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Advent Week 3: The Hope of “God with Us”

Flames from the candles cause light to flash and dance on the faces of my family sitting around the table.  I listen to half a sentence my father reads but then my imagination whisks me off to a rocky hillside in Bethlehem.  The light of angels’ flash and dance on the weathered faces of the shepherds showing shock and disbelief.  They shuffle down the hill towards the dark buildings in the valley.  I look up and see my mother shaking her head at me as my hands mess with the wax of the candle.  Even as a distracted and fidgety child, celebrating advent was a time for slowing down and joining creation in mindful waiting.  

Matthew begins his story of the Messiah highlighting some interesting people in the genealogy of Jesus.  Judah sold his brother Joseph into slavery.  Tamar pretended to be a prostitute. Rahab was a prostitute.  David killed a man for his wife.   It is through this bloodline that a baby is born to a girl betrothed to a carpenter.  Uneducated and unkempt men crowd in the small space to see this baby.  Polytheist Persian Astrologists discover a new celestial object that guides them to this young Judean family.  The paranoid King Herod kills his own sons and even attempts to murder other children as he scrambles to secure his power and control.  Bethlehem was a city full of Jews who desired to be independent of the Roman Empire.  This is a story full of the lowly of society.  It is full of desperate people in dark and unjust situations who are longing for change.  

Then a baby enters this world.  A baby named Immanuel.  God with us.

However, we tend to clean up this story of “God with us”  when we skip over the sexual sins, murder, and betrayal found in Jesus’ family history, instead diving into the story of a young innocent girl; when we clean up the surroundings, concluding that the excruciating birth by a virgin teenage girl produces a baby who doesn’t cry; when Mary isn’t a sleep deprived new mother who is learning how to nurse her baby for the first time; when the shepherds aren’t men accustomed to being on the outskirts of society; when a narcissistic and paranoid leader is never someone we would follow; when we brush over the fact that God uses astrology to guide the Magi to the Christ child.

We clean it up, and then hurry to invite God with us.  Immanuel, God with us, but only when we polish up our story.  

But maybe it’s God with us in the process.  Maybe God with us isn’t the immediate gratification that comes after presenting a refined outside.  Jesus comes from a line of murderers, adulterers, unloved and unlikely people.  He is born into an environment that lacks wealth and is among a people who are subject to a foreign empire.  He is surrounded by those who would never surround a King.  He begins his life on earth as a human; an undeveloped, helpless baby who relies on the guidance and assistance from a teenage mother and carpenter father.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.  So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:12-13

It is in this process that Immanuel invites us into hope for the restoration of a messy world, reconciliation for broken people, redemption for sinners, and the righting of an unjust system.  Immanuel brings us a hope that calls us to action–action that brings the world back to how it was originally intended to be. Hope for our personal lives, for our immediate community and hope for a better world, a new world.

Faith in this “God with us” motivates us to work towards what we hope for and through love we introduce this hope to our world.  When the darkness in the world is all we can see, let us remind ourselves of this hope and that light has entered and will come back fully into this world.  Let us love like Jesus loved.  Let us be Immanuel to others.  In this season of reflection and slowing down to remember the story, let us join in creation’s hope for the here and the now and the not yet.

Nilah MacLean, 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

My Banner Over You is Love: A Testimony of Forgiveness

“He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” Song of Solomon 2:4 ESV

In the past when I looked at this flag and my Dad’s picture feelings of anger, resentment, confusion, abandonment, fear, loneliness and most cutting rejection pierced my heart. When I got handed this flag at his funeral the only meaning it had was the reminder of what my father did to me and my mom before I was even born. He left us.

His choice to leave marked me so deep to my core it was unbearable. A flag that was the mark of a soldiers honor to his country was the constant reminder in my heart of the dishonor he had shown for leaving me. Honestly, I hid this flag for the longest time; I couldn’t look at it…until my heart started to forgive him.  It was only until recently that I decided to put it out on display after allowing Jesus to heal the broken places of what was supposed to be one of the most foundational and meaningful relationships of my life.

And slowly that forgiveness allowed for Jesus’ freedom to heal the gap in my heart where I so longed for a relationship with my Dad. Forgiveness opened the door for me to see my father as someone flawed, scared and not ready. I accepted that. One final step of forgiveness was necessary though; I knew it wasn’t finished.  The thoughts and feelings of abandonment and rejection always lingered around me like best friends at a party.

Recently in a freedom prayer session Jesus showed me the picture of my Dad’s flag that I received at his funeral.  I knew that Jesus giving me this picture meant that I had to lay everything down; from the hurt, the rejection, and the indescribable pain lingering in my heart to the anger and hate I had for what he had done so many years ago.  Years of agony, pain, and bitterness had developed in place of a relationship for which I had desperately longed.  I laid it all down in the flag case with the flag and Jesus replaced it with his redemption through the cross.

Immediately after this, Jesus spoke to me and said “My banner over you is Love.”  I caved, it was finally finished. I knew it. I felt the burden of the pain in and around my heart for my Dad lift– a burden that had been there longer than I can remember.  I was free.

This flag is no longer the banner that marks my life and the choices that my dad made or didn’t make no longer define who I am.  Jesus’ banner is the banner that flies over my life and that banner is LOVE.  Even though I wasn’t my dad’s decision I was Jesus’ decision.

So now when I look at that flag and at that man in the picture that honorably served our country, I have nothing but love in my heart for him because I know that banner in that case is Jesus’ banner of love, freedom and redemption for me and him.

Rachel Morris, New City Stories Contributor

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

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)