, shalom, and in the grace of God’s good and coming kingdom. Demonstrate it. Embody it. Then announce it. Include the poor & marginalized. Pray. Embrace suffering. Rejoice in weakness. Gather together in community. And remember, that God’s kingdom comes by the Spirit of God moving in response to prayer!

The Hope of HopeFest

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This is Danielle. She was the first person in line for dental assistance at Hope Fest this past weekend. Hope Fest opened it’s doors at 9am on Saturday morning, and Danielle came at 3pm Friday afternoon. She was so excited to have made it on time to be able to get help; it was advertised as “first come, first serve”. I had a chance to sit with her for a while and she began to share with me about her pains and anxieties of life that make her feel that there isn’t much hope. I was able to share with her some of my pains and anxieties of life as well. She shed some tears of pain and joy, joy of being heard and understood, feelings of solidarity. When I took this picture, she told me she hated her smile, but I said, “Non-sense, you have a beautiful smile. I’m glad you’re here Danielle. It’s not a coincidence that you’re feeling hopeless and you’re in line at Hope Fest.” She smiled, cried, and said, “I guess you’re right. I didn’t think about that.”

The next day, I was walking around the plaza area in front of Chase Field and she tapped me on my shoulder and said, “Hey, thanks for everything”, then she gave me a big hug. I didn’t do anything other than share with her that there’s hope and that she’s valuable. It was very cool to see her physical countenance be so drastically different than the day before. She got the dental help she needed, pain has subsided, she got a haircut, and some pretty cool face painting. Here’s Danielle after experiencing hope in the midst of hopelessness.

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This is what Hope Fest is all about. Thousands of Danielle’s experienced a glimpse of hope, and for at least a day, they felt that life wasn’t too heavy to keep moving forward. Today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next… we will all continue to have opportunities that Hope Fest afforded us to offer friendship, resources, affirmation, loving words that battle shameful thoughts, etc… Hope Fest inspires us to live a life that offers hope in the midst of hopelessness, and not wait for once a year events to offer what Christ offers us every day.

 

Organic Community

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Her and her neighbors don’t have a car, but she has a bike, and she was happy and thankful about that. Her community contribution is to pick up groceries at the store. As she approached me and saw my smile and that I loved her “get up”, she slowed down as I asked her if I can take a picture of her and her bike. She gladly stopped for the photo and she said, “Sure, I’m photogenic!”

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She has a beautiful smile.

A Functional Mess

That day when you get up and you move past the memories of reality for the day, telling yourself, “I’m okay. I’ve just got to get some coffee and I’ll feel better.” Or the day when anxiety sets in and you aren’t sure how you are going to get through the day with all the people who “need” things from you, be it small children, people at work, or close friends and family. Yah, that kind of day. I’m not sure what to call those days, but it seems that, if you were to “sit” in those feelings of pain and anxiety, you may not make it, so you move on, functionally at least, but like all the popular shows these days with zombies, you’re a walking dead person, numb to life, with limbs (figuratively speaking) falling off your body, “But you’re okay, because you’re functional, not like that one person from church who has fallen a part and needs a support group to survive.” You’re a functional mess.

I’ve been a pastor for almost 7 years, and I was a Young Life leader for 10 years in central Phoenix. Most of the years that I have served in ministry, I have been a functional mess, feeling like “I’m okay”, because “I’m not like that guy who I just met with. Poor guy, he’s really got to get his act together.” But inside the whole time, I knew I was just as messy, I was just better at playing the “I’m okay script” than he was.

I am very aware that this observation may just be mine, from my small world of experiences, and I know full well that there are totally different experiences, but indulge with me for a moment in this observation from life. There’s seems to be an unwritten code in many “Christian” circles that having seasons of honesty about the complete mess you’re in, often results in a Christian responding in one of these ways:

Panic and fear over what you’re going through, because you’ve been the “strong one”;
Words of encouragement to pull you “out of the pit” and left with an Old Testament verse that claims a promise that was given to exiles in Israel, then a follow up call the next day or two to see if the verse worked;

Being dodged and not addressing the pain or suffering that has caused the messy season;
Superficial engagement that acts like you never mentioned anything messy, and many people wanting you to just move on and get better. I know there are more, but these seem to be what I’ve observed in over 17 years of ministry alongside other Christians.

Now, I say these without a harsh tone, but still with an honest one, with an honest pursuit of wanting unpack the reason why it seems that many Christians (myself included on many points over the last 17 years) seem to be worse at walking through deep pain and suffering than friends that many people have who aren’t Christians. I say that comment, because it has been true many times in my experience, as well as having heard this from many a people from the inside. There seems to be confusion on what it means to truly grieve and feel pain so that you can process it, work through your junk, and really get healthy, and what it means to claim the promises of God that you are a new creation.

Maybe it’s that many of us feel that if we let on that we are really the mess that we feel we are on the inside, then our peers and those we lead might “think” we don’t believe God’s promises, or that we might be giving room for the enemy to come in and deceive us, after all, “We are children of God, brothers in the line of Jesus, co-heirs to the kingdom of heaven. With that title, I’m not supposed to feel this way.” This is all true, so in fear of acting like we don’t believe it, we pretend, we numb, we quote Scripture, but the functional mess continues and we never seem to get over the messy hump.

I guess the purpose of this blog is two-fold. One is confessional. I am confessing that I’m a functional mess and am cutting back all areas of life. I’ve gone too hard, trying to build God’s kingdom, and although I believe God has used me in many ways, I often try to build more than God’s given me the grace to build. My wife and I have also had an usually difficult season of life circumstances that have happened, and we are making changes in our life to cope, grieve, and heal in a healthy way, one of those ways, being this blog; transparency about where we are.

The second purpose of this post is to give someone who may read this, the freedom to feel again. My wife and I have been given the freedom by some friends to feel, even to the point of being uglier than we wanted to be, but none the less, we didn’t run from the reality. We didn’t anesthetize ourselves from the reality of our pain or suffering. This has brought much freedom and healing into our lives.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” This means yes, freedom to be free from sin, shame, condemnation, but free from pain and suffering? I don’t think that’s what Paul was saying here. Freedom to feel. Freedom to confess sin. Freedom to say, “I’m a mess!”, yet know that you’re radically accepted and loved. Freedom to sit with others in their pain and agony. Freedom to trip and fall. Freedom to doubt and ask questions. Freedom to say, “I don’t know what I’m doing or who I am.”

It’s my conviction that it’s at this place of honesty, when the Lord shows up in real, tangible ways, and Scripture goes from memorized, therapeutic verses that we hope work, to life changing truths that bring the presence of God Himself into the situation that we are in. This is the hope; “the presence of God in the face of Jesus”. I pray that some of you may receive this kind freedom and joy that comes from this kind of honesty. Until then, I am in the struggle with you, learning to find joy and peace in the midst of the mess.