Sticks and Stones

John 8 begins with Jesus teaching in the local temple, as he often did. The gospel helpfully tells us in verse 2 that “all the people” were present. We do not know how many people were there, but we do know that Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem, on a popular Jewish holiday, at the height of his ministry. Safe to say there were a good number present.

The Pharisees bring a woman in front of the crowd, and make three claims: 1) this woman has committed adultery, 2) we (the Pharisees) follow the Law of Moses, and 3) according to the Law of Moses, this woman should be stoned. They then ask Jesus, “What do you say?”

The Pharisees’ attention, and even the attention of the author of John, is on Jesus at this point. The woman isn’t even addressed until the end of the whole ordeal! However, as I read this story recently I was struck by the position of the woman. She had been kidnapped, put in front of a massive crowd of people, and had her deepest and darkest secrets announced for all to hear. As I was praying about what this story meant for the church today, the Lord pointed out is how we consistently do this when speaking about others.

I am not a subtle person. Sometimes I can use that as an excuse to be a little edgy in what I bring up for conversation. It can be fun to bring up controversial topics about celebrities, politicians, acquaintances, or, in the right situations, people I call friends. We can use the excuse of being concerned, or having an “intelligent conversation” about the state of our country, or that it can be a lesson for ourselves or others.

Unfortunately, what I am really doing is stripping people made in the image of God of their dignity.

Much like the Pharisees, I have made a value-based decision that a person’s worth, reputation, and image in my own eyes as worth less than the joke I am about to make or the story I am about to tell. I have taken a person, dragged them before the crowd, and sentenced them as guilty. In the process I’ve even goaded others, innocent bystanders, into the stoning of the other person.

Now, obviously, we are not actually stoning anyone. And there is no reality where we could never talk about another person ever again.

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

However, I wonder if the same spiritual principle Jesus speaks of in Matthew 5:21-22, where the hatred of another person is equated with murder, is not applicable here. When we throw another person under the bus, even people who we don’t know, are we condemning them as irredeemable or less than human, much like the Pharisees did to this woman?

I think Jesus’ response offers two redeeming options. The first option is to not engage. In verse 6, Jesus’ first response is to make himself busy. He simply does not acknowledge their charge. Sometimes this has to be your response, especially with people you don’t know well or with folks who are not Christians. Refuse to pollute your mind with the lack of dignity given to another person.

The second option is confrontation. In John 8:7, when ignoring the Pharisees wasn’t good enough, Jesus responds with a charge of his own. Now, I am not suggesting we throw our sins in each other’s faces, but I am suggesting that the way we treat and talk about one another matters enough to get personal.

If you have a brother or sister in Christ who cannot stop talking about other people, whether they are talking about someone in culture, your family, your friends, or your church, be willing to confront them on this issue. Paul deals with gossip extensively in his letters, naming it along with other horrific things which cause division amongst Christians. Proverbs addresses those who gossip and slander twelve times, calling those do so a “fool.” It even say that someone who does gossip sets snare for their own downfall (Proverbs 18:6-7).

At the end of this story, Jesus and the woman are alone. He’s face to face with the one who has been accused. But, instead of condemning her, he gives her grace and dignity. He acknowledges her humanity and sets her free, not just from her situation, but from sin itself! What opportunities are we missing out on to love one another? What does it mean for us to be people who spread grace instead of hatred? Can we lift one another up instead of tearing one another down? Can we make it so that our words “build others up according to their needs?” (Ephesians 4:29). Lord, make it so.

 

By Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor

 

(Featured Image Artwork by Gustave Adore)

New City’s Heartbeat: Our Core Values and Questions

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Matthew 11:28 NRSV

When my wife Kristin and I heard God’s call to plant New City Church here in Lexington, we specifically heard God call us to begin a community marked by rest.  As we developed this vision and listened for God’s intent in and for our ministry, we landed on four core values of Love, Rest, Risk, and Send that we utilize to lead all of our decision making. I believe that not only knowing who we are (landing our core values) is essential but that these specific DNA markers have been God ordained for ministering to our context. I have seen unconditional “love” draw hurting and burnt people into our community, “rest” attract exhausted and performing Bible-belt Christians, “risk” free us up to think outside the box, and “send” get tested early in our lifetime as we are generous to other churches and as we look to plant new expressions.

New City Church

As I personally continue to wrestle with these 4 markers of New City Church, I asked myself some questions about the foundation of this community of God. I share these with you so you can marinate in what your community is built on; you can utilize these questions in a huddle, during your quiet time journaling or praying, or even in a conversation with another New City family member. Here they are:

            Love                               

  • What is the root of my love for others?
  • How is my love expanding the hospitality in my life?
  • How is my love speaking dignity into everyone around us?
  • How am I complicating loving others? How have I simplified and missed out on loving someone in a unique way?
  • Who is someone in my life I’m not excited to love on right now?

            Rest

  • How do I rest well?
  • Where in my life am I competing, comparing, or striving?
  • What do I see God creating in my life? How can I partner in what He is creating instead of stirring something up myself?
  • How am I living in the reality of abiding as portrayed in John 15?
  • How am I experiencing the truth of rest taught in Matthew 11:28-30?

            Risk

  • Where in my life am I quick to “play it safe” or choose comfortability?
  • Who might God be asking me to risk on?
  • What is something I am holding as a “sacred cow” that I might need to risk and give up?
  • What question do I not want to be asked OR need to answer that I might need to engage in?
  • How am I engaging in dark, risky areas in our community?
  • What do I see the Spirit leading me into that freaks me out?

            Send

  • How does my life express the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:16-20?
  • How am I celebrating sending in this season?
  • Do I live a “commissioned” lifestyle?
  • How can I be radically generous this season?
  • How could I be a part of New City’s sending in this season?

My prayer is that you would grow in ownership, understanding, and comfortability with these concepts as you dive into them. My desire is that our entire community, every brother and sister, would make these their own as we partner in ministry together in 2018.

Zach Meerkreebs, New City Church Head Planter 

Faithful To

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  Matthew 21:43

The renters are given everything they needed to produce wine, including a press and a wall (v. Mt. 21:33).  They weren’t given just one vine of grapes but an entire production and probably a vast amount of land full of fruit-producing plants (Is. 16:8).  The grape farmers were deeply faithful to the vineyard – they produced good grapes.  In fact, the owner was very satisfied and sent servants to go get his portion – presumably the rent he was owed – from the tenants (Mt. 21:34, 38).

Of course, the owner had the rights to everything in that farm since he’d built it and owned it outright.  All he’d asked for was payment from the ones renting the property. More than that, the owner didn’t even demand a finished product of wine, he only wanted the grapes as they were being harvested (v.34).  So, the renters would have been left with many bunches of grapes, a wine press, and the safety in which to make and then sell a lucrative product.

In return for rent in the form of grapes, the farmers could produce wine.  The renters were unrestricted beyond that – they were not considered slaves or even servants of the vineyard’s owner (v. 34).  In other words, in return for only rent, the tenants were given a vast supply of produce to sell, freedom to use it as they wanted, and land on which to live.  It wasn’t just a fair agreement, it was a fully gracious agreement.  The owner planned to make them wealthy.

And, the renters had been very faithful in growing and producing grapes.  They were good at their craft.  In fact, they were fiercely loyal to the vineyard.  As it turned out, they would eventually murder to keep it and its produce.

When he doesn’t receive what he is rightfully owed, the landlord sent one servant and then another to the vineyard to collect.  When they ferociously kill both servants, in an act of unprecedented and lavish grace, the owner sends his son to gather the payment.  He did not send his son with an army to imprison, enslave, or execute the renters who had access to his land and an income from his produce (vv. 37-38).  He sent his son to represent himself, thinking that maybe the renters didn’t respect the servants he’d sent.  But, in fierce defense of grapes, the renters slaughter the son too.  Instead of being content with their huge portion of wealth, the renters were also greedy enough to obtain the portion belonging to the owner’s son – his inheritance (v. 38).

In either case, in this scenario, the grapes or wine were going to be produced.  It would either be done in faithfulness to the owner or in faithfulness to the vineyard and its renters.  Of course, the owner had the right to take everything, but he was generous.  In return, while attempting to tend the owner’s vineyard, the renters became so infatuated with the grapes that they began to think of them as their own bunches of tiny fruit.  Instead of remaining faithful to the owner in their gardening and sending, they were intensely faithful to their grapes.  Instead of sending to the Father, they were going to send and sell the grapes elsewhere.  Instead of being faithful to the one who had the power to create and gift vineyards, they were faithful to the yield of the vineyard.

In using our talents, we must be faithful to the one to whom we are sending.  When someone becomes more attached to the people in whom they are invested or the gifts the Spirit has given, the heart attaches to those things or people instead of the Father.  This action chisels the soul away from the rightful, lavishly gracious, and loving Owner.  It causes us to become vicious in defending the product. It causes what we produce to become more valuable to us than God. We are left holding onto something that will die instead of onto the indulgent and infinite Life Creator.

The question isn’t “what have we produced,” but to whom will we be faithful with what we’ve been given?  To whom will we send the fruit?  Our fruit may be used for others, but it is ultimately given to God.

In the end, faithfulness to fruit rather than faithfulness to the Owner – the Father – took the tenants outside of his grace.  It may seem as if the owner instigated this by finally “bringing those wretches to a wretched end” (v. 41, NAS).  However, by rejecting the grace of the Generous One, the farmers took themselves out of his favor.  They were attempting to disconnect the vineyard from the Owner.  They brought their own destruction because they were cutting themselves off from the Creator – the builder of the vineyard.

Of course, it was the Pharisees, not Jesus, who came to the violent conclusion of a “wretched end” for the renters.  The Jewish leaders decided that judgement in some form of painful and dignity defying death would be best.  Jesus, in his grace, only said the vineyard would be given away to those who would be faithful to the Father, producing for and sending the grapes to him (v. 43).  Jesus — who is exemplified by the murdered son in the parable — does not choose to repay death with death.  Instead, he moves leadership away from the Pharisees — exemplified by the tenants — allowing them another chance at restoration.  Whether we are faithful or not, restoration lives in the heartbeat of Jesus.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor 

Advent Fulfilled: The Incarnation

“…that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us…so that our joy may be complete” 1 John 1:2,4 (CSB)

This week of Advent celebrates the Incarnation of Christ. Nearly everyone recognizes the incarnation as the Christmas narrative: Jesus born of Mary, who was a virgin, in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem. The details of this historical event are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as well as recounted in famous Christmas Carols and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, so I will not relate them here. This storyline has become so familiar during this season of the year, that people hear it often with little more than a sense of comfort.

Instead, I wish to point our eyes and hearts to a third narrative of Jesus’ birth. This passage recounts none of the details, but conveys the profound meaning of the Incarnation.

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life —  that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us —  what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 1 John 1:1-4 (CSB)

Let us unpack this passage a little. Advent calls us to reflect with a renewed interest in the miracle of Christmas; the miracle of the gospel. Advent softens our heart and draws us into a richer relationship with God, if we let it. So, there are some deep truths here and I ask that you sit with each one of them just a moment rather than breezing through them. Take time to meditate on the implication of each revelation.

Jesus (referred to here as “the word of life”) preexisted all of creation because he “was from the beginning.”
Jesus was present “with the Father” in relationship with Him from eternity.
Jesus did not come to life; He IS life. He is “the eternal life” revealed to us.
Jesus came to us here within His creation as a man who could be “touched with … hands”, “seen with … eyes”, and “heard” as a human being.
The entire purpose in the incarnation and in John’s testimony about Jesus’ birth is for our “joy [to] be complete.”
Jesus invites us into “fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

There is simply too much here and too few words available to flesh out all that these four short verses offer. I trust that if you took the time to reflect on each of the assertions I drew out of the passage, then the Holy Spirit has spoken something special to you. For me, I am awestruck as I contemplate God stooping down to my broken existence by coming in the flesh in order to for me to be in relationship with Him (Romans 8:3). Who am I to receive such an invitation? What have I done to deserve this? No one. Nothing. And yet…

I have not, nor can I, make my way to God. Every other religion tells me I have to find a way to reach Him. Every other religion has special people who tell me what to do and how to behave to get to God. The Christmas story, the Incarnation of Christ, destroys that whole paradigm of earning eternal life. God came to me … to you … to us … as a vulnerable baby (1 Peter 1:1). He did everything required for me to be in fellowship with God here and now and evermore. He is not only in the Christmas narrative, but in me – incarnate.

By Greg Napier, New City Stories Contributor 

The Shepherds: Advent Week Three

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” – Luke 2:17-18  (NRSV)

If you remember, we began this Advent blog series exploring this question of why, exactly, God would invite us feeble, fickle, and fallen creatures into the climax of His grand narrative; namely, the Incarnation.  We first looked at how God invited Mary, a teenage virgin leading a quiet and humble life, to carry in her womb the promised Messiah. The next week we studied John the Baptist and how God placed a special calling on His life to “prepare the way” for the cosmos-altering ministry of Jesus.  Both of these examples prepare our hearts not only through foreshadowing the Messiah to come, but by providing us a glimpse into our own roles in God’s story of redemption.

However, there is another group in the story surrounding Jesus’ birth that gives us an even clearer grasp of God’s radical invitation and His infinite heart for us: The Shepherds.

Luke’s gospel records for us in 2:8-20 that a host of angels appear to a group of shepherds in the fields at night in order to unveil the good news that would echo on for eternity: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (NRSV).  These words are familiar.  I remember listening to them repeated every year as a child at the Christmas Eve service, followed by the exciting candlelight ceremony where we would inevitably sing “O, Holy Night” and I would wonder if the sprinkler system would go off.

Let’s not let our familiarity with these words strip away the immensely crucial message behind them: God loves to include the excluded.

You see, shepherds at this time were very much outcasts.  They were considered a “despised” class of people.  For one, they were considered ceremonially unclean.  Due to their constant exposure to dirty sheep, animal carcasses, and all that comes with living on the far edge of society, shepherds could not meet the standards of ritual purity needed for access into the Temple.[1]  This is no small matter.  In Jewish culture, since being ceremonially unclean cut you off from worship in the Temple, it consequently cut shepherds off from access to God since He “resided” in the Temple.  Secondly, shepherds were considered untrustworthy because of their low position on the social ladder, making the testimony of a shepherd unreliable and thus prohibiting them from being able to testify in the local courts. This essentially meant that a shepherd had no access to legal rights.[2]  Lastly, because the work of a shepherd entailed leading a flock to distant pastures in order to graze, shepherds were constantly on the move away from society and community.  Shepherds were an isolated lot without much access to the benefits that come from having a network of family and friends.

Shepherds had no access to God in the Temple, no access to the law in the courts, and little access to community in homes or neighborhoods.  I can imagine shepherds sitting on top of the hills surrounding Jerusalem looking down on the city, longing for participation, connection, and relationship. They are the epitome of those “on the outside looking in.”

Yet, yet.  In an act that completely upends the elitist and exclusive standards of Israel’s culture, God decides to send His angelic heralds of the greatest message human ears have ever received to these excluded ones first.  And not only does God allow the lowly Shepherds to be the first to hear the good news, but He entrusts His mission to them to spread this news.  Do you see how radical this is?  Can’t you just feel the heart of God at work?  God bypasses the trivial and misguided barriers that we humans construct in order to include the lonely ones and invite them into major roles in the greatest Story that could ever be told.

It is absolutely fitting that God would invite the shepherds, the ones that typified being on the outside looking in, to be the catalyst for the news of Jesus’ birth.  Jesus, God’s love incarnate, is the one to establish a new kingdom where the last are now first (Mt. 20:16), where the poor and lame are invited to the King’s banquet (Lk. 14:13), and where the meek now inherit the earth (Mt. 5:5).  The inclusion of the shepherds in Luke’s gospel previews this new Kingdom where God’s love subverts all of our feeble standards and establishes a new economy of grace for all.

We cannot let the familiarity of this story keep us from recognizing and reflecting on the reality that God has a deep, mountain-moving, cross-bearing, veil-tearing kind of love for those on the outside looking in  because this is the very same love that would prompt God to become man.

During this last week of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming and reflect on how God is inviting us into His great drama, let us not forget God’s heart for the “shepherds.” Let us at New City, as citizens of this new Kingdom where God’s gracious love reigns through Jesus, reflect and act on what it means to be first in inviting the outcast and first to entrust God’s message to the one on the outside looking in. Most importantly, if you yourself feel like you are on the outside looking in, remember that God is longing after you, eager and excited to include you in His great Story; so much so that He sent His Son to rescue you, embrace you, and to become your friend.  If we accept this invitation, we will join the shepherds in “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

[1] Morris, Leon. Luke an Introduction and Commentary. Inter-Varsity Press, 1983, 84-85.

[2] Morris, Leon, 84-85.

 

 

John the Baptist: Advent Week Two

“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” – Isaiah 40:3 (NRSV)

The beginning of Luke’s gospel is structured in a very particular way.  In chapter one, John the Baptist’s birth is foretold (Lk 1:5-25), followed by the foretelling of the birth of Jesus (Lk 1:26-38).  Shortly after, the birth of John the Baptist is documented (Lk 1:57-66) followed by the birth of Jesus (Lk 2:1-7).  Luke then records John the Baptist preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus (Lk 3:1-20), followed by the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Luke 4:14-15).  This dynamic of John the Baptist preparing for Jesus climaxes when John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River (Lk 3:21-22).

Why does Luke use this pattern of John the Baptist going before Jesus? Well, it was prophesied in the Old Testament that there would be a “voice in the wilderness” that prepared the way for the Son of God (Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1).  Luke, a student of scripture, understood that prophecy was being fulfilled in the life of John the Baptist.  But beyond the fulfillment of prophecy, it is clear that the calling and purpose of John the Baptist was one of preparation. Preparation for something—Someone—much greater than himself.  John’s own father, Zechariah, prophesied these words over his son’s life:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.  (Lk 1:76-79)

John the Baptist’s role as the forerunner for Jesus and his Kingdom provides a crucial reminder for the Church this Advent season. We often view Advent as going through the motions of idle and patient waiting until we celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas, and though there is a powerful lesson for the Church in waiting, Advent is more than idleness—it is a season of active preparation.

John the Baptist’s life models this active preparation well for the Church today:

The Church as a prophetic “voice in the wilderness”

  • The same prophetic Spirit that was poured out on the prophets, including John the Baptist, is poured on all believers today (Acts 2). Therefore, we as the Church have a unique role in the “wilderness” of our modern world, a world characterized by sin, haste, striving, and a desperate grasping for any semblance of contentment.  This Advent season, let’s be reminded of our voice and our context so we can echo the invitation of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28 NRSV).

What is a “wilderness” in your life that you can speak the truth of Christ into?

The Church as counter-cultural

  • Luke describes John the Baptist as wearing “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him” (Mt 3:4-5 NRSV).  John the Baptist was completely sold out to his calling as the one to prepare the way for Christ, leading him to stand out from the rest of society.  We need to recover this posture of being so committed to our call that we, as the Church, look and act in a way that clearly contrasts with the world around us.  The result of this is that people will come to see what is different about you and your community.  This is why, I think, right after Matthew describes John’s strange appearance and message, he says that all the people “were going out to him.”  Being counter-cultural  attracts people to a different, better Kingdom.

Here at New City, one of the counter-cultural practices we focus on is resting in the promises of God. What is a counter-cultural practice that you can incorporate into your daily rhythm that would witness to others?

The Church must give all glory to Christ

  • Many people who came to see John the Baptist thought that he may be the Christ. John, instead of reveling in the fame and glory, immediately shifted the glory to Jesus: “He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Lk 3:16 NRSV).  Oftentimes in our lives in the midst of our working, volunteering, helping, parenting, and listening, we begin to think of ourselves as saviors. This Advent season, we need to remember that in a world that craves credit and acknowledgment, whatever good we accomplish is because of Christ in us and it should always point to his eternal fame.

What is one way you can practice giving glory to God in your workplace, school, or home?

The Church as the preparers for the Kingdom of God

  • John the Baptist’s ultimate calling was to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight” (Lk 3:4 NRSV). Our primary calling, too, as we eagerly wait for Christ to come again, is to “make straight” the way of the Lord.  We do this by loving those not yet loved, seeking justice for those on the outside looking in, speaking truth in the midst of chaos, pursuing reconciliation in all of our relationships, and being the hands and feet of Christ in a world that has lost its way.  This is precisely why when the onlookers asked how they should prepare for the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist responded by saying, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Lk 3:11 NRSV). 

How are you “actively waiting” for the coming of Jesus this Advent season? Who in your life needs the light of Jesus? Is there someone at work that needs someone to listen to them? Do you have a neighbor who is in need? Is there a relationship in your life that needs mending?  

If we as the Church, the people of God, follow the example of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s prayer will be just as true for us today as it was for John: We will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” by giving “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” so that God may “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Mary: Advent Week One

 “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”  – Luke 1:38 (NRSV)

This response by Mary comes directly after she is visited by the angel Gabriel and is told that the “Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk 1:35 NRSV).

In order to understand how radical Mary’s response is, we must get a grasp of the context.  Even though Mary was not technically married to Joseph, scripture tells us that they were “betrothed” (Lk 2:5). In Jewish culture, as with today’s western culture, the first step towards marriage was “engagement.” This was when both the father of the man and of the woman would agree to marry their children.[1] The next step was betrothal. This meant that the man and woman entered into a covenant of faithfulness to each other, but were forbidden to have sexual relations until after the marriage ceremony.[2] That Mary is “betrothed” to Joseph is significant because it tells us that Mary was publicly and spiritually committed to Joseph and to be seen as unfaithful would have meant public humiliation.

But public shaming was not all Mary would have to endure.

You see, Mary lived in Nazareth, a seemingly insignificant town in southern Israel (Jn 1:36). Nazareth, like many small rural villages in Israel was very conservative and held closely to the Law as laid out in Torah. Beyond being scripturally legalistic, Nazareth was part of the larger patriarchal culture that did not see women as reliable and viewed them largely as second-class citizens. This combination of legalistic adherence to Torah and the distrust of the testimony of women did not bode well for Mary and her child.  The men and religious leaders in Mary’s community, who would have had the power to execute judgment on her, would have viewed her pregnancy through the lens of Deuteronomy 22:20-21, which says:

If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, 21 then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death…So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (NRSV)

Mary could have interpreted this proclamation from the angel Gabriel as a humiliating death sentence, and rightfully so.  But she doesn’t.  Despite being painfully aware of her situation, a situation that could very well lead her down a shameful path toward death by stoning, Mary responds with a faith not yet seen in the entire history of her people (Gen 18:13-15).  Mary does not hesitate, she does not pity herself, she does not laugh at God in disbelief, she does not question God’s plan; Mary simply presents herself as a living sacrifice in order to follow the will of God.  This does not mean that she was without paralyzing fear, overwhelming anxiety or a deep lack of clarity on how all of what was told would be accomplished; however, it does mean that despite these things she clung to her belief that God is good and His promises are true.

Mary’s faithfulness to the call of God on her life foreshadows the One who is eternally faithful, Jesus Christ.

Like Jesus, Mary is willing to take on the identity of a sinner despite her innocence in order to accomplish the will of the Father.  Like Jesus, Mary submits to God’s will with the beautiful words “let it be with me according to your word,” preparing the way for the later words of Christ on the eve of his death “yet not as I will, but as You will” (Mt 26:38 NRSV). Like Jesus, Mary exhibits “faithfulness unto death” in taking up this call that very well could have led to her death (Rev 2:10).

Mary’s radical humility and faith in the face of what seems to be a death sentence given by God provides us a glimpse of the kind of veil-tearing, cosmos-flipping, paradigm-shifting faithfulness Jesus will usher in when he takes on the actual death sentence of the cross on our behalf.

This advent season, let us at New City reflect on Mary’s faith and how it ultimately points to the perfect faithfulness of our savior, Jesus Christ.  Let us reflect on how God accomplished His good and redeeming purposes through the radical, humble faith of a teenage girl living in obscurity and what this teaches us about how God desires to use each of us to bring redemption and reconciliation in the world. Let us follow Mary’s, and ultimately Jesus’, example and respond to God by saying “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Here are some practical questions to think about this first week of Advent:

  • Are you listening for God’s invitation so that you can play a role in His great story of redemption?
  • Is there anything in your life keeping you from responding to God’s invitation like Mary did, with radical humility and obedience?
  • How is your life, your response to God’s invitation and call, pointing towards Jesus Christ?
  • There may be what feels like a “Death Sentence” in your life. Whether it is medical issues, financial burdens, marital problems, or family dysfunction, do you believe, like Mary, in God’s faithfulness and His good promises in this difficult season?

 

[1] https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/archives/guzik_david/studyguide_luk/luk_1.cfm

[2] Keener, Craig S., et al. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. IVP, 2010.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Preparing for Immanuel: Introduction to New City Stories Advent Series

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” – Isaiah 7:14 NRSV

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” – Matthew 1:23 NRSV

I find it compelling that the story of the incarnation, the story of Jesus coming to the world, involves so many different people: the prophets, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, magi, King Herod, and many more.  It strikes me that the God of the universe, the great “I AM” who is all-knowing and all-powerful, chooses to include the likes of filthy shepherds and a teenage virgin in the climax of His cosmic story.

God has a beautiful way of inviting His sons and daughters into the work He is doing.  It is no different in the story of the incarnation.  First we read about the prophets such as Isaiah, Daniel, and more, who anticipated and proclaimed the coming reign of the Messiah centuries before.  Then we meet Mary, a young virgin living in a small obscure town who receives the call of God to carry and conceive God Himself.  Next we are drawn into the story of John the Baptist, a figure on the fringe of society whose radical “voice in the wilderness” paved the way for the work and ministry of Jesus.  We are then introduced to the Shepherds, the outcasts and blue-collar workers of the middle-east living on the outskirts of civilization, who become the first to witness and testify to the miracle and glory of Jesus.  We are also introduced to the Magi, the foreign scholars who also demonstrate a faith in and worship of God that is not found even among the religious leaders of Israel.  The rest of the Gospels pull us into the life of Jesus Himself, who is the ultimate example of God’s work in human history because He is the culmination of God’s promises in the flesh.

So, why is this? Couldn’t God have just sent Jesus down as a fully grown man in a cosmic bolt of lightning?  I imagine that He could have.  But God’s story is more beautiful, more creative, and more intricate than what we can imagine.  He desires the full participation of His people.  He desires to work with and through the faith, the joy, the willingness, the stubbornness, the anxieties, and the hearts of His people to accomplish His good and redeeming purposes.

The season of Advent serves as a reminder that our God is a God who acts in and through history.  This historical presence is ultimately evidenced in the name given to Jesus: “Immanuel” meaning “God with us” (Isa. 7:14, Matt. 1:23).  This physical, in-the-flesh kind of presence is the great distinction of the Christian faith.  No other religion climaxes with their god being born in a feeding trough for cows and donkeys, no other faith has as its central axis a fragile child, susceptible to sickness and death.

So, the Advent season reminds us that God is not a distant God.  In fact, He is a God who enters into our historical particularities in order to walk hand-in-hand with His people and invite them into a life of adventure and abundance.  His invitation to Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, the Shepherds and many more, is the same invitation God offers us today.

This season and every season, let us see Advent as an invitation into the story of God.  Let us participate in Advent by celebrating, preparing for, and pointing towards, the person of Jesus Christ and the transforming reality that his presence has on our lives and on the life of the world.

Throughout the coming four weeks of Advent, New City Stories will dive into the narrative of the incarnation.  Through exploring this story and the people in it (beginning with Mary next week), our prayer is that our community here at New City will be formed by their examples of faith and that our hearts and minds will be prepared for a radically intimate relationship with the God who has come, who desires to come into our hearts now, and who will come again in glory.

Here are some questions to reflect on and wrestle with as we prepare for the coming Advent season beginning next week:

  • How does the reality that God has come, is with us now, and is coming again impact your daily life?
  • What are some practical ways that you can prepare your hearts and minds for intimacy with Jesus this Advent season?
  • Do you feel God calling and inviting you into His work of redemption and reconciliation in the world? If so, how can you be faithful to that invitation?

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor 

The Long Game

“So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.” Hebrews 12:1-2 CEB

How difficult would it be to spend time in Gethsemane, praying fervently, sensing the reality of the cross ahead, knowing the pain waiting just hours away, all the while aware of the power at your fingertips to call upon angels and deliver you from suffering?

How could Jesus endure?

Jesus understood the long game: The truth that, woven into the fabric of life, into the call of God which rested upon his life, was the reality that joy was waiting on the other side of endurance, of following the will of God, of suffering and death. Jesus endured the cross, ignoring its shame, because of the joy set before him — a joy he would not experience until he sat “at the right side of God’s throne.”

How often do you reach out in life for joy now, find it isn’t there, and leave with a sense of longing, a sense of depressed frustration, a sense of confusion?

How often do you reach for your phone in a moment of social anxiety, searching for a quick fix to an uncomfortable situation, knowing this temporary solution isn’t permanent but satisfies the need to avoid pushing through to the other side, wherein a contentedness with not knowing exactly what to say next awaits?

How often, in a world that has changed drastically, perhaps too fast for us to understand, do we expect instant gratification, and how often do we struggle to feel content when what previously provided such gratification no longer does?

Jesus understood the long game. The path to joy required that he endure suffering, pain, the cross, and death. He found joy on the other end of following the will of God, wherever that led. For some of us at New City, this means enduring the long road toward finishing an M.Div. It means daily waking up and going to class, listening attentively, reading for hours, writing for days, and choosing to continue doing so for three to four years. For some of us, this means enduring the long road toward finishing college or medical school, toward getting a business up and running, toward waiting to see whether or not in fact we can conceive children.

Having a vision for the long game includes “fix[ing] our eyes of Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” Jesus had faith that his road to sacrifice would result in joy. Because of Jesus, we can have this same faith that when we follow the will of God, the product is joy. This joy may not come for a time — in fact, this joy may not come until, like Jesus, we’ve endured our cross to the point of death — but that joy will undoubtedly be sweeter than we could imagine.

Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane

Joy is a funny thing. It may come in a moment — it may come in stages. I spent about 18 months overseas with the Army in Kuwait, and it was void, in many ways, of joy. It was hard. When I returned to the US, interestingly and unexpectedly, joy didn’t flood my heart as I expected. It came in stages, and is still coming to this day, over two years later, as I reflect on the experience and realize the benefits deployment had upon my life and the lives of others.

Based on past experience, we tend to expect joy to come at certain moments. Perhaps it does and will, but more often than not, I’ve learned that as my life with God changes, joy takes on a different flavor, one that tastes more like the will of God over time and through challenges than like instant satisfaction with the present. The long game.

 

Tyler Tavares, New City Stories Contributor 

God is Good to Everybody

Perhaps one of the most popular cultural and religious ideas is the notion of karma. It’s an Eastern teaching that is everywhere is pop culture: the philosophies of celebrities like the Beatles, the sub-plots of films like It’s a Wonderful Life or Pay it Forward, or, my personal favorite, TV shows like My Name is Earl.

In the show, Jason Lee plays a middle-aged low-life (he’s the one whose name is “Earl”) who has enjoyed an entirely self-centered existence of theft, drunkenness, cheating on his various partners, and general debauchery. One day on a whim he decides to buy a lottery ticket, wins $100,000 and, as he runs outside to celebrate, gets hit by a car. As he recovers in the hospital, he learns about karma, the idea that we are repaid, at some point in the present or future, for our daily actions, good or bad. He decides that day to use the $100,000 to make a list of every bad thing he has ever done in his life and, one-by-one, try to make up for it. The rest of the show documents Earl tackling his list one bad decision at a time, leaving room for a lot of what is honestly pretty hilarious comedy.

Karma appeals to our innate sensibilities for justice. It makes sense for people to be punished for what they do wrong and rewarded for what they do right. Not only that, but we inwardly rage about the unfairness of the world because it so rarely reflects that instinctual reality. Who hasn’t had thoughts about who really deserves those promotions, what that paycheck should look like, or whether that person will get what’s coming to them. It’s a lens many of us look at the world through that always leave us upset when our idea of justice is not played out.

Believe it or not, Jesus spoke on this issue. In Matthew 5, Jesus spends a lot of his time redefining what it means to follow God. He attacks the conceptions of the people at the time in terms of their view on divorce, relationships with their friends, how we view people, and even justice. In the final section of his teaching, right after he calls his followers to love their enemies (ouch), he makes this statement “He (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45b).

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

What is Jesus saying here? That God has no standard of right and wrong? That our actions have no consequences? I don’t think so. What I think Jesus is doing here is drawing a constant comparison between what comes to us instinctively and what God desires for his people. Remember, this is a passage where, at the end, Jesus says to his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

This is not a literal moral perfection, but instead a call to us to act in the world as our perfect God does. And our God shows love to people (through the sun and the rain) to everybody (evil and good, righteous and unrighteous). Remember, Jesus was talking to a farming people; the sun and the rain were absolutely essential for their livelihood and well-being. It would seem to make sense to us that the God of our instincts, the God of karma, would set up the world so that the rain would only fall and the sun would only shine on those who are good to others and worship God correctly. However, that is obviously not the case; instead, God shows love and goodness to all people, whether they acknowledge him or not.

What are the implications here? It seems like Jesus is calling us to look at the world through a different lens, and that lens is grace. The more we use words like deserve, or should, or payment, the more we are getting away from the good news of the gospel: that Jesus Christ came and died for us, through no power or work of our own, so that we could be forgiven and live in relationship with our Creator and Lord. Grace is the unmerited favor of the Lord, and our response to that should be gratefulness for the love he has shown us, and a desire to share that grace and love with others.

This is our call: to love all people, evil or good, unrighteous or righteous. Remember, God rejects our own instinctual, retributive justice that would call us to be condemned for our sin and instead embraces a justice that brings redemption through the cross. Hallelujah, amen.

 Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor