Living the Kingdom Life

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By Linda Rex

October 31, 2021, PROPER 26—Often when I hear someone speak of the kingdom life and living it, what they mean is living a life full of physical blessings and positive experiences. What I hear people say is that if you live in a certain way, then you will experience abundance, prosperity, and a life of ease and plenty.

It is instructive that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom life, he spoke of living in such a way that one loved God with one’s whole being and one loved one’s neighbor as oneself. He put it in terms of a way of existence which resembles that of the Father, Son, and Spirit in union and communion with one another. This, indeed, is the image of God we are meant to reflect—to bear witness to God’s nature of love by how we live in relationship with God and one another.

One of the stories for this Sunday is found in the book of Ruth. Many Christians like to recite the words from this book during their wedding ceremonies as a promise of devotion and faithfulness to their spouse. But the words were spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi as a pledge of faithfulness even though Naomi had encouraged her to go back to her family after her husband, Naomi’s son, had died. The beauty of this passage is unsurpassed for its expression of commitment:

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me’” (Ruth 1:16-17 NASB).

Ruth was willing to leave her homeland, her family, what was comfortable and familiar, to go with Naomi and help care for her as she returned to her native land.

What is often overlooked are the messianic implications held in the midst of this passage. Isn’t what Ruth did for the sake of Naomi just like what the Son of God did for you and me? He left behind the privileges and benefits of his divinity to take on our human flesh, joining himself to us, making us his people, living where we live, dying as we die, and being buried in a tomb as we are often buried. Jesus refused to be separated from us, even when tempted to do so by Satan, and even to the point of death on the cross and burial in a tomb. How profound and wonderful his commitment to you and me, and to every human being!

When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment in the law, he focused on the central thought of the covenant commitment given to Israel—love. To love God with one’s whole being and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self—this is an accurate expression of the being of the God who is a unity, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. This love is what was expressed by God in the coming of Jesus here on earth in human flesh—the faithful commitment of laying down his life for the sake of all, no matter the cost to himself. This is the kingdom life—God’s life—lived out in our sphere of existence.

Our struggle with understanding the nature of the kingdom life is that we often make it about what we do or don’t do, or about what we have or don’t have. But Jesus makes it about being rightly related to God and one another. He takes the law, which was an expression of what it looks like to live rightly related to God and one another, and in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the sending of the Spirit, writes that law on our minds and hearts. He lives out the true expression of God’s love in our humanity and then gifts it to us in the Spirit, enabling us to be, in him, what God created us to be—image-bearers of the divine, living the kingdom life, in right relationship with God and man.

Instead of being focused on which law is the most important or least important, we are now able to focus on loving God and one another because the desire to love and be loved as God intended is now, by faith in Christ, imprinted on our human minds and hearts. The Spirit compels us to respond to God in the same way that Christ responds: “God, I will not leave or forsake you; where you go, I will go; your people will be my people; you will be my God. When I die, I die in you; I belong to you, now and forever.” It is not our efforts which save us, but Christ in us, transforming our hearts by faith, bringing us into the fulness of Christlikeness, as we follow the Spirit’s lead.

The kingdom life involves a leaving behind of our former life and embracing our new life in Christ. It involves cleaving to Jesus while rejecting anything that is not in agreement with God’s will and ways. This is the tough part in following Jesus—he asks things of us that we would prefer not to do, to give up things we would prefer to hold on to. He asks us to find our life in him and him alone, rather than in the things of this world and its ways.

In the story of Ruth, we see how she lost everything of significance in her life—her husband, then her homeland, her family and her people. But then she gained so much more. She gained a new husband—her kinsman-redeemer—and a new home, and even the child she had always longed for. And what she never knew was that she had also gained a place in the lineage of King David, and of the Messiah to come.

Jesus said that whatever we give up for his sake, he would return a hundred-fold (Mark 10:29-30), but we may not receive the full benefit of our return in this life. Yes, we experience a lot of positive blessings for doing things God’s way rather than our own. But we are also promised a share in the sufferings of Christ. Both are a necessary part of our human experience. God’s purpose is to grow us up into Christlikeness—to enable us to reflect more clearly the love of God and the nature of the God who made us in his image to share life with him now and forever. He does this so that we might experience more profoundly the life and love of the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit and who is love.

Now would be a good time to take a moment and reflect: Have you received the gift of eternal life which is yours in Christ—life in loving relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit, which is reflected in loving relationships with oneself and others? Receive it by faith. Trust in Christ, in what he has done and is doing in you by the Spirit. What have you given up for the sake of following Christ? If you haven’t given up anything at all, then are you are truly following him down the road into death and resurrection—finding your life solely in him and not in the things of this world? Take a moment and listen anew in silence to hear the Spirit speak God’s words of love to your heart and mind, reminding you of all Jesus has done and is doing and will do as your faithful Lord and Savior. Receive with gratitude this wonderful and perfect gift of right relationship with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for the wonderful and perfect gift of your Son in our place, on our behalf, and for the precious gift of eternal life in the Spirit. Fill us to overflowing with your love, that we may love you and others as we were created to, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’ ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.”     Mark 12:28–34 NIV

The Affliction of Blindness

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By Linda Rex

October 24, 2021, PROPER 25—One of the things I’ve noticed lately is that there is an upswing in the pandemic of blindness at work in this community, our nation, and the world. This affliction of blindness is one that is so pervasive that it affects every level of society, afflicting the poor, the wealthy, those who are surrounded by family and friends, and those who are left all alone. It crosses every racial or ethnic boundary, and afflicts people of every age and gender.

This pandemic of blindness is nothing new. It has plagued humanity ever since we began to walk here on earth. Our experience of our human existence revolves around this affliction, and we so often struggle to find some relief while ignoring the only solution offered to us. In many ways, humans over the millennia have constructed their own means of resolving this pandemic but often ended up creating patterns of thinking and behaving which enslave, oppress, or corrupt instead of healing or restoring those who are suffering.

In the gospel story for this Sunday, we find that a simple blind beggar by the side of the road humbly reaches out for and finds the answer to this affliction. As Jesus walked his final steps towards Jerusalem where he would be crucified, the beggar cries out to him for mercy. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he cries, using a Messianic title as he asked for help. Here in this simple statement lies the solution to our affliction. What do I mean?

Previously, James and John had come to Jesus and had asked to sit on his left and right hand in glory. The evidence was that they were still blind to the spiritual realities. When Jesus spoke of his upcoming sacrificial offering, they were still thinking in terms of a physical restoration of their nation and people. They still did not see their blindness—a spiritual blindness, an inability to see Jesus for who he was, God in human flesh, the Savior of the world, who would lay down his life in sacrifice for the sins of the world to free them from evil, sin, and death. The blindness which afflicted them kept them from seeing their need for redemption, salvation, and deliverance on a deep, spiritual level. They did not need a position of authority. What they needed was mercy.

This is what Jesus sees in this blind beggar, Bartimaeus. He sees this man believes he was his only hope for rescue—the only way he would ever be able to see again. Bartimaeus knew and understands his need and cries out desperately, refusing to be silenced by those who think he is a hinderance to the Messiah. He believes only Jesus can heal his blindness—which says a lot about who he thinks Jesus was. Jews believed only the Messiah was capable of taking away blindness.

When Jesus hears the man, he stops in his tracks and calls him to himself. He stops in the middle of what the disciples probably considered a royal procession, and simply waits there so the blind man could follow his voice and find him. When Bartimaeus hears Jesus’ voice, he does what you and I and every person who hears the call of Jesus needs to do—he drops everything of value, leaps up, and runs to him. He leaves behind his cloak, which kept him warm and was used to collect his coins. His focus is solely on getting to Jesus and being with him.

His request is not for power, prominence, position or wealth, like that of James and John. Rather, it is a simple request—he merely wants to be able to see. And he believes Jesus can do this for him. So Jesus does. And we find that the man’s response to this miracle of sight is an even greater miracle—spiritual sight. He leaves all behind and begins to follow Jesus. The healing of his affliction of blindness results in a life transformation, a renewal in which he begins to walk a new path with Jesus toward death and resurrection.

Our affliction, which keeps this world we live in enslaved to unhealthy ways of living and being, is spiritual blindness. We value things that are transient and ultimately unfulfilling. We trade in the true values of honesty, integrity, humility, service and generosity for temporary experiences of luxury, pleasure and self-indulgence. There are a lot of wonderful things in this world God gave us to enjoy, but he never meant them to be the sole focus of our existence. There are many things we do have that we aren’t enjoying because we are too busy chasing the next experience or the next level of success—and then one day we discover we have lost the things that really matter in life. We find ourselves alone, empty, and disillusioned about life.

The problem we have with spiritual blindness begins simply with our inability to or unwillingness to admit that we are blind. Jesus reminds us that it is when we say we see that often we are the most blind. We can be so certain we are okay just the way we are that we don’t realize how much we are like Bartimaeus—in desperate need of a Messiah to save us.

If you were to take a day or even just an hour in silence and solitude to look deep within yourself—what would you find yourself facing? Would you feel overwhelmed by the inner darkness or distress? Would you feel as though your world would fall completely apart if you weren’t there to hold it together? How well are you seeing yourself and the Savior who walked the road to Jerusalem on your behalf?

Jesus, right now by the Spirit, is present with you where you are. All you need to do is simply have the courage and humility to own up to and express the cry of your heart, “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” See, before you can even say the words, Jesus is already calling you to himself. He is already offering you his healing and redemption. Will you drop everything and run to him? Will you leave all and follow him?

Lord Jesus, I sense you now coming near in this moment. I cry out to you, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Lord, please do what only you can do. Save me! I pledge my life to you, to follow wherever you lead, now and forever. Amen.

“Then they came to Jericho. And as He was leaving Jericho with His disciples and a large crowd, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the road. When he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many were sternly telling him to be quiet, but he kept crying out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him here.’ So they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take courage, stand up! He is calling for you.’ Throwing aside his cloak, he jumped up and came to Jesus. And answering him, Jesus said, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ And the blind man said to Him, ‘Rabboni, I want to regain my sight!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him on the road.”     Mark 10:46–52 NASB

The Hidden Glory

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By Linda Rex

October 17, 2021, PROPER 24—One of the reasons I find the gospel stories so compelling is that they strike a chord within me. I resonate with the experience of the disciples in their foolish attempts to find significance in being the Messiah’s followers, even though their hearts were filled sincerity in the pursuit of the Christ as he made his way to the cross. Jesus often brought his disciples face to face with their pride, exclusivism, unforgiveness, and other very human traits which badly needed to be removed in his sacrificial offering of himself.

Jesus often does this for us today, bringing us face to face with those things that mar our true humanity. He longs for us to relinquish these aspects of our being that were transformed in his offering of himself in our place on our behalf. But instead of surrendering ourselves to his transformative work, we often try to hide those parts of ourselves we believe he doesn’t like. What we may not realize is that those places we hide, our weaknesses and failures to love, are often the very place where he wants to do his greatest work.

This week, as I was reading the gospel passage for this Sunday, Mark 10:35–45, I was amused to see how the moment Jesus began to tell his followers that he was going to die and rise again, they began wonder who was going to be put in charge. James and John, with the help of their mother, asked Jesus to put them in the right- and left-hand positions when he came in glory. Jesus, of course, asked James and John whether or not they could drink the cup he was going to drink and be baptized with the baptism he was facing. They agreed that they could.

However, Jesus was referring to his upcoming suffering and death on the cross. The disciples probably had no idea that this was what they were agreeing to, but simply thought Jesus was exaggerating his concerns about the upcoming messianic battle with the reigning authorities in Jerusalem. They were still focused on bringing about a new political, militaristic physical reign, while Jesus was centered on the epic spiritual battle he would soon have in his crucifixion against evil, sin, and death. The Lord had his mind on paying the price necessary to ransom the world from its spiritual captivity. The disciples had their mind on the details of a physical reign on earth.

It’s not surprising that the other disciples were indignant when they found out that these two were asking for the best positions—not because they thought James and John shouldn’t have made this request, but simply just because they didn’t get to ask Jesus for those positions first. In reality, the disciples’ motivations and attitudes and behaviors were the very reason Jesus needed to walk the path he was walking toward the cross. Every human being, apart from Christ’s redemption, is caught in slavery to their fallen will, unable to do what is right, loving, and holy. It is Jesus’ work that broke the chains that bind us, and he gives us the Spirit to awaken us to the new life he forged for us. He knew we needed redeemed and came for that very reason—to rescue us and set us free—freeing us to love, serve and obey God, and to love and serve one another.

One of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, in my opinion, is Isa. 52:13–53:12. Here, the prophet Isaiah describes in great detail the ministry of the Suffering Servant who would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. He would take on himself our iniquity, and would be pierced for our transgressions. The ministry of this Anointed One is full of humility, suffering, and quiet endurance. What Jesus did as our Messiah fulfilled this prophetic word and accomplished what no other human could do—justifying humanity, interceding on their behalf, cleansing them of sin and reconciling them with God.

As we come to understand the servant heart of Jesus Christ, illustrated so well in Isaiah’s prophecy, we may begin to grasp what the disciples were not understanding—the Messiah came to serve, not to be served. As we reflect on the servant heart of Jesus, it may be wise to look at our own heart and ask—do I expect to be served or am I focused on serving? What is my motivation for what I do? If I am a leader, or desire to lead, what is my motivation for doing so? Does it reflect the servant heart of Jesus?

Because of what Jesus did in his sacrificial offering on the cross, each of the disciples came face to face with the reality that what they had hoped for and set their hearts on wasn’t going to happen. And they each had to deal with the reality that when they were put to the test, they let Jesus down. And, ultimately, Jesus hadn’t done what they had expected him to do. It was in this place of fear, distress and disappointment that the risen Lord met them. Here, in their loss of all their dreams and expectations, Jesus met them—risen from the grave, breathing his life into them by the Spirit.

Jesus Christ meets us right where we are—in our brokenness, our weakness, our sin, and our shame. He has taken all that on himself and in its place, he gives us his righteousness, his perfection, his renewal. This is the miracle of grace. Jesus stands right at this moment as our high priest, interceding on our behalf before the Father. He knows our weakness and our suffering because he has experienced it himself. He knows what temptation is like because he experienced it too, but without sinning. The cup of God’s judgment against sin was drunk completely by Jesus, as he offered himself in our place so that we might receive forgiveness and reconciliation and redemption—he is our salvation.

Maybe it doesn’t seem intuitive that servanthood would be a blessing and a privilege. But Jesus has made it so. He has humbled himself and served each one of us, bringing us up into his life with the Father in the Spirit. He gives us himself in the Spirit so that we can share his servant heart and begin to humbly serve one another. What we may prefer to hide, when given to Jesus, becomes in him a means by which his kingdom life may be experienced by those still living as though they are captives of evil, sin, and death. By faith in Jesus, we even now and will forever share in his glory, as we come out of hiding and begin to shine with the radiance of his goodness and love by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Loving Abba (Father), thank you for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, for humbling yourself to serve each of us, giving yourself to us as a true self-offering, freeing us from evil, sin, and death so that we might, by your Spirit, be true reflections of your glory and goodness, now and forever. Amen.

“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, | And our sorrows He carried; | Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, | Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, | He was crushed for our iniquities; | The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, | And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, | Each of us has turned to his own way; | But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all | To fall on Him.”      Isaiah 53:4–6 (7–12) NASB

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’; just as He says also in another passage, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’”     Hebrews 5:1–6 (7–10) NASB

The Price We Won’t Pay

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By Linda Rex

October 10, 2021, PROPER 23—One of the things I’ve noticed more than ever recently is how many people contact me in an effort to buy my home—which isn’t for sale. Today someone called me to help me remove the mortgage interest from my home—which I have no interest in doing. And this week I received a note from an auto dealer, wanting to purchase my car—which at the moment, I’m not planning to replace.

There’s a common thread through all of these phone calls, texts, emails, and letters—someone somewhere wants to make a buck, at my expense. I would like to believe these good people are truly seeking to help me in some way, but unfortunately, experience has taught me that this is far from the case. It is a rare individual or business that is genuinely seeking my best interests rather than seeking to line their own pockets.

While reading Amos 5:6–7, 10–15 this morning, I was struck by the way the prophet’s words resonate with our experience in this country today:

“Come back to the Lord and live. … You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed. You treat the righteous like dirt. … How you hate honest judges! How you despise people who tell the truth! You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses, you will never live in them. Though you plant lush vineyards, you will never drink wine from them. For I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions. You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. So those who are smart keep their mouths shut, for it is an evil time. Do what is good and run from evil so that you may live! Then the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will be your helper, just as you have claimed. Hate evil and love what is good; turn your courts into true halls of justice. Perhaps even yet the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will have mercy on the remnant of his people” (NLT).

It’s rather rough reading, isn’t it? But so many of the things Amos enumerates are part of our experience today! And in the midst of this truth-telling, there is a call from the heart of God to turn away from evil and to turn to good, to be just and gracious rather than continuing to oppress or deceive others.

What price are you or I willing to pay to live in the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God? What price are we willing to pay to hate evil and love good? If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that many times the bottom line drives our decisions regarding these things. I find myself preferring comfort, ease, convenience, being pain and stress-free, rather than doing the hard and painful work of taking a stand against evil and for good. I bow to my natural proclivity to mediate rather than to weather the hurricane blast of someone’s resistance to my honesty and declaration of truth. My preferences too often guide my decisions rather than the quiet inner voice of the Spirit telling me to do the hard and difficult thing.

When the rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, I doubt he realized the innate contradiction which existed in his words. In his world, the more he did what was considered good, the more he had value and worth, and the greater his significance in society and in the kingdom to come. But Jesus held him up to an entirely different standard—God himself. If only God is truly good, and Jesus is the good teacher, where did that leave this young ruler? He had always kept the commandments as he understood them—and Jesus loved him for this. But it wasn’t enough.

Jesus looked the young man in the eye—looked at him with a heart filled with the love of the Father—and saw the root of the problem. He understood why this young ruler would always feel like he was never quite good enough for eternal life. His value, his worth, and his identity were based in what he had and what he did, not in who he was in relationship with his heavenly Father. Jesus told him what he lacked. The keys to the kingdom lay solely in a faith-walk with Jesus, trusting in the Father’s love, and living in obedience to the Spirit. This was a price the young man would not pay—and he walked away heartsick.

This is tough. Are we willing to have Jesus’ loving, yet perceptive view go all the way down into our own souls? Where is our worth, our value, our identity really placed? If it is anywhere but in God himself—centered in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—in his gift of the Spirit—we are off-center. If we are trusting in anything or anyone else in this life, we will eventually find ourselves in a place where we have no hope whatsoever. Whether we like it or not, the things of this life—money, belongings, homes, and even people—are only temporary and cannot be depended on in every circumstance. Sooner or later, they will fly away like chaff in the wind.

Jesus told the disciples that it is very hard for people of wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Simply put, when you have everything you need or want, and what you don’t have you can easily get, and what gets broken you can easily replace or fix, what do you else do you need? And if you are so busy taking care of every need yourself, you may find that you have no time to consider the spiritual realities or to encounter Jesus in your everyday life. And apart from a relationship with Jesus, how can you begin to experience the eternal life which is available to each of us right now by the Holy Spirit?

The disciples were aghast at the point Jesus was making. He was telling them that it is an impossible task to enter the kingdom of God. Our best efforts will not earn us a place at the Lord’s banquet table. Eternal life is something we inherit, but we cannot make ourselves children of God. This is a task Jesus did in our place, on our behalf. Jesus, in his finished work and in his life in us by the Holy Spirit, is the one who has made us right with God, bringing us by faith into right relationship with God as his adopted children. We have eternal life in Jesus Christ alone, as we trust in him and in his ministry of adoption.

In Jesus Christ, God has made the impossible possible. We have, in Jesus, all that we need to be included in God’s love and life as his adopted children. By faith in Christ we receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus invites you and me to follow him—but there is a price that goes with that gift of eternal life. It is not the price we might expect. We need to tear up our list of good deeds, and get rid of our dependency upon our piety, and simply follow Christ. This walk of faith or walk in the Spirit requires a commitment on our part, and a willingness to pay the ultimate price.

My heart goes out today to those followers of Christ who experience a very hefty price in this life for their commitment to faith in Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in many areas of the world cannot simply say the name of Jesus out loud in a public place without endangering their lives, their families or income. They are in my thoughts and prayers. I pray God will meet their every need as he is present with them right now by the Spirit in their suffering. As for those of us who live much more freely in this nation, what price are we willing to pay for the privilege of knowing Jesus and having the gift of eternal life? What are we willing to lay down or give away for the sake of following Christ?

Heavenly Father, forgive us for setting our hearts on so many valueless and worthless things that have no lasting benefit. Grant us the grace to lay down everything that we trust in and simply place our faith in your Son Jesus and all he has done in our place on our behalf. Thank you for your love and grace, for providing for our every need, and for your gift of eternal life, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness,” Do not defraud, “Honor your father and mother.”’ And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were even more astonished and said to Him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Looking at them, Jesus said, ‘With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.’ Peter began to say to Him, ‘Behold, we have left everything and followed You.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.’”      Mark 10:17–31 NASB

Receiving the Kingdom as a Child

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By Linda Rex

October 3, 2021, PROPER 22— What does it mean for you and me to accept the kingdom of God as little children? As Jesus embraced the little children who were brought to him, placed his hands on them to bless them, they received with humble, innocent trust the blessing placed upon them. Their open, obedient receptivity to the self-offering of Jesus forms a pattern for our own. Are we willing to allow God to be who he is and trust he loves us, seeks our blessing, and desires to do what is best for us?

Next year it will be twenty years since the divorce papers were signed on the dotted line. I have often asked myself what it was that drove me to make this decision I swore before God I would never make. Jesus was so right when he said that these types of situations arise out of our very human hardness of heart—our inability to and/or unwillingness to yield ourselves to the will and purposes of God. I believed I was doing the right and best thing at the time I made that decision, but it was not God’s ideal for us, not by any stretch of the imagination.

It takes two to make a marriage more than just words on a page. Both my husband and I have wrestled with the brokenness that caused us to take that road so many years ago. I believed I was doing the most loving thing possible for both my children and my husband when I filed for divorce. But the consequences of that attempt to be loving was great pain for my children, my family and friends, as well as my husband and I, even though we eventually remarried to one another. I do not wallow in guilt or shame about it today, but I grieve and regret the past and present suffering that resulted from this decision on both our parts to go against what God ordained our ideal marriage relationship to be.

In our passage for this Sunday, when approached by the Pharisees who were seeking to trap Jesus and cause him harm, Jesus avoided the current cultural debate as to a strict interpretation of the divorce law or a more lenient, culturally acceptable one by asking what Moses commanded. When they responded with Moses’ concession to the cultural practice of divorce (rather than a commandment), Jesus took them back to God’s original intent. Jesus, as God present in human flesh, explained God’s ideal of intimate union and communion between two unique yet equal persons who were so closely and permanently joined together that they could and never should be separated.

When taken in the context of the entirety of God’s word, we find that marriage was to image the relationship between God and Israel (which these Pharisees were violating). And since the Spirit was sent after the resurrection, it models the relationship between Jesus, the Bridegroom and the Church, the Bride. It can also be said to image what happened in the very person of Jesus Christ in the incarnation—the joining of God with man, it being God’s intention from before time began to unite himself with humanity through Christ in the Spirit, no matter the cost—even to the cost of his human life.

When we contrast God’s ideal with the reality of life in a world of brokenness, we find ourselves often at difficult crossroads. What does it mean to accept the kingdom of God as a little child when all of the decisions facing us seem to be extremely painful grownup ones that have no obvious answer? How do we wrestle with issues like genetics, gender, abuse, PTSD, and so many factors we have no control over? What do we do in the face of impossible situations when there seems to be no way out?

What about the pain and devastation that is caused when a man abandons his wife? How is she supposed to move on with her life or care for herself and her children? And what about the man whose wife is never faithful, even when she tries? What about the wife who discovers her husband is a dangerous man who might very well kill her someday in a violent rage? The real, everyday life decisions we face because of our broken humanity need answers. And normally, the only way we know how to deal with it is to make adjustments to the law so that we don’t feel guilty about doing what we feel we need to do to survive or to find some peace. The law, so often, is impossible to keep. The Pharisees—and even Moses for that matter—found themselves needing to make concessions.

The reality is that God isn’t the one who gets us in these situations—we as broken human beings are the ones, who through hardness of heart, find ourselves in impossible places, needing to work out some solution, since doing it the ideal way doesn’t seem to work. Pain is pain. Abuse is abuse. Adultery is adultery. Unfaithfulness is unfaithfulness. These things happen because we are broken human beings. We are all sinners. Does God turn away from us when we are in these desolate places? Where did he go when I was facing having to do what I never, ever wanted to do so that I could protect myself and my children?

The comfort is, Jesus became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. He has taken our place. He stands in our stead. In these painful and difficult situations, as we remain open and receptive and trusting, we discover that Jesus is just where he always has been—present by the Holy Spirit. It has more to do with how open and receptive we are to the kingdom of God present in this world by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus Christ in us leads us, directs us, and offers us his love and grace. How willing are we to allow Jesus to guide and direct our decisions, and to heal our broken hearts and broken lives?

I look back now and thank God for the journey he took me on when I felt led to divorce my husband. I see now how much I needed to grow in maturity, dependency upon God, in humility and in so many other ways. My husband needed to grow as well. God used this crucible of pain to grow us both up in ways we did not know we needed to grow up in. Was it the ideal situation? No. But when offered to God, it became a time of growth, reconciliation, renewal, and transformation. As we received and responded to Jesus in the midst of it, it became a participation in the kingdom of God.

God is still healing all the people and places that were broken due to our turning away from his ideal with regards to marriage and family. We are still working out the differences that are a natural part of two unique persons bound together in a permanent union before God. I am still learning to trust Jesus and to allow him to bless me and care for me the way he desires, even in a new and challenging way through this blessed gift of a husband who loves and wants to obey and serve his Lord. This journey with Jesus, and thankfully, my husband, will continue on into eternity. For this is the fundamental purpose of our existence—life in intimate relationship with our God as Father, Son, and Spirit, both now and forever. And life in union and communion with one another.

Where are you in your journey with Jesus? In what ways has your life fallen far short of God’s ideal? Have you offered this up to Jesus and allowed him to use it to refine, heal, and transform you? May you experience great grace for the journey as you walk in the Spirit and trust in Abba’s perfect love, allowing Jesus to hold you in his embrace and speak his blessing over you.

Heavenly Father, how heart-wrenching it must be for you to see us wander away from your ideal into barren wastelands full of pain, suffering, and loss! Thank you for meeting us there in Jesus and for sending us your Spirit so that we are never alone, but are always held in your love and grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.’ And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them.”      Mark 10:(2–12)13–16 NASB

“The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”     Genesis 2:(18–21) 22–24 NASB

Salted Sacrifices

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By Linda Rex

September 26, 2021, PROPER 21—Recently I was reflecting on memories I have of going to the beach with my friends. We would go in the late afternoon, find a spot with a firepit and roast hotdogs and marshmallows as we watched the sun go down over the water. Even today I can almost smell the scent of saltwater and seaweed, feel the rough sand between my toes, and hear the cries of the seagulls as they hover over the water.

At times we would do bodysurfing and ride the waves in to the shore, finding ourselves at times shoved under the water and pounded by the waves. Even though I’d always regret getting sand in my swimsuit, I loved swimming in the ocean and riding the waves. The water that I sometimes inadvertently drank when I got knocked over was very salty, too salty to swallow, and it burned my eyes.

It is amazing to me that there are creatures and plants which can live in an environment like the ocean even though the water is extremely salty. Salt, we have learned over the millennia, works well as a purifier, preservative and in helping wounds heal. Salt has been so valuable at times that it has been used as coinage for trading. Today salt is used in a myriad of ways, being essential in the manufacture of a wide variety of products. And in spite of being villainized as the culprit in high blood pressure and other health issues, people still season their food with salt.

If you want to ruin a batch of biscuits or cookies, though, just add too much salt to the recipe. Salt is meant to be used in limited amounts as a seasoning, to add flavor and zest to otherwise bland foods. When Jesus said that his followers were the salt of the earth, he meant that they added something pleasant and enjoyable to the world. If they became just like everyone else in the world, they would have lost their zest and tastefulness, and become worthless and unbeneficial.

Jesus was incredibly patient with his disciples. They were focused on who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus reminded them that they needed to be like little children—humble and dependent rather than arrogant and prideful. The measure of a person was not determined by their greatness in the human scheme of things, but by their spirit of humility and service, of laying down their lives for the sake of others.

The disciples saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name (which they had recently tried to do and failed) and insisted that the person stop. The man wasn’t part of the twelve Jesus had chosen, so they assumed he wasn’t supposed to be using Jesus’ name, even though God was honoring his efforts. Jesus told them they were wrong. They needed to stop excluding people Jesus was including in his ministry and life. They needed to stop attempting to resist and quench the Spirit at work in the lives of those other than themselves.

In Leviticus 2:13, the priests were instructed to season every grain offering with salt, “so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (NASB). The apostle Paul wrote that we are to present our bodies as living and holy sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), as an expression of true and proper worship. Our lives are not to be spent solely for our own glory and our own pleasure, but in love and service to God and others. This is why Jesus told the disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Jesus told his disciples that everyone would be seasoned with fire. The context of this particular statement is in the midst of several teaching sessions in which Jesus instructed the disciples about what would be soon happening to him—that he would suffer and die on behalf of the world for their salvation. The salt he was seasoning the world with was his own self-offering, and they needed to be willing and prepared to walk that same road with him. They needed to give up their human way of thinking about things and surrender to the spiritual realities of life in the kingdom of God. To truly live, we must be prepared to die—die to self, sin, Satan, and the things of this world.

Jesus used strong hyperbole or metaphorical language to make a point. He said that we must be prepared to eradicate or cut off anything in our lives that keeps us from participating in the kingdom of God. We want to enter into life, eternal life, that life in relationship with God that we were created for. But in order to do so, certain things in us must die with Christ—greed, lust, pride, selfish ambition, jealousy—these must be burned away by the baptism of fire Jesus offers us in the Spirit. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we are given new life—but it is an invitation, one offered to every human, that we receive and act upon.

What price are we willing to pay to receive that new life and begin to live in it? For the kingdom of God is both a present and a future reality. We begin even now, by faith in Christ, to live and walk in the way Christ forged for us. We live and walk daily by the Spirit in close relationship with God, and in warm fellowship with others God has called to himself. God’s purpose for our lives in Christ by the Spirit is not division or exclusivism, but unity, harmony and peace. As we are salted with the heart of Jesus by the Spirit, we will live in peace with one another. This was Jesus’ point.

We may be pounded by the waves and tossed about in the water of life’s experiences, but our certainty is in Christ. He is at work in us and in this world by his Holy Spirit purifying, healing, and preserving. As we respond to him in faith, we participate in his mission and work in this world, and act as a pleasant seasoning in a world devoid of true spiritual flavor. Our service and sacrifice brings a taste or a hint of the glories of the kingdom of God which we will one day experience in its fullness. In the meantime, we turn to Jesus, trusting in his finished work and living day by day as salted sacrifices offered in true worship to God.

Heavenly Father, thank you for washing us in the water of your Word, Jesus Christ, and for sending him to purify, heal, and preserve us. Grant us the grace to let go of everything that may get in the way of us walking freely as your beloved children, allowing ourselves to be living sacrifices, salted with your indwelling presence through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.

“John said to Him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, …. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, …. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’”      Mark 9:38–50 NASB

See also Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29.

Leading as a Child

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By Linda Rex

September 19, 2021, PROPER 20—There is a title I rarely hear anymore and it used to be commonly used for someone who worked in a public leadership role. Even the president of the United States, our congressmen, and local leaders were given this title in years past. It takes a very special leader to be willing to be called this and lead accordingly, even though it is an accurate description of what a person should be doing when fulfilling their responsibilities in the public sector.

Being called a servant or treated like a servant has such a negative connotation, many people would prefer not to be called a public servant. This is understandable. However, to be a true leader in the way in which Jesus walked before us, one must be willing to be servant of all. One must be willing to serve those they are leading and not lord it over them. Using power and authority to force one’s will on others is not the way of Jesus. His path is much different.

During his last days before his crucifixion, Jesus began to teach his disciples what would happen to him. He told his disciples that the Jewish leaders of that day would arrest him, torture and kill him, but in three days he would rise again. Since Peter had been rebuked for contradicting Jesus when he first introduced this topic, the disciples really didn’t want to ask any questions. But what they began to talk about among themselves shortly afterward was significant.

Jesus knew what they were talking about, but he asked, drawing out of them that introspection they needed so they could learn. They were concerned about who was going to be in charge in the kingdom—who would be the greatest. In their culture, this was very important, especially in the public sphere and in the synagogue. Their position in these areas, their prominence, was essential to their worth and value. What they forgot was that this was the very thing Jesus had over and over rebuked the Jewish leaders for, condemning their obsession with being noticed and fawned over by the crowds, and for throwing their weight around and harming people in the process.

Jesus told the disciples that the person who wanted to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven needed to be the servant of all. To lead, in the way of the kingdom of God, is to serve. It is the way of humility, not the way of self-aggrandizement or pride or power. It is the path of being willing to be less than so that others might be more than. What Jesus needed them to see was that his path, and therefore theirs, was the path down the road of self-sacrifice, of laying down one’s life for the sake of others.

To make his point, Jesus took one of the most inconsequential members of their culture, a child, into his arms. A child, at that time, had no rights and really no value, and was totally dependent upon his or her parents for everything they needed. Jesus told them that their reception of a child in his name was the same as receiving him and his heavenly Father as well. The value Jesus placed on that child was his own value and his Abba’s value. Even an inconsequential child was a treasure. How much more each and every person they might meet?

In last week’s sermon we talked about God’s gift of wisdom in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. God’s wisdom at work in our hearts and minds brings about a new way of living and being—a new way of looking at our value and worth and how we interact with the people in our lives. In contrast with the way of the flesh which moves us toward selfish ambition and jealousy which results in “disorder and every evil thing,” the way of Christ by the Spirit, the divine wisdom, is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (James 3:16-17 NASB).

The apostle James points out that the person who makes peace plants the seed of righteousness. The right relationship we have with God and one another, our righteousness, is a result of the planting of God’s heart and mind in human hearts through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and in the sending of his Spirit. By faith, each and every person can participate now in right relationship with God and one another—there is a peace with God and others that only comes by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work in human hearts and minds. Our issues today with some leaders not being public servants are as a result of them not being willing to trust Jesus—to walk in his way, the way of death and resurrection.

What God calls leaders to is a willingness to lay down their life, their preferences, their benefits, for the sake of those they are leading. It is a real struggle to lead in this society by serving. How much easier it is to take advantage of all the benefits and perks of a leadership position than it is to refuse them, to humble oneself to suffer alongside others who are suffering, to serve next to those who society deems are less than and worthless. We have conflict and quarrels, sad divisions between us, James says, because our desire for pleasure or our envy of others and our longing for what they have outweighs our loving concern for them (James 4:1-3). This is why we need Jesus—we need the Spirit to change our hearts and minds, to bring about a new way of thinking and acting within ourselves as well as within those we lead.

Leadership as a position of service also involves those who follow—they must be willing to be led, and they cannot be led by someone they don’t love or trust. Being a leader carries with it a heavy responsibility. The best leaders are those who lead from a position of humble service, especially in the position of submission to the God who allowed them to have that position of leadership in the first place. Leaders who have forgotten they are public servants need to remember to wash their hands in the blood of Jesus Christ, to surrender to the reality that the only true Lord is the one who was willing to lay it all down for the sake of each of us (James 4:7-8). He calls us to be as little children—the adopted children of God we are, in and through him and by his Holy Spirit—and to trust and depend upon the Father in every circumstance, most especially in the area of leadership and public service.

May we pray for our leaders daily, whether within the church or in the public square, that God’s Spirit would fill them with divine wisdom and a heart of service. Pray that they would serve in humility, setting aside personal interest and privilege, and laying down their lives as Jesus did for the sake of those they lead. Pray also that they might have the strength and grace to be true peacemakers in a world that inevitably is led by the evil one into division and disunity.

Heavenly Father, we need you to pour your heavenly Spirit through Jesus into the hearts and minds of our leaders in every sphere of our lives. We need leaders who are submissive to your will and who are willing to serve and to lay down their lives on behalf of those they lead. Thank you, that we can all share in your servant leadership through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“From there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know about it. For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.’ But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him. They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’ Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.’”     Mark 9:30–37 NASB

Wisdom Has the Last Laugh

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By Linda Rex

September 12, 2021, PROPER 19—The earth turns slowly on its axis while wobbling through space. Along with its celestial brothers and sisters, it spins around the sun, traveling about in a rhythmic dance with the moon. Because of this, we step out of the house at dawn and watch the sun rise over the horizon. As night approaches, we watch the sun set in glorious array. We don’t sense any movement ourselves, but day by day, we experience the consequences of this movement.

In Psalm 19, King David wrote that the sun rising and setting each day, the magnificent heavenly bodies glittering in the night sky, and the wonders in heaven and on earth are all consequences of the actions of our God. His actions have led to life—life in a myriad of shapes and forms on this earth, in outer space, and in the vast oceans of the earth. God’s heart of love and grace are expressed in a real and powerful way in all he has made, and are a visible demonstration of his glory, his generosity and wisdom.

King David’s son Solomon wrote that wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks to us constantly, calling to each and every person to listen to her and to do what she directs. Why do you want to be ignorant and naïve, she asks, and suffer the consequences of foolish choices and decisions? “Turn to my reproof,” she warns, “Behold, I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you.” Then she says she will laugh in the day when the foolish experience the consequences of their refusal to listen to the voice of wisdom—she did her part but they turned away and chose to take their own path (Proverbs 1:20–33 NASB).

Wisdom, in this passage, involves a knowledge and understanding of God’s ways, his glory and his goodness. We were made in the image of God, after his likeness, to be reflections of his Triune nature of love. If this is our identity as human beings, what does it look like when we live it out? It looks a lot like Jesus.

Wisdom is available at all times—like the air we breathe and the sun coming up each morning and setting each night—it’s a part of our universe, constantly pointing out the reality that there is a better way of living, that there’s more to life than just this. God gave his wisdom in the creation of all things, in the revelation of himself to Israel, and in the giving of the law to his people. But going way beyond that, God has given us his profound wisdom in the person of Jesus Christ. He sent his Son, who took on our human flesh and lived the life we were meant to live. The law of God lived out in a human person, fully dependent upon the Father, in obedience to him by the Spirit, even to the point of giving up his life at the hands of others—this is what it looks like to be truly human and to be the wisdom of God present in this cosmos.

So often we ignore the wisdom God gives us. He tells us the best way to live and we ignore him, choosing our own way, our own path, to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. And then we become angry when we begin to experience the consequences of our choices. But there are consequences to choosing to ignore true wisdom, especially the true wisdom given to us in the person of Jesus Christ and his presence here in this world right now by the Holy Spirit.

God has always wanted us to experience the consequences of obedience to him—the benefits which involve life, a life lived now and forever in union and communion with him in the Spirit. God wants the harvest of our lives to be faith, hope, and love—a joyful experience of union and communion with him and our brothers and sisters, now and forever. He does not want us to, and has never wanted us to, experience the consequence of death. He always and ever wanted us to have life, true abundant life as he has always experienced it in the unity and harmony of the Father and Son in the Spirit.

True wisdom calls to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Come—this is the way you were created to live—in loving, faithful obedience to the Father by the Spirit expressed in loving care and concern for God and others. While the world around us and our broken flesh calls us to the pleasures of this life and to self-centered ways of living and being, Jesus calls us to a better way—a way of self-sacrificial service and humility. “If anyone wishes to come after Me,” he said, “he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” The consequence of following Jesus may, in the immediate sense, require sacrifice, suffering, and/or death, but in the end, it will result in eternal life—life in intimate relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit and in joyful life with others both now and forever as brothers and sisters in God’s kingdom.

The world around me is constantly encouraging me to believe that I am able to do whatever I want without any cost associated with my decisions. I am free, I am told. No one can tell me what to do. But just what is true freedom? Doesn’t true freedom require that we be willing to pay whatever price is necessary for that freedom to exist? Doesn’t true freedom involve other-centered love, limiting oneself for the sake of God and others?

What price are we willing to pay for the choices we are making today? Do we realize the full extent of what we are giving up in our current pursuit of self-absorbed living and self-centered pleasure-seeking? Do we realize the price we are going to pay if we continue to refuse to listen to the voice of Wisdom which is constantly calling out to us to turn from ourselves and to turn to Christ? Are we hearing even now the laughter of Wisdom as the consequences of our stubborn resistance to her are beginning to show themselves in our world and in our lives?

All of us make decisions while ignoring the consequences of those decisions. All of us stubbornly and willfully choose to go our own way at times, even though we know better, and know that it will cost us. Jesus, the wisdom of God present by the Holy Spirit, calls us to come to him, to find our rest in him. He calls us to turn from ourselves and the things of this world and turn to him, finding our true life in him instead. We may, in the short term, have to sacrifice or give up some things we value, but in the view of eternity, they are nothing compared with the glory God has planned for us as we share in his life and love as glorified human beings in the new heavens and new earth.

Dear Lord, everything you have made has been done with great love and abundance of wisdom. Thank you for giving your Son, your wisdom in human flesh, to be the true reflection of your glory and goodness we are to follow and obey. Thank you for planting your wisdom in human hearts by your Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to listen to and obey Wisdom as she calls to us day by day, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Jesus went out, along with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He questioned His disciples, saying to them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ They told Him, saying, ‘John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets.’ And He continued by questioning them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And He warned them to tell no one about Him. And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.’”      Mark 8:27–38 NASB

Bold Faith

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By Linda Rex

September 5, 2021, PROPER 18—Wouldn’t it be nice if we could simply ask God to heal someone and he would? What if we could just ask God to fix a situation—get rid of that political leader, close that company, get those people working—and it would just happen? We kind of like the idea of a vending machine God.

Or, when we think of having the faith to receive God’s “yes” to our requests, we often put the burden solely upon ourselves. We catch ourselves starting to move to the place of asking God for something, only to back away and say, “If only I had the faith to….” I wonder if often the issue isn’t with our faith or lack thereof, but rather with our inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of who God is. We don’t know what our Father’s heart and mind toward us really is and we don’t trust him to have our best interests at heart in every situation.

I suppose that if we knew God well and were walking day by day in intimate relationship with him, we might come a little closer to knowing how he perceives a certain situation and what it is he would do in that situation. Over time, by experiencing his answers to our prayers and his faithfulness to us in difficult circumstances, we might be able to ask with greater assurance for his intervention and receive what we request. But God doesn’t always say “yes.” The reality is sometimes he says “later,” or “no.” And we need to be okay with this.

In the gospel passage for this Sunday (Mark 7:24–37) we read that Jesus was trying to find a place where he could teach and minister to his disciples. He went to the region of Tyre, and entered a house, seeking privacy and quiet—time away from the crowds and their demands on his time and energy. In spite of Jesus’ efforts to remain anonymous and isolated, a Syrophoenician woman came to him in great humility and asked him to heal her daughter of an unclean spirit.

Jesus’ reply seems at first glance to be rather rude and disrespectful. He told her it was not fitting to take food away from the children and to feed it to the dogs. She as a Gentile may have experienced often the use of the term “dogs” by the Jews in reference to herself. But in reality, Jesus used a diminutive term when talking about the dogs, which showed he was referring to puppies or the family pets. He was not insulting her, but rather was explaining that his first responsibility in that moment was to his disciples, those he was training and teaching at that particular time.

The woman was not put off by Jesus’ initial refusal to help. It was quite common for her people and his, like ours today, to have family pets around the dinner table. Her reply to him was witty, saucy, and genuine—she quickly pointed out that the pet dogs could eat at the same time as the children, since they picked up the crumbs which fell off the table or ate those tidbits handed to them by the children. There was a picture of pleasant domestic tranquility in her words, a thing she may have been missing due to her daughter’s current illness. She boldly made her request, no matter the cost to herself or the inherent risk of refusal. She trusted in his ability, and willingness, to do what was needed to heal her daughter—which in the end, he did.

There are many stories in the Old Testament of people who had the boldness to ask a big thing of God, believing they would have his “yes” in response to their request. Jacob, who wrestled all night with God, would not let go until God gave him his blessing—and received it. Elijah asked God to make a visible sign of his power and glory in front of the worshipers of Baal—and he did. Elisha asked for a double portion of the Spirit which was on Elijah—and it was his when Elijah was taken. A woman who lost her son came in great grief to Elisha—and her son lived again. Nothing was too large for these people to ask for—and God happily said “yes” to each of their requests.

What if they had never asked? What if they had believed that God was not interested in what was important to them?

The thought came to me—what if Peter and John had met that man at the temple who had been lame from birth and had said to him, “We don’t have any silver or gold” and then simply walked away? Thankfully, for his sake, they did not just walk away. They offered what they did have, and that was healing in the name of Jesus Christ.

Peter and John had experienced God and his love for them in a profound and deep way. They had walked and talked with the Son of God who had taken on human flesh and lived alongside them for three years. They had sat around the campfire with Jesus and had heard his teaching and preaching. They had watched him be betrayed, be crucified and die, and then had walked and talked with him after the resurrection. The consequence of that ongoing relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ was a confident assurance and trust that enabled them to boldly ask for whatever was needed in the moment, even when it was a huge request like making a lame man walk.

If Peter had come across this lame man that night when the rooster crowed three times marking his denial of Christ, would he have responded in the same way? What would have been God’s answer to his request at that time? Peter’s faith experienced a time of testing through which he learned the heart of Jesus and his Father. He came to know Jesus in a way he had never known him before. He discovered God was not only trustworthy, but he was also gracious and compassionate—a faithful God who knew him intimately, and loved him completely and fully anyway. Filled with the Spirit following Pentecost, Peter, and his co-laborer John, had a sense of certainty about what the risen Lord would do in the situation with the man who was lame, and so they told him to walk in Jesus’ name—and he did.

Have you ever had that kind of conversation with God in which you were frankly honest with him, where you boldly asked for what was needed for yourself and others? In the midst of an ongoing conversation with God, a growing relationship with Jesus through the tests and trials of life, there is certainly room for truth-telling—for being genuine in your expression of your anger, your fear, your frustration or your need. Whatever it is, understand that God meets us where we are, not just where we ought to be or wish we could be or believe we should be.

How well do we know God? I find that way too often I make God much, much smaller than he really is. Too often I make him in my image instead of remembering I am made to reflect him. I may understand intellectually that he is greater than my problems or concerns, but my actions demonstrate that I don’t truly believe he is. I may believe that he has the capacity to fix whatever my situation is, but I simply don’t act on that capacity by boldly requesting his intervention in my situation and trusting him to do what is best. When the apostle James said that faith without works is dead, he was pointing out that too often what we say we believe about God isn’t demonstrated by the way we behave in our relationship with him and others (James 2:1–10, 14–17).

It is critical that our fragile human faith be replaced with Jesus’ implicit faith in the Father. The Spirit is working this transformation in our hearts and lives as we turn to Christ and walk in him. We spend time growing our relationship with God through the study of his word, prayer, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We make room for God to work on our hearts and minds, allowing him to draw us through difficult times and painful situations into closer relationship with him. Our trust in God and in his faithfulness grows as we follow Christ and walk in the Spirit through all of life.

And remarkably, we find that even when we do ask, we are not alarmed when God does not give us an immediate “yes”. Our relationship with God becomes more important than having our way in a given situation. We are willing to trust in God, rest in Christ, allowing the Lord to do what only he can do in the situation, believing he will do what is in our best interests because he loves us and is faithful. We know who he is, that he is trustworthy and faithful—and so we can, in Christ, trust him. We discover that the faith we are needing has been given to us as a gift from God through Jesus in the Spirit. This blessed gift of faith means God’s “yes” is already at work in our situation—we need only rest in Christ and trust in God’s love and faithfulness, for he is trustworthy.

Dear God, thank you for your faithfulness, for being trustworthy, the One we can rely upon in every situation to carry us through and to bring us in the end to where we need to be. Fill us with the faith of Christ by your Holy Spirit, giving us the grace to come boldly to your throne to receive what we need in every situation, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He was saying to her, ‘Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered and said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.’ And He said to her, ‘Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.’ And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.”     Mark 7:25–30 (24–37) NASB

“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?… Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”     James 2:14, 17 (1–10, 14–17) NASB

Mirror of the Human Heart

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By Linda Rex

August 29, 2021, PROPER 17—I have been in tears lately over the reality of the inhumanity with which we as human beings exist in this world. I am sick of the betrayals, the deceptions, and the manipulative messages meant control, use, and steal from innocent, trusting individuals. How low can we as humans go? Apparently, after all these millennia we still have not plumbed the depths of the human depravity we are capable of.

All of the evil I see around me right now is nothing new—we’ve been going at this inhumanity to humanity thing since we were first created. Perhaps our capacity to self-destruct and to destroy our planet is greater than it ever has been. But what we as humans do to one another that is evil and depraved is nothing new. It is birthed out of the heart of the evil one which we have too often given heed to and followed since the beginning of time.

Sadly, I find that we as followers of Jesus Christ can be just as bad or worse than those we like to point our fingers at and declare to be sinners. Too often, we are simply just more effective at disguising or hiding our failures to love God and others. In our gospel reading for this Sunday, we see Jesus taking some Pharisees and scribes to task for their hypocrisy. They may have been very religious, but their oral traditions actually enabled them to look like they were good people when in reality they were avoiding their responsibility to their fellow human beings.

Jesus was not unfamiliar with the depravity humans are capable of. His point was that it is not the external things which make us unclean or unacceptable to God. Not washing our hands a certain way or not doing a certain religious ritual correctly does not determine our uncleanness or unacceptability to God. It is the things that are birthed in our hearts and pour out from us which defile us. Jesus said things such as “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness” come from within and are what make us unclean (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21–23 NLT). Our only hope with regards to these things is for God to give us a new heart and mind.

When we focus on our failures as human beings to love one another as God meant us to, we can become very angry or depressed. Focusing on the evil human beings dump all over one another does not resolve the issue. We need to remember the admonition the apostle James gave us regarding looking into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who is the exact representation of the Father in human flesh, the perfect image-bearer of God each of us is created to be. He is the One we are to keep our eyes on, for he is the living Word of God present in our humanity by the Holy Spirit, ever at work transforming human hearts and minds.

In Christ we have been given a new heart and mind. When we look into the mirror who is Jesus Christ, the One who kept the law of liberty fully and completely as we should, do we see only the broken humanity which is caught in the cesspool of evil and sin? Or do we see the resurrected crucified Lord, who took all that evil and sin upon himself, died our death, and rose from the grave, ascending into the presence of the Father, bearing our glorified humanity now and forever. In the beloved Son of the Father, through whom we are forgiven, accepted and beloved children of God, we find our life is hidden with Christ in God.

As we gaze into the face of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we find we have a choice. We can refuse to believe and accept who he is for us and what he has done for us in giving us himself. We can walk away and resume our old ways of thinking and living. Or we can begin to live into the truth Jesus has revealed to us about who we are as the beloved, forgiven and accepted children of God. We can live and walk in truth, or we can continue in the self-deception, corruption and stubborn willfulness of our lives as disobedient children.

James reminds us that the superficial gloss of religiosity is valueless and is despised by God. Jesus, on many occasions, condemned hypocrisy in self-proclaimed religious people. Saying the right words, even getting the rituals right, is meaningless if it is not backed up by the evidence of our faith in Christ. True religion that is acceptable before God comes from a heart filled with the presence and power of Jesus by the Holy Spirit which is expressed in the care of those who are not able to care for themselves and a life lived out of the truth of who we are in Christ.

The struggle to be what we were meant to be rather than what we find ourselves so often being is a real one. In every moment of every day, we are called once again to turn away from ourselves and to turn to Christ. We are called again to lay down our lives, pick up our cross, and to follow him. We are reminded by the Spirit to gaze again into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus, so we can remember whom we are and begin anew to live out the truth of whom we are in him by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Self-deception is easy. We can always find ways to excuse or rationalize our behavior or our failure to live as we know we ought to live. Those of us who share the good news of the gospel find it a tough challenge to really live out the good news of Jesus Christ in a world which is constantly tempting us to turn away from him, and is ever pulling us back into our old ways of thinking and living. It is so easy to put on the façade and never let anyone know how far we have fallen from the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.

But that is why we are called into fellowship with other believers. The point of gathering with other believers is to grow in our relationship with God and one another, and to grow in Christlikeness. There are many ways in which we gather together—whether at church for worship and hearing the Word, or in a small group for learning and fellowship, or coming together for the simple purpose of praying together as brothers and sisters in Christ. In these spiritual communities, we are living in a small way the kingdom life we were each created for and in which we will live forever when Jesus returns in glory. We have the opportunity right now to express true religion day in and day out as we interact with the people God puts in our lives, offering kindness, service, and humble obedience to the will of God by genuinely loving and caring for them in the name of Jesus.

Sincere, heartfelt love and care for others is a reflection of the nature of Jesus Christ himself, as God in human flesh. He is the mirror we gaze into—and which we want to reflect as we live day by day in this world which has drifted so far from what God meant it to be. Not everyone appreciates a mirror, nor do they care to have reflected back to them how far they have fallen from what they were meant to be. There are places in this world today where people are suffering deeply from choosing Christ and living his way. When the time comes for us to make that same choice, what will we do? Are we willing to be true reflections of the mirror that is Christ, no matter the cost to ourselves?

Heavenly Father, how far we have fallen from all you meant us to be! Thank you so much for not leaving us here forsaken in our darkness. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us and bringing us out into the light, and for sending your Spirit so we can share in your life now and forever. Grant us the grace to worship you, Father, in spirit and in truth, as accurate reflections of your glory and goodness, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”     James 1:17–27 NASB