Much Deeper Than the Body

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by Linda Rex

February 12, 2023, 6th Sunday in Epiphany—One of the readings for my recent coursework at Grace Communion Seminary talks about the way in which God does who God is. What I mean by that is, who God is in his being is what he does in his actions. God is a Redeemer, and so he redeems us. God is Savior, and so he saves us. When Jesus says to his disciples, if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father, he is saying that the love and grace of his Father was in that moment being expressed in the person and life of his Son Jesus. And it was fully expressed in Jesus’ self-offering on the cross.

The reason I am bringing this up is because of how the gospel reading for today, Matthew 5:21–37, resonates with this. Jesus pointed out that our human way of doing things just will not work in the economy of the Triune life or kingdom of God. Jesus calls us to go much deeper than just putting on an outer show of religiosity. He was “meddling”—telling people that going through the motions was not enough. The way we live and act needs to go much deeper than just the externals—it must involve the heart and soul of a person. And it has to do with our passions, desires, impulses, and motivations.

But there is even more going on here than just that. Who we are drives what we do. In this passage, we can see that Jesus is so much more than just the words he was speaking. In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus was in many ways all of these things in action. Who he was as God in human flesh was an expression of these very things in a real and tangible way as a human, fleshly person led by and filled with the Holy Spirit.

For example, when we think of God, we often think of a being who is mad at us for being such awful sinners, to the point that he had to kill his Son for us. But consider the way God in Christ really does approach our evil and sin, and our broken relationship with himself. He doesn’t despise us for our failure to measure up to our obligations to him and one another. Rather, he recognizes our inadequacy and lack of even desiring to do what is right at times. Because he knows this about us, he comes, takes on our human flesh, and forges within us a new away of being—giving us his own desire to do what is right and holy. And then he dies and rises, and sends the Spirit so we can live in right relationship with him now and forever.

Going further, consider how Jesus deals with the reality of our offenses against him. In his own self-offering, the Son of God set aside his need for revenge or self-gratification when we became his opponents, and instead, laid down his own life. He came to us in our human flesh, to live our life and die our death, for our salvation and redemption. We had something in our hearts against God, and Jesus came to us and made things right, reconciling us to God in himself and calling us to be reconciled in that same way to God and each other.

Notice how Jesus used hyperbole to express our need to get rid of those parts of ourselves which cause us to sin. Truth be told, he never meant us to actually physically cut off or remove these parts of our body. What he did demonstrate to us in his life and death was that he was willing to do for us what we could not do in this regard. None of us is capable of eliminating those parts of us that cause us to sin—which is why Jesus took our human flesh to the cross and allowed us to crucify it so that our human flesh would die once and for all to evil, sin, and death. And in the resurrection, Jesus gave our human flesh new life—a new way of being grounded within himself. As Paul wrote, we don’t look at people through the lens of their sinful human flesh any longer because in Christ they are new creations (2 Cor. 5:16-17).

Going on, even when Jesus is talking about the topic of divorce and adultery, he takes us into the realm of committed or covenant relationship. The religious leaders of his day had added and subtracted so much to the law that it was possible to divorce for any reason, and women were being left without anyone to care for them because of the selfish choices of the men who had give them a promise of fidelity and then had broken it.

When we look at the history of the ancient nation of Israel, God’s covenant people, we see that the prophets often spoke of this nation’s relationship with God as a marriage or covenant relationship. Even though this nation was repeatedly unfaithful to God, he was always faithful to her. The prophet Hosea, in a living parable, showed God’s willingness to go the extra mile by faithfully loving and caring for his unfaithful spouse. Jesus, in his person, was the fulfillment of this beautiful picture, coming to his people in God’s faithfulness to them, so that he could bring home to his Father his beloved bride, his covenant people, which in his life, death, resurrection, and the giving of the Spirit, were the newly forged, redeemed and restored body of Christ, the church.

And in this way, we see that God is what God does. He is a God of his word. When he says “yes”, that is what he means. And when he says “no”, he means no. When he said that he would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15), he did so, as God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, dying on the cross for our salvation. When God said he would send the Suffering Servant Messiah to his people to redeem not only them, but the whole world—that is what he did. God has kept his word to us and will keep his word to us. He is trustworthy, faithful, and true.

This is why we can rest in the reality that God will finish what he has begun in us. In the New Testament reading, 1 Corinthians 3:1–9, the apostle Paul points out that there is a difference between living in the truth of what Christ has done in our place on our behalf or living in our unredeemed flesh. Are we walking as mere human beings, or are we walking as spiritual people, those who are filled with and led by God’s Spirit, Christ in us? Our belief isn’t what makes us different people. Cutting off parts of our body or trying to make radical changes to our behavior doesn’t change us. What is life-transforming is Christ—the indwelling presence of God by the Holy Spirit. We are God’s field, God’s building, and he is at work in us, as we respond to him in faith. And we participate in his work in this world as we are led by the Spirit to love and serve others as we are gifted and called by God. It is a comfort to know it is all up to him, not all up to us—we just get to be a part of what he is doing!

Thank you, Abba, for allowing us to be a part of what you are doing in this world. Thank you, Jesus, for giving yourself so freely to us and for including us in your own relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to live and walk so that all that we do is a true expression of who we are in you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”    1 Corinthians 3:1–9 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/01/olitmuch-deeper-than-the-body.pdf ]

[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]

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A Shiny, Salty Heart

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by Linda Rex

February 5, 2023, 5th Sunday in Epiphany—The two courses I am currently taking with Grace Communion Seminary are both related to the practice of ministry. The practice of ministry involves taking what I believe and applying it to what I do in my everyday life and activities in caring for others. For many people, practice of ministry comes instinctively and naturally because they are gifted and designed in that way, while for me it is a real challenge and requires intentionality and discipline, and a whole lot of the Spirit of God.

In the New Testament passage for today, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, the apostle Paul tells his readers he didn’t come to them in superiority of speech or wisdom when he preached the gospel to them. If anything, he was weak and fearful, speaking solely what the Spirit gave him, rather than using rhetorical skills and persuasion. His point was that he wanted their faith to rest on something other than his ability to present the gospel in intriguing and captivating ways—he wanted it to rest on the power of God rather than the wisdom of men.

When it comes to the presentation of the good news, what do we rest on? A lot of times we get focused on the presentation itself, or on knowing the right information, or on being able to prove or explain what we believe to be true. The focus becomes ourselves, our own abilities (or lack thereof), and our effectiveness. In reality, it isn’t be about any of these things. Yes, I suppose it would be helpful to learn more or be more adept at expressing ourselves or demonstrating God’s love, but when it all comes down to what really matters, it comes down to Jesus Christ in us by the Holy Spirit.

What Paul had that was so persuasive to his hearers was the indwelling Holy Spirit, filling him and pouring out from him through his words and actions. This mystery, of Christ in us, was predestined by God, for he always intended us to live in oneness with him through his Son in the Spirit. Our ability to comprehend the things of God comes from God himself—the Spirit living in us and through us, simply because Jesus lived a truly human life, died a truly human death, and rose from the grave, bringing our human flesh home to Father in the Spirit.

What might this mean for us, then, as we live our everyday lives? Too often we live as orphans, believing it is all up to us. We live in our own strength, according to our own agenda and our own plans. When the world does not function according to our expectations, we become angry, frustrated, and/or depressed. What may not occur to us is that our rage against God and how he is running his world may look a lot like the rage which drove Saul to arrest and imprison the followers of Christ, believing they were unholy heretics which needed to be stopped.

What did it take for Saul to make the about-face transition to being a follower of Jesus Christ, the powerful advocate for the gospel, the apostle Paul? It took a personal encounter with our living Lord, Jesus Christ. It took the powerful healing and transformational work of the Holy Spirit. It took something, or Someone, beyond his physical self to bring about such a radical change. It took God himself, working in Saul/Paul’s life to move him from persecuting those who believed the gospel into believing and preaching it himself.

One of the phrases I often hear in modern literature and media is “you need to follow your heart.” Whenever I hear that, I often hear echoing in my mind what I was told as a child, a scripture I had to memorize, which said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9 KJV) Sadly, what I didn’t pay attention to in all those years is the context of that passage and what the entire Bible said about the human heart.

Before this, in verse 5, the prophet writes, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord.’”  In verse 10 it says, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” Then, in verse 14, Jeremiah says, “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, …” On the one hand, the prophet was talking about how wonderful it was when a person followed God, but on the other, he reminds his readers that going down a different path will end in destruction, and then states that we cannot be healed or saved unless God does the healing and saving.

Do you see how we can believe something about ourselves which isn’t really true and end up in a totally wrong place? What we forget is that God did not create us with a wicked, deceitful heart. God created our human flesh with a heart designed to love him and love others in a warm fellowship of other-centered love. God did not lose his desire for us to share in that relationship simply because we turned away from him. He began to work in human events and circumstances to bring about, in spite of our surrender to evil, sin, and death, what he always intended. What Jeremiah predicted in Jeremiah 31:31-34 was that God would give us a new covenant, writing his law on human hearts and minds. In other words, this heart which is “deceitful” and “desperately wicked” is not the truth about each of us. God knows our hearts and minds, and, in Christ, did what was necessary to heal and save us in his incarnation, crucifixion, and ascension, and in the giving of his Spirit. Jesus became a curse for us that we might be included in his own right relationship with God.

Jesus told his disciples they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13–20). They were not salt and light by their own efforts, but because of who he was—the Light of the world, the Creator of salt and the earth, present with them. It is his life in us by the Spirit who shines brightly in a dark world, adding flavor and zest to our mundane human existence and frantic struggles to survive. Notice that Jesus did not say in this particular place that we needed to find some way to make ourselves a light source. He simply said to put ourselves as a light in a place where we will shine brightly and provide illumination to a specific area. He quite clearly said we can’t make salt salty—but we can be the salt we are as God’s presence and power at work in and through us by the Spirit in a place which needs spiritual flavor.

God has given us Christ in the Spirit, living his life in and through us, in a dark world which desperately needs light and could really use some heavenly flavor. He has given us Jesus’ heart and mind by the Spirit. How do we express his heart and mind in and through our everyday lives as we walk and talk on this planet Earth? All of life is a participation in Christ’s life by the Spirit. Jesus told us he was in the Father, we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. That means our everyday life is Spirit-infused as we trust in Christ and walk hand-in-hand with Father through each situation and circumstance we face. This is the meaning of eternal life—and we participate in it right now, in this moment, through Jesus and by the Spirit who lives in us.

Thank you, Father, for giving us your heart and mind through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to shine with your light, to salt this earth with the heavenly flavor of your eternal life of love and unity in this tasteless human existence. Amen.

“And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but just as it is written, ‘things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and’ which ‘have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.’ For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, ….”      1 Corinthians 2:1–12 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/01/olita-shiny-salty-heart.pdf ]

[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]

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Blessed Are You…

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by Linda Rex

January 29, 2023, 4th Sunday in Epiphany—What is the value of knowing Jesus Christ? What is the big deal? Is he just part of a story or myth people tell during the Christmas and Easter holidays, but is irrelevant the rest of the time? It can appear from first glance that there really isn’t anything worth delving into when it comes to Jesus, but the reality is that in Jesus there is a deep story each of us is a part of, whether we embrace it or not.

Nowadays, it doesn’t seem reasonable to believe in a real, personal, tangible God. So much of life can be lived apart from any need for God. And many of the problems we face, no matter how difficult, can be solved or at least coped with without the need of calling upon a deity. What our age of reason has taught us is that we can use our minds and aptitudes and skills to run our world and deal with whatever comes our way. I imagine that it is possible to go through life and never believe in a power or presence beyond ourselves.

But it is significant, from what I’ve seen, that the first step in any recovery program is for a person to come to see that apart from a “higher power” or a power beyond themselves, they will never be free from their addiction. An addict will struggle and struggle to conquer their addiction until they “hit bottom” and realize their desperate need for a power beyond themselves to save them.

It is often in this encounter with a real and personal God that their life turns around and they begin to heal. But as long as they insist on doing it on their own, they remain enslaved to the substance or activity or behavior which holds them in prison. There is something real and substantial which happens in an addict’s life when they surrender to that “higher power.”

It’s not just addicts who go through this process of coming to see their need for something or someone beyond themselves. Every person comes to places during their lives when they are faced with the reality that they cannot and will not get to where they need to be without help beyond themselves. At times we turn to another person, hoping they will do what is needed or give what is required—and for a time, they may be able to do that. But there are limits to what we can give each other as humans, and if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that no human being can play the role of God in another person’s life without there being some very destructive and painful fallout as a result.

So why do we have such an issue with Jesus? I wonder sometimes if it is because we see in him what we know we were always meant to be, as well as our own capacity for evil and betrayal as it was demonstrated during his crucifixion. We see in Jesus and in his story both the heights and depths of our humanity. We realize, in looking at him, that we are not what we should be, that God doesn’t do things as we expect him to, and that the way God does things is the exact opposite of how we believe they should be done.

The New Testament passage for this particular Sunday is 1 Corinthians 1:18-23, in which the apostle Paul contrasts our human wisdom with God’s wisdom. In that congregation were many believers who were poor people from the lower classes, but also wealthy people from the upper classes. Roman society venerated nobility, wealth, and status, as well as intellectual learning and wisdom. What Paul was faced with was helping these believers see that in Christ, none of this was essential or significant in the long run, since every one of them stood at the same place—at the foot of the cross.

I’ve personally experienced the positive and negative cultural expectations that come with wealth, status, and higher education. I’ve been close to people on the bottom rung as well as the top rung, and I don’t really care for either place. The reason is that neither place is where Jesus lives. Where he lives is in the space where each person’s uniqueness comes together in equality and unity—and other-centered love dwells.

At some point we need to come to terms with the reality that we find our true identity, not in the wealth, status, intellect, giftedness, or position (or lack thereof) in this world, but in Jesus Christ alone. He is our true identity, for in him we find our worth, our value, our connection with one another and with God.

It is significant that God’s way of handling things is often the opposite of the way we prefer to handle them. One of the passages for this Sunday is Matthew 5:1-12, which is often called The Beatitudes. What Jesus put out there was an impossible agenda as the means for our participation in his kingdom life. For example, if you want to see God, you must be pure in heart—that’s usually how we read it. Actually what Jesus said is the pure in heart are blessed, for they will see God. Yet I read in the Old Testament that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. How will I ever see God, if my heart is so awful?

Remember that I said Jesus is our true identity. Why? We learn in the Scriptures that all things were made through him, by him, and for him. He holds all things together by the word of his power. We find that the God who is our Creator is also the one who took on our sinful human flesh and was not stained or dirtied by it—rather, he purified it, restoring back to its original design. The original human person walked and talked with God—we see this in the story of Eden. And this was what we were created for. And this is what Jesus forged within our human flesh—our pure heart was restored in his perfect work, and offered to us in the gift of his Spirit.

There is a beauty and wonder in a life that is restored, transformed by the indwelling Spirit. Most of the time we live oblivious to the reality of God’s life in us and with us. If we are content in our life as it is, we may see the cross and all that pertains to it as being foolishness and some clever man-made story. But the moment of crisis will come and does come to each of us. Are we willing to open ourselves to the possibility that there is so much more going on than this?

I cannot explain effectively what happens when I come to the place with regards to a struggle I am having and admit to myself, to God, and to another that I am not enough and I need help. When I experience a strength beyond myself, a capacity to love that is not my own, and an ability to say or do what is needed when on my own, I could never do or say it—this is the power of Christ in me. I cannot boast in myself at all. No, there is something wonderful which happens in and through me when I fully surrender to the Lord and allow his Spirit to work in and through me.

So often, we take credit for what, in reality, is God’s presence and power at work in us through Jesus by the Spirit. What makes us able to love our children when they are absolute pills to be around? What makes us able to offer help to someone who most certainly doesn’t deserve our help? What moves us to get up and go to work each day, to pay our bills on time, and kiss our spouse goodbye? Does that simply come from our brain cells firing a certain way? Or is it possible that along with healthy brain cells is the movement, inspiration, and power of the one who created us with the desire and capacity for other-centered love?

We are incredibly blessed, for Christ has given us himself in the Spirit, enabling us to live the perichoretic life we were always meant to live with God and each other. Perhaps it is worth our while to start each day in quiet, asking Jesus, “Are you in me?” and have received his assurance, asking him, “What would you have me do today?” We may be astonished to discover that what may be considered foolishness by many is a beautiful reality for us.

Dear Jesus, are you truly in me and with me? Free me from every lying voice, false belief and evil spirit which keeps me from seeing you as you truly are, living in me and at work in this world. How may I participate in what you are doing right now, as you live in me by your Spirit? Amen.

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ ”      1 Corinthians 1:18–31 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/01/olitblessed-are-you.pdf ]

[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]

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When Light First Dawns

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by Linda Rex

January 22, 2023, 3rd Sunday in Epiphany—Recently, my husband remarked about my preference for darkened rooms. I’ve always preferred a more dimly lighted room to one that is filled with bright light because of the sensory overload that I experience from constant intense brightness. When the Scriptures speak about the light which is Jesus, I often wonder if our experience of Jesus can also make us prefer a less intense experience of the truth and grace which he brings. For some of us, hiding in the darkness of our human experience is preferable to facing up to the reality that we may have aspects of our person which need redemption and healing.

The good news is that this is the reason Jesus came. He did not come to condemn us, he said, but to save us and give us eternal life (John 3:16-17). His purpose is not to shame or diminish us in any way, but to bring us into the fullness of all that he intended from the beginning, from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3-6), when light first touched this cosmos—life in relationship with God in the Spirit.

In our gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 4:12-23, the apostle quotes a passage from Isaiah 9:1-4, saying that Jesus’ life and ministry in the Galilee area was a fulfillment of this particular prophetic word. When looking back at the history of ancient Israel, we see that this area of the country was constantly invaded as a consequence of their repeated infidelity to God. Because they chose to continue to live in the darkness of sin, they ultimately experienced invasion and deportation by the Assyrians.

In Matthew’s day, the area of Galilee was distained by the people in Jerusalem and much of Judea, for the area was filled with Gentiles and surrounded by Hellenistic Jews who had in many ways assimilated into the Greek culture of their day. That Jesus would grow up in Nazareth and spend much of his life and ministry in the area of Galilee is remarkable and a telling witness to the grace and love of God for his people.

The dawning of the light of God in his birthplace of Nazareth, though, was met with ridicule and disbelief. So, Jesus went to Capernaum to live and work, and traveled around the region of Galilee, preaching, teaching, and healing the people. Here the light of God, Jesus, announced the present reality of the kingdom of God, calling the people to repent. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he was present and active in the lives of those who lived in darkness, calling them into his light, into life in relationship with his Father in the Spirit.

What is our experience when the light first dawns for us? What is our experience and response when first encountering the reality of Jesus and his claims upon us and our lives? Are we one of those who walks over to the light switch and shuts off the lamp because it is blinding us, or are we so blessed by the invasion of light in our darkness that we welcome it?

The issue may simply be that we are not clearly hearing or intently listening to and heeding what Jesus is saying. Perhaps we might want to look a little more closely at this simple message that Matthew puts forth as Jesus’ gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In that brief statement, there is a blinding light being projected, meant to illuminate the darkness which had covered these people for centuries. All of their messianic expectations needed to be revised, and all of their preferences reexamined. And this is why, perhaps, some may simply have preferred to turn the light back off rather than allow it to penetrate into their darkness.

Jesus didn’t focus on the benefits of being one of the chosen people. He didn’t celebrate the religious activities of the elite or promise blessings for obedience. At the same time, Jesus’ call to repent wasn’t a call to shame or guilt. It wasn’t a ridicule or a criticism. Instead, it was a call to a change of mind and heart—an invitation to turn around and go the right direction.

When in a darkened room, it is hard to see another person. If a person lives in darkness long enough, they lose their ability to see anyone or anything. If someone else is in the room with them, they wouldn’t know it, unless perhaps they heard them, because they wouldn’t see them. Jesus was inviting those who heard his message to see the reality that God was with them (in him) and they needed to turn around and get back into the face-to-face relationship with God they were created for. Jesus’ call to repent was a call to come back home, to live in the truth about who they were. Repent, Jesus says, and invites them into warm fellowship with himself, and thus with the Father in the Spirit.

Having reminded his listeners to come back into relationship with God through him, Jesus tells them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven is Matthew’s euphemism for the kingdom of God. In Jesus, God’s kingdom was present and real, being established in a new and real way in his person. As the one through whom and by whom all was created, the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus was the one who ruled over all that was made. As the king of the kingdom, present in person, Jesus was calling all people to turn around and participate with him in the reality of God’s reign over all.

And that’s the catch. That’s where we get up and reach for the switch to turn off the light. We don’t want God invading our space or telling us how to run our world or our own lives. We don’t want anyone dictating to us. And we most certainly don’t want to admit that perhaps we need a power beyond ourselves in order to solve our problems, fix our world and our relationships, or even to change ourselves. We dive deeply into anything we can get our hands on that might possibly solve our problem, or at least anesthetize us from the pain, because we certainly don’t want to have to surrender to God.

What is sad, is that we as Christians are often the most guilty about avoiding the light. We find so many ways in which to bury our heads in the ground or rewire the light switch so that we don’t have to face the reality that we have turned our backs upon our relationship with God or have abandoned our dependence upon the One who has redeemed and saved us.

The good news is that Jesus comes to dark places, places like Galilee, where for a time, darkness reigns. Jesus is the Son of God who temporarily set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity in order to turn us back to God. Jesus says to all of us, “Follow me,” and invites us to live and walk within his own personal relationship with Father in the Spirit. He encourages us to live life in relationship with him day by day, in the humility of total dependence upon him, and daily welcomes us come home. As we are willing, he shines his light into our dark places, bringing renewal, healing, and restoration, and a deeper experience of God’s love.

Thank you, Father, for including us through Jesus in relationship with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to turn away from ourselves and this world and to turn again to Jesus, allowing your light to penetrate down into the deepest and darkest places within ourselves. May we discover that in the blackest places, the light of Jesus already shines. Amen.

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a light dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.”     Matthew 4:12–23 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/01/olitwhen-light-first-dawns.pdf ]

[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]

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Come, and You Will See

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by Linda Rex

January 15, 2023, 2nd Sunday in Epiphany—This morning as I write this blog for Epiphany, I find myself still in the season of Christmas. One of the songs running through my head is a hymn called O Come, All Ye Faithful. Part of the hymn goes like this:

“Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning
Jesus to Thee be all glory giv’n
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
Oh come, let us adore him
Oh come, let us adore him
Oh come, let us adore him
Christ, the Lord!”

(John Francis Wade; trans. Frederick Oakeley)

As you can see, the emphasis of this hymn is on the incarnation, on the coming of the Word of God, the Son of the Father, as God in human flesh.

What struck me this morning as the song rolled through my head is that this hymn calls us once again to come to the side of the manger, to gaze anew upon the wonder of the Christ child–God’s gift to humankind—and calls us to worship. Once again, we kneel in adoration as we look upon this precious and wondrous gift to all of us.

Our Old Testament reading for today is full of prophetic pointers to the coming of this child: “The Lord called Me from the womb; from the body of My mother He named Me”; “…the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to him…”; “…I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:1b, 5a, 6b NASB). When we take the time to prayerfully and reverently observe this holy child, to contemplate what God has done in coming to us in this way, we are moved to worship in gratitude for God’s faithfulness and goodness.

Who is this marvelous child which sparks such celebration and wonder? Who is Jesus? Epiphany, then, is an expression of this wonderful sense of “Eureka” we get when we discover the amazing treasure of God in human flesh. God comes to us in a real and personal way, to join us in our mess, to raise us up into a new existence with him in the Spirit and one day in glory. What a good and compassionate and gracious God we have!

The apostle Paul calls us to a deep appreciation of God’s gift to us in the New Testament reading for this Sunday. He reminds us of “the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor.1:4b-8 NASB). Jesus, in his incarnation, came to live a truly human life, to forge within our human flesh our capacity to live in right relationship with God (and others). When Jesus is fully revealed in glory, we will be found blameless, because of what he has done. We lack nothing—because of him.

In our gospel reading, John 1:29–42, John the Baptizer saw Jesus approaching and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The first word is “Behold.” To behold something is to gaze upon it with intense attention. Here, in the Greek, it is used to point to what is being said next—that this man is the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sin of the world. We need to pay attention to this reality about who Jesus is. Jesus is this one—the one who takes away the sin of the world. Not just the sin of a few special people. Not just the sin of the people who get their acts together. But the sin of the world.

This is a eureka moment—a moment when we pay attention to a revelation about who Jesus is—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the one unique Son of God, the One who left the benefits of divinity for a time to join us in our humanity, in order to do what only he could do—free us from sin, from all that stands in the way of being rightly related to God.

There were a couple of John the Baptizer’s disciples who were profoundly affected by the prophet’s words regarding Jesus. They heard that this man, Jesus, was the one who baptizes in the Spirit. And they heard John say that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. So they did what each of us needs to do—they followed Jesus. As they did, Jesus asked them what they were seeking. They asked where Jesus was staying, perhaps in hopes of having a deeper conversation with him. So Jesus said to them, “Come and you will see.”

If we never take the time to come and see, to stop long enough to listen and learn more about who Jesus is and why he came, we will continue upon our life’s path, never any wiser regarding what really matters. But if we slow down and come to Jesus and sit at his feet awhile, gazing upon him and pondering all he has done, is doing, and will do, we will begin to see the truth about who he is and why he came. As we take time in his presence to converse with him, to dialogue with Christ through prayer, study of his Word, meditation, and the other spiritual disciplines, the Spirit will enable us to see more clearly who Jesus is. And the Spirit will even enable us to begin to see more clearly who we are, and how much we need Christ to transform, heal, and renew us. We will begin to see we are beloved of the Father, and are included in Jesus’ own relationship with his Father in the Spirit. And we will have even more reason to celebrate and worship the Lord.

Thank you, Father, for sending your Son to us, to bring everyone of us salvation. May we turn away again from all the things in this life which distract us and draw us away from focused attention on our Lord Jesus. Throughout this new year, may your Spirit enable us to have many eureka moments when we see anew and embrace again the wonder of your most perfect and precious gift—Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, “After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.” I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.’ John testified saying, ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, “He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ They said to Him, ‘Rabbi (which translated means Teacher), where are You staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come, and you will see.’ So they came and saw where He was staying; and they stayed with Him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which translated means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).”     John 1:29–42 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/01/olitcome-and-you-will-see.pdf ]

[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]

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Beloved of the Father

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by Linda Rex

January 8, 2023, EPIPHANY | Baptism of the Lord—In the season of Advent, we have prepared our hearts and minds for the entering of God into our cosmos in the incarnation. As God in human flesh, Jesus Christ came into our world to live a truly human life, and during the twelve-day season of Christmas (between Christmas and Epiphany), we celebrate this amazing gift. Pondering the richness of God’s indescribable love gives depth to our holiday celebrations, enabling us to bear up under the inevitable realities of loss, grief, brokenness, and struggle.

We are reminded that it was not enough that God had compassion on us as frail and faulty human beings. It was not enough that God saw and forgave our shortcomings and incessant unfaithfulness to him. No, the Son of God chose to enter our own place of existence, into our material cosmos, and to take upon himself a truly human existence, personally forging within our human flesh the capacity and desire to live in right relationship with his own Father in the Spirit.

Our American individualism often prevents our ability to think in terms of place-sharing. So often, we seek to do things ourselves, on our own, for our own satisfaction or to accomplish our personal goals and plans. We may not even consider that a better and more fulfilling life would be ours if we opened ourselves up to the concept of place-sharing—of putting ourselves in another person’s place, to understand and participate with them in what they are going through. Place-sharing is part of living a truly human life as image-bearers of the divine. And this is what Jesus did in the incarnation and invites us into as participants in his life with the Father in the Spirit.

After Christmas begins the season of Epiphany, when we begin to consider more about who this person Jesus Christ really is. What does it mean that God has come in Jesus Christ to live a truly human life? Why would this man of Middle Eastern descent, born of a virgin, raised by a carpenter, whom John believed was the sinless Messiah, come to the Jordan River and insist on being baptized?

From his birth on, Jesus’ human experience involved place-sharing. Part of Jesus’ truly human experience involved walking up to John that day at the Jordan River and being baptized by him for the remission of sins. Jesus’ heavenly Father commissioned John to call people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, and in obedience to the word of the Father through John, Jesus came to be baptized—not for his own sake, but for the sake of every human being. Jesus immersed all of us in his own obedience to the Father and in his own baptism, including all of humanity in his sacrificial self-offering, in his death and resurrection.

Can you imagine the glow within the Father’s heart when he saw his beloved Son willingly identifying with us and offering himself in our place on our behalf? It is no wonder the Spirit descended so lovingly and the Father’s word of affirmation came in that moment, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” How delighted the Father was in his Son! He knew the extent of the sacrifice Jesus was making, having left the privileges of divinity behind to identify with us and participate with us in our messy, broken world, even when his Son knew the cost would be his own crucifixion at our hands.

John was blessed with the ability to see the divine gifting of Jesus for ministry which occurred in that moment. He had been told by God that the one upon whom the Spirit alighted as a dove would be the Messiah. And here, in this sacred moment, John bore witness to the anointing of Jesus by the Father in the Spirit for his mission and ministry in that very way. It was John’s blessed privilege to participate in what God was doing by bearing witness to the person Jesus Christ was as the Anointed One.

As Jesus began his messianic ministry, John heard stories of his miracles and teachings. As John bore up under the assault of the Roman government, he had to come to terms with Jesus’ focus on the Father’s mission and ministry. Was Jesus truly the Messiah? Was he truly the deliverer that his nation had longed for all these centuries?

The truth is, Jesus’ place-sharing went far beyond simply being baptized on behalf of all. In the everyday moments of his ministry and mission, Jesus joined people where they were, scandalizing the religious elite by hobnobbing with prostitutes and tax collectors. His friends and colleagues weren’t the upstanding, prestigious leaders of the community, but humble fishermen and down-to-earth people of all walks of life. Jesus touched the leprous and the dead, offering healing and restoration. Jesus embraced the sick and comforted the grieving, offering grace to the shamed and rejected, calling them up into a new life in right relationship with God and others. In every aspect of his life, Jesus embraced and shared life with others, without respect to their personhood or their position in the community.

Those who walked this life with Jesus bore witness to his place-sharing, and following his death and resurrection, began themselves to live and care for others as he did. In the book of Acts are stories of how those who were witnesses of Jesus’ place-sharing lived themselves in ways which involved joining people where they were to bring them into renewal and transformation. We see Philip on the road, joining with a gentleman who was not understanding what he was reading from Isaiah—and the resulting conversation ended in this man’s baptism.

Where might Jesus be inviting us to join with him in touching the life of another? Where might he be wanting us to enter in and become a part of someone else’s journey? How might we be able to share in what another person is going through, thereby offering God’s grace, compassion, and love in the midst of their suffering, sorrow, or need?

We all have been immersed in Jesus’ baptism and are given to share in his receiving of the Spirit for mission and ministry. Our tangible identification with Jesus Christ in his baptism, thereby in his death and resurrection, is by being baptized ourselves into the Father, Son, and Spirit, and becoming part of the body of Christ, the Church. We also tangibly identify with Jesus Christ and participate in Jesus’ baptism, thereby in his death and resurrection, as we ourselves participate in taking communion on a regular basis, eating bread and drinking wine (or grape juice) with other believers as a member of the body of Christ, the Church.

For many of us, joining a local expression of the Church isn’t easy, but we need to be a part of the body of Christ which is filled with the Spirit and actively participating with Jesus in caring for and loving others, if we want to grow in spiritual maturity and participate with others in place-sharing. Asking for God’s direction and guidance is a good place to start. And following the lead of the Spirit and the instruction of the Word of God, the Bible, is also helpful. In God’s good time, he will lead us to where he wants to nurture and care for us spiritually, as well as work through us to nurture and care for others.

Dear Abba, our heavenly Father, thank you for delighting in us as you delighted in your own Son, Jesus. Grant us the grace by your Spirit to fully participate with you as you bring healing, renewal, and reconciliation to this world, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Opening his mouth, Peter said: ‘I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)—you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”       Acts 10:34–43 NASB

“Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?’ But Jesus answering said to him, ‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he permitted Him. After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’ ”      Matthew 3:13–17 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/12/olitbeloved-of-the-father.pdf ]

[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]

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And Then It All Changed

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by Linda Rex

January 1, 2023, CHRISTMAS | New Year’s Day—Do you remember anything from when you were a toddler? One of the stories that goes along with the birth of Christ is an event which occurred when Jesus was about two years old. At that time, Scriptures say that Jesus and his family were living in a house in Bethlehem. What kept them in Bethlehem those two years? Were the couple there simply to avoid the notoriety going back home would give them?

The magi or wise men from the East came to visit Joseph and Mary, bringing gifts for the newborn king. Unfortunately, in their search for Jesus, they stopped in Jerusalem and enquired of King Herod as to his location. Herod asked his counselors what they knew about the prophecies of the coming Messiah and they told him that Bethlehem was where the Messiah would arrive. In response Herod sent his visitors from the East to Bethlehem with instructions to come back and see him and let him know where the baby was, so he could also pay his respects.

Even though the magi didn’t know the truth, God knew King Herod had no intention of letting the baby Messiah live. For that reason, he sent an angel to warn the magi, and they took a longer, more inconvenient way home so they could avoid returning to Jerusalem and endangering baby Jesus by reporting to Herod where they had found him.

This is where our gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 2:13–23, begins. Joseph, warned in a dream about Herod’s evil intentions is told to take his family and flee to Egypt. He immediately obeyed God’s instructions and began the dangerous and arduous trip, which was lengthened by the necessity of avoiding Jerusalem. Matthew recorded the horrific massacre of all infants under the age of two years which occurred shortly after they left Bethlehem. How must have Mary and Joseph have felt when the news reached them in Egypt of their close call!

Joseph, realizing that the hard work of his past two years disappeared in an instant simply because Jesus needed to be kept safe, must have had some real challenges in having to relocate and find work again. It is interesting God permitted circumstances to occur which would require that they end up in Egypt, and eventually then have to move back from Egypt, though up farther north in Galilee. Matthew, when recording these events, pointed out how each of them was a fulfillment of the prophetic word regarding the Messiah. Even though to Mary and Joseph these seemed like random events, in reality they were events which fulfilled God’s plan and purpose for his Son Jesus.

God grants us humans great freedom in living our lives, making decisions, and choosing whether to obey him. But none of the decisions we make prevent God from ultimately accomplishing what he has in mind. What they often do is complicate our lives and create issues for us when we don’t follow God’s leadership and guidance, or we work in opposition to God. But God can even take our opposition to him and use it to accomplish his best purposes and plans.

The story of the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem is tragic and heartrending. In many ways, it was a foretaste of what would happen to the Messiah himself. The blood shed that day pointed to the blood Jesus himself would shed on the cross on behalf of every person, including all those innocent ones who lost their lives. It was never God’s intention that the children die—that was the plan of the evil one and a sick king. But having happened, every child who died that day participated in Christ’s own crucifixion by the hand of broken, sinful people. And they rose, and will rise, in Jesus’ own resurrection.

Tears are often a part of our story. We’d all like to have stories which never have dark places in them, but the reality is that a good story includes both light and darkness. It is the conflict between the two which speaks to our hearts and captures our imagination. We know that our human existence in this crazy world is full of both sides of the coin. That is the reality of life right now apart from Christ.

What brings us joy, peace, and hope in the midst of such a place where evil stands in such strong opposition to what is good is the incarnation. It is that this God, who is greater than any evil that exists, has come into our human existence and taken on our human flesh. This God, though attacked by evil even as a child, continued to realign our human flesh with his eternal purposes and plans throughout his time here on earth, forging within our human flesh a capacity for genuine, other-centered love toward God and one another.

No matter how dark things get in our world, Jesus brings light. No matter what the evil one may attempt in a parasitic effort to destroy God’s good purposes and plans, he will ultimately fail. This child, born in such humble circumstances and threatened by human powers and evil plots, was guarded by his heavenly Father. He experienced the crucifixion of his human flesh in so many ways besides what happened on the cross. Here, in this part of his story, he became the one who lived when others died. He became the one who escaped while others suffered. But at the same time, he was the one in whom they suffered and died in his own cruciform offering. And he was the one in whom they will rise again in his own resurrection.

What darkness are you facing today? What battle are you fighting? What loss are you grieving? What addiction are you shackled by? Does the New Year look bleak considering what you are facing?

Jesus reminds us that whatever our story may be, it is caught up in the midst of his Father’s great big story. And however bad the evil may be, it is no match for the greatness and goodness of our loving God. And it’s never over, until God says it’s over. So there is always hope, peace, and joy in Christ as we are held in the midst of God’s love and grace. We are forgiven. We are accepted. We are beloved. And we most certainly are included—invited into and held within the inner circle of Father and Son in the Spirit. Praise God!

Thank you, dear Jesus, for going to such lengths to make us a part of your Father’s story. Thank you for forging for us the gift of life in the midst of death, of grace in the midst of our failures to love and serve. Thank you for including us in your life with the Father in the Spirit. Amen.

“For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, ‘I will proclaim Your name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in Him.’ And again, ‘Behold, I and the children whom God has given me.’ Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.”       Hebrews 2:10–18 NASB

“Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.’ So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.’ But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, ‘Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.’ So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ ”      Matthew 2:13–23 NASB


[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/12/olitand-then-it-all-changed.pdf ]

[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]

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The Big Story

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by Linda Rex

December 25, 2022, Christmas Day—Lately I’ve noticed the tendency by those reporting the weather to focus on a big story. Rather than reporting the everyday weather and its tedious ordinariness, they sensationalize the next big winter storm or the possibility for severe weather. What will bring about the greatest amount of anxiety or fear seems to be the center of their reporting, rather than more positive, constructive stories which may encourage people and create hope.

But isn’t that really our tendency as human beings? We tend to gravitate towards the big story, no matter what it might be, simply because it will draw the greatest attention to ourselves or bring in the biggest payback. Why else would we exaggerate the size of the fish we caught or the size of the rack on a deer we harvested? When we talk about our promotion at work, do we add a few embellishments to make ourselves look really good?

On this particular Sunday, we have the unique experience of being able to celebrate Christmas Day. Our gospel passage for this Sunday is Luke 2:8–20, which, along with verses 1–7, is often read on Christmas Eve or morning in many homes. It tells the biggest story of all, of when God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, being born of Mary and placed in a lowly manger.

The first one to tell this story was not human, but an angel, sent by God to shepherds. These hard workers were out in the fields at night, tending to their flock of sheep. It is possible that the lambs in their flock were destined for the altar of sacrifice in the temple. Though these shepherds were considered unclean by the religious leaders because of their occupation, it is instructive that God valued these people who were ostracized. The angel appeared to these everyday, ordinary people, telling them their Messiah had been born and was lying, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a manger.

To back up his big story, the angel was accompanied by a large number of angelic messengers who began praising God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (NASB). Imagine what an impact such an experience must have had on these down-to-earth shepherds! After the angels left them, the shepherds immediately made plans to go and see for themselves that this story was true.

Like good reporters, these shepherds went to double-check their facts, looking throughout the small town of Bethlehem’s stables to find the baby laid in a manger. They soon found Mary, Joseph, and the baby just as the angel told them. Now they had the biggest story of all to be sharing with everyone they met, and so they did. Their story created a sense of wonder and astonishment in the hearts and minds of those who heard it.

I wonder sometimes if the traditions and merchandising of Christmas has caused us to lose sight of the reality that we have been included in the biggest story of all. Do we realize how magnificent what happened that night really is? We get wrapped up in making sure we observe the correct day, or have the correct traditions, or the best presents, or even that we spend the day with the right people, and we miss the wonder, the glory of the greatest story ever told—that God came to be with us, that God took on our human flesh. What is more amazing than that?

What was it like for Mary that blessed night? She had to give birth in a strange place under very uncomfortable circumstances without the comforts of home. She knew the angel had told her the child she gave birth to was the Messiah, but now there were shepherds coming and telling her they had also seen and talked with angels. It is no wonder Mary often pondered these things in her heart, mulling them over and coming to terms with the wonder of being in the midst of a story much greater than herself—something which began long before she was born, yet included her and Joseph, and the little baby Jesus, lying in the manger.

Perhaps we need to follow Mary’s lead, and take some time this Christmas Day to drink in the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we ought to quietly contemplate the significance of the incredible gift of love the Father gave in giving us his Son by the Spirit in such a down-to-earth human way as a baby born in humble circumstances, laid in a manger, swaddled, fed and diapered like every other baby his age. What does it mean that God gives the biggest story of all to humble misfits, who are considered unworthy to be included in temple worship? What does it mean that God became man, to live and die like we do?

It is not enough that we just consider all this, though. The lesson we learn from these shepherds is that we take this biggest story of all and we share it with others. We include others in the good news that Christ has come. We let others in on the story, letting them know that they too have an important role to play in what God is doing in this world. What man may deem is unimportant, is considered essential by God when it comes to telling his story. How might God be wanting you to share this good news with others? How might God be wanting you to be a part of his story?

Heavenly Father, how delighted you must have been to see your Son in a new way, a way you had never seen him before, as a human baby, held and cared for by human hands. May your celebration of your Son’s human birth remind us to celebrate anew Jesus’ birth with a deep sense of wonder and gratitude, and to share this good news with those around us. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us and becoming one of us, so we could be with you and the Father forever in the Spirit. Amen.

“And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’ When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.”     Luke 2: 8–20 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/12/olitthe-big-story.pdf ]

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Because God Smiled

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by Linda Rex

December 18, 2022, 4th Sunday in ADVENT | Love—We’ve come to the fourth Sunday in Advent already, and while contemplating the topic of love, it occurred to me that Joseph is a hidden gem in the Advent story.

Today in our media and literature, it is common to ridicule or demean men, especially fathers or men of faith. Granted, some of us have had fathers who utterly failed at their job of reflecting the nature of God and his love to their children. But I have met men who, though faulty and broken like the rest of us, took seriously their responsibility to serve, care for and honor the people in their lives, especially their wives and children.

Reflecting upon Mary’s story, it must have been so hard for the young woman after the angel told her she was going to become pregnant with a child who would be the Messiah. According to custom, she probably would not have had a single private conversation with Joseph at any time during their engagement. And though their engagement meant she was technically married to Joseph, they had to wait for a year to prove she was not expecting a baby by some other man. For her then, to end up pregnant meant disaster for her relationship with Joseph.

Joseph had every reason to divorce Mary, and was expected to. Thankfully, the custom of stoning unwed mothers was not as faithfully observed as divorce and public shaming was. It says something about Joseph’s heart and character that when he discovered Mary was pregnant, he sought to privately divorce Mary, not wanting to bring her to public shame. Considering the public humiliation of having a pregnant fiancée he himself was going to experience, Joseph also had to deal with all of the family and social consequences of what had occurred.

Then Joseph had a dream. In his dream, an angel told him to wed Mary, that the child she carried was conceived by the Holy Spirit and should be named Jesus, for he would save his people from their sins. Most of us don’t remember our dreams when we wake up in the morning. But Joseph was singularly moved by this dream, so much so that he broke all custom and immediately married Mary and brought her home. He honored her and her baby by caring for them and providing for them from then on.

Throughout Mary’s pregnancy, travels to Bethlehem, and subsequent travels to Egypt and Nazareth, Joseph listened to and obeyed the instructions he received from God through angels about taking care of the baby Jesus. Joseph was a father to Jesus, one who was led by the Spirit, so that Jesus could fulfill the mission his heavenly Father had given him while here on earth.

Whatever Joseph did, though, was merely a participation in God’s story. Israel for years had cried out, longing for redemption and deliverance. They would slide into slavery and sin, and then God would rescue them again, only to repeat the process. One of the readings for this Sunday is a beautiful psalm which reminds us that our only hope of being anything other than our broken, sinful selves, is for God to smile on us and to restore us into right relationship with himself. The psalmist says:

“Oh, give ear, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who are enthroned above the cherubim, shine forth! Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up Your power and come to save us! O God, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved. O LORD God of hosts, how long will You be angry with the prayer of Your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and You have made them to drink tears in large measure. You make us an object of contention to our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves. O God of hosts, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved. … Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself. Then we shall not turn back from You; revive us, and we will call upon Your name. O Lord God of hosts, restore us; cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”

(Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19 NASB)

Do you see the repetition of the request, “O God restore us…cause Your face to shine upon us”? The expression “cause your face to shine upon us” is another way of asking God to smile on us. This song hints at the coming of God’s Son, the Son of Man, who will be instrumental in our salvation—our only hope of being restored and revived. And only because God smiled on us.

Since our heavenly Father was so willing to smile on us that he would send his own unique Son for our salvation, we truly have great hope, no matter how difficult our struggles. Since our heavenly Father was so willing to smile on us that he made provision for our forgiveness and our reconciliation with himself, we truly have peace and joy no matter how far we have fallen or how miserably we have failed. And since our heavenly Father was willing to do whatever it took to turn us back to himself, even offering us his own Son to us, we are able to rest and find comfort in his everlasting love.

We are caught up in the midst of God’s story, and like Joseph, are participating in what God is doing to turn us all back to himself. Advent reminds us that even when we are at our worst, God has smiled on us. Christ has come, is coming even now by his Spirit in our everyday lives, and will return again in glory one day. We are reminded to look away from our problems, look away from ourselves, and to look up into the face of our loving Father, to see him smile on us. And right there—we discover, we are saved.

Heavenly Father, thank you for smiling on us and giving us the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Remind us anew to turn away from ourselves and our sorrows and to turn to you. Smile on us again, so that we might experience anew our salvation, through Jesus, your Son. Amen.

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,’ translated means, ‘God with us.’ And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”     Matthew 1:18–25 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/12/olitbecause-god-smiled.pdf ]

[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]

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Joy in Judgment

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by Linda Rex

December 11, 2022, 3rd Sunday in ADVENT | Joy—At times I wonder what it would have been like to have been a close relative of Jesus Christ while he lived here on earth. What stories would we have been told about the birth of our cousin? Would we have known the story about how John jumped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when his pregnant relative Mary came for a visit?

Some commentators say that John and Jesus probably did not know each other very well while others picture them as close kin. But when Jesus came to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing the people, the prophet knew exactly who Jesus was and why he was there. He pointed Jesus out as being the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the people.

Later on, John spoke out against King Herod Antipas’ recent marriage to the wife of King Herod Philip, Herodias. The result of John’s truth-telling was a stint in prison, without any deliverance in sight. The gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 11:2–11, describes how while John the Baptizer was in prison, he sent his disciples to Jesus to verify that he indeed was the promised Anointed One or Messiah.

It’s possible that John thought Jesus, if he was truly the Messiah, should have been doing something to ensure his release from prison, or perhaps even have been speaking out against Antipas. But Jesus merely pointed out to John’s disciples that as the Messiah, Christ was busy doing what the Coming One was predicted to do—healing the sick, raising the dead (like he had just done for the widow in Nain) and casting out demons. In the midst of his dark and difficult circumstances, John the Baptizer may have needed some reassurance that all of his own efforts were not in vain. Or he may simply have been continuing to do what he did before—point away from himself, and point his disciples toward Christ.

Jesus’ words about John were not critical, but supportive and understanding. In fact, he let his listeners know that John was a great prophet even though he would be surpassed by the least in the kingdom of God which Jesus was inaugurating. Christ challenged the crowd, saying, “blessed is he who does not take offense at Me” (NASB; in the Greek, καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί). I’m not a Greek scholar, but it is interesting to note that σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthí) looks a lot like our English word scandal. As Jesus points out, we find blessing or joy in not being scandalized by Jesus and what he is doing, even though he might be doing things differently than we expect.

How often are we scandalized by the way Jesus is doing something in our lives or in this world? Can you think of a time when you were infuriated with the way something turned out, wondering why God didn’t intervene? Why is it that the Lord allows things to happen a certain way when he could, being God, make things so very different, so very less painful or awful?

It is easy to pass judgment on God—we do it all the time. Just as the people in Jesus’ day judged him as being un-Messiah-like, we expect God to jump certain hoops, and when he doesn’t, we are offended or scandalized. And often we’re just not honest with ourselves in regards to these things, since, as good people, we know we shouldn’t be mad at God, or offended by how he runs the world.

But let’s think for a moment about judgment as it was expressed in the coming of God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. First off, God judged us as human beings of being worthy of his love and attention. He knew we couldn’t get ourselves into right relationship with him on our own, so he planned from the beginning to do what was necessary to bring us home. In Christ, God judged us as being a good creation gone astray, which needed to experience healing, redemption, renewal, and reconciliation.

All of this at work in our world was evident in the ministry and life of Jesus Christ as he cast out demons, healed the sick and broken, preached the gospel to the poor, and even raised the dead. Jesus, as a human being himself, went so far as to allow human beings to reject him, crucify him, and kill him. Even so, his judgment as he hung on the cross was forgiveness, caring for his mother, and welcoming a criminal into paradise. And God’s judgment on all of us as human beings in our imprisonment in the kingdom of darkness, was to bring us all into the kingdom of light as Jesus rose from the grave in the resurrection.

Do you see that God’s method of judgment is so laden with grace that it looks so much different than ours? Jesus says we aren’t to stumble over him or be scandalized by him. Instead, we are to accept Jesus for who he really is—God in human flesh, our redemption and salvation, our heavenly Father’s Word of grace sent to us, birthed of the Spirit. Are we scandalized by the grace God expresses to us as human beings in Christ? Or is this grace the source of our blessedness and our great joy?

During the season of Advent, we rehearse anew our preparation for the coming of the Messiah, specifically as God came in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, a baby which was laid in a manger while angels announced the good news to shepherds on a hill nearby. Are we scandalized by the coming of God in human flesh in this humble way? Or are we grateful at God’s humility and love?

Jesus Christ, as God in human flesh come for our redemption and salvation, took on a particular human body in a specific place and time. The one who made all things and sustains all things by his word and power became our close relation, becoming one of us that we might share eternity with him some day. And Jesus was willing to do this, even though he knew from the beginning what the cost would be. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. With open hands, we share in his joy, as we receive the grace he so generously offers us, rather than being offended by the way he runs his world.

Dear Jesus, thank you for coming to us and being willing to take on our human existence as your very own for a time. Thank you for sharing your joy with us by your Spirit. Father, grant us the grace to not be offended by your Son, but to embrace him fully, allowing Jesus to be who he is for us, our joy and our salvation. Amen.

“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, and the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. … Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’  Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. … the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”     Isaiah 35:1–10 NASB

“Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and report to John what you hear and see: the “blind receive sight” and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the “poor have the gospel preached to them”. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.’ As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “Behold, I sent my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’ ”      Matthew 11:2–11 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/olitjoy-in-judgment.pdf ]

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