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Diving into the Easter Story: Maundy Thursday

Each of the next four days we will be posting a short devotional to provide a resource to help New City Church dive into the story behind Holy Week. From Maundy Thursday to Resurrection Sunday,  we hope and pray that these selected scriptures, questions, and challenges help our community enter into, and be transformed by, the most important Story that has ever been told.  Through immersing yourself in a slow, patient way in the Holy Week narrative, we will be able to anticipate, grieve, wait, and celebrate in a way that Jesus’ followers experienced in their own time and place.

We encourage you to print these devotionals out, share with others, and use in community!

We, the New City writing team, pray that this resource brings life and glorifies the risen Christ!

 

Maundy Thursday 

“Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum” which means “commandment.”  Therefore, Maundy Thursday commemorates the day during Holy Week where Jesus, during the Last Supper and right after he washed his disciples feet, gave a new commandment to his followers: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

John 13:12-17 NRSV

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 

John 13:31-25 NRSV

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

  • Questions:
    • Are you a foot washer? Is your heart postured in such a way that it will allow you to be, as Oswald Chambers says, a “doormat under people’s feet” for the glory of Christ?
    • What does it mean, exactly, to “love one another” just as Christ has loved us?  What does that look like in your life today? Do your neighbors, co-workers, or family members know that you are a disciple of Jesus?
  • Challenge: 
    • This next week, take some time each morning to read and pray through this passage and then ask God to reveal to you the ways in which you can be a footwasher and a disciple that day.

 

New City Writing Team

Gratitude in Community

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NRSV)

Here at New City, we have been exploring the idea of gratitude and what it looks like expressed in community. The challenge that Zach gave us this past Sunday was to be a church, a community, where “our gratefulness outweighs our giftedness.” There is so much packed into those five words, and this post will attempt to explore what living out this challenge means for us, not only as individuals, but as a people called to live a life together saturated with thanksgiving. This exploration will focus on 1) seeing our individual giftings as God’s pure grace in our lives and 2) viewing the community itself as a gift, transforming our participation in the community.

1) Gratitude means that we see all things as a pure gift from God.

This principle of “gift,” both on the individual and communal level, is the heartbeat of what it means to be the people of God. If in my own heart I view my abilities as primarily my own and my skills as ones that only I developed, then I will build walls of pride and status that will lead to isolation. If I own my abilities, then I can only offer them at great cost to myself. In contrast, if we see our giftings (notice the language shift here?) as not our own, but as the result of God’s grace in our lives, then we have no need to protect them, but only to faithfully steward them for the sake of others.

This posture of seeing the whole of our lives as a gift also allows us to more readily see the gifts in others. If I take sole ownership of my talents, I will naturally see them as better and more useful than the talents of others, which leads to unhealthy comparison and envy. This can develop factions deep within and oftentimes pit us against our brothers and sisters. This animosity runs directly against the unity that Jesus prays over his Church “that they may be one” (John 17:21).

However, if I see my talents as the sole result of God’s grace in my life, I begin to notice God’s grace in all people. The walls are broken down and this deep recognition of gift in myself opens the door wide open for the practice of thankfulness, celebration, humility, collaboration, and love between members of a community. In order to have gratitude, we must see the whole of our lives as a gift from the Good Gift Giver.

2) Seeing our community as a gift necessarily transforms our relationship to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together has a convicting and powerful word for us as the Church:

The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together… God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship,…God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily.

Bonhoeffer here gives us two distinct and contrasting approaches to our life together as Christians. He says that we can be “demanders” who have our own ideas of what the community should be like, or as “thankful recipients” who see the community fundamentally as a gift from God. If I enter a community with dreams of leadership without service, of status without humility, of ownership without giving, then I am living in what Bonhoeffer calls a “wish dream,” and I am a “destroyer” of that community from the very beginning. Instead, if when I stand next to my brothers and sisters in awe of the God who placed them in my life, by that very posture I am allowing for the Spirit of God to move and work. How great is the design that God has for His people!

This is the crucial point of Bonhoeffer’s remarks: Jesus is the one who makes this kind of community possible. Through his faithfulness on the Cross, he has destroyed the need for distinctions and “dividing walls of hostility” and gives us all an invitation to a community mediated by him and his finished work (Ephesians 2:14). What a beautiful image! We now no longer have to rely on what we can offer to others, but what Christ can offer through us. The ultimate gift that we have been given is God Himself in Jesus Christ. If we neglect to live into that reality, not only will we begin to erode our own hearts with pride and envy, but we will then begin to erode the community around us. We must remember that the health of our hearts will always manifest itself externally.

Lastly, because we live in a culture so marked by the pulses of individualism, status, competition, and isolation, just think of how a robust community of gratefulness rooted in the person of Jesus Christ could witness to the world around us. Jesus’s prayer for unity among his people ends this way: “So that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). Seeing our lives as gracious gift leads to gratitude; gratitude leads to unity; and unity then creates a light for the world that cannot be ignored. The world is hungry for healthy community, and truly healthy community is found only in the self-sacrificial love of Christ. Let us be that vision, that answer, for which the world hungers so that we may have the opportunity to invite others into the ever-expanding table of Jesus.

So, how do we at New City live into this challenge to be a community where “our gratefulness outweighs our giftedness?” We pursue Jesus together and remember that it is in His gift of Himself that we truly find ourselves and each other.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. Harper, 1954, 26-28

The Importance of “Why?”

Everyone experiences loss in their life–loss of a loved one, a job, an important possession, or even simply the way life was before a major event. Really, loss is any transition that disorients us, causing us to work towards reorientation and form a “new normal.” This is why grieving is often so difficult–we will never get back to the way things were before, no matter how hard we try.

Why do these painful losses have to happen?  Everyone can agree that our fallenness makes us feel alone and absent from God. When confronted with a loss, we often feel further from His goodness, experiencing anger and indifference because we simply cannot understand how God’s goodness can overcome the present grief. Unlike God, we are inside of time, so we cannot comprehend the vastness of His plan or how any loss could be used for overall good.

The good news is that we do not need to understand. In fact, it is good to admit that brokenness exists and that we can’t understand it. Even in the psalms, the writers going through disorientation express frustration and anger with God—they don’t understand the losses they are going through, and they are questioning. Psalm 22:1 exemplifies this kind of anguished questioning:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

David understands that trying to make sense of or justify any loss on our own will simply not hold ground. In fact, we often cause more harm than good by trying to be optimistic in the face of loss and explaining it away as “God doing everything for a reason.”  Instead, David is honest about his experience and honest about God’s relation to that experience, even if he is limited in his understanding.

Indeed, this idea of questioning God seems wrong to many of us, even though it is a very natural thing during times of grief. “Why me?” “Why did God let this happen?” Even Jesus on the cross, praying David’s words from the psalms, cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In his deepest moment of grief and darkness, Jesus questioned the presence of his Father in his suffering.

However, what we often fail to realize in asking the question “why?” is that the questioning itself is putting God foremost, knowing that He is the only One with the answers. Sorrow itself needs God to validate it. Both complete confidence in God and asking God “why?” are equally Christian ways of handling loss. Both responses admit that God is in control of our lives even though we can’t necessarily understand His reasoning.

We ask “why?” because we do not understand or agree with evil, but we still know that God is in control and is able to redeem the brokenness of this world for His good purposes. This is why David, right after he questions God’s presence in Psalm 22:1-2, affirms God’s character in verses 3-5:

“Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried, and were saved…”

Jesus provides us with the ultimate example of simultaneously wrestling with and trusting God in suffering.  Despite his anguish on the cross under the weight of the world’s guilt, Jesus trusted in His good Father and His plan for him and for the world (Matthew 26:39).  God’s overarching plan of redemption and restoration has and will continue to come to fruition, and we must take that into account when we experience loss.  

Optimism is claiming that we know what God has in store for us and we can explain away each instance of loss. Hope, however, is admitting that we hate and question loss—we are angered by it, but we don’t give up our faith in Christ, the One who redeems suffering and overcomes evil. Loss may lead us to a confusion of identity, but if we look to Christ during times of loss and suffering we are reminded of our identity in Him.  This fact will lead us and help us be with others through the dark times of disorientation into reorientation.

 

Autumn Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Love of a Lion, Love of a Lamb

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!’ ”  Revelation 5:11-12 (NRSV)

How does the Church love in a world with so many opposing views of what love should look like?  We see some who say that love can be boiled down to telling the truth and demanding that everyone lives up to its standard.  There are others who say genuine love is letting people live their lives however they see fit, no matter the consequences.  The problem with these options is that truth without grace becomes cold and indifferent to the experiences of others, while grace divorced from truth dissolves into a kind of whimsical feeling shifting from one day to the next. We need to be a Church that enters into this world upholding both grace and truth.

But how?  Well, we can start by clinging to the One that is full of both.

John 1:14 says that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory…full of grace and truth” (NASB).  Word became flesh.  Grace and truth.  It is no accident that John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, chooses these words to describe Jesus.  They are apparent contradictions, seemingly irreconcilable with each other.  How can this person be completely full of both “grace” and “truth”?  It is precisely in this tension that we begin to uncover the beautiful mystery of divine love.

But what, exactly, does this “divine love” look like?

Fortunately for us, Jesus provides us with tangible examples of this divine love throughout his life as recorded in the gospels. Here are just a few of these examples:

  • Jesus drives out merchants from the temple with all the force of a fanatic (Mt. 21:12-13) and then turns around to show compassion and heal the lame and the blind (Jn. 5:7-9).
  • Jesus, with a mighty word, calms the screaming winds and the towering waves (Mk. 4:35-41), but finds himself speechless when weeping with his closest friends (Jn. 11:35).
  • Jesus scolds the religious leaders of his day with all of the conviction of a prophet (Mt. 23:33), but is also willing to converse with a Pharisee under the cloak of night (Jn. 3:1-21).  
  • Jesus, the same one who on the mountainside became transfigured in radiant glory (Lk. 9:28-36) was somehow able to forgive those who tortured and mocked him (Lk 23:34).
  • Jesus, the King of the Cosmos (Rev. 19:16), the second person in the divine community (Jn. 10:30), and the promised Messiah (Is. 9:6-7) finds himself forsaken and alone on the cross struggling for every breath (Matthew 27).

As we study the constellation of events, teachings, and actions throughout Jesus’ life, a pattern of divine love begins to emerge.

In Jesus we see the fullness of grace and the fullness of truth exist without tension. This kind of paradoxical love transcends all of our earthly categories, it breaks into our feeble constructs and completely transforms everything it touches.  In Jesus we have our answer to the problem  of having to choose between one good thing at the expense of the other.  Jesus, fully God and fully man, showed us that in him all beauty and goodness can exist together in perfect harmony. Grace and truth, justice and compassion, rest and action, all of these things find their fullest expression in the life and love of Jesus.  

Artwork by Hubert Van Eyck

To help us understand this more clearly, John in Revelation 5 provides a beautiful picture of this divine love.  He describes his vision of the angels searching for the one who is able to break the seal of the scrolls that hold within them all of mysteries of God and His Truth.  Then one of the elders tells John to not worry because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah… has conquered” and will be able to accomplish what no one else can do.  But when John looks around for this “Lion,” he instead sees “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” taking the scrolls with authority and power.  What a breathtaking picture.  The logic of divine love, which is the wisdom of God, tells us that the fierce power of the Lion finds its ultimate expression through the humble state of a sacrificed Lamb. 

And here is where we enter the picture, Church: It is precisely because we are in relationship with Jesus, who mysteriously holds all these things together, that we are compelled to do the same.  We too have this very same love because we are in Christ and Christ is in us (2 Cor. 13:5). By virtue of Christ’s presence in our lives, we carry this divine love wherever we go. We need Christ Himself to indwell us with His Spirit so that we may carry the fullness of truth and grace into the world.  This means we do not have to choose between our convictions and our compassion but instead we allow them, through Christ, to inform who we are and what we do in this world.  Is this not the Gospel message that we are both saved from our sins by God’s grace and are now called to live in His truth?  Does Jesus not, after saving the adulterous woman from death by stoning then tell her to “go and sin no more”? 

So, as the Church, we must reject the ultimatums of our world outright.  We cannot subscribe only to grace or truth, to only compassion or justice, to only us or them.  We have a better answer, the only answer: The Love of the Lion and of the Lamb.

So this day, this week, and for the rest of your lives abide in Jesus Christ and let his perfect love transform all of who you are.  The world desperately needs it.  

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor 

 

(Featured Image artwork: The Sacrificial Lamb by Josefa de Ayala)

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 

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.

 

 

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