Just before Jesus took His last breath on the cross, He called out, “It is finished!” Theology teaches us that His statement reflects the completion of His mission– to defeat the power of Sin and Death, and pay the redemption price for all who will call on His name. The ultimate victory has been declared; the ultimate battle won!
The past two weeks, I have wanted to say, “It is Finished!”– as I struggle with a hundred different tasks that never seem to end. I missed my self-imposed deadline to publish a blog entry on Monday; I stared at a pile of extra dishes in my sink and a growing mountain of laundry as I added “extra” tasks to my weekly list. My work here is not finished; my mission is not complete.
But Jesus’ words remind me– It IS finished! My “mission” is not to wash every dish, make every deadline, “fix” every small problem that arises, or answer every question. My mission is to follow Jesus. He didn’t heal every leper, end poverty, sweep away the armies of Rome, or even convince the Pharisees to repent. Because THAT wasn’t His ultimate mission.
That does not give me an excuse not to do the dishes or try to make sure I post this by my next deadline. But it gives me Grace to keep going– not in my own strength or achievement, but in dependence on God’s power, timing, and mercy. His Grace is sufficient!
This is true of our prayer life as well. God doesn’t “grade” us on each prayer, or each day’s efforts; rather, He waits, patiently and lovingly, to hear us call on Him and listen for His voice in return. The “judgment” has already been given–Jesus’ work on our behalf has been accepted and declared “complete.” His Kingdom has come; His will is being done, even if our prayers seem small or inadequate for the mission.
There are some tasks that we will never see “finished” during our lifetime or through our limited efforts. But we can work and pray heartily and confidently in the knowledge that we will see it “finished” in God’s perfect timing. And we can rejoice in the privilege of working toward that end– even our smallest efforts and weakest moments are woven into the story of Eternity!
It is one of the most popular Christmas Carols– we sing it every year: “Silent Night, Holy Night; All is calm, all is bright; ‘Round yon virgin mother and child– Holy infant, so tender and mild; Sleep in Heavenly Peace– Sleep in Heavenly Peace.”
Each year, we celebrate the coming of Christ– “Son of God; Love’s Pure Light.” God coming to earth to live among His creation– Emmanuel, God with us. And it becomes familiar, and gets mixed in with stories of Santa Claus and gift-giving, decorated trees and flying reindeer.
But stop a minute to reconsider the amazing juxtaposition–the very Word of creation became a speechless baby. The ruler of galaxies came to earth naked and needy, hungry and helpless. Holy Infant–fully God and fully human in His frailty.
God could have come as a ruler of might; He could have stepped out of Heaven in a blinding flash of light, spoken with a voice of thunder, and made the mountains tremble. He could have filled the skies and scattered all the stars and clouds. He could have come in all His Majesty– and someday, that’s how He will return.
But on that Silent, Holy Night, He came in humility. He came in Heavenly Peace.
What an awesome enigma–the One who would break the power of death came in the weakness of an ordinary birth. The Giver of Life choosing to reside in the womb of an ordinary young woman, gasping for air as He took His first breath as a human. The omniscient one having to learn to sit up, and eat, to speak and to hold His mother’s hand; to stand up and walk.
God SO LOVED us that He went to extravagant lengths to meet us in our humanness. He didn’t need to become human for His sake– He did it for us; that WE could know Him more intimately; so that when we talk to Him, we are talking to one who has known hunger, and pain, and heartbreak, and loss– as one of us.
It is terrifyingly easy to miss the significance of the incarnation after the fact. As we remember the Advent season, let us reflect on the world before that Holy birth.. a world so fallen that no one could imagine the face of God; no one could imagine walking with Him or sharing a meal or a smile with Him; no one had ever felt His touch on their cheek or heard Him laugh. No one could have imagined that God would bleed, or cry out in agony, or taste death. But He came. He lived and walked among us. He died. And He paid the penalty for your sins and mine, so that we can share life with Him– eternally.
Jesus was asked many trick questions by people who wanted to discredit him during His ministry. One such query involved all the many commands of the law. “Which is the greatest?” With so many commandments, laws, rituals, and traditions, it would be difficult to pick just one. Which is more evil– lying, stealing, murder, idolatry?
But Jesus didn’t skip a beat. 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 9Matthew 22:37 NIV) Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:5), when God was giving instructions to the people of Israel before they entered the Promised Land. Of course, Jesus, as part of the Triune Godhead, was actually present for these instructions– in fact, as the WORD of God, He may have been the very one speaking the same words hundreds of years before!
The first three of the Ten Commandments all involve this concept. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”–don’t give your soul (your very essence) to someone or something else ahead of Yahweh. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”–don’t give your heart to worship anyone or anything that is created; instead, worship your Creator. “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain”–don’t use your mind to devalue and defame the Sovereign Lord.
God is Sovereign. He is Supreme. And He IS Love– it is not just something He chooses to do. Love is part of God’s essence, and it cannot live and thrive without Him.
But this brings up two questions: If God IS Love and He created us, why must he “command” us to love Him? This is one of the great arguments people try to use to deny God’s Sovereignty, His Goodness, even His existence. A Good, Wise, Sovereign, All-powerful God should not need to command love and worship from His creatures, should He? And, if He “commands” love and obedience, how can we truly love Him? We can fear Him, obey Him, be ruled by Him, but none of that sounds like Love.
In theory, such questions seem daunting. But we have dozens of real-life examples of how such commands work. Every nation (and principality, and even every household) has rules and laws directing us how to behave and demanding respect for certain values. “Don’t sass your parents.” “Don’t deface or defile sacred spaces.” “Don’t litter!” We find it distinctly unsettling when we see children treating their parents with disrespect, malice, even abuse. Or when we hear of people whose hatred leads them to burn places of worship, or defile gravestones in a cemetery, or commit treasonous acts that lead to the slaughter of hundreds of innocent neighbors or fellow-countrymen. The planet groans under the strain of people who dump their trash in rivers or streets, or wantonly start wildfires or kill helpless animals.
God does not “command” our love out of weakness. He could DEMAND abject obedience–overrule our will; punish without delay or hope of mercy; force us to act as robots or machines–but He desires us to Love Him freely. His command is for OUR good–when we choose to seek Him, follow Him, Love Him in ever greater measure, we grow to be more like Him–Loving Him teaches us what Love is really all about!
The Law itself, the “command,” is NOT what pleases God or makes us Love Him. God’s purpose is not that we become ritualistic, legalistic, or weak-willed. He wants us to be joyful and live abundant and productive lives. But left to our own devices and our own “wisdom,” we will not achieve any of this. In fact, even with the law and commandments, we will still fall short. God’s love is such that He gave us an impossible command– love Him with our entire heart, soul, and mind– and then, He provided the only Way to make it possible.
It IS possible to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. It doesn’t require that we become hermits or ascetics, wasting away in a cave or mountaintop, starving ourselves and crying out day and night. It does require that we recognize that He is God, and we are not. It requires that we accept His mercy for the times we have strayed. It requires that we seek His counsel, and His correction.
We need to love Him with our heart–draw near to Him in worship and thanksgiving.
We need to love Him with our soul–trust Him to direct our lives, now and in the future.
And we need to love Him with our mind–learn to listen to His words, and to meditate on them; to think more about the things of God, and less about the things of trivial and temporary import.
It is not popular to write about weakness. We all have moments when we feel weak, overwhelmed, defeated, and depressed. Sometimes, we are just physically exhausted, and emotionally drained by the piling up of little stresses and routine tasks. Sometimes, we are overwhelmed by loss or grief, guilt, or worry about situations beyond our control.
We want such feelings and situations to go away, to be replaced by peace, comfort, and contentment. And while well-meaning people tell us that “this too shall pass,” or “God has a plan,” or “you will get through this– I’m here for you,” we are still weak, weary, and worn down by the struggles of the day.
Jesus gave some incredible and inexplicable advice to people who would follow him. He said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11: 28-29 from the Christian Standard Bible via biblegateway.com)
The first part of his advice offers great comfort– “come to me…and I will give you rest.” But then, without even a breath, Jesus tells us to take up his yoke! A yoke does not seem to offer rest– I want the burden to be GONE–I don’t want to put on a yoke like an ox or a plow horse. How could this be comforting or restful?
But this is the promise of God– not to make all our burdens disappear (though he often chooses to give us total relief from a particular burden)–instead, He asks us to put on his yoke. He will share the burden with us, and He will teach us how to make the load bearable, even lighter, by following Him.
And, though we have moments of exhaustion and setbacks, God’s purpose is not for us to give up or be defeated by our circumstances, but to be victorious over them, and turn to Him. In order to “take up (his) yoke” we must take the burden off our own shoulders and give it to Him. He will distribute the load, direct our path, and set the pace. And not only that, He will take our hand and speak words of wisdom and peace as we carry the load together. And THAT is truly comforting!