Meditation on Transition: What Jesus’ Teaches Us About Being Sent

“…and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” Matthew 6:33

My wife and I love the mission of God. In hindsight, it has fueled so many of our life choices and endeavors: where we will live, what jobs we will take, the friends we will make; you name it. It is so much the bedrock of who we are that, before we could ever even articulate it, we were drawn to it in the form of a community called New City Church in Lexington, Kentucky, a church whose vocabulary simply oozes mission and purpose. I mean, their core values, the lenses through which they primarily make decisions about what stays, goes, and gets created, are love, rest, risk, and send. Send, meaning that we are committed to the commissioning of the people of God for the purposes of God both near and far in our communities. It was a no brainer. People who knew us well might have seen it coming a mile away.

What we didn’t see coming is that we would be the ones who would be sent far. Far, as in 3 hours away from the community that was sending us. Far, as in, no longer close enough to visit and encourage our friends on a daily basis. Far, as in, leaving our jobs, ministry entrustments, favorite restaurants, known roads, neighbors, and everything else in Lexington, Kentucky for the unfamiliar in Delaware, Ohio. In short, my wife and I are in transition. What makes this transition hard is not necessarily the amount of time we have spent here (it’s the shortest amount of time we have lived anywhere), but the intensity of the life we have lived here. It’s led to what feels like an equally intense transition process.

If you have uprooted yourself before, you know a lot of stuff comes up in transition: insecurities, fears, second-guesses, questions, vulnerabilities, lies, and the like. My wife and I went all in in our relationships. We invested heavily in our community. We sacrificed, in the moment, what felt like a lot in almost every area of our lives, and had been experiencing the good and tangible spiritual fruit of those decisions. Yet now we are committed to leaving much of it behind, being vulnerable, and venturing out into the unknown.

In this season, perhaps a great source of peace has been looking at the most intense time of transition for Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4). Jesus has just finished a 30 year stint as a physical laborer in relative obscurity. Aside from his training in the scriptures, which all Jews received in some form, he has no degrees, assessments, strengths conditioning, strategic plans, demographics, or denominational support to make his ministry a “success.” Regardless, he has just been commissioned by his Father and his community through the baptism of John and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In the overall narrative of Jesus, we know that he is about to step into an intense life of spiritual warfare, teaching, healing, and multiplication that will literally change the face of the world – but there must first come transition and temptation in the wilderness, and his responses have encouraged me.

His first temptation is to turn stones into bread (v. 4). Jesus has been fasting (as in, no food) and is hungry, his physical needs surely pressing in on his faith and conscious as he thinks about and prepares for what is to come. I’ve found the question of physical need always sneaks up on me in dark times. I get so excited about the call to a new opportunity that reality strikes when people ask questions like, “Where will you work? How will you live? Who is your support? How will you put food on the table?” When these questions come, Satan stokes the flames of my scarcity mindset. I quickly become terrified of running out of money. I begin to guard my resources and am tempted to become bitter about the call. I lash out at my wife for what seems like “frivolous spending.” This was not Jesus’ response. Instead he says, “’Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (NIV, v.4). I wonder if this is where Jesus learned the lesson he taught his disciples in Matthew 6:

“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (vv. 30-33).

Jesus’ second temptation is to throw himself from the top of the temple, so that the Father can prove his loyalty and faithfulness to him by saving his life. It’s a question of trust. So much of my transition has been long periods of excitement and planning, punctuated by a few intense days of emotional doubt and frustration. I begin to doubt and ask questions, “Am I really cut out for this? Did God really call us? Am I hearing God correctly?” or “Did I hear him at all?” The confidence disappears and saps every ounce of momentum and energy from me. However, Jesus replies to Satan in this moment: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (v. 7). This is not blind acceptance or masochist-looking obedience. This is Jesus, a mature son of God, likely looking back at the faithfulness of God throughout his life and asking the question, “Has the Father failed me yet?” I’m certain the answer for him is, “no.” It is for me too.

Finally, Jesus is taken to a high point and shown all of the nations of the world, his for the taking, if he would simply compromise his mission and heart to worship Satan. It’s a question of glory and priority. My internal pride and willingness to compromise on what I know is right can at times be overwhelming. As a person gifted with vision who often looks to the future, at times I can become overwhelmed with thoughts of personal glory and influence. I’m confronted with  the very real question, “In my leadership, is my desire for people to worship me or worship Jesus?” Sometimes the answer is obvious; other times it is less clear. However, Jesus’ words ring clearly into my confusion, “’Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (v. 10). I pray for the strength to make this the truth of my heart.

It’s possible this might seem like a bleak picture of transition. It is true that you lose a lot when you uproot yourself. But remember, you also gain a lot: courage, patience, faith, a desperation for God’s still, small voice. I have not been perfect in this season or any other. Sometimes all I can talk about is what the Lord will do with our new opportunities, while other times I am overwhelmed with anger or sadness at the thought of leaving. I don’t know how a perfectly humble man like Jesus felt in this moment of transition, but I am inspired by his example of faithfulness. May we also look to him in whatever season we are in and present our hopes, fears, emotions, and desires to him, the one who withstood all temptation.

Blessings all!

 

Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor

 

Featured Image: The Temptation in the Wilderness, by Briton Rivière (1898); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Weekly Devotional: James 2

Here are the devotional questions for this week based on this past Sunday’s sermon on James 2.  You can listen to the sermon here!  We hope you use these questions as a way to engage with the Lord and His Word this week.

  1. What types of partiality do you see in the church today?
  2. How does favoritism in our hearts contradict God’s love?
    • Where have you chosen favoritism? Pray, confess, and receive grace?
  3. “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. “-Dallas Willard
    • What makes this difficult to believe?
    • What freedom does this give us?
  4. What is the outcome of real faith?
  5. Can deep authentic faith in Jesus not produce action? Why or why not?

 

New City Teaching Team

Christianity is Not a Syllabus: Reflection on James 1

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” – James 1:19 (ESV)

Few things intimidate me more than a syllabus. I’ll never forget the first time I read the required reading material, assignments, and overall tone set for the Entrepreneurial Process course I took in college. I considered dropping the course before it started. The thought of earning a grade by completing the daunting tasks outlined in that entirely too long packet sucked the confidence out of my mind and the energy from my body. I surely couldn’t live up to those standards.

The first chapter of James reminds me of how I felt after reading that syllabus. Verse two delves into the matter of trials to come, and it only gets more demanding from there. Seek wisdom. Don’t doubt. Be humble. Persevere. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Be rid of evil. Obey commands. Keep a tight reign on your tongue. Look after orphans and widows. Don’t be polluted by the world.

The content of this chapter snowballs into what can feel like a daunting list of what is required to be a Christian. Chapter two even tells us faith without works is dead. So much emphasis on works seems contradictory to the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith—why is there seemingly such contradiction from the book of James?

I’ve struggled a lot with the pressing temptation to strive for perfection, do all that is asked of me, and find no fault in myself. However, that expectation is hardly realistic, dangerously arrogant, and not at all Biblical. The understanding of the Gospel with which we approach the book of James affects the way we perceive the commands we find in it. The lens through which we read it enlightens our understanding of living out the Christian life.

This book does not assert we earn our faith, or our salvation, by our works. It rather suggests works stem from true faith, almost like an inevitable byproduct of faith. Salvation by grace through faith precedes these works, and we are enabled by the grace of God, not our own strength, to obey his commands. As God works in our lives, his grace gives us the strength we need to do the things he has called us to do. Our works are fueled by God’s love, not dripping with our own striving.

New City talks a lot about rest. We take off Sabbath Sundays, make rest a point of conversation, and even include it in our core values. I used to think rest had only to do with taking time off work and making space for God, which is true and good, but I’ve learned rest can mean more than that. Living in rest means trusting in what God has already done for us and in us, knowing the good we do is a response to our rescue, not the means for it. When we live in rest, we need no further justification. We trust in God’s saving power and in his strength, which gives us the energy we need to do the kinds of things James calls us to do.

It may seem intimidating to receive all these mandates in the first chapter of a book that says so much about the validity of our faith. James, however, holds rich instruction for demonstrating our love for God. As we choose continually to die to ourselves and worship God through our actions, we learn to further depend on his strength to continue in relationship with him.

 

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

Weekly Devotional: James 1

Whether in your own personal devotional time or with your small group, we encourage you to reflect on these questions throughout the week based on the sermon on James 1 this past Sunday.  If you missed Bryan’s sermon, you can listen to it here!

1. What is a trial or hardship you are facing right now that you need to name?

2. What part of Jeremiah 9: 23-24 sticks out to you? How does what God declares in Jeremiah 9 relate to what you are facing today?

3. What does it mean for the “word” to be implanted in you? What are the effects of an “implanted word” on our daily life?

4. What is a “doer of the word”? How do we balance being a “doer of the word” with not striving? 

5. What steps might the Lord be asking you to take this week to be active participants in perseverance?

 

New City Teaching Team

Being Sent to Follow: What Sukkot Teaches us about Sending

“…that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 23:43

Happy Sukkot!  Let us meditate on the Feast of Tabernacles!

Growing up in a Jewish family meant that from late September through late October we would celebrate Sukkot.  The main way we celebrated was by building a temporary structure in our backyard to represent a “booth” or a temporary structure. There were many days we had the purest intentions to sleep outside, but growing up in Colorado during this time of the year…I always ended up back in my cozy bed.

So what is Sukkot and why dig into this while we meditate on our core value of “Send?” Sukkot is the festival of Tabernacles, a “gathering of the year’s end.”  This holiday has agricultural significance as it marks the end of the harvest time and the agricultural year in Israel. However, this season draws its deepest significance from the Exodus story and the deep dependence that the Hebrew people displayed on the will of God (Leviticus 23:42-43). How powerful is it that as our own community here at New City spends time on our core value of “send,” we have the opportunity to celebrate and remember what this means through this festival?

Sukkot is the remembrance of a community on the move, dependent on the Lord, and believing in a destination. Would you utilize these passages and prompt questions to guide you?

God’s people on the move…

  • Exodus 25:28
    • What does the word “dwell” mean to you?
    • What is the significance of God’s promise to dwell with us?
    • How are you experiencing God dwelling with you as you “tabernacle” with Him?
    • Check out Revelation 21:2-23
  • Numbers 9:15-23
    • What guided the Israelites to get up and move? Do we live this way now pertaining to the presence of God as our guide?
    • The tabernacle exemplified intimacy with the Lord, but there was flexibility (could be up for 2 days, a month, or a year) and mobility. How does this challenge and inform us as we meditate on “send”?
    • What would it look like to see our church as more of a tabernacle than a temple?

God’s people dependent on the Lord…

  • Are you living dependent on the Lord as you live sent, like the Israelites depended on the pillar of cloud and fire?
  • Sukkot celebrates God’s people’s dependence on Him as they wandered. How can we remember and celebrate our dependence on God as we are sent, wandering in the world with mission and promise?
  • Exodus 13:21-22
    • What provision did the pillars provide?
  • Exodus 14:24
    • How have you seen God’s protection as we live sent?
  • Exodus 16:1-36
    • How have you seen God’s provision as you are on the move living sent?
    • Have there been any unique directions or promises from God as you are on the move?

God’s people believing in a destination…

  • What destination do you have in mind as a Christ-follower?
  • Joshua 3:1-17
    • What directions do you see in their  “last steps” as they arrive?
  • Numbers 13:1-33
    • How are you being one of the 2 and not the 10 as you are living sent?
      • What does it require?

As we explore our core value of “Send,” we are usually moved to think about the Great Commission, Acts 1:8 into Acts 8:1, and so on. What if we took time to see how the men and women of the Old Testament lived sent lives in dependence on the Lord? Let’s take time this week to think about the significance of the tabernacle and what that says about our God and how that might inform how we engage with God in His mission in the world.  

 

Zach Meerkreebs, Lead Planter and New City Stories Contributor 

Risk: The Faithful Response to Our Rescue

At New City we talk a lot about being thankful for our rescue. Even outside of a Christian context, the word “rescue” has implications of risking, preventing, saving, or going out of one’s way for someone else. To rescue is “to free from confinement, danger, or evil” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. The Israelites experienced this rescue physically and spiritually when God freed them from slavery in Egypt and then gave them the Ten Commandments. In this rescue, God brought his people out of bondage and then began creating them into a new people. He led His grumbling people the long way, with a reluctant leader, but God knew the risk would pay off.

When we think about our personal rescue stories, it can be easy to forget that our rescue came with a cost.

And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.” (Matt 27:30, 31).

No matter if your rescue story comes from growing up in church, or coming to faith in a desperate place, this was the cost for all believers.  God risked to rescue us and continues to risk by pursuing His children. This is why risk is a core value at New City–it is a core part of our story.

Not only did God risk to rescue us, but we are called to risk for others. We read in scripture that, “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Risk stems from love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that those who believe might have life, life everlasting.” (John 3:16). Risking is not about making your schedule more full to check the “love your neighbors box.” Risk involves seeing God’s heart for your neighbors, for people in need, for people who do not look like you, and taking on that heart of love yourself. When you start to see people how God sees them, your schedule, reputation, and comfortability dwindle and finding a way to help others becomes more important.

In Acts 10 Peter has the vision of a sheet with unclean animals coming down and repeatedly hears, “do not call what is clean unclean.” Peter’s first reaction was confusion and rejection because his understanding of what he could eat had been set for years. However, God uses this vision to lead Peter into a risky call; namely, to invite outsiders into God’s story. Through visions and the Spirit’s leading, God gives Peter not only an image of the coming risk, but a person.

The Spirit led Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman soldier, to call for Peter to hear about this vision. This is bold for Cornelius to do because of his position in the Roman army and because of the fact that Peter was a Jew. After a vision warning Peter that Cornelius will call for him to come, Peter cannot help but notice the Spirit’s working. When Peter sees God undoubtedly at work, the risk becomes less of a fearful experience, and more of a faithful call. “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). After this encounter between Peter and Cornelius, Peter preached the Good News to Gentiles and they received the Holy Spirit. Peter and Cornelius both listened to God, stepped out in faith and took risks, which in turn resulted in the salvation of many.

The Gentiles were not Jewish, which means they were not considered in the family of God’s people. For most of us, this means Peter and Cornelius are a part of our rescue story. This week reflect on your rescue story or on seasons when you ran from God. What did God bring into your life to bring you back to Him? How can you be that person for others this week? Pray for the person after you in line, start up a conversation with someone who doesn’t look like you, be the first to apologize in an argument, pray for opportunities to risk for God. Risking is what Jesus calls us to when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Risk is not just a core value of a church; it is the call of following Christ.

Reflection Questions:

  • What resource(s) to you have excess of (food, money, time, clothes, etc.) and how can you give it away to people in need?
  • What keeps you from stepping out of your comfort zone to help, to encourage, or to share your faith with others?
  • Read Luke 18:18-30 and reflect on where you see risk in this passage.

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman,  New City Stories Contributor 

Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

As Christians in our modern context, it is difficult for us to envision a time when the gravity of our sins and their subsequent atoning took place by the literal sacrificing of animals on an altar. Although that visceral picture might make us uncomfortable to think about, it was the reality of those who lived in the Old Testament under the Former Covenant. As with many things in the Christian faith, we must know where we have come from to be truly grateful for where we are today. Let us remember the inadequacy of the Former Covenant, in order to embrace the beauty of the New Covenant that Jesus established for for us by His blood.

The book of Hebrews is a New Testament letter that is rich with insight into the meaning of the Cross of Christ. Today, I would like to look at Hebrews 9:12-15, which states:

“He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore, He is the mediator of a New Covenant.”

While much of this language may be foreign to you, I believe this passage, and the broader text surrounding it, argues four main reasons why the sacrifice of Jesus is superior to the sacrifice of goats and calves:

  1.  Firstly, while under the previous covenant, the high priest had to first offer a sacrifice for his own sin before making atonement for the sins of others, whereas Jesus, who was in fact sinless, did not have to do so. His flawless obedience to the Father made him the only man in history with the ability to offer sacrifices for all those other than himself. How humbling, that the one man who was innocent, gave of Himself for the guilty. The blood of Jesus is PURE!
  2. Secondly, because of the utterly sinful nature of humanity (including the high priests of old), under the previous covenant these sacrifices would have to be made repeatedly in order to establish continual purification for the people. Jesus, however, being without sin, is able to offer a “once for all” sacrifice that is eternal and lasting. This gives us an entire new perspective on the moment that Jesus declares “it is finished” on the cross right before He gives up His spirit and submits to death. The blood of Jesus is FINAL!
  3. Thirdly, the high priests of old used the blood of animals. Conversely, Jesus gave of His own blood as an act of willingly laying down His own life. While animals are unable to consciously sacrifice themselves (and were simply the chosen vessel) Jesus IS able to sacrifice Himself. The end of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before Him, (He) endured the cross”. The blood of Jesus is PURPOSEFUL!
  4. Finally, while the old purification system had to do mostly with an outward purification of the external, Jesus offers an inward purification of the “conscience.” He is not only able to make us righteous in the way that we relate to those around us, but indeed provides a way to cleanse our innermost being, heart, soul, body, and mind. As the book of Hebrews states, “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to Him.” The blood of Jesus is REDEEMING!

In closing, let us never forget the kind of redemption that Jesus has provided for His bride.

The purity, finality,  purposefulness, and redeemable quality of the blood of Jesus makes His blood of utmost superiority to all other blood sacrifices, particularly the blood of goats and bulls, in terms of forgiveness, atonement, and purification. When we realize that the sacrifice – that is, the crucifixion – of Jesus was a purposeful and decisive sacrifice, it will cause us to respond in overwhelming worship. The more we understand the inadequacies of the Former Covenant and our own inability produce a clear conscience, the more precious and valued the sacrifice of Jesus and the New Covenant will be in our own lives. I pray this passage causes you to ponder the beauty of Jesus this week and to worship with a clear conscience and a full heart.

Oh precious is the flow

That makes me white as snow

No other fount I know

Nothing but the blood of Jesus

 

Melody Hickey, New City Stories Contributor

Dignity, John 8, and Christian Love

“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” John 8:11b

At New City, we are currently going through a series on our core values of Love, Rest, Risk, and Send. This past Sunday, we covered our core value of “Love” and Zach shared that one of the essential features of Christ-like love is a focus on restoring dignity, both in others and in ourselves.

To put it succinctly, our dignity ultimately finds roots in our identity.  If our identity is based in fleeting and superficial realities, then we will find ourselves constantly searching for worth and dignity in all the wrong places.  To illustrate this point further, Zach gave us the biblical example of Adam and Eve before and after they rebelled against God in Genesis 3.  Before their turning away, Adam and Eve were living in “Shalom,” a kind of perfect peace and harmony where there was no fracturing of their identity in God.  Because of this, they experienced a fully dignified life harmonized with the One who gave them life.  What happened, however, after both Adam and Eve removed themselves from identity in God is that their understanding of their own worth and dignity began to fall apart.  They were now flooded with shame (v 7) and fear (v 8-10).  This is precisely why they hide from God in the Garden (v 8), it is why Adam immediately blames Eve for what happened (v 12), and Eve immediately blames the serpent for her sin (v 13).  When our identities fail to be rooted in the Creator, our relationships, both with God and each other, unravel.  In other words, there is a kind of outward ripple effect that takes place when our identities shift from God to something lesser and the first causality of this ripple effect is our own inherent dignity and worth.

Humanity’s rejection of God and His perfect love in Genesis 3 began a bleak trajectory where the loss of identity is followed by the disintegration of dignity and relationships. However, this “bleak trajectory” also set up the stage for the most beautiful restoration that could ever take place. The Fall of humanity establishes the impetus and context for the mission of God to reunite Himself with His wayward people.  This mission climaxes in the person of Jesus Christ.  The mission of Christ needs to be understood in light of the rebellion and sin of humanity because it demonstrates the steadfast and perfect nature of God’s love for His creation and it gives insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry.  These will be explored now.

Towards the end of his sermon, Zach shared that wherever Jesus went during his earthly ministry, he was always dignifying others.  In other words, Jesus was (and is!) re-weaving the world back together through providing a way for our identities to be rooted in God once again.  You see, because Jesus’ own identity was and is perfectly aligned and at one with the Father, he is able to ignite the inherent dignity in others all around him.  Zach said that “dignified people dignify people,” and Jesus is our ultimate model of this truth.  If our identities are in Christ, they are in God (John 1:12) and if they are in God, then our dormant dignity is awakened and inflamed by our renewed knowledge of His love for us.  This then pours out of our own life into our spheres of influence, whether that be our homes, workplaces, or other spaces where we spend our time, like the local coffee shop or neighborhood park (Phil 2:17).  Christian identity is contagious because its very nature is to re-ignite a wildfire of dignity in all who come in contact with it.  And when this doesn’t happen amongst God’s people, we know something is amiss. When the life of the Church doesn’t reflect the life of Jesus, when the Body is misaligned with the Head, it means that our identities have strayed from the identity Giver.  This is why Christocentric practices are so important! Another topic for another time.

Now that we see the downward trajectory of sin’s undignifying effects and how this trajectory set the stage for Jesus’s mission to provide identity and, consequently, dignity to all who call upon his name, we can now explore what this looks like in practice.  And, to do so, our gaze will remain fixed on the one who practiced it perfectly.

In John 8, the Pharisees toss a woman in front of Jesus who has been accused of adultery.  Under the Law of Moses, adultery is punishable

Christ and the Pharisees by Earnst Zimmerman

by stoning to death.  The Pharisees knew that to be a faithful Jew one must adhere to the Law and they wanted desperately for Jesus to be unfaithful to the Law, giving them reason to undermine his ministry so that they could hold onto religious and political power. You see, the Pharisees weren’t at all concerned about the state of the woman who they threw down at Jesus’s feet–they weren’t even concerned with the sin she represented! They were only concerned with the woman insofar as she provided a means to their twisted end.  How many times have we called out the sin of political candidate or church leader from another tradition only to validate our own tribes?  I know I have been guilty of this.  In his sermon, Zach called this the problem of “diagnosis.”  It isn’t that diagnosis is wrong in and of itself–it’s that diagnosis isolated from grace and love becomes Pharisaism.  For example, we would never want our doctor to break the news to us that we have a serious illness as if it were mere routine.  This kind of behavior violates the image of God in others. When we aren’t concerned about the state of another’s heart, we neglect God in them. This is precisely what the Pharisees were doing to that woman, who now sat in the dirt, with stones raised above her head, between the religious leaders of the day.

Jesus, on the other hand, understood the law differently.  He understood that the purpose of the Law was to facilitate communion between God and His people.  Its primary aim was to capture hearts so that true relationship could be restored.  This is why in that moment, instead of dismissing the dignity of the woman before him, it becomes his primary concern.  Jesus speaks his famous line in verse 7 when he says, “You without sin cast the first stone,” and in this moment he extends protection and grace.  The heart of the story, in my estimation, is what takes place after the Pharisees leave and Jesus is left alone with the woman.  The text says in verses 10-11: “Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”

Jesus knew that to heal her life of sin, this woman did not need to be beaten or harassed or arrested–she needed to be dignified.  This bloodied, dirty woman who is standing with her head down before Jesus, the one many are calling a prophet of God and some are even calling the Messiah, must have been feeling so little in that moment.  Jesus, recognizing this, clothes her with dignity.  He does this in two ways.

  • The first is that he extends grace by protecting her, not condemning her, and setting her free. He could have given her a moralizing lesson about sexual sin.  He could have chewed her out for her sins.  He could have even given his own sentence.  And at times, this approach is appropriate and necessary (e.g. Jesus and Peter!).  But instead, recognizing her hearts deepest needs, Jesus decides to speak freedom and worth and dignity to someone who was starving for it.
  • The second is that he tells her to stop sinning. This is so crucially important for us to hear in the Church today.  In our fear of offending others and in our emphasis on inclusion and tolerance, we must never forget that the Gospel demands holiness.  Jesus dignifies this woman by expecting her to be holy.  Jesus sees this woman as really is, a beautiful daughter of a loving Father.  In this vision for her life, Jesus sees purity and radiance and joy, but she can only ever achieve those things when she chooses beauty over depravity.

Dignity demands both grace and expectation.  We must extend mercy, inclusion, and acceptance of those who need it, but then we must see them as Jesus sees them –we must have a vision for their life beyond what it is in its current state.  This is not judgement, this is hope.  Jesus spoke dignity to this dirty, ashamed woman who was entrapped in a life of sin by extending grace and freedom but also by calling her higher to a life worthy of her identity in God.  When we, in our current 21st century Western context, move out into the world and are presented with the God-given opportunities to dignify others, we must see as Jesus sees. We must extend grace and uphold holiness; we must offer freedom whilst clinging to the truth.  This is the tension of Christian love.  It is a tight-rope walk that can, at times, feel impossible to accomplish.  How can we diagnose and care? How are we to accept and demand?  How can we include the person but not their lifestyle?  We begin with what Jesus did and what He does through His Spirit, and that is by reminding people of their real identity and by dignifying them every step of the way.  This is what love lived out looks like and a dignified world is the fruit of this love.

I will end with these thoughts from C.S. Lewis’s famous sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else

a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics…And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Into the Valley

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”Matthew 16:24 ESV

The pilgrimage that most imagine when they think about the journey of the spiritual life is the steep and glorious trek up the mountain.  We often picture our soul beginning in a kind of valley of darkness and isolation from God, obstructed by sin and moral confusion.  But then, after God removes the scales from our eyes, we embark on a long ascent up the mountainside that is filled with holy encounters and sanctifying lessons.  Finally, we dream of the day when we reach the peak and our spiritual vision becomes clear and we come to total peace.

Elijah hiding his face from God after he hears His whisper. 1 Kings 19

There is some warrant for this particular image of the spiritual pilgrimage.  There are metaphors and images in scripture that lend us to believe that any spiritual journey moves upward towards the mountaintop.  For example, Isaiah 2:2 says, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it.” More than this, God Himself meets with individuals on hills and mountains throughout Scripture.  From God meeting Moses on Mt. Sinai to Elijah climbing Mt. Carmel to hear God’s whisper in the Old Testament and from Peter, James, and John witnessing the glory of the transfiguration on a mountainside to Jesus Himself retreating to the Mount of Olives to commune with his Father in prayer in the New Testament , a clear pattern of God encountering his people in high places emerges.  

This image of the spiritual life also makes sense on an intuitive level.  As we mature in our faith, we move from slavery to freedom, from blindness to sight, from certain death to abundant life. There seems to be movement from the lesser to the greater, the lower to the higher.

But what of our experience? Does this image of a spiritual climb to the mountaintop hold up when the Christian life is lived out?

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

It seems to me that in the daily rounds of life the journey of the spirit is not one of ascent, but descent.  The Christian journey is fundamentally constituted by a kind of “downward mobility” into a life of service and sacrifice.  Freedom in the spiritual life is not found in doing all we can to climb to the top, but in crawling through the trenches of humility.  Scripture teaches us this principle, too. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what the Christian life ought to look like; the lowly traits of meekness, humility, persecution, and hunger are all markers of those who have reached spiritual heights, which is why Jesus calls them “blessed” (Matthew 5:1-11).  So does this mean to go up one must go down?  Should we live our lives in the valley in order to reach the peaks?

We have an apparent contradiction at the crossroads of our spiritual pilgrimage; namely that to be truly “blessed,” to reach the heights where Christ reigns and offers life and love, we must descend into the depths of self-forgetfulness and denial.  How is this the case? How can we find ourselves by forgetting ourselves?  How is it better that we move from being free to follow our every desire to becoming a “slave to Christ?” How can burden be a means toward freedom?  The answer to this riddle is the cross. 

The cross of Christ is the sweetest burden that I ever bore; it is such a burden as wings are to a bird, or sails to a ship, to carry me forward to my harbor.”
―Samuel Rutherford

The cross of Jesus Christ is both the sure foundation and the animating force of the Christian life.  The cross represents the real, historical, and cosmic event where the way of death now becomes the way of life.  In this way, the Cross is a model for us, a kind of ultimate signpost that shows us the way towards the divine life.  This signpost does not point us in the direction that we might think, but it always leads us the right destination.

I want to be clear here: The path through the valley does not end in the valley.  We as followers of Christ should not seek out meekness for the sake of meekness, trials for the sake of trials, lowliness for the sake of lowliness. If we view these things as ends in and of themselves we end up with a kind of self-serving asceticism where our actions, however sacrificial, are built on our pride masquerading as humility.  Instead, however, we are called to follow Christ and the path that he walked was one marked by pure self-sacrificial love for God and others.  Paul says in Romans 8:17 that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (ESV).  In other words, if our proper spiritual destination is Christ Himself, if we are truly “heirs with Christ,” then our own self-sacrifice can only lead us to Jesus if it participates in Jesus.

C.S. Lewis, in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, says that “the cross comes before the crown…a cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.”  Discipleship must take on the shape of the Cross, it must have a “cruciform” character, because this is the way Christ leads us by His example as Calvary. Fortunately, it does not end at the Cross; instead, just like the tomb opened up and Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, so we too are promised ascent towards glory and freedom at the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, ascent towards the One who called us down the path in the first place.

But there is another strange thing that happens when we descend into the valley.  Not only is it the way towards freedom, but we actually begin to experience freedom while we are there.  Why in a place marked by sacrifice, denial, and humility do we actually feel more alive and more like who we were created to be?  The answer again can be found in the cross of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30 ESV), he isn’t saying that no yoke or burden exists.  No, not at all. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The yoke and burden of Christ seems that it would be impossible to bear:  betrayed by those closest to him, the victim of  an unjust sentencing, brutally tortured and spit on by those he came to save, and nailed naked to a cross in front of friends, family, and strangers — this hardly sounds like an “easy” yoke or a “light” burden.  So what is Jesus saying? He is claiming that in him and his power, all suffering has been transformed into new life.  This is what Paul had in mind when he writes “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55 ESV).  It’s not that death no longer exists–it does.  It’s that death takes on a completely new meaning when it is found in the Son of God and Man, the only one able to give meaning where there is suffering, to provide life where there is none.  

So the valley not only leads towards freedom and glory but it also provides it.  When we pick up the “yoke” of Christ and place it around our necks, it isn’t easy because it is without trials and demands; no, it is easy because Christ Himself, through the power of his Holy Spirit, gives us the vision, the strength, the will, and the joy to carry it forward.

***

In my own spiritual journey, I have always struggled with ambition.  Ambition, pride, and recognition are some of the obstacles that keep me from trekking down through the valley, which I know is the way towards Christ.  I want to reach the mountain peaks, but not without others recognizing my climb.  

Then God gave me a son.  About a week before Eli was born, I wrote on a whiteboard next to my bathroom mirror: “Do you desire the humility of the cross more than the glory of man?”  I wanted to desire the humility of the cross more, but I was afraid I couldn’t act on this desire on my own.  When Eli came, I realized his presence in my life helped me to solve this dilemma.  I have no choice but to change his dirty diapers every two hours, comfort him when he cries, heat up meals for my tired, nursing wife, and make late night pharmacy runs for medicine.  Ambition is not a temptation with a newborn child.  I feel no need to be impressive around him, just present. I don’t need him to recognize my talent, just my love.

God giving me Eli is a means of grace.  God is nudging me along the path; I am being led down into the valley where my Guide is teaching me that life emerges from forgetting myself and serving others.  For me, Eli’s presence in my life helps me to forget myself.  How can I think about my future calling when I know that right now I’m called to be a father?  Of course, Eli is more than a “means of grace” in my life.  He is first and foremost a precious child made in God’s image who will, God willing, embark on his own spiritual pilgrimage one day.  

This season of life reminded me that God is more invested in our spiritual journeys than we are.  He will give you roles and responsibilities, He will place people in your life, He will allow you to walk through difficult seasons in order to give you opportunities to be Christ-like.  He wants us to carry His burden and take on His yoke because when we do, He is there in a special way with us.  It is impossible to be like Christ when we always have ourselves first in our minds and in our hearts.  In thinking that we can achieve the glory of Christ without the Cross of Christ, we complicate our pilgrimage and risk losing our way altogether. So God, in His deep desire for us to reach the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, gifts us with steps along the path; steps of humility, self-denial, and sacrifice.

Our spiritual journeys must always take on a cruciform character.  We must “take up our cross” and carry them into the depths of the valley of humble service because it is in this valley where God strips us of all that weighs us down and we emerge unburdened, ready to climb the peaks.  In the valley, we are given responsibilities, roles, and opportunities to serve that must be fulfilled in faithfulness now, not later.  This gives us the freedom and cultivates the character necessary to move us towards Christ because it is Christ’s character that we are becoming.

For me, at this moment in my life, this was my son. For others, it could be something that at first seems like a set-back. Maybe a neighbor moves in across the street that needs to feel welcomed.  Or maybe there is an opportunity to volunteer at a local shelter. Or maybe your spouse needs you to spend more time helping around the house. Or maybe a difficult co-worker needs a friend to make them less lonely. Whatever it is, Christ is there.  He is calling us down this path because he has already walked it and knows that it is the way towards his love, freedom, and glory. That is the promise of the Cross.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

Facing Jericho

And the commander of the Lord‘s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.   Joshua 5:15 ESV

If you are familiar with often recited Bible stories, then you might be familiar with the story about Joshua defeating Jericho.  Jericho was a city surrounded by walls, and Joshua was the leader of God’s people and the plan was for the army to walk around the city until the walls fell leading to victory for Joshua and his people. However, this strange plan was not just to walk around once, but to walk around the city once per day, for six days. On the seventh day, the Israelite army would march around Jericho seven times followed by seven priests blowing seven rams’ horns until the walls came crashing down and Israel could claim victory. This unusual method separates this story from most Old Testament stories of war.

Before Joshua even gets to Jericho, however, he has an even more interesting encounter. In Joshua 5:13 we notice this language: “When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked.”

If you have ever had a big moment coming right around the corner— the start of a new job, a big move, a tough decision, an important day at work— then you have been where Joshua is in this moment. Joshua knows that the conquering of Jericho is ahead because God has promised the Israelites the land, but he isn’t quite there yet. All he can do is think about what is to come and see Jericho in the distance.

When I am in this place before something important, all the possibilities at hand tend to crowd my mind. Maybe you do the same thing, maybe you ignore preparing for the big day that is coming, or maybe you plan and plan to make sure nothing will go wrong. In chapter 5 we see that when Joshua is in this very position, he has an encounter with a messenger from the Lord.

 

When Joshua looks up, he sees a man standing before him. Joshua asks the man if he is on their side or the enemies’ side. The man responds that he is neither, but he is a commander of the Lord- Yahweh’s army. Joshua then falls on his face and worships and asks, “What does my Lord say to his servant?” (Joshua 5:14b). This is already very different from my natural reaction to looming, important, and tense days ahead. Joshua encounters a member of Yahweh’s army, worships, and asks how he, the leader of his own army, can serve his Lord. The best part of this story, in my opinion, is the commander’s response.

“‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so” (Joshua 5:15).

The commander of the Lord’s army does not start off by giving Joshua the grand plan on how to face his enemies and have victory at Jericho. The commander does not give Joshua a pump up speech, nor does he bully Joshua into doing a good job. In a time of heavy stress, the commander tells Joshua that this moment is holy. Not only is this place holy, but Joshua is asked to take his shoes off and sit awhile.

Maybe this command is familiar to you. Earlier in the story of God’s people, Moses is also told to do the same thing when he finds himself standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:5). We are told that an angel of the LORD (Yahweh) meets Moses in a burning bush, and when Moses turns aside to see the bush, he is told to take off his sandals. This seems to be a common way that God invites His people to just listen and take a moment in His presence.

When Joshua takes his sandals off, the chapter ends. The next chapter picks up describing how Jericho is shut up inside and out. Then the Lord gives Joshua the seemingly silly plan to walk around the city for days. Even though this plan of attack seems strange, as readers who know Joshua’s recent encounter with God, we can be confident in the plan. We see that Joshua is not acting of his own strength or his own thought; rather, Joshua leads God’s people with the plan God gives him.

Later in the story we read that the plan succeeds. God had a plan, and he used Joshua’s leadership to carry out the plan. We see in Joshua that Christian leadership is full of difficult choices and, at times, large responsibilities. However, we also see in Joshua that Christian leadership begins in our devotion to God. Christian leadership begins when believers submit to God, trusting in God’s plan and in God’s ways. Joshua worships before the victory ever happens at Jericho.

This week think about these questions: What Jericho are you facing? What does it look like for you to “take off your sandals” and notice the holiness of where God has you? How can you praise God this week before you see a victory? Sitting with God reminds us that he is a God we can trust. He is the I AM and he calls us to look up, take off our sandals, and know that where we are standing is holy ground— not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor