Love is Light Shining in the Darkness

The world around us has all sorts of darkness these days. There is the darkness that gathers around us in visible ways: violence, famine, global conflict, racial tension, unemployment, etc. For some of us, that darkness feels close and for others it feels distant.

However, I’d like to sharpen our understanding of darkness by remembering four aspects of Jesus’ life, and putting them into the context of light and darkness.

As the light of the world, first of all, Jesus came to shine God’s light into the world through His incarnation. As it says in Hebrews 1:3, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Or as it says in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus’ incarnation shines the light of God, displaying who God is.

As the light of the world, second of all, Jesus came to shine God’s light into the world through His proclamation and teaching.  After Jesus’ powerful teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we read, “the crowds were amazed at his teaching,because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus’ teaching shines the light of God, telling who God is.

As the light of the world, thirdly, Jesus came to shine God’s light into the world through works of service and healing. Peter, one of Jesus’ followers, spoke of Jesus’ wonder-working power in this way: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” (Acts 2:22). The works of service and the healing—these signs and wonders—display God’s purposes for humanity. And it is through His service and miracles shining God’s light, that Jesus also displays who God is.

As the light of the world, fourthly, Jesus came to shine God’s light into the world through enter into human suffering and transforming it. We read about Jesus’ transformative suffering on the Cross in the first letter of the Apostle John, chapter 4, verses 9 and 10: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).  Jesus’ crucifixion shines the light of God, displaying who God is and just how far God will go on behalf of humanity.

Jesus was shining God’s light into the gathering darkness. As His followers we also have the opportunity to shine His light into the gathering darkness.

And those four aspects of Jesus’ light-shining life speak to us about shining light as well. We shine God’s light:

  • through living incarnate
  • through proclaiming good news and telling of God’s ways
  • through works of service and even miraculous signs
  • through entering into the suffering of the world through Christ’s transformative sacrifice

And so that we don’t lose sight of just how basic this is, the love for our literal neighbor saves us from abstraction about these things. Because often our ideas about life become abstract.

In her quirky book, How to Do Nothing, artist Jenny Odell talks about how neighborliness keeps us from being abstract. She writes:

My boyfriend and I live in a large apartment complex that’s next to the house of a family of four, and when we’re sitting on our balcony and they’re sitting on their porch, we can easily see each other….But we didn’t learn each other’s names for two years, and we may not have chatted at all if it hadn’t been for the neighborliness of Paul, the dad.

One day Paul invited us over for dinner. Because I hadn’t been in a neighbor’s home since I was a teenager, it was unexpectedly surreal to be inside the house that forms a permanent part of the view from our apartment. The interior of the house went from being an idea to a palpable reality….we probably all saw ourselves from a new angle. For my part, the experience made me realize how similar the life situations of most of my friends are, and how little time I spend in the amazing bizarro world of kids.

When we arrived back to our apartment, it felt different to me­–less like the center of things. Instead the street was full of such “centers,” and each one contained other lives, other rooms, other people turning in for the night and worrying their own worries for the next day. Of course I had already accepted all of this in an abstract sense, but it wasn’t felt.

Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2019), 134-135.

Shining the light of God is something that is true, but is not intended to be abstract. It is intended to be felt. It is intended to be heard. It is intended to be like flesh and bone moving into the neighborhood.

Loving our literal neighbors – our apartment-mates, those in the condo next door, those in the duplex unit above or below us, those on our dorm floor, those in the retirement community, or those in the house next door – forces us to shine the light of God in ways that are real, practical, and tangible. If we cannot love our literal neighbor, then it is unlikely that we will truly love anyone else in our lives.

Why It’s Good to Hit the Wall Spiritually … and How God Meets us There

hitting the wall.jpeg

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forevermore. (Psalm 73:25-26)

The other day while jogging, I came to the most challenging part of my route: running up a long meandering hill that seems to go on forever. When I first started running the route, I couldn’t do it. I hit the wall quickly and had to walk up the hill. As time passed and I continued to run, however, I found that my body strengthened and began to adjust. I could run part of the way up, and then most of the way up. Now, while it’s never effortless, I can run up the entire hill without hitting the wall like I used to.

Encounter our limits is inevitable as people. In fact, in our life with God, the inevitable end of our human strength brings us into something that’s better: the infinite strength of God. It is good to encounter our limits in order to more powerfully encounter God’s limitless strength and presence.

To come to the end of ourselves – and even the limits of others – opens us both to our need for God and to the joyful capacity of God to fill our need. However, like my jog up the hill that ended with a quick slowing of the pace to walking, hitting the wall spiritually can be both humbling and distressing. In that place, we see who we are and who we’re not. We realize that we are not God, and that we have limits.

But God meets us there, joyfully unencumbered by our human limitations and also eternally free to carry our burdens. What once was humbling and distressing now becomes the source of joy in God, as we reach out to Him and find that His grace is more than sufficient for us, even that His power is made perfect, as St. Paul wrote, in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). This echoes the words of Isaiah the prophet:

He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)

We all know there is no way to grow other than to encounter limits. In exercise, when we “hit the wall,” we can either pull back or press forward to develop new muscles or skills. The same is true in other areas of our lives, whether learning an instrument, developing mastery of financial skills, or apprenticing to a trade.

The same is true in our life with God. The moment we encounter our human limits is simultaneously the moment we begin to develop new “muscles” within our souls. When we are pushed beyond our capacity physically, we feel the burning of muscles pushing toward growth or lung capacity stretching in new ways. We say, “no pain – no gain.” Likewise in our spiritual lives, there is a breaking and refining that happens as we stretch into growth and development. Even here, the encounter with limits and the stretching of growth reminds us that spiritually it is also true: “no pain – no gain.”

The writer to the Hebrews describes God’s grace in apparently strange terms that resonate with this reality: “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). The discipline of the Lord shapes us in formational ways, helping us grow and develop. Without that discipline we will not change; discipline is a subset of discipleship. James also acknowledges this in one of the most memorable portions of his epistle:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

In light of this, hitting the wall in our spiritual lives is actually a moment of grace. The encounter with our human limitations is a potential encounter with God’s joyful presence and shaping grace. When we come to the end of ourselves we are also enter an opportunity to see ourselves become more like Christ as the Holy Spirit enters into our weak places to shape us, both individually and as His community, for the glory of God.

All I Want is a New Beginning (discussion questions)

All I Want for Christmas Series Gfx_Web AdHere are the discussion questions that accompany my message, “All I Want for Christmas is a New Beginning,” from this past weekend at Eastbrook Church. This was the second part of our series “All I Want for Christmas.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. As we continue our series, “All I Want for Christmas,” this weekend, we will study Isaiah 61:1-11. Whether on your own or with a small group, take a moment to begin with prayer, asking God to speak through your study of the Scripture. Next, read that Bible passage out loud.
  2. Background: In the 8th century B.C., the people of Israel and Judah were exiled from their homeland to Babylon. A good portion of the land, as well as the religious and political center of Jerusalem, lay in ruins. Scripture tells us that God exiled the people as punishment for their disobedience to Him as expressed in the covenant at Mount Sinai. The prophet Isaiah addresses these exiled people with a message of hope and new beginnings.
  3. Within Isaiah 40-66, there are four major ‘servant songs’ that speak of how a servant of the Lord, perhaps an individual or the people of Israel together, will suffer while also bringing a revelation of God to the world (see Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-9; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12). Isaiah 61:1-3, is often grouped with these as conveying a message from a servant-Messiah sent by God. Describe this servant-Messiah’s job and message as outlined in verses 1-3?
  4. How do you think Isaiah’s promise of such a figure would impact the Israelite people exiled in Babylon?
  5. In contrast to the destruction and plundering Israel had experienced, Isaiah speaks a strong message of restoration in verses 4-6. What are the elements of this message? How might this change Israel’s view of their losses, as well as their relationship with surrounding nations?
  6. In Isaiah 61:3 and 7, as well as 60:17, God promises to exchange a certain set of things for another set of things for His people. What sort of exchange does He promise and to what extent does it go?
  7. Where in your own life do you long for God to make such a great exchange? How might you pursue that today?
  8. What does verse 8 say about the character of God?
  9. Verses 10 & 11 describe a life powerfully transformed by God’s touch. What does it look like? Where have you experienced God’s touch in this way in your own life?
  10. In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus reads Isaiah 61 to launch His public ministry in Galilee. Read that section of Scripture aloud. How would you say that Jesus fulfills what we read in Isaiah 61:1-11?
  11. What is one thing you will take away from this study about new beginnings? If you are alone, share that with someone this week. If you are with a small group, take some time to discuss these things with one another. Close in prayer.

All I Want is Some Good News (discussion questions)

All I Want for Christmas Series Gfx_Web AdHere are the discussion questions that accompany my message, “All I Want for Christmas is Some Good News,” from this past weekend at Eastbrook Church. This was the second part of our series “All I Want for Christmas.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Name a time in your life when you received some good news right when you needed it. What was happening at that point? What was the good news?
  2. This weekend at Eastbrook, we continue our series “All I Want for Christmas” by looking at Isaiah 40:1-11. In preparation, ask God to speak to you through your study of the Scripture and then read that Bible passage aloud.
  3. Background: Isaiah was a prophet in the 8th century B.C., speaking to the people of Judah (southern part of Israel) during times of great pressure. Surrounding nations were threatening them, and eventually many were exiled into Babylon. The book of Isaiah is divided into two major sections. Chapters 1-39 speak to the judgment on God’s people and chapters 40-66 speak to the restoration God will eventually bring. Chapter 40 begins the second major section aimed at bringing hope for God’s people based on His direct and personal intervention.
  4. Isaiah 40:1-11 contains three sections built around ‘voices’ – or people – speaking into specific situations (see verses 1-2, 3-5, and 6-8). How would you summarize what the first voice is saying in verses 1-2? Why would this message be important in the midst of a difficult situation like the exile?
  5. The second ‘voice’ in verses 3-5 speaks about God’s personal intervention in a crooked and wild place. What is the significance of this message and why might it be good news in Isaiah’s time?
  6. Verse 5 highlights the glory of God revealed so all people will see it. This is one of the few Old Testament passages referenced by nearly all of the Gospel writers (see Matthew 3:1-3; Mark 1:1-3; Luke 3:4-6). If Isaiah was foretelling God’s future comfort, what are the Gospel writers trying to tell us by mentioning it?
  7. In verses 6-8, the third ‘voice’ tells the prophet to cry out. What is the message the prophet is given? Why would this be a meaningful announcement for a people exiled at the hands of another powerful nation?
  8. This passage culminates in verses 9-11, which focus on bringing good news that is centered in God’s revelation. What is the message here about God and why is it good news?
  9. In response to this study, consider the good news God has spoken to you. How has it changed you? Now consider the good news God brings in Jesus Christ for others. Who in your life most needs to hear the true message about Christ this season? What is God calling you into this year? If you are alone, write it down somewhere so you can think about it further this week. If you are with a small group, take some time to discuss these things with one another. Close in prayer.

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All I Want for Christmas is Some Good News

All I Want for Christmas Series Gfx_Web AdIn our world, nation and even our personal lives, we hear all sorts of distressing news. In the midst of that, it sure seems like we could all use some good news.

This past weekend at Eastbrook Church I continued our series “All I Want for Christmas” by looking at the good news that comes to us from God. The prophet Isaiah speaks good news to the people of Israel in the midst of their exile in Isaiah 40:1-11. That same news is made even more real for us today through Jesus Christ.

In the middle of the message, I addressed some of the current tensions in our nation around racial disparities and police accountability. It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who referenced Isaiah 40 in the midst of his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 (you can watch the speech here). The dream is alive, but tarnished today. Still, there is no place where the dream of people coming together across racial lines should be more evident than in God’s people, the church, living into the dream of Revelation 7:9, ” a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

You can view a video of the message and the accompanying outline below. You can listen to the message via our audio podcast here. You can also view all the messages from the “All I Want for Christmas” series here. Connect with us further at Eastbrook Church on VimeoFacebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

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