no, I’m not a piece of whatever

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge…

Ephesians 3:17b-19b

I’m a believer in dreams and visions from God, and it just might be that I received one recently. I so easily nod off no matter what I’m doing if I’m sitting down. Recently I was opening our new Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together, and thought I saw a song, or perhaps one of the readings simply stating that God calls us good, that we’re his beloved children, that we are not what we call ourselves. Really to the point, and actually better than what I expressed it just now. And just at a good time for me, because I was berating myself under and over my breath as I have off and on over the years. But after searching for it days before, and going through the entire hymnal today, I failed to see it. So maybe it was a dream, clearly to me, a dream from God.

That touched me deeply, and I knew it resonated with what we learn from Scripture, just how much God values each and everyone of us. And calls us to be close to him in his very family in and through Jesus. This is so helpful, to have this truth dawn on us, to begin to really believe that God loves us, yes “loves me.” Even when I have a hard time liking myself for many reasons. God’s love is wide and deep, and never lets go. We see the truth of that in Jesus, God becoming human in him, and doing what he did for us. God’s love in Jesus will pursue us.

We need to accept what God calls us. And quit calling ourselves what is nothing less than a lie from the pit of hell. God is helping me this way. In and through Jesus.

what John “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 4:1-6

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit[j] of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

1 John 4:1-6

My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world.

Here’s how you test for the genuine Spirit of God. Everyone who confesses openly his faith in Jesus Christ—the Son of God, who came as an actual flesh-and-blood person—comes from God and belongs to God. And everyone who refuses to confess faith in Jesus has nothing in common with God. This is the spirit of antichrist that you heard was coming. Well, here it is, sooner than we thought!

My dear children, you come from God and belong to God. You have already won a big victory over those false teachers, for the Spirit in you is far stronger than anything in the world. These people belong to the Christ-denying world. They talk the world’s language and the world eats it up. But we come from God and belong to God. Anyone who knows God understands us and listens. The person who has nothing to do with God will, of course, not listen to us. This is another test for telling the Spirit of Truth from the spirit of deception.

1 John 4:1-6; MSG

If John were here today he might say we have a problem. The problem being that so much out there which is not of God and therefore not of Jesus is accepted as though it is, or at least as on a par with God’s message. Of course here what we mean accepted by professing, yes, even genuine Christians. This is a warning to us all, that none of us are above and beyond deception. And what’s needed is yes, discernment for ourselves, and especially together with other believers. The Spirit directs not just one of us, but one and all. The Greek is plural. So that yes, while we as individuals are included, and each and every one of us need discernment from God, this is really addressed to the whole, to all of us, worked out in our gatherings together.

The confession of Christ coming in the flesh should be enough. Nothing more is needed. We don’t need that and something more. Today those who actually make this confession, but then add something more are essentially lying out of their teeth, or probably more accurately, speaking lies. Deceived and deceiving. What I’m referring to here is not just about our salvation, but ultimately the salvation of the world. And in terms not just of our life of faith and our church life, but all of life. Politics should never be excluded, because, after all, the gospel of the kingdom in King Jesus is political, touching each and every part of life. Consider “the Lord’s prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13).

John would likely not only caution us against special claims put in the same breath with what Scripture says, with the gospel, or as if being the fulfillment or correct interpretation of Scripture and the gospel. He would slam the door shut on all such claims. Instead John would point us to the life of Christ and what that life means to the world in terms of God’s grace and kingdom coming in Jesus. And at the heart of this for John as we see from this letter is to know God, be with others in the fellowship of the Father and the Son, and to be assured that one has the eternal life found in the Son. 

John might especially lean on historians as well as those who have lived through these times, or if he would have lived through them himself. Well, it’s really hard to imagine all of this in a way. None of us can stand outside of the time in which we live and imagine ourselves an objective observer. We’re all people of our times, for better and for worse. Which is why we need the Spirit of God to help and direct us, and that together.

But I imagine that John might possibly say that the growing deception among Christians today didn’t start a few years ago, but has gone on for decades, and in a sense throughout the entire American experience. That is not to deny the good here, nor to think we’re unique in having that problem since the same spirit pervades every nation and experience of this life. It is present with us, and we have to deal with it, whether we like it or not. And none of us like it, that’s for sure. But it’s half the battle to simply accept reality. Then, and only then, we can deal with it.

Whatever adds to Jesus and is not in sync with Jesus’s teaching of God’s kingdom, as well as not in line with Jesus’s life and death is definitely not of God, but is actually opposed to God. Not the Spirit of Christ, but the spirit of the antichrist. And just as John tells us in the letter, they’re a dime a dozen; many of them out there. And none of us should ever think we’re above escaping their influence. Something to always be aware and wary of. In and through Jesus.

 

does God really love us, really love me?

We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. [God] loved us first.

1 John 4:19; MSG

There is a Love out there, a never tiring, never dying love which we humans are oblivious to. God’s love, the God who is love. We might by and by come to accept that as a possibility, even as truth. But do we believe it could possibly apply to us? That God might love even me?

This is far more important than we realize. That no matter what we’re experiencing, how we feel about it, and even what we’ve done, there’s a God who loves us far beyond what we could possibly imagine.

This is evident in God fully becoming one of us in Jesus, and in the death of the cross. God took all the wrong, all the hate we could dish out, then turns it around for our forgiveness and the new life, who we really are, and are meant to be. That is really so far beyond us. We have to accept it by simple faith, yes, what we can’t grasp or understand, by simple faith.

I think we have to let this sit to soak into us over time. It’s not just something we’ll jump into which can change us overnight. But over time, actually the rest of our lives, we can accept this never changing, never diminished love. And begin to live out that love to others, the same love which has embraced us. The love of God in Jesus by the Spirit. In and through Jesus.

if John “the elder,” the beloved apostle were here today: 1 John 1:1-4

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

1 John 1:1-4

From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us.

We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy!

1 John 1:1-4; MSG

John is not here today in person, but his writings are, and they point us to “first things.” We might say back to first things, because we are so prone to wander and get off track, and that includes all of us. The beginning of this letter is like the beginning of John’s gospel which is like the beginning of the first book of the the Bible, Genesis. And if John wrote the book of the Revelation, the beginning of it points us in exactly the same direction. To Christ.

We might say Christ is the ground of being in the sense that all life and meaning come through him. Creation finds its fulfillment in proper relationship to him. But it comes to us in a very down to earth, fully human way. Christ became one of us, living completely in our existence. And John might tell us today that this is where we must begin. If we’re not grounded in this, then we’ll get everything else wrong.

We can take it for granted that yes, we’re grounded in Christ. John’s point here is that we’re to live in fellowship, in communion with Christ and through him, the Father, in a very natural spiritual sense. And that this fellowship precludes everything else, or probably better put: all other relationships are secondary and subservient to that. But this fellowship or relationship helps us live fully in the other legitimate relationships of life. But also cuts off all that is not legitimate, that which, really, is not of Christ.

So John might want to emphasize with us, if he were with us, and going over this letter today, that we start with Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (“A to Z”: The Message), and all that is in between. All of life must considered from that perspective. And the goal is nothing short of a real, deep, abiding communion and fellowship with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. That is where we’re to live. Nothing more and nothing less.

in the hard, harsh world

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”

Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:

A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.

Later, when Herod died, God’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: “Up, take the child and his mother and return to Israel. All those out to murder the child are dead.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother, and reentered Israel. When he heard, though, that Archelaus had succeeded his father, Herod, as king in Judea, he was afraid to go there. But then Joseph was directed in a dream to go to the hills of Galilee. On arrival, he settled in the village of Nazareth. This move was a fulfillment of the prophetic words, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Matthew 2:1-23; MSG

Christmas Day as we celebrate it with all its festivities, opening of presents, and especially remembering the birth of Jesus, is a downright magical day. Good Friday and Easter might be the most important holy days and week in the Christian calendar, but without Christmas, and the Incarnation, there would be no Holy Week. But Christmas does have a unique charm all its own. We marvel at the mystery of God becoming flesh, and the wondrous story of a teenage girl who is told by an angel that she would become pregnant apart from a man. All the wonderful words and events which surround that. There’s nothing like it.

But in our world, and in that world at that time, after the shepherds came from the wonderful angelic visitation and announcement they had witnessed, it wasn’t long until harsh reality set in. More than a year had likely passed, so that evidently we might conjecture that Joseph was willing to settle down in that area, at least for the time being, but an unsettling would soon come. King Herod could brook no rivals, and any would be Messiah would not last in his kingdom. But Herod was not reckoning with what he was used to. Instead he was up against God and God’s kingdom.

We read in the above Scripture all that happened. The wise men, astrologers, astronomers, scholars, whatever they were called (even “kings” in Christian tradition) travel a long way guided by some astrological phenomena along with a cursory knowledge of Hebrew Scripture or the story of a coming ruler in them, and you have the unfolding of another part of what has become the Christmas Story. But there’s a quick and sudden descent into the darkness of that time as King Herod catches wind of what’s happening. An angel ends up warning Joseph who takes the “holy family” to Egypt for a time, before being led back to Nazareth, away from Bethlehem.

We’re reminded of our own time. Many of us were able to enjoy Christmas as the special day it has become. But now we have to face the real world where we live, the pandemic that is bursting from the seams once again before hopefully the vaccines can kick in and give the world something of an immunity against this virus. And all the turmoil surrounding it.

How to live during such times is another subject entirely, but the point here is that there’s no escape from the world in which we live, a world with a system that is opposed to the kingdom God brings in Jesus. But a world also that is redeemed in and through our blessed and wonderful King Jesus. Amen.

when living through sorrow and hurt

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

Who of us in this present life doesn’t experience sorrow and disappointment, indeed hurt? It is a difficult world, and hard to escape hurt inflicted on others. In fact we too have hurt others. There’s no sense in pretending otherwise.

Grace, God’s grace is what is needed. And God’s grace is what we get not only aplenty, but in every conceivable way possible. After all God became one of us in Jesus to live right where we live, to experience all that we experience, including the hurt and sorrow that accompanies that.

And we’re told here in the letter to the Hebrews that he is therefore uniquely able to help us through that, since he knows what it is like firsthand. Our call from God in this is to come to God’s throne of grace to receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need, whatever we’re facing.

Just remember, Jesus empathizes with us in our weaknesses. There is grace, grace, and more grace. We need to just keep coming, yes, just as we are to keep receiving all the grace we need. God will always give us more and more. And in ways that meet us just as we are in all of our weakness. In our sorrow and hurt, in whatever we’re experiencing. In and through Jesus.

what is the most important thing about you?

No matter what else, the most basic truth about us all is that we’re made in God’s image. And that we as individuals are part of the human community. And that God has placed us here to rule over the earth under God’s rulership and authority. That plays itself out in as many ways as there are people, but humankind is to be in that together.

Yes, sin has broken our relationship to God and to each other. So another basic truth about us is that we are sinners in need of salvation. That we’ve all disobeyed God’s will which is essentially our failure to love God in return for God’s love for us, and our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves, sometimes instead, sadly enough resorting to hatred. And violence in word and deed, tragically way too often.

Another basic truth about us is that we as human beings are indeed unique. Each and every animal and species deserves our appreciation and respect for their own importance and dignity. But human beings alone are said to be made in God’s image, as already stated. We need to protect God’s creation, the animals which are important for themselves and for the biosphere, and seek to manage all of that well.

That God became flesh, fully human and one of us in Jesus speaks volumes as to who we are. God forever becoming human in Jesus means that our humanity is valuable, as we read in the Psalms, we’re made a little lower than the angels or it can be translated there, a little lower than God.

That Jesus took our sin on himself, the wrath of humanity poured on him at the cross, and that God turned that very act into God’s means of forgiveness for all who believe is quite remarkable. In God’s purposes done before the creation of the world.

And Jesus rose from the dead, thus defeating death and ushering in the new creation. And all who have faith are destined to share in that new creation when all will be well at last. For all who have faith, and look to God. Through Christ.

But we must beware that this is only about making ourselves feel better, while failing to include others. Like our African American sisters and brothers who have suffered indignity after indignity. Or our Muslim friends, or the LGBTQ+ community. We’re all in this together in the human race. Each and everyone of us is important to God, indeed cherished by God. We need to stand with those whose humanity is falsely seen as diminished for this or that reason.

And so what is most important about you or I is not a whole host of things we might be thinking about now. Like how you voted or what your American political position is. We are loved by God, and out of that love we’re to love each other. All through the saving work of Christ. So that who we are is more and more fully known only in community together with everyone else. In God’s love in and through Jesus.

incarnational communities not popular

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
nothing to attract us to him.
He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
He was despised, and we did not care.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.

Isaiah 53:2b-5; NLT

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

1 John 4:16b-17; NLT

This prophecy refers to Christ of course. But some application can be carried over to Christ’s body in the world, the church. Christ alone saves us, but today this is done in significant part through the church. What Christ was in this world, his body is supposed to be now. This involves taking our crosses and following in God’s love for all. Again, it is Christ who saves. We participate in the outworking of that salvation through living out the message and sharing it with others.

The church is supposed to be Christ’s body, not something else that might be more popular to the masses. And actually the church is Christ’s body. We are ordinary, with glitches and struggles, sometimes erring. But present for each other, and for others, for the world as God directs our participation in that.

To be God’s incarnational presence in the world in Christ means to be human and the more Christ-like, the more fully human. We want to be the light of Christ in this world in love and good works. It’s not about programs, even lights out preaching and teaching, great worship music, none of that, although any of it might be good in its place. No, instead it’s about Christ’s presence among us and through us to each other and to the world. In and through Jesus.

what is “the lie”?

For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

2 Thessalonians 2:7-12

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:1-5

Yesterday we talked about the truth. Today, we think a bit about the reverse of that, the lie. The lie began way back when in the Garden of Eden. And it will reach its ultimate expression in the end in the rise of “the man of lawlessness,” who will essentially be a law to himself.

We know that Jesus said he is the truth and the way and the life (John 14:6).  Jesus ends up being God’s final word (John 1; Hebrews 1) in whom we’re to believe. So naturally there would be a counterfeit to come, since the human heart no longer finds itself at home with God, but alienated from him just as Adam and Eve, when they were ashamed and hid themselves from God.

Eve listened to the serpent, was seduced, and Adam followed, and we’ve been on that trail ever since. But fortunately for us, just as God reached out to Adam and Eve, so he reaches out to us in the promise of the gospel, the good news in Jesus. That God took it on himself to come and make his home with us, so that we might at last be at home with him. And that he did not only by fully entering our sphere, even becoming one of us in the Son. But also undid what the serpent had done, yes dying for us so that we might be restored to the life in God and in creation we were meant for in the first place.

Now it is a struggle for us here. It is so easy even for us who are “in Christ” by faith to doubt God’s word, and in so doing, just as Eve did, doubt God’s goodness. Even in her unfallen state she was susceptible to doubt. One might well ask why God had one forbidden tree amidst all the other trees they could fully enjoy. The story for me is highly symbolic, and amounts to her thinking that somehow she could receive and even retain goodness, becoming good apart from trusting God. And even shockingly enough, that somehow God was withholding what was good. Click the Genesis passage above for the full story.

The truth is in Christ himself. And since we’re so far removed from that, it will be a struggle for us until Christ returns, and we see him as he is, and become like him in each of our God-given unique ways. Just as it was for Adam and Eve after they were driven from Paradise.

Our intention needs to be to learn to trust in God, which means trusting God’s word, even and maybe especially when it doesn’t make sense to us. Learning to trust in God’s goodness instead of our own fallen inclinations which always reject God’s word. That God is indeed good, and in that goodness will do what is good, even in the midst of the evil, or whatever trouble we’re facing. In and through Jesus.

the end of the last enemy

The Lord lives! Praise be to my Rock!
Exalted be God my Savior!
He is the God who avenges me,
who subdues nations under me,
who saves me from my enemies.
You exalted me above my foes;
from a violent man you rescued me.
Therefore I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing the praises of your name.

He gives his king great victories;
he shows unfailing love to his anointed,
to David and to his descendants forever.

Psalm 18:46-50

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:25-26

God is going to take care of all the enemies of humankind: the basics of that being sin and death. We see proof of that in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ, along with his ascension and the promise of his return.

None of us look forward to death, unless one is quite sick. We don’t. But it’s a fact of life, and the sooner we can reconcile with that, the better. At the same time we don’t have to fear, because Christ has taken the sting out of death, and made it the gateway into life, eternal life, by his death on the cross.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:55-57

We win, included in that victory, the last enemy to be destroyed: death itself, in and through Jesus.