Is God Among Us or Not?

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By Linda Rex

MARCH 15, 2020, 3rd SUNDAY IN EASTER PREPARATION—Have you ever felt weary from the journey, wanting to just sit down, exhausted from the journey on the rocky road of life? Has life come at you full speed, ripping out of your hands everything that to you is precious and worth having? We all come to places there we find ourselves in the dry, barren wilderness where we wonder if we will ever again be in a place of joy, plenty, and peace.

As this area of middle Tennessee still reels from the impact of the tornadoes earlier this week, I am reminded again of the fragility of human life. Our technological wonders become impotent when the power goes out. Our cities become a mass of traffic snarls and, sad to say, even human predators begin roaming the streets, looking for ways to take advantage of those already in crisis.

In the midst of our suffering and struggles, we can so easily begin to gripe and complain, much like the Israelites when they came to the wilderness of Sin at Rephidim and there wasn’t any water (Ex. 17:1-7). The circumstances they found themselves in spoke more loudly than the past experiences of God’s presence and care as they journeyed. Even though they had been given plenty of evidence that God was with them and cared about them, they still questioned the reality of it, asking, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”

How easy it is for us to forget the living, loving presence of God! The psalmist in Psalm 95 speaks of how impossible it was for the people of God to find rest in him when they kept forgetting who he was—the loving Lord who had redeemed them from slavery and had brought them into covenant relationship with himself. They had forgotten the simple truth—God was theirs and they were his. If they had simply trusted in this God who was united with them in covenant love, they would have had peace and comfort in the midst of their struggles, and would known he was going to provide for their every need on the journey.

In the story in Exodus we find that Moses was told by God to take his rod and to strike the rock at Horeb, so that water would flow from it so they could drink. In Psalm 95, the psalmist calls God himself “the rock of our salvation.” He is the one who “is our God, | And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” This is the God who sat by the well in Samaria, wearied from the journey, simply asking for a drink of water.

It was not enough for God to sit up in heaven watching us go through life, stumbling and hurting, and failing to love and be loved. He solidified his relationship with the creatures he had made by taking on our humanity and dwelling for a time in the midst of our human existence, experiencing all the temptations we face during our lives here on earth. In Jesus Christ, the One who is God in human flesh, the immovable crag, the solid Rock of our salvation, we find the source of our refreshment and renewal.

Just as the rock in the wilderness was struck by Moses, Jesus was abused, tortured, and killed by those for whom he came. But we read in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (NASB). The greatest expression of the covenant love of God toward humanity is found in this gift of Jesus Christ, for in him and through him, we are given life.

Jesus told the woman he met at the well in Samaria, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but 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). God came in the person of Jesus Christ, was crucified for our behalf, but rose again, drawing all humanity with him into the presence of the Father. In the sending of the living water, the Spirit, we are invited to drink of eternal life, the life which Jesus forged for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In spite of how we may feel at the moment and in spite of what we may see happening all around us, the spiritual reality is that we are held in the midst of the love and life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We are included in their divine life, and by the Spirit we participate in the eternal loving relationship between the Father and the Son. We are held at all times in the loving hands of our heavenly Father—no matter what our personal experience at the present time here on earth may be.

As long as we keep our eyes on our circumstances and refuse to believe in the living Presence of our loving God, we will find no rest or peace. Our anxiety and negative outlook find their roots in the lingering question in our hearts and minds, “is God among us or not?” We can look at Jesus as though he is a boulder—hard, cold, and impenetrable. We can refuse to believe God cares at all about us or the circumstances in our lives. But we would be believing a lie, a lie which prevents us from seeing or hearing the One who is truly present with us at all times.

We find hope in the midst of our struggles when we come to know and believe that God is present in us, with us, and for us in the person of Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Trusting in Jesus enables us to find rest in the middle of tragedy and suffering, offering us peace in spite of what is happening all around us. The apostle Paul writes, “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:3-5 NLT)

It is essential that we remember and believe who God is—the God who loves us so much that he was willing to come and be present with us in the midst of our human suffering, struggles, and death, and to lift us up into life with himself. This is the God who has committed himself to us by taking our very humanity, our life and death, upon himself so we can be with him both now and forever. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 8:38-39, “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love … revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NLT). Now that is a promise—and a Being—worth resting in.

Thank you, Father, for your faithful love in spite of our forgetfulness and unbelief. Holy Jesus, thank you for your immeasurable gift of yourself and for sending the Spirit from the Father so we can begin to know and believe we are loved, held, and cared for at all times, no matter our circumstances. Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to receive the flowing waters of eternal life, allowing ourselves to be immersed both now and forever in God’s love and grace, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“He named the place Massah and because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us, or not?” Exodus 17:7 NASB

“Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, | As in the day of Massah in the wilderness, | When your fathers tested Me, | They tried Me, though they had seen My work. | For forty years I loathed that generation, | And said they are a people who err in their heart, | And they do not know My ways. | Therefore I swore in My anger, | Truly they shall not enter into My rest.” Psalm 95:8-11 NASB

See also John 4:5-42 and Romans 5:1-11.

Journeying With Jesus

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By Linda Rex

March 8, 2020, 2nd SUNDAY IN EASTER PREPARATION—The longer I am a pastor and the more the Spirit leads me to even more boldly proclaim the good news of Christ, the more I experience the rejection of those opposed to the beauty of God’s love and grace. It may be that I do my best to follow the lead of Christ and his Spirit, but it never fails that my motives are questioned, my heart is maligned, and my efforts ridiculed. In this post-Christian age, it is noteworthy that those most critical of and opposed to the clear message of the love and grace of God are often fellow believers.

This morning during my devotional time I was reminded that when Jesus calls us to follow him, he doesn’t always tell us at the beginning where we are going or how we are going to get there. But he does tell us there will be a cost. There is a cost to following Jesus because the path Jesus trod was straight through death into resurrection.

Jesus doesn’t always tell us at the beginning of our journey where we may end up. What is more urgent on his mind is that we are going with him where he is going. If we knew ahead of time that we would be headed where we were headed, would we even go there? Probably not.

When God told Abram to leave his country, his relatives, and his own family home, he did not tell him specifics about where he would end up. He merely told him to go, to leave where he was and move toward the place where God would show him. And so Abram left (Genesis 12:1–4a).

Part of God’s promise to Abram was that he would bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him. God gave him a promise that he would not travel this road alone, but that God would take seriously everything that happened to Abram, and enable him to be the person God was calling him to be. Abram just needed to trust God and act on what he had been told to do. And he did.

In the writings of Paul (Romans 4:1–5, 13–17) we read that because Abram believed, God counted it as righteousness. Abram saw God as the One who made everything from nothing, who could take something and make it into something new. He trusted God to be who he was in his life—the One who would take him from where he was to where he needed to be. And so he acted accordingly—by faith.

What is it about stepping out into a new place that is so frightening for us? And what if we are trying to do what God is calling us to do and all we meet with is opposition or ridicule? Where is God in these situations? He is where he has always been—with us and in us. This is the key.

Sometimes we get all involved in the journey and we lose sight of the simple fact—it’s not about the journey. It’s about who we are journeying with. It’s about our ongoing relationship with the One who holds us in his hand, who has the capacity to create something new out of something broken—the One who will never abandon us to our fate but will in his perfect time come alongside and lift us up into a new place.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus under cover of darkness, as though hiding from his fellow Jews and not wanting to risk their condemnation or criticism. He came to Jesus and told him that since he could do so many miracles, they knew he was a teacher come from God. But why was he hiding then? What was it about Jesus that was so threatening to the status quo? Could it be that Jesus was eliminating all our human dependencies and insisting on total allegiance to him alone?

Jesus initiated a conversation by telling Nicodemus that the only way someone could be in the kingdom of God was by being born again or born anew. Being in the kingdom of God was not determined by ancestry nor by performance, but solely by relationship—being born of the One who made all things. Nicodemus clearly got that Jesus meant birth, but he thought only in terms of the actual physical act of birth. Jesus was taking him much deeper—our spiritual birth and life in the Spirit must begin in the only begotten Son of God. We are born again in Christ, not by our own human effort.

The inclusion of humanity in Christ’s sonship means that when Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again, all of humanity was reborn in him. It is by the Spirit that we participate in that rebirth. T.F. Torrance, when asked when he was born again, would state that he was born again 2,000 years ago in Christ. In our spiritual rebirth, being born again, we are merely participating in what Jesus did in our place on our behalf as the eternally begotten Son of the Father.

Being born again, being immersed in the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, means we are transported from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. We find ourselves in a new place, with a new reason for living. From now on we do not pursue our own path—rather, we follow Christ. We walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh. We dwell in Abba’s house now, so we live the way he lives, loving God and loving one another.

After the initial baptism, where we participate in Christ’s baptism and anointing in the Spirit, we continue our journey with Jesus by living our lives in dependence upon the daily bread of our Abba’s provision. We come regularly to the table of grace and participate in communion, eating the bread and drinking the wine/juice, and communing with our loving Lord. We read God’s word, converse with God in prayer, and join together with fellow believers in the life of faith. We follow the lead of the Spirit as Jesus draws us deeper into life with him and we move with Jesus into his mission in the world around us.

Eternal life is, Christ said, to know intimately the Father and the One whom he sent, his Son Jesus. This is a relationship we are called into. And following Jesus means we will go through difficulties and struggles. Jesus told his disciples that just as he was ridiculed and criticized, so would his followers be ridiculed and criticized. But that would never diminish the reality that we are Spirit-filled and Spirit-led, and we are born from above, adopted children of our heavenly Father.

The faith walk is not an easy road. But the joy is in the journey with Jesus and with our heavenly Father by the Spirit. The joy is we are never alone, but when we are cursed by others, we can offer them blessing because of what Christ has done and is doing. We can continue on the path, uncertain of the direction, because we know the One who is leading us and he is trustworthy. We walk by faith, not by sight—and he will bring us safely home.

Thank you, Abba, for giving us new life in your Son Jesus by the Spirit. Thank you that we never walk the road of life alone, but you offer us your very self to be in us and with us on this journey. Open our eyes to see you with us. Open our ears to hear your direction and your comfort as we travel. Give us the courage and faith to follow wherever you lead, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” John 3:3 NASB

Calling Us Home

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By Linda Rex

SUNDAY, MARCH 1, 2020, ASH WEDNESDAY/1ST SUNDAY IN EASTER PREP—Recently, I was chatting with someone about current events and they were telling me about a program they heard on the radio. The person they were listening to was saying that the current issue with child abuse imagery has multiplied into millions of cases worldwide since the time of Clinton’s presidency. The implication was that his moral failure with Monica Lewinsky was the root of this alarming increase in the use of pornography. Personally, I would be more inclined to believe that this extreme numerical increase is more directly related to the use the internet as well as the ability to track the use of pornographic material on the internet. But that is not the point I feel led to make.

Over the decades our nation has been at certain times more concerned with particular sins than with others. I was reading a historical novel the other day which was set in the time of this nation when temperance and prohibition were promoted as the solution to all of the ills besetting the nation. I agree that the misuse and abuse of alcohol and/or drugs leads to many other sins, but there is so much more at stake. It is a greater issue that we can become so obsessed with a certain sin that we lose sight of our proclivity for living as though we are in charge and able to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil.

The story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden eating the forbidden fruit cuts down to the root of all human behavior from that time to today. We are all created for an intimate relationship with the God who made us and we can, at any time, walk and talk with God if we so desire. We may not experience this relationship with God in the same way they did, but it is what we were created for. However, we often trade this direct relationship with God we were given in Jesus Christ for a substitute relationship—dependency upon and reveling in the things of this human existence. Or as followers of Christ, we may even substitute church attendance, rule-keeping, moral purity, and community service for an intimate walk with our living Lord.

The truth is that we often are more concerned about repenting our mistakes or moral failures than we are repenting the bent we have toward rejecting God himself. What we need to do is to acknowledge the reality that we wish to live as though we are self-sustaining individuals, as little gods who run the universe the way we want it to be run. Let’s be honest with ourselves—we don’t want to have to answer to anyone for what we say or do—we want to create our own rules to live by and not have any consequences for our choices or behaviors.

So we come to the time on the Christian calendar called Lent (or Easter preparation) which begins on Ash Wednesday. This is the time when we honestly assess and confess our genuine and deep need for the Lord Jesus Christ. For, if he did not stand in our stead and on our behalf, we would have no interest in or desire for, nor the ability to have, a relationship with the God who made us and who cares for us. We don’t just draw up a list of sins and tell God about them. No, we go much deeper—down to the core of our being—down to the heart which turns away from God toward the things and people of this human existence.

God calls us to return to him. To return is to go back to the place where we started. We began at a place in which we were fully included in God’s life and love. And then we turned away. When God as the Word took on our humanity, he turned us back to his heavenly Father.

As Jesus stood in the waters of the Jordan River with the baptismal waters dripping off his frame, he heard the Father’s words of love—“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased (Matt. 3:17 NASB).” On the mountain where he was transfigured, we again hear the affirmation of his heavenly Father—“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him (Matt. 17:5 NASB)!” In Christ, we are beloved children. We are God’s pleasure and joy. God calls us to rend our hearts—to quit with all the religious externals and to get down to the core of our being: What drives us? What is the focus of our inner conversation? What directs our decisions and choices? Where does God fit in our lives? Does he even have a place in our heart?

The process of examining our hearts is not meant to be discouraging or depressing. Rather, as we take God’s hand and walk down the corridors of our inner sanctuary, we begin to see in a greater way our need for deliverance, redemption, and forgiveness. We see our need for a Savior. We begin to put God back in his rightful place as Lord of our existence. And most of all, the closer we get to the heart, we discover that waiting there all this time has been Christ himself by the Spirit.

For Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save us. He entered our human existence, not to destroy us, but to reconstruct us back into the image-bearers of God we were created to be. We do not look to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday with dread or to Holy Saturday with sorrow, but to Resurrection Sunday with anticipation and joy. What was meant for our evil, the destruction of our souls, God turned to good—the deliverance of all people. Jesus came to live our life, die our death, and rise so that the Spirit would be sent—so we would receive the very life of God within ourselves.

When we are called to return—to turn about, we are called back into the relationship which was ours from before time began. God has always meant to include us in his life and love, and even though we managed to turn away from this to the things of this world and ourselves, God has in Christ turned us back to himself. Receive the gift which has been given. Come to yourself, your true self. For Abba loves you dearly and is pacing on the porch, looking down the road, anticipating your return. Run to him!

Dearest Abba, thank you for not rejecting us because of our rejection of you, but giving us your Son in our place and on our behalf. Turn our hearts back to you again. Renew in us a desire for your will and your ways, but more importantly, for your very presence—to affectionately tend to your heart as you tend to ours. We praise you that this is all possible through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, | And with fasting, weeping and mourning; | And rend your heart and not your garments.’ | Now return to the LORD your God, |For He is gracious and compassionate, | Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness | And relenting of evil.” Joel 2:12-13 NASB

“For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:17-19 NASB

Receiving Abba’s Words of Love

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By Linda Rex

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2020, TRANSFIGURATION—Today I can walk into any supermarket or department store near me and be met with an effusive display of Valentine’s Day gifts, flowers, and cards. Many people today will be taking their loved ones out for coffee, lunch, or dinner, and some may even decide that today is the perfect day to pop the question, “Will you marry me?”

For the most part, I think that we all love a good love story, especially when it has a “happily ever after” ending. It’s almost as if, written into our very being, is the longing to love and be loved. Without this, our lives become shadows—a constant steady motion forward, but no interweaving of our lives with others around us, except at work or play. The longing for deep connectedness is real, but many of us don’t slow down long enough to ponder its source and to seek its resolution.

One of the ways in which we long to be loved is often a deep inner longing to hear our father, or mother, say, “I love you.” How many people today live their lives in a effort to somehow win the approval and affection of a parent? Many times, we don’t even realize we are doing this, and it is after years of passionate struggle to succeed and gain significance that we finally awaken to the reality that we will never gain either, nor can we ever work hard enough to gain the love and approval of another person. Love is not earned—it is a gift we give one another.

Sometimes our wounds go so deep that even though we are surrounded by loving people, we are unable to receive the love they desire to give us. It is very easy for us to close our hearts to others, to put up walls that are so high that no one can enter in and touch us. We may prefer to live life behind walls—relationships involve risk, especially intimate ones. But we will never truly experience real life, real living, until we are willing and able to let someone else know us deeply, and to love us in the midst of our messes and failures.

Jesus spoke to his disciples about the oneness between him and his heavenly Father, and in his prayers, he expressed their intimate oneness. Jesus goes so far as to say, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3 NASB). We were never meant to live life alone and unconnected, empty of relationship. Deep connectedness is what we were created for. We were meant to share in the oneness which has always existed between the Father and the Son in the Spirit.

At the transfiguration, John, James, and Peter witnessed the Father’s expression of love for Jesus, his Son. Being in the presence of God, they were terrified. Instead of feeling warmed by the presence of a loving, affectionate Father, they were filled with fear. Jesus’ immediately said to them, “Don’t be afraid.” They needed to have a clearer picture of what kind of God they were obeying—not a punitive God to be afraid of, but an affectionate Abba to love.

The reality is that our conception of God is often distorted by our experiences, most especially our own relationship with our parents or other people, even well-meaning Christians. We can allow these distortions to get in the way of encountering God on his own merits, and end up refusing to receive the love and grace God offers us. God has been as loving as possible with us in giving us Jesus and his Spirit, and often surrounds us with loving people, but we can and do resist and refuse his love.

This unfortunate, because God really wants to give us the “happily ever after” ending. He wants us to live in joyful, loving connectedness both now and forever. This is why he went to so much effort to prepare for and orchestrate the coming of the Word into human flesh, to live our life, and die our death, raising us into glory.

There is a hidden glory in every human being. Just as in Jesus the disciples discovered the hidden glory of God’s very being, in each of us is an inherent design, a script which reflects the very being and nature of God himself. We were made in the image of God, after his likeness, to live in the same oneness, interconnectedness of unique equal persons, as do the Father, Son and Spirit. Our inclusion in this holy love is by faith in Jesus. There is no distinction made between any of us as human beings—our common humanity is centered in Christ and we share in his glory, both now and forever.

Why do we as humans so often choose fear of God over receiving this immense, overwhelming love of God? Why don’t we allow ourselves to be loved? Perhaps one reason is that love often calls us up out of our worst into our best—love may ask us to change things we don’t want to change, to give up things we don’t want to give up. And love can hurt at times. Love requires vulnerability, transparency, honesty—requiring us to lay ourselves out at the mercy of others. Sometimes loving in this way means we suffer immeasurably—like the living Lord who became human only to end up crucified.

It is much easier to fear God and to try to be a good person, to earn his love and affection, than it is to lay ourselves fully in his hands and surrender to his love. To earn God’s love, we can follow a list of rules or set up systems in our lives that make us feel like we’re being good people and we’re obeying God. It doesn’t require openness or authenticity—it looks good on the outside, and we’re always in control. But it does not get us any closer to God—in fact, it may actually become a god in itself, separating us from any real relationship with the Lord.

To come, as Jesus teaches us, to the cross and lay ourselves at God’s feet, knowing our only hope is his love and grace, is the perfect place to encounter the living Lord. It is acknowledging our failures to love God and each other that paves the way for God to enter in and be for us what we cannot be. It is in expressing our need for God and our desire to know him better that we find ourselves growing in deep connectedness with him. When we understand our need for the daily bread of his love and grace, his Word to us, and our words in response to him, then we are beginning to understand what it means to receive Abba’s words of love.

Today is a good day to practice the spiritual discipline of silence and solitude. Find a place where you can be undisturbed—preferably somewhere in nature, where you can experience the beauty of what God created for your joy. Give yourself a few moments in silence to still chaotic thoughts, and then tell God you are there to hear his words of love. Ask him to help you to receive them and to believe what he says to you is true, and to guard you from any lies the deceiver may use to confuse you. Then just sit for a time in the silence. If your thoughts wander, just give them to God, and ask him again what he has to say to you. You may only hear silence or you may hear Abba’s words of love in your heart. Either way, you are on the path to deeper connectedness with God—and opening yourself to hear and receive the words of love Abba has for you.

Thank you, Abba, that you meet us wherever we are, and in your love, work to bring us to where you are. As we take the time to listen to your words of love, enable us to hear and to receive them, and to begin to live as though they were true. Thank you that you have already expressed your love to us in the gift of your Son and your Spirit. We are grateful. Amen.

“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.” 2 Peter 1:16 NASB

The Simplicity of Grace and Truth

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By Linda Rex

FEBRUARY 16, 2020, 6th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—Lost in the midst of our current political scene, with its polarizing rhetoric and maneuvering of people into places of influence and power, is the quiet transforming simplicity of grace and truth. As I was reading the gospel reading for this particular Sunday, I was struck by the reality that even though we may have dogmatic opinions, emphatic assertions of right vs. wrong, or clear expectations of how things are or ought to be, we are never at the place where we can, with authority, say we are right and everyone else is wrong.

There is only one person who did this, and was right in doing it, because of who he was. The fundamental groundwork of the gospel message is that this person had the capacity to know exactly what to do and say in every situation, and was able to do and say it, because he was the One who created all things and held them together by his word of power. He could, and did, say to those around him, “It is written…” or “You say…” and overturned what had been said or written by simply affirming, “But I say…”.

When human beings talk in this manner, all our red flags go up. Immediately, we grow concerned, because such language overthrows any authority other than the one who is speaking. For Jesus to say, “What you may have been told or taught has no relevance anymore—what I say is what really matters now,” is to put Christ on a plane above everyone else, even to the point of him being God himself. We would never accept a human being having the arrogance to place themselves in that position of authority….or would we?

The problem we are running into today is the loss of our understanding of who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is—the One who is both fully God and fully human. I was driving in downtown Nashville yesterday, and was amazed at the vast amount of construction and renovation that is going on in this city. As I looked about me, I saw towers of glass and metal rising high into the sky, many of them only partially built. Apartment buildings that were dozens of stories tall gave evidence of the thousands of people moving into Nashville needing places to live.

Years ago, the tallest buildings in the skyscape would have been the cathedrals and churches with towering steeples. Today, such buildings are dwarfed by the immensity of other places where people live, work, and play. In some ways, this is a metaphor for the attention we give today to the spiritual realities, and to the God who sent his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to transform our hearts by faith.

What we have lost is not so much a creed or a certain religion or belief system as it is the simple understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to him. To even assert that there is a God and that we are his creatures, formed to live in relationship with him, is offensive to many people today. We do not want to surrender ourselves to the reality that there is someone to whom we owe our existence and our ability to live and work in this world. And we most certainly do not want anyone other than ourselves to have the ability to tell us what to say or do.

This is not a new problem. In reality, it is one we have been manifesting since the days when Adam and Eve walked in the Garden of Eden. They too wrestled with the choice between life, and deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil. The human tendency to choose for ourselves a way of living and being which ends in death is something fundamental to our humanity—it is our sinful nature at work within us. We just have a natural proclivity to choose death over life, and then to blame God when things don’t turn out the way we want them to.

It is ironic that the nation God called his very own, ancient Israel, whom he joined himself to in covenant love, would take the descriptions of life in his presence and turn them into prescriptions for living. They added many words to the 613 rules in the old covenant, creating an even more difficult path for the average person to follow, should they decide to obey the God of the Jewish people. Over the centuries, as the Jews interacted with God, for many of them, the law and its observation supplanted the covenant relationship it was designed to lead people into and to participate in.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, reminded his listeners that keeping the law in itself was insufficient—no, even impossible. He told them what the law said, and then took them farther, deeper, into the heart of his Father. He showed his hearers that God looks at our intent, our motives, and our reasoning. We can’t just go through the motions—an entire transformation of our being is needed, not just a change in our actions.

That being the case, we as human beings are in an extremely difficult place. There is no way, with our sinful nature abounding, that we can ever have the right motivation in every situation. There is no way we will ever keep our thoughts where they ought to be or our feelings and desires pure and chaste. We are helpless and can never live as we ought to in right relationship with God and others.

So we come to the simplicity of grace and truth. Truth is, we are not God—he is. Truth is, we are broken, sinful people, who will, whether we want to or not, find ourselves choosing death instead of life, and reaping the consequences of it. Truth is, we have no hope of anything being any different—in us, in this world, in our circumstances—apart from the living Lord, the One who made it all, sustains it all, and redeemed it all. So, we need grace.

And we have grace. That is the good thing. God the Word has come into our humanity, lived the life we were created for in Jesus Christ as a Son in perfect relationship with the Father, died the death we so often choose, and has risen, taking us with him into glory. Our humanity is now in a totally different place—we are free to live in right relationship with God and others because of Christ. This grace means that it’s not all up to us—it’s up to him. Whatever we say and do as humans, we say and do it in Christ, and he gives us life.

Truth—God is, and we are his, and apart from him, we have no hope. Grace—in Jesus he has come, included us in his life and death, and has sent the Spirit to make this so as we trust in him. The simplicity of grace and truth—the reception of the gift God has given—the belief that God loves us this much and will never leave or forsake us, would transform our lives, our politics, and our world, if we were willing.

Today, in the stillness of quiet reflection, consider these questions: Are my decisions leading me to a greater, fuller life in joyful relationship with God and others? Or are they leading down the path to death and destruction? What is my response to the words of Jesus to me, “But I say…”? Allow yourself to respond in the simplicity of grace and truth which is ours in Jesus Christ, receiving Abba’s gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit.

Dear God, we so desperately need healed! Thank you, Abba, for your perfect gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us grace and truth, and for leading us into life everlasting. Our life is in you alone. Holy Spirit, may you penetrate the core of our beings with the new life Jesus brought us, transforming our hearts and minds, and thereby healing our churches, our communities, our politics, this world and the earth on which we live. We long for you to finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life,…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20a NLT

See also Matthew 5:21–37.

Where Salt and Light Meet

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By Linda Rex

FEBRUARY 9, 2020, 5th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—What is the difference between being unable to see, and simply being fully blind? I realize there are different levels of blindness—some people can see the shape of large objects, but nothing else. Some can see that it is light outside, but cannot sense anything else through their eyes. But the reality is that even those of us who are blessed with sight will not see a thing if we are in a place where there is absolutely no light.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle John wrote about Jesus, that “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [overpower] it” (John 1:5-6 NASB). The original Light, which existed long before light itself was created, was present in the world in Jesus Christ when the Word came into human flesh. This Light was meant to give all of humanity an ability to know and have a right relationship with the One God who created all things.

When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world,” he meant something significant. He meant that, apart from the disciples’ active presence in the world telling the world about Jesus Christ, people around them would not be able to truly see. Jesus’ intention was that by following him, the disciples would provide the world around them with a visual perception they would not have otherwise, and communicate to the world the truth about the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit, and how each person could have a right relationship with God.

The problem we so often run into as human beings is that we have a tendency to reduce the depth and wonder of God’s love and grace down into something we have more control over and can measure and use as a means of distinction between ourselves and others. Let’s be honest with ourselves about this—we would not have so many different church denominations and congregations if this were not the case. We would not have such an issue with legalism and license within the church if this were not true.

It’s time we told the truth—we too often are guilty of taking the light God has given and hiding it under our devotion to the things of this world, or under a long list of rules, regulations, and traditions. We have denied the Lord we profess by allowing the pure salt of God’s love and grace to be tainted and corrupted by the way we reject our neighbors who are equally made in God’s image to share equally in his glory. The prophet Isaiah addressed this directly as he shared God’s word to his people (Isaiah 58:1–9a (9b–12)). He reminded them that all the sanctimonious professions of obedience and worship are worthless if they are unaccompanied by genuine love and compassion for one’s fellowman.

In many ways our efforts to make a distinction between ourselves and others are a lot like the teenage method of “being different”. We tend to make ourselves different by becoming like all those who are like us. In my teens it involved bellbottoms, disco music, and platform shoes—nowadays it’s something entirely different. But in the case of us as followers of Jesus Christ, it is too often our interpretation of God’s Word and our efforts to create our mini-kingdoms of religiosity where we get ourselves in trouble.

Salt is a necessary, though limited, part of our human diet, as well as being extremely useful in other processes including metallurgy and food preservation. There are many types of salts and not all of them are edible. Pure salt crystals are normally white or clear, so when they are a different color, this normally indicates that there are other chemicals or substances present which may or may not be edible. There is often a purifying process involved in edible salt production.

When Jesus said his disciples were salt as well as light, he meant that his followers would have the qualities of both. Not only would we be purveyors of the good news of God’s love and grace, telling the world how Jesus us brought us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light—we would also act as a preservative and cleansing agent in the world. We cannot be an effective preservative or cleansing agent when we are centered anywhere but in the midst of the love and grace of God in Christ.

Jesus said that our righteousness has to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, who loved the praise and flattery of people and the political power and prominence of being religious leaders. Jesus often called them on their public expressions of devotion to God—they were hypocrites, often saying one thing and doing another, and this quenched any light they might bring by their words and actions. They kept people enslaved to rituals and traditions, missing the whole point, which was God’s love and redemption for his people which they were to respond to in faith and devotion.

When we as followers of Jesus Christ become so adamant that right relationship with God rests in what we do and what we say, in our keeping of certain rules and regulations, and not solely in the Person and work of the living Lord, we are in serious trouble. We are denying the One through whom every human being finds salvation—we are keeping the world in darkness and losing our power of cleansing and purification—losing ourselves as being salt and light in this world.

Jesus Christ is the Light of the world—the truth of our existence as human beings, and the centre of our relationship with God and one another. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is the Salt which cleanses and preserves each of us—washing us in his blood, giving his life for our life. Whatever we say or do as followers of Jesus Christ, it is merely a participation in what he has already done and is doing, and will do, in this world to transform, heal, and renew all things.

The apostle Paul teaches how we are to live out our lives as believers—not drawing upon our own wisdom or gifted speaking, but focusing solely on the crucified One, the Lord Jesus Christ, and being filled with and led by the Spirit of God. When our focus is on Jesus and he is at work within us and through us by his Spirit, we find God’s love being expressed not only in our words but also in our actions. We find ourselves caring for those who are unable to care for themselves. We find ourselves overflowing with compassion for those in need and we act upon it, doing what we can to ease those burdens they are unable to bear on their own.

The law of Christ finds its way into the core of our being, and our actions and words rise out of the very heart of Abba within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a long way from what Isaiah and Jesus found fault with—this isn’t religiosity, but rather the true religion the apostle James wrote about in James 1:27.

Please understand: I’m not saying there isn’t any value in gathering together as the body of Christ or finding a common faith and being of one mind with other believers. It doesn’t remove our need to learn from Scripture and those called by God to preach his Word. What I am saying is we need to remove the false undergirding which lies beneath all these things—most specifically, the belief that somehow, we can be good people or please God by our own efforts or gain some merit by doing good deeds.

We, as believers, need to follow Christ and live in him in such a way that whatever kindness we show, whatever goodness we do, whatever truth we speak, is drawn out of the deep Source of light within us, the Spirit, and is purified by the One who cleanses and nourishes us, Jesus Christ. In the community of faith, the attributes of salt and light meet together, by the Spirit being poured out into the Body of Christ, so that we may participate in Christ’s mission in this world, to tell everyone of Abba’s love and grace, to free those who are enslaved by evil, sin, and death, and to bring healing and renewal to those who are broken, lost, and suffering.

Is it possible that we are not living in a dark world, but rather are living in a world where those who have been given the light have buried it? Is it possible that those who were meant to act as a cleansing and preserving agent have been so busy trying to cleanse and preserve themselves that they have become tasteless and useless?

Jesus has only one message for each of us which we are to share with the world around us: Your heavenly Father loves you, so turn and receive the gift of eternal life, sharing in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba both now and forever; receive Jesus and by his Spirit, live and walk freely in the life Christ purchased for you, loving God and loving your neighbor as the image-bearers of God he created you to be. Come with me, and let’s be salt and light together!

Dear Abba, thank you for your grace—we are guilty so often of misappropriating what you give us, and of not living in loving relationship with you and one another. Our righteousness so often is just for show or even non-existent. We have not been salt and light in this world—your forgiveness is so needed by us, but also God as you grant us grace, grant us repentance and faith as well. Grant a renewal within the body of Christ as a whole, that we may begin to live as we ought in this world, bringing through Jesus and by your Spirit, your light, your cleansing and renewal on this earth in the sharing of the good news in both word and deed arising from your own heart within us. Amen.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. … For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16, 20 NASB

Living Blessed

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By Linda Rex

FEBRUARY 2, 2020, 4TH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—This morning as I was contemplating the passages for this upcoming Sunday, it occurred to me that I live in a country where people value the pursuit of happiness but do not seem to understand what it takes to be truly happy. If I were to turn on the radio or television today, it would not take long for me to hear someone telling me those things I need in order to be happy.

They may tell me I need a relationship with the perfect lover, a properly aged bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, or an all-expense paid week at a resort in Hawaii. Maybe I need a long-sought-after promotion at work, a brand-new SUV or a time-share in Myrtle Beach. None of these are bad things, and I’m pretty sure I would enjoy some time at the seashore and driving such a nice car. The problem I see is, that apparently, according to what I read and see around me, I can only be happy if I am following my heart’s desire and enjoying the pleasure of those things I love to have or experience.

It is no wonder that we struggle so much in this modern world with depression and pain-management issues. Many of us are willing to work ourselves practically to death for the sake of having the things we want or need. But then we attempt to escape the stress, relational pain, and other ills that come with having worked so hard while having so little to show for it by doing things which may be unhealthy, risky, or even dangerous. Our concept of what it means to be happy distorts our ability to balance work, play, and our significant relationships.

We may be one of those people who find themselves due to disability, age, illness, or even a refusal to be responsible for what is ours, in the position of having other people do all the work to provide for and care for us. We may struggle with low self-esteem, guilt and shame as a result. Or we may get frustrated by people in our lives telling us what to do and how to do it because we don’t have the control we prefer to have over our circumstances. Struggling with all these things may cause us to give up on hope of ever being happy because we always seem to end up back in the place we were before, without any hope of things getting any better.

Our expectations of what it means to be happy affects how we respond to what is going on in our lives. I’m a firm believer that we were created to live happily within all that God has made and given us for life and godliness. But so often our struggle is not with all the great things around us—it is with our definition of what it means to be happy and blessed. Is it possible for us to be truly happy, to be truly blessed?

In 1 Tim. 1:11, the apostle Paul calls the Lord “the blessed God.” The word “blessed” in the Greek is “happy” (μακαριοι [makarioi]), and it is where we get the word “beatitudes,” the word often used to describe these “blessed” verses in Matthew 5. Since we were created in the image of God after his likeness, it is important that we consider first what it means that our God is the happy God, or blessed God. When we know what this means, we will have a better idea of how to go about being blessed or happy ourselves.

In Hebrews 1:3 we learn that Jesus Christ is “exact representation” of God’s nature or being. If we want to know what it means that our God is the blessed God, then let’s look at Jesus Christ. Jesus, in sharing what it means to be blessed or happy, took it to a new level, one which was in agreement with his nature as the Son of God in human flesh. To be happy, or blessed, is to have the qualities which God values, to have kingdom of God characteristics—to be radiating with the very nature of God himself—something which only Jesus Christ himself can do.

For example, in the Beatitudes Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” First off, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of the God who is three Persons in one Being. The Son of God, who has always lived in oneness with his Father in the Spirit, lived here on earth in humble dependence upon his heavenly Father, not doing anything he did not see his Father doing and not trusting in his own abilities or preferences. Jesus exemplified what it meant to be poor in spirit because he was God in human flesh, living as a Son trusting implicitly in his Father, just as each of us is meant to do.

Access to God’s kingdom is not by following the rigid rules and requirements established by the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but by being poor in spirit—by recognizing our need for God to give us access to his presence. Jesus said it is a recognition of our spiritual lack, our honest self-assessment that we do not have what it takes and that we need God to intervene on our behalf which really matters. It is our desire for and a dependence upon God’s covenant relationship with us, which gives us a free ticket into the blessed presence of God forever.

Jesus also said the “gentle” or “meek” would inherit the earth. This stood in stark contrast with the Jewish hope for a messiah who would oust the reigning Roman government using force and violence so that the Jewish people would once and for all control the earth on which they lived. The gentleness or meekness of Jesus reflected that of our blessed God, who instead of exacting retribution for our failings as human beings, sent us his own Son, allowing him to suffer and die on humanity’s behalf so that we could be freed from our captivity to evil, sin, and death. This type of gentleness in the face of all that we as humans conspire to do to harm, kill, or injure one another is a characteristic of the blessed God himself. Apart from God’s nature at work within us, we are not capable of true gentleness or meekness.

Those who make peace, Jesus said as well, would be called sons of God. There is only one Son who was able to make genuine, lasting peace between God and man, and between each of us as human beings. Jesus’ way of making peace, of being a peacemaker, was not by giving people what they wanted in order to get them to stop causing problems. He didn’t create peace by allowing evil, sin, and death to continue. No, he took evil, sin, and death upon himself, living our life, dying our death, and rising again, so we could be freed completely from any of their claims upon us.

As we read the Beatitudes, we can see that Jesus is the embodiment of all of these attributes. He is truly the blessed and happy God present in our humanity. Our ability to shine with these same attributes comes through his presence in us by the Holy Spirit. To be truly happy or blessed comes through living in the truth of who we are as the beloved adopted children of our happy God, who sent his Son, the blessed Savior, and through him the blessed Holy Spirit. It is as we respond to God in faith that the Spirit unites us with him, enabling us to participate in his way of being—the way which is blessed, or happy.

Being truly happy, then, is not something exterior to us nor is it created by things we do or experience. To be truly blessed, or happy, begins in the very nature of God himself which he places within us through Jesus by the Spirit. It is God at work within us, creating a nature which is poor in spirit, which grieves our spiritual losses or sins, and hungers and thirsts for a right relationship with him. It is the indwelling Spirit who is gentle, merciful, and pure in heart, placing within us this nature Jesus forged for us as he lived on earth.

This type of blessedness or happiness is not transient because it is not based within our circumstances or experiences, nor is it based within our flesh. It has its true foundation in Jesus Christ himself, who dwells in us by the Holy Spirit as we trust in him. As we follow Christ, or pursue the happy, blessed One, we will begin to experience genuine happiness—a deep inner joy and sense of blessedness which will hold us and carry us through difficulties, struggles, and all the changing experiences of our transient human existence, even when we are persecuted for the sake of our faith in Jesus. It is our blessed God’s heart that all of us share forever with him in his glory and blessedness. In what way will you choose today to live blessed, pursuing genuine happiness by pursuing the blessed Lord himself?

Dear God of glory, our blessed Creator and Sustainer, forgive us for pursuing everything and everyone but you. Turn our hearts back to you—cause us to follow you alone, Jesus, our blessed and only Savior. Fill us anew with your blessed Presence by your Spirit of love and grace that we may be truly happy and blessed, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 NASB