Galatians 6:11-18 – What Counts is the New Creation

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.

From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. (New International Version)

Motives matter. The interior life of a person is important. Life is neither a mere getting things done nor doing what is needed on the exterior. A house may be beautiful and orderly on the outside, with careful landscaping, a manicured lawn, and attractive appearance – yet on the inside it might be disorderly, full of relational discord, and completely discombobulated.

The exterior life of a person is also important. But it’s only half the person. And, unlike God who sees the heart, we aren’t always privy to what’s going on inside someone.

Folks who are enamored with outward displays of spirituality and righteousness tend to be compulsive about maintaining appearances – for both themselves, and everyone else.

Policing outward forms of righteousness through clear identifiable means is really nothing more than old fashioned judging of one another. It’s antithetical to grace. And it smacks of the snooty superiority of Star-Bellied Sneetches.

Rather than a star on the belly, in the Apostle Paul’s day it was circumcision. Those who had it were “in” and those without it were “out.” Never mind the interior life. A hard outward boundary of righteousness was established by false teachers who made the Christian life easy by simply holding to readily observable forms, like circumcision.

It wasn’t that circumcision was a bad thing. The issue was making it a necessary part of the Christian life. Not circumcised? Not a Christian, insisted the false teachers. In other words, one had to become Jewish before becoming a Christian. I can picture the Apostle Paul doing a hand to the forehead, saying, “Oy vey.”

For the Christian, one must be vigilant not to exaggerate baptism. On the one hand, I would argue far too many believers underestimate the significance and importance of baptism. Flippantly making it a personal choice, as if the individual is in complete control of one’s own salvation, is not only wrongheaded – it’s downright blasphemous.

Yet, on the other hand, a preoccupation with getting a person, especially a child, baptized, as if the world might end if it doesn’t happen, betrays the same problem as Paul faced with circumcision in the first century.

The proper approach, it seems to me, is to embrace the full spectrum of Christianity – both outward and inward – the whole person. And Paul addresses this by anticipating a question of the Galatian congregation: What, then, is of central importance?

The answer is: a new creation. To be transformed by the power of the Spirit is what really counts. The grace of God in Christ, applied to a person, brings a change to inner motives and attitudes, as well as outer behavior through loving actions.

We must always keep in mind that the sign points to the substance. It would be weird if I were traveling to Milwaukee on I-94 and pulled over on the interstate next to the sign marking the city is ahead, crawl all over it, and say, “I’m here!”

The overall thrust of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that they were debasing the true worship of God into an outward show, honoring Christ with their lips but not holding him in their hearts.

Christianity is fundamentally not about what we do for God but what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is divine grace which saves people. We belong to God. Just as we neither chose our own parents nor the time when we were born, so akin to this is, before we chose God, God chose us. We don’t “born again” ourselves; God does the rebirthing.

And since it is solely the work of God in us, there is zero reason to boast about the circumstances of our new birth and becoming a new creation in Christ. We didn’t save ourselves. It would be something like getting a COVID-19 vaccine and then bragging about how we stopped the pandemic.

Instead, we are to bear the spiritual marks of Christ’s crucifixion on our inner selves. No one is saved because they deserve it but simply because they need saving.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, grant us the faith to accept your saving work in the cross and to be so transformed by it that we will not be without excuse on Judgment Day. Help us not merely walk at your side, with mere words to offer. Convert us and give us new life in you so that in the end we will not be dry wood, but living branches in you, the true vine, bearing fruit for eternal life. Amen.

Revelation 21:1-6 – Making All Things New

Make All Things New by James Janknegt, 2005

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also, he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning, and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. (NRSV)

The world as we now know it will someday disappear. We have a future hope – it will literally be heaven on earth. The entire planet will be a renewed and God will descend to dwell with us. The Lord will bring us to the original design of the garden with Adam and Eve – an unhindered relationship between divinity and humanity. We shall no longer be dogged by our personal shame, institutional and systemic evil, and the temptations and oppression of Satan. Tears, death, sorrow, and pain will be a thing of the past. Eventually, our struggle with the fallen nature of everything will be completely over.

The message from the Apostle John to the early church was extremely encouraging. The people had faced all kinds of trouble and persecution due to their Christian commitment. To know that suffering only lasts for the night, but joy comes in the morning because of Jesus, changes everything. To the ancient church, as well as us today, this is a comfort and help in our present adversities.

Yet, we are such an impatient people! We want good things to happen, and now! All God’s people throughout history have been looking ahead for the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises. The Apostle John did not  give a brand-new revelation to the church but upheld and anticipated what had been known and true for centuries. God said to the prophet Isaiah:

“See, I will create
    new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
    nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
    in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
    and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
    and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
    will be heard in it no more. (Isaiah 65:17-19, NIV)

Making All Things New by Beth Lighthouse, 2018

In the first Advent of Christ, many of God’s people thought for certain all these promises would finally be realized. Yet, like a young couple in their engagement period, the promises of God had been initiated and promised, but not yet realized or consummated. The Apostle Peter addressed a common question asked throughout the ages:

“What happened to the promise that Jesus is coming again? From before the times of our ancestors, everything has remained the same since the world was first created.” (2 Peter 3:4, NLT)

Peter responded, in part, by reminding Christians:

Do not let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day. The Lord is not slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives. (2 Peter 3:8-9, CEB)

“I am making everything new,” said Jesus. And he wanted John to get that down in writing so not to forget. God is still in the process of moving history to its final stage. Will we be patient in letting God do this work until the final day comes, or will we be impatient? 

Although we are awaiting the end of all things, this is no time to be idly sitting by, twiddling our thumbs with nervous anxiety. Nor are we to go all apoplectic with furious activity creating prophecy charts, trying to figure out exactly the day and hour of Christ’s Second Advent. No, rather, we properly anticipate the Second Coming when we let God change our hearts and lives, our neighborhoods and workplaces, our families, and churches, to be just like Christ.

God is presently preparing for Christ’s return by doing away with the old order to make room for the new. The Apostle Paul put it this way to the Corinthian Church:

When anyone is in Christ, it is a whole new world. The old things are gone; suddenly, everything is new! (2 Corinthians 5:17, ERV)

With each transformed life, we are reminded God is not slow in keeping promises but is now vigorously active preparing for the last day.

The Revelation of John helps us to break our fixation with the past and the ways we have always done things.  God’s capacity and ability to renew is astounding. Even now, we can walk now in newness of life.

We were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4, NKJV)

To avoid impatience and to keep persevering, it is helpful to have a big picture view of what God has done, is doing, and will do.

In the Fall of 1991, a car driven by a drunk driver jumped its lane and smashed headfirst into a minivan driven by a man named Jerry Sittser. He and three of his children survived, but Jerry’s wife, four-year-old child, and mother died in the crash. In his book A Grace Revealed Sittser shares the following interaction with one of his surviving children, David, months after the accident:

“Do you think Mom sees us right now?” he suddenly asked.

I paused to ponder. “I don’t know, David. I think maybe she does see us. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t see how she could, Dad. I thought Heaven was full of happiness. How could she bear to see us so sad?”

Could Lynda, my wife, witness our pain in Heaven? How could that be possible? How could she bear it?

“I think she does see us,” I finally said. “But she sees the whole story, including how it all turns out, which is beautiful to her. It’s going to be a good story, David.”

God knows the whole story. When everything dies, all is stripped from our lives, and the world as we know it is done away with, what are we left with?  God and the renewal of all things. The troubles of this present evil age will be eradicated forever.

Whenever we seek to do away with the world’s grinding poverty and the starvation of children; whenever we work to end global sex-trafficking and domestic abuse; whenever we tackle epidemics, pandemics, and disease; whenever we help others face and cope with the evil of this world; whenever we come alongside others in their trouble; whenever we extend comfort to the grieving and grace to the wayward; whenever we choose mercy and kindness; then, God is using us to make everything new.

The end is coming. But it is not yet here. God is presently working to make everything new by bringing deliverance from sin, death, and hell to people throughout the world.

Almighty God, in the New Year, at this moment of transition, we understand this is the moment of your intervention. We offer to you, O Lord, everything that makes us sad and upset; everything that makes us desperate; all our unfulfilled plans, and all our unrealized dreams. They are yours. Take them and transform them into something beautiful, magnificent, and new. Let your Holy Spirit make us new creations in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Isaiah 11:1-10 – All I Want for Christmas Is a Savior

The Lion and the Lamb by Aaron Spong

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

 The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

In that day, the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10, NIV)

Christians believe Isaiah’s prophecy to speak of Jesus in whom all these virtues exist in wonderful perfection and practice. Jesus Christ has so clearly identified with us that we are in a vital union with him.  He still exists here on earth in the person of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was sent by the Father.  With the Father and the Son, the Spirit was sent to press the redemptive events of Jesus into the believer’s heart.  This is basic Trinitarian theology.  Yet these are not abstract ideas.  Prayer, discernment, and listening are the pathways forward to discovering the wisdom, counsel, and knowledge we need to live and serve well as Christians.

In some quarters of Christianity, the church exists as a mere stump of its former existence. For many Christians, daily experience of the Spirit has been supplanted by individual ingenuity, hard work, and getting ahead through accumulation of more and more.  Basic Christian spirituality then becomes a mere shadow of its former influence.  If we desire the Spirit of the Lord to rest upon us, we will seek Christ as our foremost importance.  

Indeed, it is when we are worn down to a stump and have no ability to grow or sustain life anymore that God enters, specializing in giving hope to the hopeless, justice for the poor, wisdom to the confused, and peace to all who desire a harmonious world.

In the awful feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, there is a faint sign of life. A fresh shoot becomes discernible. Could there be possibility amidst such impossible circumstances? Can there be life again? Do I dare hope again? Will things really change, and do so for the better?

The answer is “yes.” For where the Spirit of the Lord blows there is the force of resurrection power, spiritual energy, and fresh courage. Where others see only three-dimensional impossibilities, the believer has the capacity of faith to see multi-dimensional possibilities. The Spirit’s force generates possibility where none existed before. When the breath of God whispers to the sprout in the stump, pessimistic despair turns to optimistic hope, even joy.

Jesus Christ is the Christian’s hope. In Christ, there is security, well-being, and life. With Jesus, there is a vision of justice in which all persons receive what they need to live, thrive, and flourish in God’s world. Christ operates to our advantage and on our behalf without the personal greed and indifference of so many earthly rulers. The weak and vulnerable have a champion in Jesus. Renewal and restoration become very real possibilities.

I have lately taken a liking to a show called “The Repair Shop,” a British television series in which family heirlooms which have sentimental value for their owners are carefully restored by experts. What captivates me about the show is how one person can take an old broken-down item (and by all appearances now a piece of junk) and restore it to its once glorious newness.

There is more to my captivation of the show. I am struck by the sheer pleasure the restorers take in handling the old object, enjoying the process. Just by the looks on their faces, I can tell they consider it a privilege to be restoring such a precious object of the past.

Artisan Steve Fletcher restoring an 18th century French clock

I am sure this is precisely how God feels with us. Rather than envisioning the Lord as some reluctant deity who feels put out with having to rescue a bunch of dumb and wayward people, God is One who has delight in taking this old stump of fallen damaged humanity and restoring us to our original luster and beauty. Transformation is God’s specialty, and the Lord goes about the process of restoration with great care and delight.

The impossible possibility of God’s new creation is poetically described in the peaceful co-existence of animals and creatures who are inconceivably together without fear or violence. There is a time coming when death will be no more, and so, the necessity in this life of hunter and prey shall be forever negated. No more snakes terrorizing women and children. No more big fishes eating little ones. No more human fat cats preying upon and striking poison on the smaller and vulnerable.

The presence of the godly Ruler means the world will be governed rightly, detoxified of its sinful impurities; a place where the poor, the weak, and the little lambs will indeed be safe and secure forever. There will be peace because of the Prince of Peace. All creation will be full of God, and thus, free of all malice.

This beautiful prophecy from Isaiah envisions a deep, radical, limitless transformation in which there will be no more appetite to injure another; no more desire to devour another; no more lust for selfish control of another; and no more destructive passion for domination over others.

It is a thorough renovation of the human heart, human institutions, the animal kingdom, and even every blade of grass in creation. The Apostle Paul had this grand vision of God in mind when he wrote to the Church at Rome:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope thatthe creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23, NIV)

The implication for us as humanity was voiced by Paul to the Colossian Church:

Now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:8-11, NIV)

The transformation is all-pervasive, impacting everything public while also being intimately personal. It is a gift from God; it is the impossible made possible. And it is this precise thing which we acknowledge, celebrate, and long for in the season of Advent. When the angel came to Mary and communicated that Isaiah’s vision was coming to reality through her womb, Mary astonishingly retorted:

“How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel, with supreme confidence, answered Mary as a matter of fact:

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…. For no word from God will ever fail.”

Mary’s response gives voice to our own desires and longings for the new order of things:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:34-38, NIV)

This is our confession, too. I am the Lord’s servant. You are the Lord’s servant. May God’s word to us about the coming of Christ be fulfilled, just as Isaiah has said. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus on a bright starry night.

Revelation 21:5-14

            “I am making everything new.”  This is the voice of the One seated on the throne.  In other words, this is God speaking.  This is only one of two places in the entire book of Revelation where God himself speaks directly and personally.  We are meant to take notice of the change in speaker so that we will pay special attention.
 
            The good news which is the marrow of Revelation’s message is that God’s business is making everything new.  It isn’t just something God does only at the end of time, but something that is already going on in this present age.  We are meant to understand that our contemporary experience is not merely a holding pattern until we reach heaven someday; rather, God is at work transforming lives, rooting-out systemic evil, establishing his will, and, well, making literally everything in his big world new.
 
            It is only human, at times, to lose hope and to wonder if things will ever be different.  But there is hope because God is patiently, mercifully, and lovingly restoring all things to their original Garden of Eden luster.  His words are true and can be trusted.  So, write it down and don’t forget it.  Put it in your journal and come back to it again and again.  “I am making everything new” is the Christian’s mantra in a time of uncertainty and of trial.
 

 

            Renewing God, your home is with your people.  Make your home with me and renovate my life in an extreme makeover so that I can dwell with you forever; through Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.