2020: Eyes on a Better Country

A new year has dawned —a season for reflection on what has been and fresh resolve for what will be. There are so many things I could say about 2019. It was a year that brought unexpected change and blessing for our family…a year that brought deep need and abundant provision…a year of being poured out for others and poured into by the Body of Christ. 2019 was a life-shaping year as I learned more each day how to die with Christ in order to truly live. 

As I look forward to 2020, there are so many things I could resolve to do, or resolve to do better. But rather than making a list of goals or choosing a word of the year, I find myself looking further down the road, beyond 2020 and even beyond my life here on earth. As a Christian, I know my best life is not now: For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14). But do I seek it? Do we seek it?

C.S. Lewis so aptly described the human ache for something more than this world can give when he wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” So much of Lewis’s writing is otherworldly. It seems he had his sights set on a better country, knowing this is the only way to truly persevere in the Christian life while living in a world corrupted by sin.  

Perhaps we feel the ache of the world’s brokenness—of our own brokenness—at times. It’s clear that all things are not as they should be, and none of us can avoid the curse that sin has brought. But do we ache for the one true resolution, or do we simply hate the curse while deeply loving the sin itself?  Are our eyes set on a better country ruled by the only true and good King? Or are we desperately striving to build a bigger and better kingdom for ourselves here on earth? 

Beauty and Brokenness 

Human life on earth is an inextricable juxtaposition of beauty and brokenness, joy and sorrow, light and darkness. Beauty, joy, and light are present and experienced, to varying degrees, by all humans on earth because God has not removed his common grace. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). While the gift of common grace keeps humanity from being fully given over to sin, it cannot fix all that sin has broken. 

We see the reality of these juxtapositions play out in a million ways, big and small. In the span of a few short months in 2011, I experienced both the great joy of new life in the birth of my first son and the great sorrow of loss in the death of my beloved grandmother. On Christmas morning, I watched my sons squeal in delight as they discovered their new toys, and I listened to sobs of (slightly dramatic) despair less than an hour later when a new toy was accidentally broken. In this life, joy and sorrow always mingle. And while the gift of common grace cannot reverse the curse or cure hearts, the gift of God’s special grace through Christ is freely offered to all who will receive it.

No darkness is too dark for the light of Christ to penetrate, and no sorrow is so deep that it can drown the true joy he brings. On earth, no fracture is irreparable by the beauty of his grace. But life on earth is not forever, and in eternity, the once inextricable realities are finally set free from one another. In eternity, beauty and brokenness no longer mingle. Hell is the total removal of God’s presence, the withdrawing of both his common grace and the offer of his saving grace. Those in Hell are given over to what they truly want and love: sin and self apart from God.

Go to Jesus Outside the Camp 

The scary reality is that left to ourselves, we all want Hell. We want to rule our own kingdoms apart from God. And though we may hate its fruit, we love the darkness of sin. But the Son of God put on flesh to free us from our depraved love: So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured (Hebrews 13:13).

Jesus shows us that this world is not ultimate; He is ultimate. The maker of the world who came to save the world was hated and killed by the world as an outcast. The longing we can’t seem to satisfy with any worldly success, relationship, pleasure, or material possession is a longing for him. And he offers us himself, forgiveness of sin, and every spiritual blessing with Him for all eternity. He offers us an unshakeable Kingdom free of sickness, sin, pain, insecurity, loneliness, and death. In this Kingdom, toys no longer break and people are no longer broken. But we must forsake the world and flee to Christ outside the camp. Christ’s offer is not a “both/and” proposition. It’s “either/or.” We cannot have Christ and the world because we cannot serve two masters. 

Nothing is Lost

Lewis writes: If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven, we shall not be able to retain even the smallest most intimate souvenirs of earth. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.”

As Christians on earth, we have a message and a mission to steward for the glory of the King as we wait to take hold of the glorious, unshakeable Kingdom in its fullness. He has prepared good works for each of us to do (Ephesians 2:10), and these good works will require us to die daily in service to others. They will cause us to look strange to the world. Our faith in Christ will not exempt us from the inevitable suffering that results from life in a cursed world. We will share in Christ’s sufferings and death while we await resurrection glory. But eternity will show that nothing we have given up was truly lost. Heaven will one day reveal that all things have truly worked together for our ultimate good. 

Lewis writes: [This] is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backward and turn even that agony into a glory…

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17). 

I don’t know what 2020 will hold for me or for my family, but I know that I can face every joy, sorrow, blessing, and trial with expectant hope because I am on a journey to a better country–a country where the Lamb who was slain will reign as King, dry every tear, and make all things new. My eyes are on him.

The Christmas Story: Consummation

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In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! . . . Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end. 

For four hundred years, no prophet spoke for God. The remnant of God’s people who had returned to their land from exile languished under the control of the Roman Empire with no sign of the promised Messiah. But, one day, the long silence was broken by an angel who delivered a pregnancy announcement—two pregnancy announcements, actually!

The first announcement came to an elderly priest named Zechariah, whose elderly wife Elizabeth had been barren for many years. The childless Elizabeth would give birth to a son named John, a prophet of God who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah!  The second pregnancy announcement came to Mary–an unwed teenage virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph from the house of David. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary would conceive and give birth to a Son, who would be called Jesus…the Son of God…a child both human and divine! This Son was the long-awaited child of promise–the victorious King, who would crush the head of the evil snake and reign on David’s throne for eternity.

God’s Kingdom was coming on earth through two unexpected pregnancies to two unlikely women because nothing is impossible with God! Although the nation of Israel had been like a barren woman, failing to bear fruit by mediating God’s blessing to the nations, God would still keep his promises. The virgin conception signaled the inbreaking of a new covenant! The barren woman Israel would now have children…many children from many nations…children with new, clean hearts with the law of God written upon them. God would accomplish his plan to fill the earth with his glory through his people!

The story takes another unexpected turn when Mary gives birth to Jesus in an obscure stable in Bethlehem, and the good news is first announced to lowly, dirty shepherds while watching their sheep at night. Wouldn’t a palace full of important people have been a better place for the birth of the Messiah? How odd for the King of Kings to enter this world quietly among animals! Then again, it’s not so odd when you remember that this baby King was also a lamb–the Lamb of God, born to die for broken, helpless sinners. 

You see, Jesus’s birthplace was no surprise to God. God was showing the world that he was coming down, even to the lowest of places, to rescue his children and live with them again. But this time, the Creator wasn’t going to live among his people in a garden or a temple. He was going to live among them in a human body…a body just like theirs…a body that would one day be broken on their behalf and resurrected to eternal life— the firstfruits of many who would follow through faith in him,

The God-man Jesus Christ was an embodied picture of God’s glory for the world to see… the exact image of the invisible God…-the one who perfectly kept God’s righteous law, yet died a brutal death in the place of sinners. After his death and resurrection, he ascended to the right hand the Father where he now reigns through his Spirit in the hearts of his people, the Church…the mystery finally revealed! 

Jesus Christ is the better Adam, the better Noah, the better Israel, and the better David–God’s one and only true Son! And one day, he’s coming back to finish what he started. The cradle that led to the cross still awaits the consummation of the glorious kingdom on earth. There, Christ will mend all that is broken, dry every tear, and reign in righteousness for all eternity! This is the hope of Christmas! 

So, the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price…and live forevermore. Come, thou long-expected Jesus!

 

The Christmas Story: Redemption

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The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “…Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb…a lamb for a house-hold. Your lamb shall be without blemish…and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it…For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt…The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 

God called his people out of Egypt, freeing them from the oppression of Pharaoh through a series of miraculous plagues. The seed of the serpent would not thwart God’s plans for Israel…the nation God called his firstborn son. In the last plague upon Egypt–the death of the firstborn sons–God made it clear to all that the wages of sin and rebellion is death… death that can be circumvented only through the blood of a spotless substitute. 

Through Moses, God led Israel safely through the waters of the Red Sea and into the wilderness. There, he gave his children the law and instructions for building the tabernacle, a tent where his presence would dwell among them. The law revealed God’s holy character. It showed Israel how to live in relationship with the God who had redeemed them in his love. Though they promised to obey, God’s children failed miserably. So, year after year, animal sacrifices were offered at the tabernacle for the forgiveness of sins. But the blood of animals was never enough to pay for human sin once and for all. A better sacrifice—a better substitute— was needed. 

God gave his children the land he had promised to Abraham and helped them drive out the seed of the serpent living in Canaan. He then gave Israel human kings–first Saul and then David…the son of Jesse…. the shepherd boy from Bethlehem….the man of God’s choosing. King David wanted to build God a house, a temple where his glory would dwell permanently with Israel. But the timing wasn’t yet right. Instead, God promised to build David a house or an eternal lineage of kings from his seed! God promised that a son of David would sit on the throne forever.

Lots of kings came after Saul and David. Most were wicked, a few were good, but not one was perfect. Many of Israel’s kings led them into apostasy through idol worship. So, God sent prophets to proclaim warnings of his impending judgment. Through the prophets, God repeatedly called his children to repent of their sin and come back to him, but they wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t do it because they were walking in darkness, blinded by their sinful hearts. 

Years passed, and judgment occurred just as the prophets had foretold: The kingdom was divided and conquered by foreign nations. The people were exiled from their land and carried into slavery. Like a tree felled by the ax of judgment, God’s chosen nation was cut down to a stump. But in the midst of this hopelessness, God gave his prophets messages of hope: The holy seed–that seed of the woman promised to Adam and Eve–remained in the stump of King David’s family tree! And one day, a shoot of new life was going to break through the stump and grow into a branch bearing fruit. 

A remnant would return to the promised land, and a great Light would dawn upon those living in darkness through the birth of the promised child–a Son! This child would be a divine King whose future reign on David’s throne would bring worldwide justice and peace. But he would also be a suffering servant, a substitutionary lamb whose shed blood would deal with the problem of sinful human hearts once and for all. 

The promises were foretold, the remnant returned, and then….SILENCE.

The Christmas Story: Fall

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Now the serpent said to the woman, “Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. 

Everything was wonderful until a serpent slithered into the garden and started telling lies. His message planted seeds of doubt in the minds of God’s children: God doesn’t really love you. He doesn’t really know best. Freedom comes by living according to your own rules, not God’s. In a foolish pursuit of autonomy, Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. Then, she shared with her husband, and the darkness of sin entered the world. Sickness, pain, struggle, shame, spiritual death, and later…. physical death. Life would never be the same. When Adam and Eve heard the voice of their Holy Creator coming to pronounce just judgment, they hid.

 But no one can hide from God. He pronounced judgment on his children through curses. The man and woman would be exiled from the garden and God’s presence. Life would be hard, and death would come to all. But coupled with God’s pronouncement of judgment came a glorious promise of his mercy—a thrill of hope! God would not abandon his children or his world to the enemy. Though the seed of the serpent would bruise the seed of the woman, one day, a child of Eve would crush the evil snake’s head once and for all!

Through this child of promise, God was going to fill the earth with his glory, but things would get much worse before they would get better. Sinful hearts were passed down from generation to generation, and wickedness grew like a vicious weed taking over the world. Things got so bad that God wiped away all he had created through a worldwide flood and started over with a man named Noah. Judgment through water. Mercy through an ark. A new creation, a new start. But still….the problem of sinful hearts. 

Noah, his sons, and all their wives were given the same commission given in the beginning: Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth with God’s glory! But, once again, as people multiplied, sin multiplied, and the cycle continued. God’s matchless glory was veiled by selfish human pursuits for vainglory. The seed of the serpent appeared to be winning…but God’s mercy and grace are greater than people’s sin. 

God called a pagan named Abram, and gave him a new name and identity: Abraham, the father of nations! God made a covenant with Abraham. He promised to bless him and give him a special land and descendants that outnumbered the stars. Through Abraham, God would establish a new family—a new nation through which he would bless people from every other nation on earth!

In time, the new family began to grow. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, his twelve sons, and their many children eventually made up the nation of Israel—God’s chosen people. But Israel wasn’t mediating the blessing of God to other peoples. In fact, they found themselves oppressed by the nation of Egypt, and oppressed in a greater way by their own sinful hearts. Would God keep his promises after all? Well…yes! God always keeps his promises. Redemption was coming!

 

The Christmas Story: Creation

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. God separated the light from the darkness.

Did you know that the Christmas story begins on the first page of Scripture? It begins with the words, “In the beginning, GOD…” You see, the Christmas story is a long, beautiful story about God. Before anything else existed, God was here. No one created God. He has always been, and he has always had everything he could ever need within himself. God is three in one–Father, Spirit, Son–and he is altogether beautiful and good. 

The first thing the Bible tells us is that God is the Creator of all things. God spoke, “Let there be…” and the heavens and earth came into existence. Something from nothing by the power of his word. When the earth was first created, it began as a dark, chaotic ball of matter. So, the next thing God created was light to illuminate the dark world. Then, God formed and filled up all he had made with the sun, moon, stars, mountains, oceans, trees, and animals. 

Why? If God doesn’t need anything, why would he create everything? The Bible says God created the whole world for his glory. God made the heavens and earth to put his goodness and beauty on display so that he might be enjoyed and praised. God’s majesty is showcased by the mountain range, his vastness proclaimed in oceans deep, and his beauty highlighted in the brilliance of a sunset sky. But none of these creations reflect the truest picture of God. No, he saved his best work for last. The crown of God’s creation is humanity— male and female made in his very image. 

God made a man named Adam and a woman named Eve. These human creatures were both alike and different, but, together, they were meant to reflect the Creator more clearly than any other part of creation as they accomplished the important work he would give them to do on earth. God put Adam and Eve in a garden called Eden- The garden was full of trees with delicious fruit, but the best part was that God’s presence was with his children there. 

God told Adam and Eve to care for and expand the garden as his representatives. He told them to have children and fill the earth with many more little “mirrors” who would reflect his glory. God gave Adam and Eve everything they would need to accomplish this work. He allowed them to eat food from any tree in the garden…except one…the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree was a visible reminder that God is the one who decides what’s right and what’s wrong because He alone is the powerful and good Creator. If Adam and Eve obeyed God, they would be completely happy. The garden was a sanctuary full of peace, potential, and…LIGHT. But soon, a different type of darkness would cover God’s good earth, shrouding the light of his glory. This darkness would necessitate a different kind of Light to dispel and overcome it. The Christmas story is about the Light overcoming the darkness. 

Tracing Glory: The Christmas Story Through the Bible

Tracing Glory: The Christmas Story Through the Bible

Click Here to Download Tracing Glory – Advent Devotional

My absolute love for the Christmas season began when I was a very little girl and continues still. The music, lights, decorations, family traditions, gifts and (most of all) the mystery of God made flesh truly make this one of the most wonderful times of my year. As a child, the Christmas season felt just about perfect in every way, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that my view of the season itself was somewhat idealized in the naivety of childhood.

As wonderful as December is, the realities of living in a fallen world don’t just go away during this special month. On the contrary, they’re often highlighted. Busyness and stress creep in. The longer to-do lists are exhausting. Relationships are challenging. Grief is more raw than usual. Children still have meltdowns, and there is still laundry! I’ve come to realize that my hope and joy must run deeper than the season itself, or I’ll be let down every year.

The cliche’ “Jesus is the reason for the season,” is almost as overused as it is true. I know well that Jesus is the reason for the season. Of course, he is our hope in December and every month of the year! But just because I know it’s true doesn’t mean I function as if it’s true. In the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s all too easy to make very little room for Christ. If Jesus truly is the reason (and hope) for the season, then he must be central in my heart and home the whole month through. How do I make this my reality in the busiest month of the year when so many other things vie for my time and affections?

I have found that if Christ is not central in my life during the first eleven months of the year, he won’t be central in the last month either. If I am not rooted in the Bible’s big story January through November, I will miss the sheer magnitude of what I read in Luke chapter two during December. The centrality of Christ at Christmas is tied to my love for him and commitment to his Word every day of the year. It is also tied to my intentionality to think and plan ahead for a Christ-focused Christmas season.

Tracing Glory: The Christmas Story Through the Bible is a twenty-four day Advent reading I wrote for our family to use this December and for many Decembers to come. It begins looking back at creation and ends looking forward to the new creation, tracing Jesus Christ from start to finish. I wrote this devotional primarily for my boys because I want them to understand that the birth of Christ is the climactic event of a much larger story–a story about God’s mission to redeem sinful people for his glory.  

This advent reading was written with children, teens, and adults in mind. My goal was to communicate big truths in ways a child could grasp. I want to help readers see how every story in the Bible points either forward or backward to the hero of the story.

In each day’s reading, there is a key Scripture given to look up as the basis for that day’s devotional. Next is my written commentary on the key Scripture. At the end of each day’s reading, I have summarized the key Scripture and commentary with one main point and Christ connection, showing how that particular Bible passage points to Jesus Christ.

While preschoolers may not yet be able to grasp all the content given in the key Scripture and commentary, they will benefit from hearing the main point. I would suggest that parents of very young children read the first two sections and then communicate those truths to their children at their particular level of understanding. I think most school-aged children and teens will benefit from listening to or reading the commentary, but families can decide what works best for their particular situation. This is a resource that very young children can grow into through the years.

This Advent resource can be printed and spiral bound or put into a three ring binder for organization and easy access. At the back of the devotional, I have included individual pictures of an ornament suggestion for each day. These are simple ornaments I have made or bought to use with our family. Each day of the Advent season, my children will unwrap the ornament that corresponds to the key Scripture we will be focusing on and hang it on our Advent tree (see picture). These ornaments can be easily replicated, or you can cut out the pictures provided and use those as visuals with your children each day. Having a visual helps children grasp the meaning of the text and makes Advent exciting as they anticipate what ornament they will open each day.

The story you will encounter in this Advent reading is both epic and true, and it isn’t finished yet. We are living within this grand story now, awaiting the final chapter when we will see Christ face-to-face and dwell with him forever. My prayer is that, as we wait, God would use this resource to help us stand in awe of his matchless glory.  As we encounter the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us in Christ, may we move to worship him every day in December and the whole year through.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Sarah Rice

Click Here to Download Tracing Glory – Advent Devotional

 

 

 

Overwhelmed by Grace

The circumstances of my current season frequently leave me feeling overwhelmed. There are constant needs to be met, errands to be run, appointments to be made, meals to be cooked, dishes to be cleaned, and so. much. laundry to be folded. My natural response to the feeling of overwhelm is to press on, work harder, and check everything off the to-do list. I tend to believe that if I can just accomplish everything, I’ll feel better. But this response never actually snuffs out the feeling of overwhelm for long because there is always a new list. There is always more to be done.

When it is impossible to stay on top of my work, I am forced to remember the truth that productivity and accomplishment will never bring lasting peace. When the “tyranny of the urgent” and endless tasks threaten to overwhelm me, I don’t need to accomplish more; I need, instead, to be overwhelmed by something bigger. My gaze needs to be lifted to something (and someone) greater than myself and what’s on my plate today.

When I’m overwhelmed, I need more than a few bandaid Bible verses slapped on my circumstances. I need more than the uncertain “hope” that things might get easier in a future season. I even need more than the false promise that I am enough for the tasks set before me. What I need is the fullness of real hope, both cosmic and eternal in its scope.

The gospel is the only news that offers this kind of hope. Christ Jesus, the one through whom ALL things were created, is preeminent over ALL things (Col 1:15-20). As I rest by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, the glorious reality of his preeminence swallows up in victory every smaller reality I face today.

Gloria Furman writes:

“It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are; the greatest reality a mother [or anyone] can appreciate and rest in is the work Jesus has done on the cross on our behalf. Jesus’s purifying and cleansing work through the sacrifice of his own body is preeminent over the dirty laundry that is threatening to avalanche soon. Jesus’s victorious rising from the dead and triumph over death are preeminent over the chaos of your busy household as everyone is shuttled off to where they need to be for the day. Jesus’s sovereign reign over the cosmos and eschatological harnessing of everything under his feet are preeminent over the plans you’ve made for the evening, your busy schedule this weekend, and the ideas you have about your child’s future.

Even as a mother’s hands can be filled with troubles, back-breaking work, and frightening unknowns, she is being guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation to be revealed in the future (1 Peter 1:5). Because of the gospel, we mothers can rejoice as we find our hands full of blessings in Jesus, because we know all is grace. There is a circumstance that supersedes all the complexities of your life. It is the simple truth that the one great, permanent circumstance in which you live is that you have been allowed to walk in newness of life as you are united to Christ by faith through grace.”

Whatever he has set before us—blessing, suffering, or a work load that feels too big—God has called us to steward what we have been given with gospel hope as we rest fully in who Christ is and what he has done. As we walk by faith, his strength supplies what we need to do the the work before us. We get the privilege of being a part of God’s work of uniting all things in Christ, and no life circumstance can truly overwhelm us because we have been completely overwhelmed by his grace. As you face what is before you today, stop and look up. Lift your gaze to the preeminent, sufficient Christ!