Jesus Encounters the Woman at the Well – or should I say, Target …

As our community group studies the book of John together, using the fabulous “good book series” by Tim Chester, we come to this week’s encounter about Jesus meeting “A Desperate Woman” (the Samaritan woman at the well, story found in John 4). Raise your hand if you qualify. Yes, I see those hands. One of the questions prompted me to reflect on how Jesus would address me. If Jesus encountered me, probably in the aisles of Target, and talked of living water, what would he point to as patterns where I seek satisfaction elsewhere? What’s my “if only” that I’m living out of? I share this hoping you will relate to this desperate woman and the Jesus who offers her true Life.

“Heather, look at what’s in your cart. You think that once you and your daughters are dressed well and once your home looks like the pages of Pottery Barn, you will be satisfied. You also think once your life is so-called ‘balanced’ (meaning you feel in control most of the time and have enough time to yourself), you’ll feel satisfied. You’ll be able to exhale when your relationships are conflict-free. Not so, my daughter. I watch you run yourself ragged and overspend trying to be satisfied and feel secure. Stop running. Rest in me, in the midst of the chaos of your days. Let me direct you. Live out of the inner satisfaction you’ve tasted before through my Spirit who dwells within you. Live out of the identity you have in me – you are mine; you’re beautiful; you’re more than ‘good enough.’ You’re righteous. Perfect. Complete. The Spirit is there to help you experience these realities, to believe I am true and deeply satisfying, to free you from places you run for temporary, fleeting satisfaction. Drink deeply of my living water. That’s right. You can start putting back most of what you’ve filled your cart with today. And I promise you’re not trading in joy – you will know it more deeply in me, as you always have.”

A month’s worth of miscellaneous musings

I checked my blog today and saw that my last post was a month ago. Where has the month gone? After the really fun Wheaton Homecoming weekend, there haven’t been any such exciting events on the horizon. So it’s been a normal month of loads of laundry, endless dishes, priceless grins from 14-month-old twins, terrible tantrums from the same precious darlings, enjoying our fall rhythm (soon to be waylaid by the holidays) of Monday music class, Wednesday Women’s Bible Study, and trying to catch up on errands and perhaps throw in a few play dates on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays are usually Seth’s day off, which we always look forward to, and then it’s Saturday, and then our full Sundays … and another week is beginning again. Our regular routine was broken up by a wonderful visit from Grandma & Grandpa Nelson last weekend, during which they brought much delight and spoiling to the girls (and us as well).

My newest project/spiritual challenge: A friend who was reading “One Thousand Gifts” by Ann Voskamp said that she was starting a gratitude journal (the idea being to count at least 1000 things you’re thankful for), and I decided to start one with her. So I have been purposely starting my quest to find the graces of everyday life. As you would imagine, some days are much easier than others. The fall walk we took last week with the crisp blue sky as the backdrop for brilliant leaves. Or the evenings out with friends savoring the tastes of fine cuisine and drinks and being refreshed by shared laughter. The challenge (as Voskamp talks about herself throughout her book) is to find these graces in the midst of the really frustrating days and moments. Like having to stay home from church on a Sunday because one of the twins has a bad cough and runny nose (and my husband as a pastor obviously can’t “take turns” with me). Or the day the girls woke up from their last nap of the day at 1:45 pm (having slept a total of an hour), and they were as cranky as I was. [sidebar: calling the friend in my community group who had volunteered to come help on days like this AND feeding the girls some Nerds candy were total life-savers that afternoon!] This is where I’m struggling and wrestling.

And it seems like the more I try to be thankful, the more I am aware of the resentment that lurks in my heart. Which should of course lead me back to finding grace in Christ, asking him for the joy I can’t muster up and asking him to remove the pride whose domain in my heart produces bitterness. So many days it doesn’t.

Enter the other project I’ve been working on the past few weeks: writing the lesson I’m giving this Wednesday at Trinity’s women’s Bible study on Psalm 51. A psalm of confession, interestingly enough. And I, in my pride, initially thought I really couldn’t relate much to David the adulterer and murderer who penned this psalm. How wrong I am! I, who daily leave the Love of God my Savior to pursue other loves in the saviors I set up – like the conveniences of technology, a good sleeping schedule for the twins, a well-managed home, a “put-together” appearance. I invest my heart in these, saying to them, “you are my Savior!” And so I become an adulterer in my heart towards God as I run to other idols. And murder? I’m convicted to remember Jesus’ words that hating someone in my heart is like murdering them. Do I hate? No, of course not … but then, what is gossip other than seeking to bring down another’s reputation? And what is jealousy other than wishing I had what that other person did? And isn’t my anger saying that I alone deserve to be right, an attempt to at the very least emotionally cut off those around me? I need Psalm 51. I, the one surrounded by more graces of God than I could count in a lifetime, who finds it hard to scratch down even one on a “difficult day.” God invites me to worship … through confession. After Wednesday’s talk, I’ll share highlights of my study on the blog as before. Do pray for me if you’re a praying person, that my heart would be open to what God wants to share with me and through me.

living in expectancy

You might be getting tired of posts on the topic of waiting and expectancy, and at moments I find myself getting tired of waiting and being pregnant, too. Yet this is my season of life right now. And I want to embrace it for all that it is, knowing that as the Ecclesiastical wisdom goes, a time for waiting and resting will inevitably transition to a time for birth and parenting that we’ve been waiting for – which will be a season of busyness and activity. Knowing that the end [of pregnancy] is near loads each new day with meaning and anticipation. Knowing that the end date is unknown gives a sense of urgency and purpose to each moment (or at least a heightened desire to be purposeful). I often find myself asking the question, “If I go into labor tonight, what will be most important for me to accomplish today?” At the beginning of bed rest, that question was answered rather simply: finish well with those I had been counseling by referring them to other counselors and complete the grading for the distance ed course I had been proctoring (great course, by the way: CCEF’s “Counseling and Physiology” taught by Dr. Mike Emlet). Gradually my priorities shifted to finding a childbirth preparation DVD since Seth & I couldn’t take the class we were hoping for,  packing a hospital bag (umm … yes, this probably should have been my first priority but I think it was part of living in denial the first few weeks), and making sure the preemie-size clothes were washed and ready.

The point of this post isn’t to give a checklist for “preparing for labor and delivery,” as there are MANY out there which are helpful, but rather to draw the analogy to how I want to be living in this same sense of expectancy every day of my life as a Christian. By definition,  being a Christian means that I am one who is a member of God’s family because of the grace of Jesus Christ for me and therefore I belong not to my own kingdom and this physical home, but to God’s Kingdom where I will be at Home only when I am face-to-face with Christ (and “away” from this earthly body – after death or Christ’s return). Two sermons I’ve heard during this season of bed rest have caused me to meditate further on this reality – and to long to live all of my life in expectancy.

The first one was preached by my husband on faithful endurance on July 18th, and a key phrase of the Hebrews passage he preached on stood out to me in particular:

“…you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Hebrews 10:34)

He preached on the fact that so many times we are so focused on building on our earthly possessions that we forget about this better possession (all the riches of heaven and knowing Christ) that is to come. And we fail to endure faithfully when we suffer on earth because we think that this is all there is – that THIS is life. This is life, to be sure, but it is only a shadow of the Life to come. And that should make me not less engaged in each day, but more engaged. More purposeful, more desirous to live according to priorities that reflect the Life that is to come. Just as our priorities are being rearranged by the two lives that will soon be coming …

The second sermon that also struck me was by our pastor, Rev. Jack Howell, the following Sunday (July 25th) on Hebrews 11. Here are a few verses that stood out:

“These all [Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob] died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. … But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

I am waiting for a Home that is to come. I am living in expectancy of it – so then why am I so frustrated when life doesn’t seem to work out the way I was planning? (i.e. – going on bed rest the same day we moved into our new house) This is not the season to be totally settled and completely at “home.” Similarly to bed rest. If I thought this was how my life would be indefinitely, each day would be much harder (and I do have great compassion for those who are bedridden without an end in sight – my heart goes out to you!). But I know that eventually, these babies will be delivered and I will be “delivered” from bed rest. I am not completely settled with my life right now that mainly consists of sleeping, reading, blogging and emailing, eating, hosting visitors, with frequent bathroom breaks. I want to be out of this recliner and active. Especially on such a beautiful beach-worthy Saturday as today. Yet I digress …

The point is that viewing this particular season as temporary and without knowing when it will end (but being assured that it WILL) gives meaning and purpose and urgency to each day. How much more so if I viewed all of my life as that – temporary, with a definite end yet unknown to me, and true Home ahead of me? How much more purposefully would I live? I hope to keep this lesson from this season of expectancy with me all of my life … thus preparing me better for the Life that is to come.

Identity, security, glory (Ephesians 1.1-14)

When was the last time that you heard something that you thought was too good to be true? It probably won’t take you long to think of something, whether it’s as trivial as the diet pill pop-up advertisement or the free* vacation (*requiring only that you listen to their 2 hour long time-share presentation and give your credit card info to them so that they can charge a non-refundable $75 deposit  – true story, by the way, that happened to friends of mine a couple weeks ago). Yet I imagine that you, like me, have other deeper and more life-defining moments of disappointment: like the parent who walked out on your family when you were young or the spouse who seemed to make all your dreams come true – until you discovered he or she had been living a double life for years. These kind of disappointments make us as a generation prone to cynicism. Or in its “milder” forms perhaps “realism” or “not-getting-your-hopes-up-too-much” kinds of approaches to life.

God’s promises for the Christian in Ephesians 1:1-14 require that we leave our disbelief, cynicism, disappointment behind. Because to comprehend even a small part of what  God is saying will feel at first that it is simply too good to be true. Yet we forget the difference between our Creator God and our own fragile and broken humanity. People will always disappoint, but God stays true forever. So suspend your disappointment, and imagine that this is true for you as one who believes in Christ! Be encouraged and amazed by our God … and come to Him with your worship and your questions.

1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:

2Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

I want to highlight three aspects of this feels-too-good-to-be-true passage:

  1. The identity of God’s people: in Christ
  2. The security of God’s love in Christ
  3. The beauty and glory of God’s purpose in Christ

1. The identity of God’s people: IN CHRIST

  • Jesus Christ is key to the security of God’s love and the beauty of God’s purpose, and so it is in Christ that we find our identity. We’re now, like those this letter was addressed to, saints – faithful – holy – blameless – we’re loved because we are  “the Beloved”: is this how you think of yourself?
  • We are:
    • Blessed in Christ (3 & 6)
    • Chosen in Christ (4)
    • Adopted through Christ (5)
    • Redeemed & forgiven through Christ’s blood (7)
    • Recipients of an inheritance in Christ (11) through hoping in Christ and believing in Christ (12-13)
  • We exist by His grace in Christ, through His grace in Christ, and for displaying His grace in Christ. “For the praise of His glory” is the refrain of this passage. Glory means God’s beauty, goodness, character. In essence: who He is. This phrase means that it’s not about me but about God. My purpose and identity is discovered as I see myself in Christ: redeemed, holy loving — existing to love God with all I am and love others as God loves me. This is not, as a friend of mine said, making us less of who we are but MORE of who we are meant to be.
  • We are God’s own adopted children enjoying the same rights as natural children: both privileges and responsibilities.

2. The security of God’s love in Christ

  • Secure because His love began before the beginning of time – before you were born, before the world was created. God knew everything about you, yet chose to love you. “Having been predestined” means that God gave you a destiny before the beginning of time, and this destiny was to be His beloved one. It is not unlike the love of a mother for her yet unborn child, or parents anticipating adoption: they choose to love this child before they know him or her.
  • Secure because it depends on God’s work, not yours. It is not the strength of our faith that matters most, but the faithfulness of God, as my friend April reminded me. It is primarily God’s activity that is highlighted in this passage, and our activity is merely to respond. God chose, adopted, redeemed, forgave, gave an inhertance, sealed, lavished, and made His will known – to US! Our response is to hope in Christ by believing in Christ when we hear the gospel (the good news that Jesus Christ died and rose again that we may be called “holy and blameless” before God – that our sins may be forgiven and redeemed).
  • Secure because of this cascade of blessings (vv. 3-14). God not only chose us in Christ, but also adopted us in love. He not only adopted us in love, but also redeemed us. Not only redeemed us, but also forgave us. Not only forgave us [the debt], but gave us an inheritance [put credit to our account]. And how do we know we won’t lose this? We’re not only given an inheritance, but sealed us with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of what’s to come. This is total and complete security from beginning to end.
  • What difference does this make? [what Ephesians lays out for us is termed by theologians as the doctrine of election]  I can testify personally that it makes all the difference in the world. Before God opened my eyes to the beauty of His secure love for me, I constantly vacillated between pride and fear. On the days when I felt like I had done pretty good (enough good deeds, loved others, wasn’t impatient in traffic/etc), I would feel prideful – confident that I had deserved God’s favor. However, on the many other days when I saw my own failures, I would be full of fear, worry, insecurity, and anxiety. How could God possibly love me if I struggled so much? The security of God’s love in Christ frees me from both. I have no room for pride, because God has done it all. And fear is banished, because I can’t be separated from God’s love. (see Romans 8:28-39 for another full description of these truths)

3. The beauty  and glory of God’s purpose in Christ

  • His love and choosing of us in Christ isn’t a haphazard wish, but it is intentional and purposeful. Verse 5 says that these promises are “according to the purpose of his will,” verse 9 repeats that: “according to his purpose,” and  verse 11 sums it up by saying it is all “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Even right after the Fall in Genesis 3, there is the promise that Jesus will come – the seed of Eve who will crush the serpent’s head – God purposed to send Christ to make it possible for us as sinful people to become holy and blameless.
  • His purpose/will is to bless us with “every spiritual blessing” – to lavish us with “riches of his grace,” making us who hope in Christ recipients of His grace.
  • His purpose/will is that we who were his enemies, who are broken and marred by sin, become holy and blameless – as Christ takes our sin and gives us His righteousness.
  • And God’s purpose/will is not only to reconcile individuals to himself and to each other, but to restore all things in Christ – in heaven and on earthin the “fullness of time” (v. 9-10). This is all about understanding the larger story, summarized so well by N.T. Wright in his excellent devotional commentary on Ephesians as follows:

“God’s great prayer at the opening of this letter is a celebration of the larger story within which every single Christian story — every story of individual conversion, faith, spiritual life, obedience and hope — is set. Only by understanding and celebrating the larger story can we hope to understand everything that’s going on in our smaller stories, and so observe God at work in and through our own lives.”

It is often hard to wrap my mind around such a beautiful picture of full redemption. That is why I think C.S. Lewis has done it so well in the closing chapter of the last book in his excellent series, the Narnia Chronicles, entitled “The Last Battle.” Soak it up – and believe it is really as good as it seems and as true as it is good:

Then Aslan [the character of a good lion who represents God in these stories] turned to them and said, “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?” Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are — as you used to call it in the Shadowland — dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and so beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Introduction to Ephesians: Identity & Grace

So my apologies to those of you who have faithfully followed my blog. I took a break because I was preparing to present two lectures on Ephesians to our church’s women’s Bible study. But I hope you’ll also be encouraged by these truths as well. Here’s week 1: introduction to Ephesians …

INTRO: The New Year is often a time for reflection, review, and resolutions. (and hey, it’s still January – so it’s not too late!) I tend to be a reflective person, and so there’s something I love about this transition. What’s often inherent in the “new year promise” is the hope of a new identity. Yes, you can have the body you’ve always wanted, and so new gyms lure you in with promises of new rates and fitness challenges – and the “January crowd” always packs it in. Finances went bad last year? This year offers new promises of sticking to your budget and paying off debt. This is the year to finally put to rest old family feuds; to finally face the “ghosts from your past”; to finally overcome that besetting habit that’s plagued you. And our resolutions reflect our desire to recreate our identities – to make over our selves into the better versions we know we could be.

I, too, enjoy this aspect of a new year. I’ve reflected on the old year; thought about how I want this new year to be different. There’s something hopeful about the freshness of the calendar year. Listen to these resolutions I came up with in 1996 (when I was a junior in high school):

1. To be more diligent in schoolwork-try very hard to complete the work the night before.

2. To go to God first about everything that happens

3. To have a more consistent walk with God – not so many ups and downs

4. To not be a part of a car accident in the next year

5. To exercise at least once a week

6. To have a daily quiet time of 5 minutes or more

7. To be rid of all jealousy

8. To have better family relationships

9. To watch for God’s hand in all that happens in my life and see the good in all situations

And apparently I was still working on some of the same things in 1997 (senior year of high school):

1. To have a daily quiet time with God greater than 15 minutes

2. To exercise 3 times a week [at least I moved up closer to what’s recommended!]

3. To give each day to God by prayer and thank him for each day in the evening

4. To cease complaining

5. To try to complete all homework before Sunday

6. To be uninvolved in a car accident this year [I was only in one, by the way, and that was Dec. ’95]

7. To live each day in full reliance upon my Lord with the hope that He has a wonderful plan for my life and “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20)

These resolutions are not bad in and of themselves. I included some good goals — yet the truth is that I’m still working on much of them! The promises of Ephesians offer something much better than our reflections and resolutions that accompany the New Year. Ephesians speaks directly to the question of identity – offering you the reality of the identity you’ve been given if you are a Christian, or the identity you’re invited into if you’re not yet a Christian.

Who needs Ephesians? All of us do! As you can tell from my new year’s resolutions, I tend to struggle with finding my identity in my own righteousness – my efforts to pray more, read the Bible more, exercise more, even love people more – and I forget grace. I first really read, studied, meditated (and even attempted to memorize) Ephesians the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. For those of you who have heard my testimony of God’s work in my life, this summer is the one I refer to as “the summer of grace.” I entered this summer an exhausted legalist, trying to perform the works God required of me in my own strength, and I left the summer an energized, free daughter of God, empowered by grace to minister in new ways to the 50 freshmen and sophomore women I was an R.A. to my junior year. I can say that I would not have gotten through that stretching year without the grace of God in Christ described so beautifully in the book of Ephesians.

Where are you?

  • Maybe you, like me, are a legalist worn out from trying to live a holy life and do good. You’ve probably focused on the last half of Ephesians and skimmed over the first half. Yet these last chapters cannot be lived apart from the grace we find in Christ – which is the focus of the first 3 chapters. You need to remember to start at the beginning!
  • Or perhaps you are a Christian who has forgotten what kind of life grace compels you to. The struggle against sin has ceased to be a struggle, because you’ve given in and now find yourself caught in habits you’re ashamed of. You know you’re “saved by grace” anyway, so what’s the big deal? Jesus comes to you through the message of Ephesians to call you into a bigger life – one of obedience and transformation motivated by grace. You’ve been rescued from darkness, so live no longer there.
  • Maybe you are unsure of Jesus and His claims. You wonder what all of this Jesus stuff is all about. You heard about the hope of a Savior to come promised and pointed to through our study in Genesis, but you wonder why you need Him. Or if you really need Him at all. The gospel message is loud and clear throughout Ephesians – describing what grace is and why all of us need it.
  • Perhaps you’re doubting who you are and you are struggling to find your identity. You’re looking in all the typical places: marriage (or independence), children, career, even good deeds, friendship, fitness & health … yet you find that each of these crumbles as soon as you seek to hold onto it and find your life here. You were made for more than this.

This is a letter written to people who also were struggling with identity and reconciliation: Gentile Christians in the region surrounding Ephesus.

  • Ephesus was the 2nd largest and 2nd most important city in the Roman Empire (2nd only to Rome!) – modern day Turkey
  • For Gentiles to be able to be in God’s family was revolutionary. Before Jesus Christ, spots in God’s family were reserved only for Jews. After Jesus, salvation is made available to all who believe, both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews weren’t too happy about that – and this left the Gentiles feeling a bit insecure of their identity.
  • PAUL wrote this letter to as a circular letter, meant for Christians in this entire region, to assure them of their identity as Gentiles in Christ. (like a group email – why there’s not as many personal references like in the parallel book of Colossians, written around the same time)
    • How was Paul qualified? What were his own identity struggles? He was a Jew who was known as “Saul” and who persecuted Christians. God interrupted him en route to Damascus and saved him, calling him now Paul. And then he experienced intense persecution for the rest of his life as he became a missionary – bringing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ’s salvation through Asia, all the way to Rome.
    • Yet he’s writing while imprisoned in Rome – for the very identity of “Christian” that he now writes and reminds them of. Imagine the impact this would have had on the first readers!

So what does Paul write? What will you find here?

  • THEMES:
    • Central message of be who you are – in contrast to who they used to be and how they used to live in the past
    • Your past before Christ, your future in Christ, and how this is to affect your present day-to-day life in Christ
    • Reconciliation: being made right with God and with others – “Only through Christ can all other division be brought to an end.”
    • Truth and beauty of the Triune God (God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, the Holy Spirit)
    • Grace
    • Challenge/call to exhibit God’s glory and grace through daily life
    • God’s action and His work
    • A high calling empowered by the Spirit
    • A love story written before the beginning of time
    • How to engage in the spiritual battle we’re in
  • STRUCTURE:
    • Intro/greeting; body of the letter; closing
    • Two halves: 1-3 – who God’s made you as a Christian; 4-6: call to live like who you really are
    • Eloquent prayers
    • Truth and promises that are gems of grace to be treasured
    • Practical exhortations
    • Household code
    • Spiritual warfare

It’s very easy with the changes of life, whatever they might include for you in this new year, to forget who you are. Or to feel like you’ve lost a part of who you are. Changes that come with moving are always hard for me and provide an opportunity for me to re-examine where I’ve really been finding my identity – is it in being known by friends, playing a crucial role in a small church plant, being a counselor with a large church counseling center, not getting lost when I drive. The most recent move for us from Philadelphia to Norfolk has been no different! And I’ll admit that although I would say this has been the best, smoothest transition I’ve ever experienced, it has still served to be a bit of an identity-shake-up for me.

And I found myself feeling a bit down in December – generally unmotivated, wondering whether I was really making a difference, missing familiar holiday celebrations with close friends, and questioning what my identity is here in Norfolk.

Yet God met me through the study of Ephesians to remind me that who I truly am has not changed at all over this year, and it won’t change for the next 10 years either. It gave me hope and motivation to pursue what God’s given me to do during this season, not having to make it my life or where I’m finding my meaning (which would make any task unbearable) – and there’s been a true sense of joy where there was a vague sense of discontentment because of the riches that are mine in Christ.

So our prayer for you as you begin to read this book, either for the first time or the 50th time, is that you will be refreshed and revitalized in seeing the beauty of who Christ is for you and who you are in Christ – and it will become a letter that you will keep close to you to return to often.

[you can hear the talk at this link]

Advent meditations week 2: peace

Peace: what an elusive concept this time of year! And yet it is the heart of Christmas. Who needs peace? Perhaps images of war in the middle east come to mind. Or maybe it’s closer to home: a family feud which makes you dread the inevitable holiday “celebrations” together. If you’re married, you might think about your spouse and the ceaseless arguments that seem to have taken away the feelings of love and romance. If you have kids, you may be groaning right now at overhearing yet another sibling squabble.

Let’s take it one step further and say that all humanity needs peace with their Creator. Aren’t our arguments, conflicts, wars just an overflow of our inner unrest? An inward sense that all is not right in the world? All creation is groaning for peace. The kind of peace that the Advent meditations from last week give us a picture of — where we are to place our hope. It is ultimately people being reconciled to God. But how? God bridges the gap. He initiates and does what seems impossible: divinity is clothed with humanity and takes the form of a baby. The Advent readings from this week focus on peace from several angles.

There’s the image of God as a shepherd bringing peace, tenderly tending his flock like a shepherd from Isaiah 40:9-11

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms;

he will carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead those that are with young.

And the description of an inward peace that’s known by those who see that the Lord is near and who lift up their anxiety to him – receiving this peace that “passes all understanding” to guard their hearts and minds. How?  In Christ Jesus – God made flesh; God coming near. (Philippians 4:4-7)

This peace does not mean the lack of affliction, but the experiential knowledge of God’s comfort in the midst of affliction. It is finding God’s comfort in the affliction that brings peace. (2 Corinthians 1:2-5)

There’s the surprising image in this list of “peace” passages of a city that was desolate that’s now filled with joyful celebration. A city marked by restoration and rebuilding – a people marked by the cleansing of the guilt of their sin. And how? A “righteous branch” [descendant] of David who “shall execute justice and righteousness” and the people of this new city are known by the name: “The Lord is our righteousness.”  (Jeremiah 33:7-16) This is key to true peace: I cannot earn my own righteousness, but I trust that Christ has done so for me and I rest from my striving, my posturing, my attempts to be good on my own. And I rest in the peace from the Prince of Peace. And as a result, I am changed – my family is changed – my community is changed – entire cities are changed – to be havens of peace. Where do I need to begin? Where do you need to begin?

It begins by following the One who faithfully persevered in bringing peace and did not grow faint or easily discouraged. He did not give up on anyone, but is gentle, tender, compassionate. He brought peace not through “crying aloud in the streets” like a revolutionary political hero that we’d expect  (Isaiah 42:1-9) but actually came humbly, riding on a donkey and speaking peace (Zechariah 9:9-17). Now peace comes as the people of God continue the work of the Peace-giver. And so let us follow him this Christmas season into paths of peace!

Advent meditations: week 1 – hope

Each week of Advent, I will be posting meditations based on that week’s theme of Advent readings. I would love for you to join in as well! Let us together celebrate Christ who brings hope, peace, joy, and love.

First of all – hope. We began with these beautiful verses in Isaiah 40:1-5. A few phrases that stood out to me:

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to [her] and cry to her that her warfare is ended,

that her iniquity is pardoned …” [English Standard Version]

What does it mean for her warfare to end? Christ is coming: He is bringing peace and reconciliation — and that will flow from a redeemed relationship with God. (Though different than they imagined – not an end to political warfare.) Lord, remind me that my warfare has ended. I have nothing to prove or to win or to defend … You are my peace and my identity.

And then to notice what hope feels like, we read Psalm 42.

“But each day the Lord pour his unfailing love upon me,

and through each night I sing his songs,

praying to God who gives me life.” [New Living Translation]

Hope means thirsting, panting for God – the living God. In the midst of feeling downcast, I hope in God (despite the turmoil of my emotions). Hope is to praise God as my salvation; it is to remember HIS steadfast love. It includes crying for relief from the enemy’s oppression — not wanting to believe the enemy’s taunts of “where is your God?” Summary: In the midst of feeling downcast, there is hope to be found in God — if I remember to look upon Him!

How does Romans 8:18-27 add to our definition of hope? We see that not only we ourselves, but also all creation is hoping and even groaning for full redemption that Jesus Christ will bring. We wait eagerly; hoping for what we don’t yet see; waiting for it with patience (and the Spirit helps us in waiting, believing, patience, hope). Hope transforms present suffering into future glory. The Spirit intercedes for us while we wait and hope and groan. “Wait/waiting” is used twice; “groaning” is repeated three times; “hope” is repeated six times. And who are the subjects of all of this waiting/hoping/groaning? Creation (repeated 5 times); the Spirit/God (repeated 8 times); and WE are (repeated 12 times). This Advent passage makes it clear that even after Christ’s first incarnation, we are still hoping for his second (and final) coming – for the end of suffering and the revealing of glory.

Isaiah 11:1-11 paints the picture of that for which we hope. When the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord, all hurt and destruction is banished. And to know the Lord fully means that we will not destroy others or his creation. Who will bring this hope and life-giving knowledge? “A shoot from Jesse” on whom will rest the Spirit of the Lord: of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. One clothed with righteousness and faithfulness. And the “remnant” [those who have hoped in Him] will be recovered from the ends of the earth [raised to new life].

Hebrews 6:13-20 shows an example of this hope in action.

“And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.”

This is quite different than the way I wait! Lord, help me to have in view your promises and for those to be sweet enough to me that I will patiently wait, even against all odds. That because I’ve fled for refuge to You, the God who promises (and doesn’t lie), that I would have strong encouragement to hold fast to hope. That I, too, will go where our forerunner, Jesus Christ, has gone.

I close this week’s meditations with a thought from Psalm 33: I am to hope in the steadfast love of God — to turn to Him in distress and to trust that God sees and will deliver. And then to have a glad heart as I see Him do this — to say with the Psalmist,

“Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”

Isaiah 35 is tomorrow’s meditation … so I will let you add your meditations for that.

hope found in a geneaology: Genesis 4:17 – 5:32

I will admit that when I found out that my second week of teaching women’s Bible study at Trinity was going to be a geneaology (from Cain/Seth through Noah), I instinctively thought – “What will I find here?!” Yet it is amazing to see that there are gems of hope and the gospel “even” in a geneaology (another word for a family tree as listed in the Bible). May you be as encouraged (and surprised) as I was at what we can find here:

(1) Even in what seems to be a godless family (Cain – murdered his brother Abel), there will be evidence of God’s common grace – the hope that we all bear the indelible stamp of God’s image upon us. AND SO, we have much to learn from one another – Christian or not. I was reading a book this week where I found the following quote – what testimony to the God-consciousness all humanity possesses!

“I am in a silent war against an enemy as pernicious and omnipresent as evil. Evil? I don’t believe in evil any more than I believe in God. But at the same time I know this: only Satan himself could have designed a disease that has self-deception as a symptom, so that its victims deny they are afflicted, and will not seek treatment, and will vilify those on the outside who see what’s happening. [the author writes about his son’s drug addiction] “

(2) Enoch vividly demonstrates the hope of walking with God and resurrection life as its reward. Seven generations from Adam, we read this terse statement about Enoch – which breaks the pattern throughout the rest of the chapter of living, having children, and dying:

And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. 24 Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. [Genesis 5:22-24, italics added]

Hebrews 11 expands on this commentary:

5By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Walking with God – an image of personal relationship – and then not experiencing death – a foreshadowing of the hope of resurrection life that Jesus Christ would bring to all who believe in him.

(3) As Lamech names his son, Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands,” there is introduced to this story of humanity the hope of relief from the curse of sin and death. It is clear from Noah’s life that the relief he brought was probably not the relief pictured by his father and hoped for by humanity. And yet through God preserving a family from the destruction of the flood, there is a foreshadowing of how God will save those who believe in the gospel and grace of Jesus Christ from the destruction and death/separation of his wrath. Jesus Christ is the ultimate hope and he alone will completely fulfill this hopeful prophecy spoken by a father over his son.

Who knew a geneaology could hold so much hope?!

Coveting & Murder: a lesson from Cain & Abel in Genesis 4

This morning I taught about Cain and Abel at our women’s Bible study at Trinity Presbyterian Church. And so during the process of study, I found some intriguing aspects of this story that I’d never seen before. Below is the rough draft of my talk … hope that you’re able to learn something new, too!

We as women are as familiar with jealousy/envy/coveting … the root of it being discontentment. When I was 14, I was jealous of all my friends who had cars and could drive. Then I got a car and I couldn’t wait to just get to college. And then in college, I couldn’t wait to have a real job. Before I was married, I was jealous of my married friends. After getting married, I can easily grow jealous of friends who have a bigger house – or beautiful children – or a nice job. There is never enough. And the marketing industry builds on this idea. In fact, I recently got a coupon in the mail from a store that I try to avoid if I’m sticking to our budget that actually advertises one of their new lines as the “covetables collection.”

And yet to be honest, I rarely think twice about my covetous thoughts. I don’t usually fight them, but rather I indulge them. That’s why I had to buy the silver shoes from Target. I saw someone in a magazine with cute shoes, and this image drove me to purchase them for myself. I could say that my coveting fueled my shopping (and often does). And then I went home and laughed about it with friends – but was reprimanded (mildly) by my husband. The truth is that I just don’t often think that my coveting/envy/jealousy is that big of a deal. Yet the truth is that it’s so serious that it’s the heart of murder. And that’s where our story of Cain & Abel takes us today: right into the heart of a murderer – and you might be surprised at what you see there. It just looks a little too familiar.

What’s this story about? It’s familiar to us and easy to skim over, but I want us to slow down and look at it closely together this morning. You’ll see things you’ve never seen before. I would suggest there are 3 main themes of this story:

(1) how sin brings forth death

(2) how a worship problem becomes a relationship problem

(3) why humanity needs a Savior to master sin

  • (1) how sin brings forth death

This story is a story that takes us deeper into the fall and the consequences of sin. Sin’s ultimate progression and consequence of death and murder is laid out in the first homicide recorded in human history. And it’s a brother killing his own brother. And what’s even more chilling is that it starts with something so subtle and so common to you and me: a bad attitude and an envious thought. It’s sibling rivalry taken to the extreme.

Yet this story begins with the first birth announcement in human history: Eve speaks with joy of Cain’s birth, saying “With the Lord’s help, I have produced a man!” Shortly afterward Abel’s birth is also recorded, with the telling introduction as “his brother” with reference to Cain. As I studied this passage, you’ll notice that “brother” is a key word – used 7 times in these 16 verses!  It is always used for Abel, as Cain’s brother.

And soon after this, we fast forward to Cain and Abel as adults in different professions who are making offerings to God from their livelihood. Cain brings fruit (as a farmer) and Abel brings a sheep (as a shepherd). Although Cain’s offering goes without further description, in Hebrews 11:4 we read that  Abel’s sacrifice is said to be “by faith” and so it is more acceptable than Cain’s. Abel’s heart must have been in it; Cain was merely “going through the motions” of worship and offering. Abel’s is given descriptive words that best answer why his offering was regarded instead of Cain’s: he offers the “firstborn” and “their FAT portions.”  There’s been much debate over why his offering is rejected, and one commentator Bruce Waltke summarized it well: “Cain’s sin is tokenism. He looks religious, but in his heart he is not totally dependent on God, childlike or grateful.”

At this point, Cain’s sin is still rather hidden from view as we read the story. But like any sin, as it grows, it will become more and more obvious – and its fruit will be borne in time. Like good fruit produced by a good heart, Cain’s evil heart will bear bad fruit.

The first major key is that Cain responds to God’s lack of regard for his offering with anger that shows up in his countenance. He’s having a pity party, which exposes his self-righteous tendency. He is jealous and envious that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and his wasn’t. He feels like he deserves better.

Does this sound familiar? Do you find yourself in this story? The parallel with the older brother in the story of the two lost sons (aka Prodigal sons) begins to show up here. Again, it’s an older brother who feels like he deserves more of God’s favor because of his hard work. Yet Cain is apparently blind to the fact of why his offering was rejected (that he was only giving “just enough to get by”). He, like the Israelites who first heard this story in the desert, was going through the motions of worship without the love for God. Their hearts were far from him.

But as his sin becomes more evident, so does God’s grace toward Cain. He confronts him, but not in an angry way nor an indirect way. He speaks to Cain with truth and love, coming to him with a question and a warning. This metaphor of sin as “crouching at the door” “ready to devour” makes us picture a predator waiting for its prey. And this is an apt picture of sin. James 1 speaks of the progression of our sinful desire – which “lures us away” and “entices us” – yet when its fully grown, it bring forth death. And we see in Cain’s response to God’s warning that this is exactly what happens. Instead of heeding God’s warning and finding hope in the promise that he COULD rule over sin (instead of sin ruling over him), the next verse rather tersely lays out Cain’s inward decision.

Cain murders Abel while they’re out in a field. There is no question of Cain’s sin at this point: he is a murderer and any person (Christian or not) would recognize Cain’s action as evil.

Yet we see God’s pursuing grace even still. God speaks again to Cain, asking him a question that hints of his question to Adam after their first sin: “Where is Abel your brother?” He shows mercy, yet Cain’s response shows how entangling sin can be and how deceptive. Cain must still think he can hide from God. And so not only does he lie about the answer to the question, but he denies all responsibility for his brother through his question as to whether he is his brother’s keeper.

God answers again with three verses saying that although Cain has not been Abel’s keeper, God has heard the cry of Abel’s blood rising to him from the ground. What a poignant picture of God’s concern for those who have been victimized by the powerful! Take great courage from this, that although none else may have seen or known about the worst evils committed against you, there is One who has seen – and who is a God of justice. If you have been abused, He wants to bring justice and also redemption. He has heard your cry.

God holds Cain accountable for Abel’s blood, and works justice for Abel through the judgment on Cain: that he will become a “fugitive and a wanderer” and that his work as a farmer will become even more difficult. Cain’s response to this, instead of being one of humble repentance and confession is one of proud complaint. He says that he’s being punished more than he deserves (he still maintains his self-righteous attitude here). And yet God’s grace still abounds: he listens to Cain and essentially does for Cain what Cain refused to do for his brother Abel: God promises to protect Cain’s life. And so against the background of Cain’s sinfulness, God’s grace abounds even more.

And yet we see the ultimate end of sin: being banished from the Lord’s presence into the land of Nod (literally – the “land of nomadic existence”). What begins with mere jealousy develops into murder and then the ultimate consequence of separation from God.

  • (2) how a worship problem becomes a relationship problem

As we step back to look at the context of this story, we see that it follows a similar pattern to the fall – when Cain’s parents introduced sin into the world (and their family) through breaking God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is God’s gracious confrontation of Cain – and even more, a warning before he murders Abel. And yet it’s even worse: whereas Eve had to be talked into sin by the serpent, Cain cannot be talked out of sin. Then there follows a curse because of the sin – and Cain’s became even worse than his parents’: the ground will be even more futile, and Cain will be banished not just from Eden but from the Lord’s paradise. He will now essentially be homeless – a wandering fugitive. The story has deepened in the level of sin and judgment.

And in the Fall, part 1 (with Adam & Eve), the relationship with God is broken. Here we see that the broken relationship with God has spilled over into broken relationships with fellow people – even to his own brother! This is the way of sin: it begins by breaking my relationship with God, and then it spills over into the brokenness of my relationships with those around me.

It shows that humanity is not essentially good. People, left to their own devices, do not become better but worse.

The key is to master sin – which God warns Cain that sin is “crouching at his door” – like a predator waiting for its prey – and that Cain must master it (or overcome it). But he does not and he cannot. This is the story of our world, isn’t it? For the next centuries, humanity will try unsuccessfully to master sin. And it proves impossible. We need more than a warning, we need one to rescue us.

  • (3) humanity’s need for a Savior to master sin

This story of Cain and Abel is our story: you and I are Cain. Over and over again, God warns us of the danger of sin, but over and over again I give in. The chocolate is too tempting; the new shoes would be so cute. I must have them. I cannot say no to sin!

And so this story of deepening evil that seems so hopeless actually points to the hope of Jesus Christ – it increases our need for Him. As we see sin’s progression in humanity and in Cain’s own heart, we are reminded of how hopeless we are without a rescuer – and how hopeful the gospel is to us.

We, like Cain, have murdered the innocent. My sin today is enough to condemn an innocent man to die – because Jesus is the only way I could be forgiven. Hebrews 12:24 says that Jesus’ blood “speaks a better word than Abel’s.” This intrigued me! What could that mean?

As Abel’s blood is said to cry out – and it cried out for Cain’s guilt and punishment and banishment away from God – Jesus’ blood (the only truly innocent man because he was God’s very own Son – fully human, fully divine) cries out not that you and I are guilty and deserve to die, but that the guilt and wrath of our sin has been removed. And so now Jesus’ blood does not incriminate us, as Abel’s blood did, but Jesus’ blood cries out “righteous! Holy! Mine!” and it declares this of all those who admit to their own sin and way of seeking to live life apart from God.

And so against the backdrop of the progression of sin in our own hearts, as we express the brokenness of our relationship with God in fellow human relationships, we see that we need rescue. And in this way, the story of Cain and Abel brings you and I who live in the era after the Redeemer great hope. Jesus reverses sin’s progression, restores our brokenness with God and one another, and gives us power through the Spirit to overcome (master) sin as it tempts us through our covetous desires.

We live in a new era, where Christ has mastered sin for those who trust fully in him (not their own effort or goodness), and so the words of Romans 6:12-14 become a hopeful promise for us:

12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

*SOURCES: I am indebted to the following commentaries that I used in my study, whose ideas have informed my writing: “How to Read Genesis” by Tremper Longman III, “Creation & Blessing” by Allen P. Ross, “Genesis: A Commentary” by Bruce Waltke, “Study of Genesis” guide by Tim Keller