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The Messianic Spirit

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By Linda Rex

January 23, 2022, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany—One common thread that seems to run through life no matter what century we live in is a desire for someone to come and solve the great problems of life. We may face economic woes, political corruption, moral depravity, or natural disasters, and be tempted to embrace just about anyone who will come in and “save the day.” The price we pay for trusting the wrong person to be our messiah can ultimately be pretty steep, but in those times of great stress and struggle, we may think that we can look the other way for a while, and trust them to fix what we want fixed, and hopefully deal with the fallout on the other side without too much loss.

It is significant that when God pulls together by the Spirit members of the body of Christ, he doesn’t choose any particular person to be the savior. Rather, he pulls together all different sorts of people, gifting each one uniquely so that his purposes will be accomplished, but done in the context of community. The Spirit brings together unique persons with distinct gifts and creates a body of people in and through whom he can do ministry in this world. But Christ remains the one unique Messiah, Savior of all, and allows his body, the Church, to participate in what he is doing in the world.

When Jesus described his messianic mission, he began by saying, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus did not function alone in this world while he was on earth. No, he came as God in human flesh on mission with his Father in the Spirit. The Triune God was at work in and through Jesus Christ, and it was God’s kingdom that was present and active in his personal presence and action when Jesus stood that day in the synagogue and began by the Spirit to read from the book of Isaiah.

Jesus went on to read about what he was anointed by the Spirit to do: “… he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the line, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

Then he ended by telling his listeners that this was being fulfilled in that moment as Jesus stood and expounded the Scriptures to them (Luke 4:14–21 NASB).

In a community that had recently experienced Roman wrath poured out against a Jewish messiah, such talk from a Jew who they were familiar with was really hard to handle. What would be the consequences of the wrong person hearing Jesus speak? Perhaps the common people might appreciate the miracles and the preaching, but the leaders would not have wanted another season of Roman oppression and violence.

But Jesus said, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” That’s the real issue. What do we do when the Spirit goes to work and says to us, “I’ve got something new I am doing—join me.” When the Spirit calls us down a new road of ministry that looks different than what we have been doing, then what? Do we dictate to the Spirit or does the Spirit call us to join with him? This is our challenge as the body of Christ. Are we doing what we are doing “in the Spirit?” Or are we doing it in our flesh and asking the Spirit to bless it?

The body of Christ takes many different forms in the world today. The Spirit brings people together to do ministry in this world. The Spirit even moves in ways which many of us would consider secular. But the Spirit is always and ever active, moving to accomplish the purposes of God in this world. We can enthusiastically join in with him in what he is doing, or we can insist on God accomplishing those tasks we think he should be accomplishing. What does the kingdom of God look like when God brings it to fulfillment here on earth as it is in heaven?

Life in the kingdom of God begins now as Christ in us by the Spirit reigns in human hearts. There is an already-not yet aspect to the kingdom of God. In Christ by the Spirit the kingdom of God is already at work in this world, specifically within the body of Christ, in the communion of the saints. But we also realize that the kingdom of God is not realized in its fulness since so many people today do not fully participate in God’s life and love, not knowing that the kingdom of God is present and active in their lives even now through Jesus and in the Spirit.

The Spirit brings people together into a body, a group of people joined together, uniquely framed into a form that will accomplish God’s particular task in that place for his purpose. We find that not everyone is the same. The Spirit gifts people uniquely, and some may seem to be more gifted than others. The point is not whether someone is more gifted than another. The point is that each of these gifts are brought together into the unity of the Spirit to accomplish a particular purpose in that specific place.

It is equally true that the body of Christ takes a form which is always changing. We like to get in our groove and start doing things a certain way, and then assume that it will always stay like that. In reality, the Spirit is living and active. He is always in motion, doing what is new and life-giving at all times.

It may be that that the Spirit is wanting to do something new while we have our boots stuck in the mud and don’t want to move forward. This is why Jesus faced such opposition from the Jewish leaders in his day. They believed the Spirit only worked in one particular way—their way. They did not see that the Lord of all, who was filled with the Spirit, was the one directing them into a new path. The king of the kingdom of God was present and calling them to a new direction, but they did not want to hear it, much less participate in it.

The apostle Paul, in our reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a, ends this section about spiritual gifts with an invitation to see a new and better way rather than focusing on spiritual giftedness. This transition invites us to discover the beauty and wonder of God’s way of being—love. This is an other-centered way of being that both gives and receives in a mutuality of love and respect. This harmony and unity among unique and equal persons is the image we are to reflect as the body of Christ, for this is the way of being of the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Ultimately, we don’t need a messiah just to deliver us—we need the Messiah to transform and heal us. What happens in this world would be so much different if we each were living “filled with the Spirit” in the unity and oneness Christ brought us into through his messiahship. Jesus described life in the kingdom of God in this world today as discipleship, and said that people would know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another. What if, instead of counting on a human messiah, we began to trust in our true Messiah, Jesus Christ, and began living and walking in the Messianic Spirit he has poured out on all flesh?

Thank you, Father, for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to remain open to your leading and obedient to your Spirit at all times. Keep us surrendered to your will and purposes, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. …  God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. … Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. … But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.”     1 Corinthians 12:12–31a NASB

Grateful for the Gifts

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By Linda Rex

January 16, 2022, 2nd Sunday in Epiphany—The sun is shining over my yard filled with snow. There is every reason to be filled with joy, but this morning my joy is tempered with grief at the passing of Bob Taylor. Bob was a mentor to me as well as a support in many ways in our ministry here in Nashville. I still remember how he and Jan made me feel welcome and at home when I was so nervous and anxious about starting my first pastorate. I was a newbie and they were gracious and patient as I learned the ropes of ministry.

I learned a lot from Bob over the years. We did not always agree on things, but he opened my eyes to see things from another viewpoint. Through his eyes I saw my need to grow up and my need to be gracious to those whose strong opinions did not agree with mine. He encouraged me to develop the spiritual gifts of ministry—preaching, leading, administrating. And he supported me in ways for which I am very grateful.

It is significant that this Sunday’s reading from the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 12:1–11. It is the Holy Spirit who gifts people for ministry of all kinds and in the unity of the Trinity, works out the purposes of God in this world. Even though each of us is different and excels in our gifting in unique ways, all our gifts have their source in the one, unique Spirit who is Lord of all.

Bob definitely had the gift of administration and finances. He could do things with numbers that would make my brain fog over. He helped a lot of people over the years by offering up his gifts in service to Christ. Many members recall his visits during the critical transitional years in GCI, and are grateful for the sacrificial service he offered during that time.

At times, when I am speaking with a follower of Christ, they will tell me that they have no spiritual gifts. I certainly do not believe that to be true. In most cases, I have found that it is not a matter of them not having gifts. It’s more a matter of them not having the courage and faith to try something new and discover the latent gifts they do have. Or not being willing to offer up to Christ and his Church the gifts he has given them, but choosing to hide or ignore them instead.

In refusing to believe God has gifted us in any way, we deny the work of the Spirit in our lives. Take for example a mother who chooses to stay at home and care for her children full time. Having done this at one time in my life, I understand the negative messages such a mother may receive from the culture regarding her decision. She may believe she has no spiritual gifts. In reality, she is doing a powerful ministry to her children and family—one that will last on into eternity. Isn’t the ability to love and care for others a gift we receive from the Spirit?

We all have been given unique gifts, talents, abilities, experiences, and educations. The spiritual gifts listed in Scripture are important as well. All of these gracious gifts from God, when gratefully offered up to him, have an impact on our marriages, our families, our communities, God’s creation, and his world. Why would we want to hide what God meant to be a blessing and a joy for him and others?

Developing the gifts, talents, and abilities we do have is important as well. Bob and the church graciously supported my completion of a masters in pastoral studies. This was such an encouragement to me, as it affirmed my worth as a woman as well as a pastor. When someone offers up their gifts to Christ, we can offer our support by coming alongside them to help them on their journey of obedience and service. Often it is the encouragement, financial or physical support, prayers, and help of others that enables someone to courageously step out in faith to offer up the gifts God has given them.

There is also the matter of finding our giftedness and growing in it within the context of community. There are times when we may decide we have a certain spiritual gift, when others around us see clearly that this is not our gift at all. It is important for us to listen to those around us in the body of Christ who love us and know us well. They often see what we do not see. They may call forth a gift in us by pointing it out and encouraging us to develop it. Or they may point out that there are others who are more gifted than we are in an area we believe we are gifted in. In humility, we can receive this information and be blessed by it, for God’s Spirit guides us in the recognition of and development of our gifts as we are open to his leading.

I was thinking about these things and reading the gospel story for this Sunday. It’s the story about Jesus going to a wedding in Cana with his disciples. His mother realized that the host was out of wine—a very embarrassing circumstance in that community. She took the problem to Jesus. His response was, “What does that have to do with us/me? It’s not my time yet.” But she responded by saying to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

A couple of things popped out as I looked at this. First, why did Mary immediately go to Jesus with the problem? Was she expecting him to pull out his wallet and go shopping? Or did she realize the Spirit had uniquely gifted her Son, and that he could do exactly what was needed in that moment? At times, the Spirit places us in a circumstance in which we are the ones with the gifting which is needed to do what needs done in that time and place. We may not realize that we are the ones gifted by the Spirit to do what is needed, but others will and they will come to us and invite us to be a part of the solution. Has that ever happened to you? What was your response?

The second thing that popped out was what Mary said to the servants. The thing about spiritual gifts is that they are given by the Spirit for a purpose and to fill a need. What has the Spirit prompted you to do? What is the Spirit calling you out to provide in that moment of need? I would say to you what Mary said to those servants: Do whatever the Spirit tells you to do. Follow the lead of the Spirit as he directs you and affirms that direction by the unity of the body of Christ.

Jesus very well could have pulled out his wallet, told the servants to go into town and buy up all the wine they could find. He could have hidden his anointing a little longer if he had wanted to. But he didn’t. He knew that the minute he turned that water into wine, he was headed for the cross. But that did not stop him from doing the one thing only he could do—transform H2O molecules into wine molecules. He offered himself up freely for the sake of others, a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. May we offer our own spiritual gifts up in that same Spirit of self-sacrificial offering.

Thank you, Father, for freely offering us your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for freely offering us yourself. Thank you, Spirit, for coming and filling us, and gifting us so generously. We offer ourselves and all these gifts back to you with gratitude, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.”      1 Corinthians 12:1–11 NASB

See also John 2:1–11 NASB.

Immersed in Christ

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By Linda Rex

January 9, 2022, Baptism of the Lord | EPIPHANY—When I was a girl, my mother and I would often play in the kitchen, trying out new recipes. One of the projects we tried one summer was making pull taffy. This involved cooking sugar and butter at high temperatures on the stove, and when the taffy was made, pulling it into long strips, folding it, and pulling it again and again. It was fun to do, and the final product was extremely sweet and chewy.

In order for the sugar and butter to be transformed into candy though, it had to be cooked at very high temperatures for a precise amount of time. One time, a tiny bit of this extremely hot syrup splashed onto my hand and burnt it badly. This was a painful experience which taught me to be very careful around boiling sugar and butter.

The process of candy-making was necessary and dangerous, but the result was a delightful treat for us to share with others. I suppose I might have decided to never again attempt to make any kind of candy on the stove. That would have protected me from ever getting burnt again, that is true. But at the same time, I would never have had the joy of making and sharing with others the delightful treat of homemade candy. There is often a cost and a challenge involved in making something meaningful and valuable.

This Sunday is the first one in the season of Epiphany, a time when we focus on the revelation of Christ as our Messiah—the Son of God, come in human flesh. We find that even though God knew beforehand the cost that would be involved in sending his Son on this mission to bring all humanity home to the Father, he did not resist, avoid, or fail to do what was necessary to accomplish his purpose. Indeed, we find that Jesus embraced his calling, going forward into the flames of God’s cleansing work in the Spirit, beginning with his baptism.

We hear the words of his heavenly Father as he rose from the water, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” and realize the pleasure and joy the Father had in the self-offering of his Son on our behalf. Throughout his life, Jesus did not withdraw from the flames of God’s loving judgment on evil, sin, and death. No, he walked steadily toward that end when all would be consumed in the fire of the crucifixion. Jesus forged his life of obedience into our humanity, putting to death all that did not belong, and in dying our death, burned up all the chaff of human wickedness and sin, cleansing us in his perfect sacrifice on the cross.

When we see Jesus risen from the grave, we find ourselves included in his resurrection life. We live forever in the presence of the Father in Christ—as humanity is included even now in that perfect relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. What was finished in Christ is offered to us individually in the Spirit—we by faith participate in Christ’s life in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit. What a gift and blessing this is!

Often, if and when we are honest with ourselves, we can clearly see that our lives and our way of living does not match the truth of who God has declared we are in Christ his Son. Many times, we don’t even care that we are not living in the truth of our existence as image-bearers of God. We are indifferent to our calling to love God and love others—at times, we barely even love ourselves. We may even live in ways that deserve a harsh judgment, so we look for ways to cope with guilt, shame and self-condemnation.

But this was never God’s desire for us. His heart is filled with love for us and a desire for us to be all that he meant for us to be. He longs for us to embrace the fire of his transforming love, to find healing and wholeness in intimate relationship with him and healthy relationships with others. What we refuse to do, often, is walk bravely into that fire of God’s love and allow him to do what he needs to do to transform, heal, and renew us.

We tend to prefer that God doesn’t mess around in our innards—we prefer that he mind his own business, and let us go on about ours, doing what we want to do with our lives. What we run from or resist is being immersed in Christ. Are we willing to go all the way down into the water of Christ’s death and resurrection? Are we willing to walk on into the flame of God’s love and allow him to burn away all the chaff of what we were not meant to carry around with us? This takes courage and faith, and a willingness to allow God to do whatever he wills in our hearts and lives. It requires a willingness to surrender—to give all of ourselves, and to hold nothing back.

But we do not face God’s judgment alone. And we need not fear it. When we turn to Christ in faith, we discover he has been through the fire already, cleansing and healing our humanity. Now he wants us to take his hand and allow him to do what is needed to make that cleansing and healing real for us right now in our life today. He wants us to live immersed in him, in his right relationship with the Father, in his life and love.

He’s offering to you and to me, all that he has done for us—so that judgment is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced. The process may be painful for a while as we grow up in him, but Jesus walks us through it by his Spirit, and brings us through to a new place of healing and wholeness, as well as giving us a promise and a hope for everlasting life with God in the new heavens and earth. Turning to Christ in faith is our participation in God’s judgment on evil, sin, and death. We turn away from ourselves and this broken world and turn to Jesus—his life for our life. We begin to live in the truth of who God has declared us to be.

One day, God will bring all that is not included in Christ to an end. We see in the final end that even death and evil will be cast into the lake of fire. This will be the culmination of God’s judgment on all that entered our human existence to bring about sin and death. With gratitude, we will rejoice in that day, joyfully dancing in celebration at what God has done.

Thank you, Father, for the new life you offer us in your Son Jesus. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit through whom we participate in Christ’s life even now. We offer ourselves anew to your transformation and restoration, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; …”     Isaiah 43:1–3a NASB

“Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ … Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’”      Luke 3:15–17, 21–22 NASB

Life in a Watered Garden

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By Linda Rex

January 2, 2022, 2nd Sunday in Christmas—It’s hard to believe that we are beginning a new year again. It seems like just yesterday I was giving thought to what another year might hold, and was pondering what God might have in mind for all of us. Looking back, I am amazed at all that has been written on these pages we call life. So many joys. So many sorrows. So much loss, and yet, so many gifts of grace. So much faith, hope, and love expressed in our world, in ways which have yet to provide full results. And now, looking forward, there is a new blank journal waiting to be written in. What will this new year bring?

I imagine the wonder that Mary felt holding her baby Jesus for the first time. She had no idea what the future held for her, Joseph and the baby. She had no idea that soon she would be visited by dignitaries from the east bringing her magnificent gifts for her son. It never occurred to her that she would end up in Egypt, hiding from King Herod as a result of this visit. Nor did she realize that eventually she would end up in Nazareth, raising a craftsman’s son, who would be rejected by the people he came to save.

What God envisions for us is so often much greater and more involved than what we envision for ourselves. We see a simple path to our dreams or a path full of obstacles, while God sees a bright future with the bumps and bruises we will experience because of the choices we and others will make along the way. It’s possible that we might see a little into our future, but what God sees is what he envisioned for us before any of this was created. He “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world,” the apostle Paul wrote, “that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4–6 NASB).

What God had in mind is evident by how he placed those he created into a watered garden—the garden of Eden. He meant for us to live in this wonderful place of abundance, of joyful relationship with himself, and of meaningful labor and pleasant companionship. How is it that we chose instead a place full of thorns and thistles, of painful labor and heavy toil? Often, what God has in mind for us is so much more than what we choose for ourselves!

But God has always intended our lives to be like watered gardens—a place where we are nourished and blessed by his presence and love. So even before he created us and our world, he committed himself to do everything that would be needed to bring us to that place. First in the garden of Eden, as he walked and talked with Adam and Eve. Then, working with human beings over the millennia, building relationships, working with nations and people to accomplish his divine purpose.

And then he came himself as the Word of God, to take on our human flesh—to go all the way into our human experience, all the way through death to resurrection, in order to bring us into a new place where we could participate with the Son of God in his perfect loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit. The Word of God in human flesh—this was the will of God for you and me, planned and executed—the perfection of the divine life and love to be shared with those God had made. This redemption and ransom of his creation was planned all along—but none of us really came close to understanding it or seeing it until Jesus came and revealed the Father to us and send the Spirit to open our hearts and minds.

As Mary held her baby that holy night, all of this was held in abeyance—God’s plans for the precious infant were beyond those parents’ expectations or comprehension. Letting the infant Jesus wrap his tiny fingers around her own, Mary no doubt felt a deep affection for him, and maybe even an even greater awe at the miracle which had just occurred. God does amazing things when we simply offer ourselves to him in trusting obedience to his will and purposes in this world. But Mary did not grasp the magnitude of what lay in store for this little One.

Over and over, throughout his life here on earth, Mary came face to face with the reality of who her son was—God in human flesh. We read that she would ponder these things in her heart—thinking through what she heard and saw within the context of what she had been told about Jesus before he was born. As Jesus grew up and began to live into his identity as the Son of God and Son of Man, Mary reflected on all that she knew to be true about him. In the end, she came to believe, to put her faith in Christ as her Lord and Savior.

As we face a new year with infinite possibilities, we have the opportunity to pause and give some thought as to what God may have in mind for us as we move forward. Rather than deciding for ourselves what our goals for the next year may be or what our New Year’s resolutions will be, perhaps we could take some time to ask God what he would like to do with our life. What does God have in mind for us in 2022? Does he have a special word for us for this New Year? Is there something new he would like to do in our life this New Year?

In all of our ponderings, we can be encouraged by reflecting on the reality that God has placed us through Jesus in a watered garden. He has given us truth and grace in his Son Jesus, freeing us to live in relationship with God now and forever, as we open ourselves up to the free flow of the water of his Spirit immersing us in his life and love. All of life is lived in Christ now, and can be experienced as constant companionship with the Creator and Sustainer of all. God walks with us and talks with us by his Spirit and his Word, as we turn to Christ in faith. The New Year is full of infinite possibilities and bright hope because we rejoice and dance together in the watered garden of God’s love and life even now through Christ in the Spirit.

Heavenly Father, thank you for planning so much more for us than we could ever plan for ourselves! Thank you for including us in your life and love. Please show us what you have in mind for us this New Year. What would you like to do? How would you have us join in with your divine dance? Do as you will with us in 2022 and beyond, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“ ‘For the LORD has ransomed Jacob and redeemed him from the hand of him who was stronger than he. They will come and shout for joy on the height of Zion, and they will be radiant over the bounty of the LORD—over the grain and the new wine and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; and their life will be like a watered garden, and they will never languish again. Then the virgin will rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old, together, for I will turn their mourning into joy and will comfort them and give them joy for their sorrow. I will fill the soul of the priests with abundance, and My people will be satisfied with My goodness,’ declares the LORD.”     Jeremiah 31:(7–14) 11–14 NASB

“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, ‘This was He of whom I said, “He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.”’ For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”     John 1:10–18 NASB

In Search of Christ

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By Linda Rex

December 26, 2021, Christmas | Holy Family—I remember years and years ago walking downtown to do some shopping with with my mother and two brothers. At that time, the Los Angeles, California suburb of Monrovia was a picturesque city of about 30,000 residents located at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. We often made the trip downtown to use the library, visit the grocery store or thrift shop, or to visit some of the little shops located on Myrtle Avenue.

On this day I recall that while we were visiting a clothing store, we inadvertently lost my younger brother. He was really little at the time, so we were very concerned about what might have happened to him. During our search, I remember looking under all the clothing racks, hoping he might simply have been playing hide and seek. Eventually, we looked up and down the street in different stores, and I remember us even going to the police station in our effort to find him.

This event of my childhood often comes to mind when I read Luke’s account of how Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus as they returned home from Jerusalem with the other travelers. It was not unusual, apparently, for the parents to travel in different groups rather than as a couple, so it’s possible that Mary simply did not realize that Jesus wasn’t with Joseph, or vice versa. And with the number of people traveling together on pilgrimage, they might have simply assumed he was with relatives or friends. Considering the circumstances, it would have been easy to lose track of him.

Imagine the shock, though, when they discovered Jesus wasn’t anywhere to be found. They had, quite simply, lost the child who was to be the Messiah (as if that was even possible). Their subsequent frantic search for Jesus was, from their point of view, perfectly understandable.

The story takes a profound turn, though. It seems the last place they thought he would be is the very place he had been all along—in the temple, sitting at the feet of the teachers of the law of God. When they found him, Mary said to him, “Why have you treated us like this? We have been anxiously looking for you.” But Jesus replied, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48–49 NASB) Apparently, they had forgotten or not understood who he was. Where else would he have been but in his heavenly Father’s house?

Today, as I reflect on this story, it again occurs to me that we participate in this story in a very special way. In it, Jesus teaches us where we can find him when we feel as though we have lost him. We may long for a relationship with God and in searching for him, cannot seem to find him anywhere. Or there may be times in life when we may feel as though we are fatherless or orphaned, or as if we have been abandoned or forsaken. We may feel as though we are left alone, without anyone to care about what happens to us. Or we may long for deep relational connection, but in all our efforts to connect, we are left shattered and broken, trying to bring back together all the pieces of our life.

Jesus says to you and me, “Why are you looking for me?” It may be worthwhile to take some time in quiet reflection to consider the answer to this question. What are we really searching for? Is it possible that we are needing a compassionate and forgiving Friend who will not criticize or condemn us? Is it possible that what we have been struggling to find is actually our loving Father—the One who deeply cares for us and wants to be a part of our life? Do you and I even realize what we are really searching for and need is the Savior Jesus?

And if it is Jesus we are searching for, then why is it we are needing him? Our hearts and minds can tell us a lot about what it is that is really going on inside if we are willing to slow down and pay attention. Too often we, like Joseph and Mary in this story, are so busy going about our everyday lives that we don’t attend to our connection with the One who cares for us so deeply. We can just assume he’s around somewhere or that someone else is tending to him, not realizing we have gone on ahead without him.

What is it we are truly longing for and needing? Why do we do what we do? What do our patterns of life tell us about our relationship with God and with others? We may be surprised to discover that things are not as we first assumed. We may find that what we have been searching for has been right where it needed to be the whole time we were looking for it!

When we do realize who we are looking for and why we are looking for him, then we are able to attend to Jesus’ reply, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” Where do we search in order to find Jesus? We are meant to find Jesus right now in his Father’s house by the Spirit. In the biblical view, we can experience the presence of our Lord right now by the Spirit in a three-fold location: 1) at work in this world, in all he has made and he sustains, 2) in the house of God—the gathering of the body of Christ, the Church, and 3) in the house of God—our hearts and minds.

We are not meant to search everywhere trying to find God. When we search for God, we are meant to awaken by faith to the reality that Christ has come and is present right now by his Holy Spirit. In Jesus by the Spirit, God has made a home for himself within our human flesh and within the body of Christ, the Church—why search everywhere else seeking to find him?

You may be wondering what happened to my younger brother—did we ever find him? Yes, actually we did. When we went to the police station, we were encouraged to go back home and wait to hear from them. And, surprisingly enough, when we got home—there my brother was, waiting for us. He had made his way home, all by himself—something we had never expected him to do.

I believe that if we were to take some time in silent reflection, asking God where he is and how to find him and then waiting for his response, we might discover that he is where he always has been—very near and very present by his Holy Spirit, at home in our hearts and lives. It is by faith in Christ that we come to the realization that he has come to dwell in us by the Spirit.

In Colossians 3:12–17, the apostle Paul tells us to “put on” the nature of Jesus Christ, to “let” the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and the word of Christ richly dwell within us. These are actions that are a response to what Christ has already done within our humanity by living our life, by dying our death and by rising again, bringing us home to the Father. As we trust in him and in his finished work, we find that in the sending of his Spirit, Jesus Christ is genuinely present in our individual lives and in the Church. We don’t have to look everywhere for Jesus in order to find him. Rather, we do need to respond to his real presence within and in our midst right now by the Holy Spirit, placing our trust in him and gratefully doing everything in his name for the glory of our Father.

Putting our faith in the One who has made himself at home in human hearts and has brought us home to the Father is a life-changing decision. Pondering these things in our hearts as Jesus’ mother Mary pondered the words and actions of the eternal Son of God, her son Jesus, is an important spiritual discipline we can practice each day. Being baptized, studying the written Word of God, speaking with God in prayer, gathering with believers in spiritual fellowship, taking communion—these are all healthy ways to come to terms with the reality of who Jesus is, and what he has done and is doing in us and in our world by his Spirit. And there are so many other spiritual practices by which we are able to actively participate each day in Jesus’ loving relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. For Jesus has made us now and forever at home with himself in the presence of the Father and made himself at home with us and in us by the Holy Spirit.

Heavenly Father, thank you that we have a home with you even now through Christ and in the Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, that we don’t have to look everywhere in order to find you—you’re closer even than the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. You have made your home in us and our home in you. Holy Spirit, awaken us anew to the realization of God’s real presence and abundant love through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“… and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem looking for Him. Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.’ And He said to them, ‘Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?’ …”      Luke 2:44b–49 (41–52) NASB

O God, Restore Us!

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By Linda Rex

December 19, 2021, ADVENT | Love— As I put out my nativity set in my living room each year, I hide the baby Jesus away for the miracle of Christmas morning. The shepherd watches from a safe distance, and the wise men with their camel are hidden back on a shelf temporarily until closer to that day. On that sacred evening we celebrate on Christmas Eve, I bring out the baby Jesus and pause with wonder at the miracle of this special event. The shepherd draws near to worship and the wise men on their journey come closer, seeking this chosen One.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in relationship with this God who would go to such incredible effort to draw every human being to himself in the miracle of the incarnation. I personally know the anguish and struggle that go with giving birth to a firstborn son, and the incredible joy and wonder which result when holding him in my arms for the first time. How could this marvelous bundle of possibilities have ended up in my arms? What does God have in mind for his life? How much more amazing must it have been for Mary to consider the wonder of being chosen to bear the Messiah!

But there is an undercurrent to this marvelous story which I believe is important to understand, and it goes along with this theme of being in relationship with God. And it is this: Jesus came because it was the will of God that he do so. He came because it is the nature of God to love and care for those he has created and brought into relationship with himself. The divine Son came willingly, and obediently, as an expression of God’s covenant love and faithfulness. The Son of God knew the Father in the Spirit, and trusted fully in his love—so he freely offered himself in obedience to the will of his Father.

My heart is heavy right now with all I see going on in my world. We are experiencing the consequences of our continual choices to do things our own way—to decide for ourselves how we will live and how we will treat one another and this world we all live on. I am broken by the way we live and the consequences of our choices. And it breaks my heart to think about what our children and grandchildren will be having to deal with when my generation has passed from the scene. What a price we pay for doing things our own way!

I often hear this time of year that the reason Jesus came was to die on the cross. In one way, I agree with this, but in another, I feel as though it truncates what Jesus actually came to do. The author of Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in whole burnt offerings and’ sacrifices ‘for sin you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come (in the scroll of the book it is written of me) to do your will, O God.” ’ … By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:57, 10 NASB)

I believe the Scriptures teach us that Jesus came to bring us into right relationship with God and subsequently with one another. Doing so required so much more than simply dying on the cross. It also involved being conceived in the womb of a woman, being a babe in her arms, growing up as a child into adulthood, and learning a trade at the feet of his father. Jesus experienced all of the everyday activities of our human life in a human body, being tempted in every point, but without sin. The forging of our true humanity occurred throughout his life, from birth even to death and on into the resurrection and ascension. In his human existence on this earth, Jesus “learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, … (Heb. 5:8–9 NASB).”

The song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” comes to mind as I am writing this. In this hymn which expresses our deep longing for our redemption and salvation, I hear echoed our longing for this transformation of our human existence:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
And order all things, far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
And cause us in her ways to go

O come, Desire of nations bind
All peoples in one heart and mind
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

(Latin Hymn, Translated by John M. Neale and Henry S. Coffin; Adapted from Plainsong by Thomas Helmore)

We also need to attend to the reality that there was a substantial difference between the responses of the two representative females in God’s story: Eve did not believe God, and ate of the tree she was told not to eat of, while Mary believed God’s word to her through the angel Gabriel and told God to do with her as he wished. In Eve, disbelief resulted in disobedience and all of the subsequent result of that as sin and death entered our human existence. In Mary’s belief and obedience, we find the life-giving God enters into our death- and sin-bound human existence in the person of Jesus Christ and restores our true humanity in his life, death, resurrection and ascension—making possible our right relationship with the Triune God now and forever in the gift of his Son and his heavenly Spirit.

What if we willingly surrendered our independence, our preferences, and our expectations to the God who came to us to bring us into right relationship with himself? What if we, like Mary, believed that God was good and loving, that he was faithful and trustworthy, and that he sought what was best for us? What if we actually said to God each day and in each moment, “Do with me as you wish”? What if we indeed brought every thought captive to the will of God in Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)?

The good news is that this is the very reason Jesus came. Jesus took our stubborn willfulness and turned us back toward obedience to the Father—even to the point of death on the cross. Jesus bore the suffering and agony of our rejection and resistance to God upon himself, took it to the grave, and emerged offering us new life in himself. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:16–17 NASB).”

What a lovely reason for the season! All that is left for us is to respond to Christ’s gift in faith, being filled with the Spirit and pouring out our gratitude in praise like Elizabeth, Mary, and Zacharias—all participants in this miraculous event. What we could not and would not do, Jesus did in our place and on our behalf. Such great love expressed to us by God above! We humbly receive with open hands and hearts, and respond with gratitude, saying, “Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” Your life, Jesus, for my life. Thank you, Lord!

“O God of hosts, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”      Psalm 80:7 NASB

“Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.’”     Luke 1:39–45 NASB

Shout for Joy!

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By Linda Rex

December 12, 2021, ADVENT | Joy—During my recent retreat, I spent some time on a pleasant property out in the country, where the rolling hayfields were dotted with limestone and the trees were covered with autumn-colored leaves. On my walks outside, I would pass by a small fountain of water pouring down over a pile of rocks and into a lovely outdoor pool surrounded by cattails and aquatic plants. The steady rush of water from fountain to pool gave the area a feeling of restfulness and inspired a sense of renewal.

As I was looking over the passages for this Sunday, I was reminded of the many ways in which the replenishing properties of water were used in Scripture as a way to describe the Holy Spirit—the living presence of God himself. We are reminded that there is only one cure for the unending thirst in our soul, and that our efforts to fill that emptiness on our own will inevitably end up fruitless.

Indeed, we were created for joy, but we often find our human experience falls way short of joy. If anything, we experience everything but joy in this broken and hurting world. But the apostle Paul told us to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Phil. 4:4 NASB)!” How in the world do we rejoice in the midst of our everyday struggles, difficulties and hardships? How do we find true joy when all we are given are ways to experience temporary pleasures and fleeting happiness instead?

There’s a story in the Old Testament about when Israel was traipsing around the wilderness and began to complain because they were thirsty. The place where they had been led to by God did not have any water sources. As they focused on their lack of water, they began to believe that God was not with them. They kept their eyes on what they didn’t have, and forgot what they did have—the presence and power of God in their midst (Ex. 17:1–7).

So often, this is our own issue. We can get so focused on our circumstances, or on the immediate situation—the politics, the environment, the people down the street, whatever we are concerned about—and lose sight of the spiritual realities. This is the problem. We forget that we have in our midst the Source of living water—God himself in Christ by the Spirit, living and active in our lives and circumstances.

This is God’s word to us: “Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; … The LORD your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will [renew you in his love], He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zeph. 3:14–17 NASB). God calls us to joy because he is living, present and active as the One who victoriously conquered over evil, sin and death.

During Advent we are reminded to watch attentively for the coming of the Righteous One, the coming of God into this world to deliver, restore, and renew. As we draw near the celebration of Christmas, the coming of God into human flesh becomes the focus of our worship and praise. God has not left us alone in the midst of our darkness. No, he has come to us. The Word of God, the eternal Son who has always lived in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, has come, taken on our flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again. He is that baby, born to Mary on that blessed night, for the sake of every human being. He is the fountain of living water in the midst of our arid desert. He is the spring of renewal and refreshment in a dying world.

We are called to be attentive to the reality that God in Christ by the Spirit is our salvation. “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation,” Isaiah wrote. “Cry aloud and shout for joy…for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 12:2, 6 NASB).” Shout for joy! God has come to dwell with man! Rejoice in triumph! Jesus is a victorious warrior, who is exulting over us with joy and renewing us in his love. Christ has come, and freed us from evil, sin, and death! He has brought us hope, peace, joy and love!

We need to grab hold of the spiritual reality that God in Christ has come and by his Spirit is present and real right now in us and with us. He knows we need spiritual water and is more than ever ready to provide it—are we receptive and open? Are we awakened to our need, and rather than complaining, are we humbly asking for God’s supply?

Jesus calls to us and says: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:37–39 NASB).” “… whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:13–14 NASB).” Jesus, in his self-offering, is the endless supply of spiritual refreshment and renewal we need in every part of life. By the Spirit, he is present and available, and will fill us as we repent and turn to him in faith.

It is ironic that in the gospel passage for this Sunday we find John the Baptizer contrasting his water baptism with Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire of judgment is something we get very concerned about, not realizing the significance of Jesus’ self-offering in our place and on our behalf. As God in human flesh, Jesus forged into our humanity the love of God and crucified in himself the sin, evil and death to which we had enslaved ourselves. In the resurrection we find that all that chaff that is not part of the fruitfulness of life in Christ was blown away. The apostle Paul wrote that “from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:16–17 NASB).” Humanity has new life in Christ! This is reason to rejoice.

So, what will you do with Jesus Christ? What will you do with the reality that God is now in the midst of us by the Holy Spirit, offering to each of us the living water of life in relationship with God through Jesus? Will you gaze anew with wonder and joy on the Christ child this year, gratefully receiving the life in the Trinity he has brought you in his life, death, resurrection and ascension? Will you receive from him the living water he has given—the blessed Spirit of life in Christ Jesus?

We have every reason to rejoice. We are not left alone, abandoned to this crazy world and all its darkness and despair. God has cracked open the rock and poured out abundantly his living waters of salvation, and calls us to drink deeply, to satiate our souls in his real presence in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. Jump in the river! Dance in the shallows! Soak it all up! Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!

Thank you so much, dear Father, for not leaving us hungry and thirsty for your love and grace. Thank you for planting us by your streams of living water and offering us reconciliation, refreshment, and renewal—life in Christ by the Spirit. Fill us anew with the joy of salvation. Enable us to celebrate this year with a real sense of your presence in us and with us by your Holy Spirit, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.”     Luke 3:16–18 (7–18) NASB

See also Philippians 4:4–7; Zephaniah 3:14–20; Isaiah 12:2–6.

Preparing for a Royal Visit

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By Linda Rex

December 5, 2021, ADVENT | Peace—As a college student, we took a class trip our senior year to Palm Springs, California. This city is located in the Sonoran Desert, so it hot in the summer and very dry. Since growing anything of significance in southern California requires the use of water, which was often in limited supply, it was common to see rock gardens blended with cacti, succulents and palm trees in the front yards of homes and businesses.

There are a variety of stones used to create rock gardens. Today, one can purchase large bags of pea gravel or attractive polished rocks at a do-it-yourself home supply store or even have a truckload of these products delivered to one’s front door. Here in Tennessee, we have contractors blasting rock, digging it out and removing it in order to build a home and create an attractive front yard. There they were filling their yards with rocks!

But this whole discussion about rocks came about because I was thinking about what Luke said John the Baptizer was doing when he came into Judea before the coming of Christ. He said that he was preparing the way before the Messiah. Back in those days, when a ruler was planning to visit a particular place, an announcement was sent ahead, telling the people to prepare the road. They would go out and clear all the rocks off the road so that the visiting dignitary wouldn’t be jostled about, nor end up with a broken axle or wheel on his conveyance.

Having lived some time on a farm in southeast Iowa, I know what it is like to try to travel on a gravel road or, even worse, a dirt road. And this is while driving a car. All it takes is one large rock in the wrong place and you are in serious trouble. Or if the road isn’t level—many times they had a large mound in the middle or a deep, muddy hole a tire could get stuck in—you would end up stuck or broken down, and not being able to get safely where you needed to go.

Since most of us today here in America travel on asphalt, and apart from the occasional pothole, do not face these types of issues, we may find it difficult to understand fully the importance of John’s message. For many of us, the hard work of removing the rocks and leveling the road has already been done. We take for granted that we can safely travel from one city to another at a high rate of speed on interstate highways which extend for miles in every direction. We also assume that we can, apart from road construction or accidents, easily travel back and forth from work, school, or the store.

What we need to realize is that what Jesus did for us was to create this amazing paved road to life in the kingdom of God in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—and then he gave us the ability to travel it by sending his Spirit from the Father to dwell in human hearts as we place our trust in him and his finished work. We celebrate an important step in this amazing work of redemption during Advent as we prepare, in a sense, for the coming of the Messiah in the incarnation. John’s message is important because it reminds us that, apart from the coming of Christ, our road is unlevel and full of rocks and obstructions.

John’s call to prepare the way involves the call to repentance and baptism for the remission of sins. By necessity, we need to discern the difference between just feeling bad because we messed up or sorry because we got caught and are experiencing consequences, and truly being repentant. Biblical repentance involves a change in both one’s mind and heart. It involves a turning away from one’s self and one’s own will, and a turning toward Christ and his will. To repent in this way means a total change in one’s direction and way of living. It’s the beginning of a lifelong journey on the kingdom path of God’s righteousness being worked out in us by the Spirit, as we grow up into Christlikeness.

But this awareness of need and turning away from sin, Satan, and self is a lifelong process. We never want to take this level road Christ has given us for granted. It is good to ponder the message of John and ask ourselves again: What rocks of sin, Satan, and self are lying about in my soul today? What do I keep tripping over or crashing into, forcing my life to come to a complete stop? How deep a rut am I caught in right now that is tearing up my heart and destroying my relationships and my health? Perhaps it would be good to reflect a moment on the message of John—prepare the way of the Lord.

We, as the body of Christ, have often taken this message—prepare the way of the Lord—to mean that we need to preach the gospel in order to hasten the second coming of Christ. It is a good thought, and I would not want to resist what positive affect it may have on our spiritual renewal and preparation for Christ’s return. But I humbly submit that perhaps there is another preparation for the way of the Lord we need to consider—the preparing of our hearts and minds anew to receive the gift of the Christ child—of Christ in us, the hope of glory.

Are we open to the coming and presence of God by the Holy Spirit within our souls right now, in each and every moment? Is there someway in which perhaps we need to take seriously the call to repentance that we have previously ignored? What have we put in the place that only Jesus Christ should have in our minds and hearts? Are we living in the realization that all of our life is in Christ, and that every moment is meant to be filled with his presence and power by the Spirit?

It is hard to move forward in life when we are constantly dealing with the rocks of sin, self, and Satan. Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders of his day was not about their devotion to God and his ways, but for their arrogance in believing they did not need to repent of their sins and be baptized in his baptism in the Spirit. Could it be that our struggle even as followers of Christ today is that we are so sure we are traveling the right path and are rightly related to God that we are missing the simple reminder, prepare the way of the Lord?

Jesus has come, he has offered us the free pardon of grace. He has paved the way. But do we recognize the reality that we are traveling on an unlevel road filled with rocks and holes and ruts? Repent—turn around—go the other way, he calls to us. Trade in your path for my easy path. Make a way—clear a path—these are all the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives. But God calls us to participate by doing our part—repent and believe. Be washed in baptism, if you haven’t taken that step. Then feed on Christ—on his life, poured into you through his Word and by his Spirit, and in joining together with other believers as we share communion. This is the easy path forged for us in Christ. We receive it daily by faith, in gratitude for all God has done, as we travel daily down this road called life.

Dear heavenly Father, thank you for creating in Christ and by the Spirit a path to travel in life that is free from the rocks and obstructions of Satan, sin, and self. As we travel day by day, grant us the grace and humility to remain repentant and to ever make way for your royal coming and presence through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every ravine will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be brought low; the crooked will become straight and the rough roads smooth; and all flesh will see the salvation of God.” ’ ”      Luke 3:3–6 (1–6) NASB

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on ‘before the Lord to prepare his ways’; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, ‘to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death’, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”     Luke 1:76–79 (68–79) NASB

The Lord Our Righteousness

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By Linda Rex

November 28, 2021, ADVENT | Hope—The other day, my husband was telling me how during his myriad travels he came across a radio station in Florida playing Christmas music. Christmas music in October? Apparently, the station owners believed that all the negative press and bad news needed to be overcome with the good news found within the Christmas message, which brings hope, peace, joy and God’s love.

Indeed, we do well to attend to the spiritual realities which lie behind all the negative noise going on right now in the world around us. We can be overcome with sorrow, anger, and frustration due to the appearance of success that evil seems to be having. Or we can focus on the leaves bursting forth on the fig tree—there is new growth which will one day result in an abundant harvest of righteousness and goodness, to be celebrated forever in God’s loving presence.

The Old Testament is replete with warning to God’s people about what will happen should they wander away from their covenant relationship with God. Indeed, the apocalyptic language of such events strikes terror into us. None of us wish to personally experience the power of a tsunami or the destruction accompanying the alteration of the orbit of the heavenly bodies like the moon or sun.

What catastrophes might we personally dread? Have we ever thought about the consequences of how we live our lives day by day? Jesus says that no earthly catastrophe compares with the consequences of rejecting our one hope of salvation in him. So, he wants us to pay attention—to not take our relationship with God for granted, but to be actively involved in a life in sync with who we are as the beloved, forgiven, redeemed children of God.

I remember how for many years I agonized over whether or not I would qualify for the kingdom of God. Would I ever be good enough? Saints over the centuries have agonized over this question. How many of us have lived in this internal torment, longing for a mere morsel of hope that we will be included in the new life to come?

God gave his people a promise in Jeremiah 33:14-16 that one day a righteous son of David would come forth to execute justice and righteousness on the earth. When that day came Judah would be saved and Jerusalem would dwell in safety. God’s people would be known by this name, “the Lord our righteousness” (NKJV). The NIRT puts it this way, “The Lord Who Makes Us Right With Himself.”

The spiritual reality we need to grab hold of and rest in is that Jesus Christ is our right relationship with God, now and forever. Whatever we may do, whatever effort we put into it, is merely a participation in what Jesus has already done, is doing even now by his Spirit, and will do when he returns in glory. This is why, when the world begins to fill with catastrophes, we have no reason to fear or be afraid—we are already saved, are being saved, and will be saved—in Christ. By faith, we can lift our heads and look with hope and joy at the coming of our Lord in glory.

Truly, Jesus did warn us that it is easy to get distracted by the cares of this life and the pulls of our human flesh. We can learn a lot from those early Christian anchorites, who obeyed Jesus’ command to deny themselves, lay down their lives and follow Christ. They were willing to go to great lengths to forbid themselves the everyday blessings of life because they wanted more of Jesus. They were willing to humble themselves and receive the rejection of their peers and the world around them for the sake of doing what they believed Christ wanted them to do—seek him and him alone. Their eyes and minds and hearts were fixed on heaven, not on this earth and its pleasures and cares. There is much we can learn from them about self-denial and simple obedience to the Spirit.

Jesus and the early apostles called us to prayer—to acknowledging and acting on our dependency upon God in every situation of life. We pray for one another as well, offering up our support and encouragement as we face the difficulties and struggles of walking as believers in a world which opposes and rejects the person and way of Jesus. In prayer we call forth God’s presence and power in and through us—praying for God to increase his love in our hearts and lives, his holiness in our actions and motivations, and enabling us to experience by the Spirit the right relationship with God and man Jesus forged for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

God calls us to alertness—to readiness—a focus on him and his work in us and in this world. We often make prayer about telling God what he needs to be doing. In reality, prayer needs to become a way in which we become present to what God is already doing, attentive to what he wants to do in us and in the world around us, and how we can be a part of that. Prayer, by necessity, needs to become listening to the heart of the Father, and an openness to doing his will in this world, whatever that may be.

Prayer in the Spirit actually begins with God, who shares his thoughts and desires with us by the Spirit, and moves us to pray about the things which are important to him, about those things that he is at work in this world doing right now. As we offer up our prayers in tune with the heart of the Father, Jesus takes them, perfects them, and offers them in the Spirit back to the Father, completing the circle of relationship in which we are included. It is a beautiful thing to pray in the Spirit—sharing in the inner life of the Trinity!

Our attentiveness to God, our posture of listening and receptivity, of participation in the divine life and love, is how we prepare for the cataclysmic end of the world Jesus warned us would be coming. There is no need to fear or be anxious in the midst of difficult or dangerous times, for we are, even now, included in the inner life of the Triune God of love. We are already sharing in that blessed hope which will be fully realized when Jesus returns in glory. By faith, we trust in the finished work of Christ, so there is nothing for us to fear when we see Jesus return again—we’re already active in what he is doing in this world, participating in God’s mission, communing with God, and knowing he is present in every moment. His return in glory is merely the next step in what we are doing with him as the ones for whom the Lord is our righteousness.

Thank you, dear Abba, for including us in your life and love through Jesus your Son and in the Spirit. Remind us constantly to turn our hearts and minds toward you, so that all of life is lived aware of you and your real and active presence. Prepare our hearts to receive you, Jesus, now and forever, by your grace. Amen.

“Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.”     1 Thessalonians 3:(9–10) 11–13 NASB

“But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. … Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”     Luke 21:28, 34–36 (25–36) NASB

The Cost of Truth

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By Linda Rex

November 21, 2021, Christ the King or Reign of Christ, PROPER 29—I was standing in an aisle of the grocery store last week looking at the wide variety of crackers available for purchase. I was happy to see that there were more wholesome, natural products being offered at a price point similar to the common brand names. Then I looked more closely and realized that the price may have been similar but the amount of the product was significantly reduced in comparison to the others. It was obvious that an effort was being made to get buyers to choose their product, believing they would be buying a better product at a reasonable price, while in reality the buyer was being given much less product at a higher price.

I am saddened by all the different ways in which truth seems to inevitably depart from our human existence, especially when money or politics are involved. We give ourselves over so easily to the will and purposes of the father of lies rather than taking the difficult stand on what is truthful, authentic, and sincere. So often, we offer up our integrity on the altar of ease, comfort, pleasure, prosperity or popularity. We have made truth out to be something which is adjustable, according to our opinion or preference, rather than rooted in Someone outside ourselves—the One who is the God of truth, who came to us in Jesus—the way, the truth, the life—and who sent us the Spirit of truth to dwell in human hearts.

When Jesus was standing in the presence of Pilate during his last days here on earth, he was interrogated, asked whether or not he was the king of the Jews. Jesus did not lie about who he was, but rather, embraced the cost that went with telling the truth. He was born to be a king, but not the kind of human, political ruler Pilate should be concerned about. Jesus was the ruler of a spiritual kingdom—one which would be grounded in truth, rooted in his own self-offering on behalf of all humanity.

Pilate’s flippant comment at the end of their interview, “What is truth?” is a question that humans have wrestled with over the centuries. When we are not grounded in the One who is truth, we struggle to have a basis on which to establish truth. The loss of truth in our daily lives finds expression in a society and culture in which relativity reigns, where people adjust truth to suit their personal preferences and opinions, and where relationships falter and fall apart due to a lack of trust and authenticity.

There is a reason that truth is so essential. It is central to who we are. If we cannot simply be who we are—be truly sincere, genuine, and real—we find ourselves self-destructing and destroying our lives, our relationships, and the world in which we live. God never meant for us to struggle in this way. We were created to live and walk in truth because he is the God of truth in whose image we are made. We were designed to be people of integrity, honesty, and faithfulness because we are created in the image of the God who is faithful, honest, and reliable.

The necessary ingredient for truth to be central to our existence in relationship with God and others, though, is grace. We cannot have truth just on its own or it will destroy us, since we so often, by our human sinfulness, never seem to choose truth. Or we use truth to harm or destroy others rather than to build them up in love. This is why Jesus brought us both grace and truth. God knew that apart from him offering us forgiveness and mercy, we could never walk in truth—we always seem to wander away from this way of being we were created to live in.

Jesus was telling the truth to Pilate when he said he was born to be a king, and was the king of the Jews. He knew that his kingship was being rejected in that moment by his people, even though he had come to them and was offering them the opportunity to participate in his kingdom right then by faith. Jesus was establishing the divine kingdom of God in his flesh—living our life, dying our death, and he would rise again, bringing all of humanity into a new realm of existence in which they, by faith, could participate in his kingdom by the Spirit. This sacrificial self-offering was necessary for grace to undergird the kingdom of God being established by the One who is the truth of our existence as those made in the image of God.

When we read God’s word, we see how much God hates untruth. He hates it because it dehumanizes us—makes us what we were never meant to be—dishonest, unfaithful, inauthentic, untrustworthy—all ways of being which destroy and tear down society, relationships, and families. Untruth, though often considered an essential business practice, actually destroys people’s trust and ruins the reputation of a business or organization or leader. The power of untruth to destroy is seen all around us every day, but we still seem to choose it as an option when faced with the consequences of telling the truth.

This is because telling the truth, being honest, sincere and authentic, has a cost. This cost resembles what Jesus went through when he told the truth about who he was as the Son of God, the king of the Jews. The cost of telling the truth is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you want the benefits of the kingdom of truth, you need to be willing to pay the price of entering into the kingdom—truth-telling involves dying to self, laying down one’s preferences, popularity and all the perks of this life, for the sake of the kingdom of God—for the sake of living and walking in truth.

How easy it is to varnish the truth a little! To slip in a little white lie rather than have that difficult conversation! To polish or add a little glitz rather than to humbly admit what really happened! It takes a great deal of humility, courage, and faith to simply speak the truth in love when we would rather do otherwise.

One of the spiritual disciplines we have studied in our spiritual formation group is truth-telling. In Adele Calhoun’s book “Handbook of Spiritual Disciplines”, she explains that truth-telling is an offering up to God of space in our hearts and lives by telling the truth, in love, in every situation, no matter the cost to ourselves. This can be a very difficult thing for some of us, because we may have lied so often to ourselves and others that we have a hard time discerning what the truth really is. This is why we turn to Jesus, the One who is the truth. We receive from him the Spirit of truth—Christ’s nature of honesty, integrity, and truthfulness. It is by grace that we become truth-tellers.

We can begin the process of truth-telling by humbly coming to Christ the King and telling him the truth. We do not need to fear telling Jesus the truth because he already knows it—he simply wants us to admit it, and to receive his grace for having been less than truthful. We can ask God for the grace to tell the truth in every situation, receiving from him the Spirit of truth we need so that we can be Christlike people who live and walk in truth. What will it cost you to tell the truth today? Receive from Jesus his own self-offering of truth so that you can pay the cost of being a truth-teller in his kingdom.

Dear Father of truth, forgive us for our dishonesty and untruthfulness, for all the ways we embellish or alter the truth. Thank you for the grace you offer us in Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Grant us, by your Spirit of truth, the grace to be truth-tellers, now and forever, in your heavenly kingdom, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?’ Pilate answered, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.’ Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’”      John 18:33–37 NASB