By Linda Rex
March 28, 2021, PALM SUNDAY—LENT (EASTER PREP)—Etched into my memory from my childhood in southern California are avenues of palm trees of all different shapes and sizes. There is something about the tall, stately trees, bending slightly in the ocean breezes that speaks to me of salt water and sand, hot summer sun, and tropical flowers.
On this special Sunday in some churches, small palm fronds are handed out in memory of the branches laid on the road as Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem. The songs of “Hosanna” we sing today echo the shouts of the pilgrims as they entered the city in celebration of the Messiah’s arrival. In many ways we also anticipate with glad rejoicing the coming of King Jesus into our world to restore all things.
In John’s version of this story, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt and the people threw down branches of palm trees. They shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” “Hosanna” is a phrase which in essence means “O, save!” This greeting resonates with the Hillel psalms often sung or recited by the pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem. Psalm 118:25, which we read on this Sunday, says “O Lord, do save, we beseech You; O Lord, we beseech You, do send prosperity!”
When looking forward with the travelers entering Jerusalem, excited about the possibilities present in the Messiah they thought Jesus was, it is understandable that they would lay out palm branches as though a victorious king were entering the city. It makes perfect sense that they would be praising and celebrating such a momentous event. How wonderful it would be to finally be free of their oppressors!
The problem was that they were mistaken in Jesus’ intention and purpose for being there. They neglected to attend to the other parts of the scripture which included predictions about his suffering and death. For example, in Psalm 118:27 we read, “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” There was to be a sacrifice made, but it wasn’t going to be an animal offered on the altar, but the humble king who was at that moment entering the city on a lowly colt of a donkey. Jesus had no illusions about what faced him as he entered the city. They might glorify him as a conquering king now, but in a few short days, he would be hung on a cross.
As I recently read the passages for Good Friday, I was struck by the interrogation Pilate did right before Jesus was sent out to be crucified. Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of the Jews. As they spoke to one another, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, otherwise his servants would be fighting. Pilate asked him again if he was a king and Jesus affirmed it, saying that it was the reason he had come into the world. At the end of the interrogation, Pilate went out and told the people he found no guilt in Jesus, and offered to exchange him for a robber named Barabbas.
Jesus was scourged and again placed before the crowd with Pilate’s pronouncement that he was not guilty. But the people cried out for him to be crucified, as Jesus stood there with a crown of thorns on his head and a purple robe draped around his shoulders. The Jewish leaders affirmed that he had to die because he claimed to be the Son of God. This alarmed Pilate, who, no doubt remembering his wife’s strange warning, asked Jesus where he was from. But he would not answer. When Pilate warned him that he had the authority to have him killed, Jesus merely replied that Pilate had no authority but what was given him from above. At this, Pilate attempted again to free Jesus, but the Jews threatened to report him to Caesar for treason. In the end Jesus was led away, carrying his cross beam to be crucified on Golgotha.
What a contrast between the two pictures of Jesus. First, he is praised joyfully with loud hosannas as a celebrated deliverer. The second, he is led away, dripping with blood, bruised and torn, to the abuse and ridicule of the crowd. How can he even be the same person? But this is Israel’s king, the King of the Jews, as Pilate so aptly wrote on the nameplate which hung over Christ on the cross.
Historically, if we were to look at the King of the Jews, we would see that Jesus on the cross is a fitting description of the way the true ruler of Israel, Adonai, had often been treated by his covenant people. His covenant love for them had weathered their long history together when at one moment God would be their beloved deliverer and in the next was traded in for the gods and kings of the nations, and the people’s preference to follow their own ways. Even the efforts of the leaders to be more faithful in their obedience ended in rigid restrictions and rules that isolated and excluded people rather than bringing all people deeper into relationship with God.
Lest you think I am speaking merely of the ancient Israelites, I would like to point out that it is a human proclivity to love God when he is good to us and to drop him with disinterest when something more enticing shows up on the horizon. We are all just as vulnerable to missing the truth that there is, and should only be, one king in our life and it’s not us, and it’s not any other human being even though we may live under the authority of human government.
Jesus Christ invites us to go with him through the gates of grace into death and resurrection because this is where we were created to go. We were meant to enter into the gates of righteousness in participation with Jesus in his perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit. There really is no other directive in our life which can and will give us true peace and freedom than that of surrendering to the lordship of Jesus Christ, allowing him by the Spirit to reign supreme in our lives.
Celebrate Palm Sunday in gratitude and praise for the King, our Messiah, who has come as God in human flesh to die and rise again, is coming right now by his Holy Spirit, and will one day come in glory to establish the new heavens and new earth. Choose to walk with him all the way into death and resurrection. What is he asking you today to lay down in honor of him, in humble submission to his reign in your heart and mind? How might you enter with him now into the gates of grace so that you may experience new life?
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending us your Son to save and deliver us from evil, sin, and death. Thank you for sending us your Spirit so we might participate in your divine life and love, through Jesus Christ our Lord and eternal King now and forever. Amen.
“On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, ‘Hosanna! “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, even the King of Israel.’ Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, ‘“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him.” John 12:12–16 NASB
“Open to me the gates of righteousness;
I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
The righteous will enter through it.” Psalm 118:19–20 (21–29) NASB
By Linda Rex
March 21, 2021, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—Last fall as some of my flowers went to seed, I decided to spread some of them in the empty spots in our garden. This winter, I gathered more of the seeds and sprinkled them in a pot on the patio. As time went by, I began to see little sprouts rise from the soil. Are they weeds or flowers? I’m not quite sure yet. And I’m not sure how many will survive the freezing temperatures.
But what I do know is that even though the process of planting looks a lot like death and burial, it is the means by which new life happens, new flowers bloom and fruit is borne. What seems to be the end is actually the way in which new possibilities open up—planting season accomplished means harvest season may be looked forward to with anticipation and hope. God is our divine Gardener, and he loves to plant seeds and watch them grow. When we come to situations in life that appear to be an end, we need to remember they may just be a seed God is planting so he can later reap a bountiful harvest.
When Philip and Andrew told Jesus about some Greeks who wanted to see him, he said that his hour had come. The hour Christ was speaking of was that time when his ministry would culminate with his death on the cross. I stand in awe of Jesus’ ability to confidently and courageously walk intentionally toward the crucifixion, while knowing the consequences of that decision. In close relationship with the Father, he did not ask that the hour be removed, but continued to move forward, thinking of all humanity’s need, and joyfully anticipating our freedom from evil, sin, and death.
Jesus said that when he would be lifted up, he would draw all people to himself. In the crucifixion, all humanity finds itself at a new place—dying in Christ’s death and subsequently rising in his resurrection and ascending with him into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. When the disciples saw the crucified and dead Lord planted in the tomb, they believed it was all over—even though Jesus had told them he would rise again. To them, death was the end.
Today we can look back with joy and see that death isn’t the end. The celebratory voice of the apostle Paul comes to mind here—“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (1 Cor. 15:54b-55)? In the gift of the Spirit, we receive by faith all that Jesus forged for us and begin to participate in the divine life and love, sharing in Christ’s perfections.
The psalm passage for this Sunday, Psalm 119:9-16, contains meditations on God’s ways. The psalmist uses the phrase “your word” three times in this pericope. The first, in verse 9, says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word.” When the living Word took on our human flesh, he experienced our human existence, and forged into our flesh the obedience and faithfulness we are unable to practice on our own. In sending the Spirit, Jesus enables each of us to participate by faith in his purity and obedience. Members of the early church were called followers of “the Way,” a good description of what it meant to follow Christ. To keep our way pure, we need “the Way, the truth, and the life”—Jesus—implanted in our hearts. It is Christ in us, the living Word, planted in our hearts by the Spirit, who enables us to bear the fruit of purity and faithful obedience to God’s will.
The second phrase I’d like to mention is in verse 11, which says, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” Here again we see the idea of the implanting of the Word of God in our hearts—and treasuring its presence there. We implant the written Word by reading, listening to, and studying the Scriptures. But the living Word coming to us is a gift of God through Christ in the Spirit. God himself comes to dwell in our hearts by faith, as we trust in Christ and in his finished work. We want to treasure this precious gift, for this is how God writes his law on our hearts and minds, enabling us to have the desire as well as the ability to obey him (Jer. 31:31-34). By faith, we find ourselves in a new relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit—one in which we depend upon Christ’s obedience, not our own, and on his right relationship with the Father in the Spirit, not on our own.
We find the third phrase in verse 16: “I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word.” The reality—if we are honest with ourselves—is that we don’t remember the written Word of God like we should. Maybe we really don’t have an interest in remembering anything about God. And even when we’ve spent time learning the written Word, we find that in critical moments, we seem to completely forget all we have learned or memorized of God’s ways. This is the human condition. Our flesh gets in the way and we begin relying on our human understanding or efforts rather than pausing to remember what we know from the Scriptures.
But when by faith, the Spirit of Christ is planted in our hearts, we begin to discover that we don’t always forget. There are little seeds God has spread about in there that we aren’t even aware of. We are at times surprised by a small snippet of Scripture popping into our mind, offering us encouragement or guidance when we need it. A song we’ve sung or heard on the radio begins to run around in our head, reminding us of our belovedness or the grace of God. A friend calls or stops by and mentions something that brings to mind exactly what it is we need to remember. The reality is that there is divine life at work in us—the living Word implanted in human hearts by the Spirit produces fruit! God is always at work as a good Gardener, doing all that is needed in order to bring forth the fullness of Christ in each of us.
As we can see, the work Jesus accomplished through the crucifixion, as well as in his death, resurrection and ascension, made possible so much more than simply our rising from the grave one day. Jesus looked forward with joy to the cross because he knew that the culmination of all his efforts would mean our healing and transformation, and the renewal of all things. The planting of the Seed, the Word of God, in the grave means in due time there will be an abundant harvest—one we are able to participate in even now by faith in Jesus Christ.
As we approach Holy Week, we have the opportunity to take some time in reflection, allowing ourselves to listen for the living Word at work in our hearts and minds. How is the Spirit affirming in you that you are the Father’s beloved child? What is your relationship with the written Word of God right now—do you need to go deeper with the living Word so that the written Word has greater impact in your life? What are some ways in which you need to participate in Christ’s death so that resurrection and new life can burst forth in your life?
Heavenly Gardener, gracious King, thank you for your grace extended to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thank you for raising us up in Christ, and for sending your Spirit, awakening us to new life. Enable us to trust in your faithfulness and goodness, allowing you to finish what you have begun in us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And Jesus answered them, saying, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, “Father, save Me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour.’ … ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.” John 12:23–27, 32–33 NASB
(All references above, NASB.)
By Linda Rex
March 14, 2021, 4th SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—I may be mistaken, but every generation seems to have its own story of struggle and difficulty. I often hear how the world today is such a mess, so much worse than it ever was before. And yet, I wonder if that is the way the Jewish people of Jesus’ day felt about their experience under the oppressive Roman government.
No doubt, there are a whole lot more people on the earth today, so there is a whole lot more room for evil and sin to abound in and among us. But the cry of the human heart for redemption from oppression is one common to the human experience throughout the centuries. We must be honest about our experience wherever and whenever we live—all people are messy creatures in serious need of healing and transformation!
Jesus explained to Nicodemus that our only hope of salvation was in looking up to a crucified Savior in faith, as the Israelites looked up to the bronze serpent on a stake. The problem is, though, that we as humans often choose hiding away from God rather than living in the light of his love and grace. If only we understood that the Light of God, Jesus Christ, is not a destroying flame, but rather a healing and restoring fire that seeks to make all things new.
In Ephesians 2:1–10 the apostle Paul reminds us that even though we as humans were caught in a way of being that was not what God designed us to be as his image-bearers, Christ came and via the cross, lifted us up into the divine life and love. It was never about us or our ability to earn eternal life, but simply a gift of grace. God was not going to allow his masterpiece to dwindle into nothingness, but determined to restore and renew it. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ forged within our humanity the capacity to participate in the divine life and love—reforming us in himself into the image-bearers of God we were always meant to be.
In the spirit of us as God’s children, being his masterpiece, his poetry, I include this little poetic creation:
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!
We need broken, Lord,
Rebellious children that we are,
But mercy, mercy, mercy!
Burn us up completely,
Consume us in your fire
Of love and grace,
That others too may experience the flame.
Mercy, mercy, mercy!
O, that we could see your face,
Know the power of your love,
Know the power of your grace!
Burn us in your flame
That all people may catch fire with
Your love and grace,
Be ignited, each and every one.
Mercy, mercy, mercy!
O, we are desperate for a change,
To see the power of your love,
To see the power of your grace!
Mercy, mercy, mercy!
Lord of all, fill us with the joy
Of I in you
And you in me.
Ignite us with your eternal flame
Of I in you
And you in me.
Mercy, mercy, mercy!
© Linda A. Rex, 3/5/2021
We can have great joy that God has included us in his life and love—not because we deserve it, but simply out of his love and grace. We look up to Jesus Christ in faith, we receive all he has done for us, and we live into the reality that we are God’s adopted children, included in his life and love now and forever.
God has gone to great effort in Christ to free us from evil, sin, and death—to bring us into his Light. Now we come to the difficult question—what will we do with Jesus Christ? Will we continue to live with our backs to the light, living as though none of this happened—as though God doesn’t love us and doesn’t care? Or will we simply turn to the Light, turn to Jesus, and allow him to illumine every part of our life, our being, our existence? You are worth so much more than you ever thought—you are God’s priceless masterpiece, his treasured poetry! Run into his embrace today!
Dear God, thank you for valuing us so greatly, that you would go to such great lengths to ensure that we are with you now and forever in an intimate relationship of love and unity and peace. Lord, we turn away from all that is evil and sinful, and we turn to you, Jesus, trusting in your love and grace, and opening ourselves up fully to your gracious presence by the Spirit. Amen.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3:14–21 NASB
By Linda Rex
March 7, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—While taking a walk with my son this week he surprised me by showing me a colony of herons who were nesting high in a tree over the Cumberland River. On our walk we also saw a couple of deer next to the path, squirrels hunting nuts, and many other types of birds flitting here and there. The frogs in the water-covered ground were singing their hearts out. It almost felt like springtime.
I love being out in creation, and am truly grateful God gave us so many marvelous gifts when he made everything. One of the books I’ve been reading lately is called “Care of Creation” and is a collection of articles centered on the topic of the stewardship of God’s creation. In recent years, I have been learning about stewardship in a lot of different aspects of life—finances, health, creation, and personal belongings are some of these areas. Stewardship recognizes that we are not the owners of what we are caring for, but are merely stewards or caretakers of what we have been given by God.
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, we find Jesus entered into the area of the temple where there were moneychangers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. He drove the animals out, overturning the tables and telling the people to stop making his Father’s house a place of business. Mark, the author of the gospel, wrote that this fulfilled an Old Testament scripture which said, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus’ actions in the temple were on behalf of his heavenly Father.
As stewards of the temple, the place of worship, the Jewish leaders had allowed people in to do what they believed were necessary transactions to accommodate the worshippers. But what happened was that making money at the expense of the people became more important than facilitating worship of Israel’s God. Jesus’ indignation was well-founded, as his Father was not being honored, since worship of God was being supplanted by greed and extortion.
We do not want to be like these Jewish leaders of that day who were more concerned about what authority Jesus had to do these actions than they were about the “whitewashed tombs” they had become (Mt. 23:27). They did not seem to realize they were needing to have the greed and other sins in their hearts driven out—and this is why Jesus was there among them. Temple sacrifices did not remove sin from the human heart, and our proclivity to return to sin even when we have forgiveness offered us shows that we need something deeper and more permanent. Jesus removed sin by one sacrifice for all time for all. His death on the cross permanently removed all sin, therefore all need for sacrifices (Heb. 7:27).
The leaders asked Jesus by what authority he drove out the money changers and he simply told them, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days.” It wasn’t until after the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection that the disciples understood that the temple Jesus was talking about wasn’t Herod’s temple, but Jesus’ own body. When Christ told the Samaritan woman that the day was coming when true worshipers of God would worship him in spirit and in truth, he was meaning this very thing. The place where we go to worship God would not be a building, but a person—Jesus Christ.
Jesus forged within our humanity a space for true worship, where the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in human hearts, transforming us from the inside out. Jesus lived our life, died our death and rose again, sending us the Spirit so we could participate in his own intimate relationship with the Father. When we turn to Christ, trusting in his finished work, we are joined with Jesus and begin to experience the reality of God dwelling in us by the Spirit. When we worship God, Jesus stands as the high priest, mediating between us and the Father in the Spirit, so that all our worship is received and accepted by God.
The temple of the Spirit today is not only each of us individually, but more specifically the body of Christ, the church. God indwells the community of believers—those who follow Christ, leading and directing them by his Spirit. As believers gather for worship and to serve others, they are brought together by the ministry of the Spirit. What is the focus of our attention as we gather together? Specifically, worship is to be Christ-centered and Trinitarian in focus. And our discipleship is also designed to draw us in relationship with others more deeply into the life and love of the Trinity.
What Jesus forged for us is a place in human hearts for God to dwell in by the Spirit. At this time of year, we can ask the Spirit to show us those things we have introduced into our lives and hearts that have supplanted the place meant only for God himself. We can invite Jesus to chase the usurpers out of our hearts, making more room for the Spirit to work in our hearts and lives.
If we do this, though, we need to realize that it will require us participating in the process Jesus described to the Jewish leaders—destroying the temple and rebuilding it. There may be things Jesus asks of us—denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following him. We trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection—symbolically participating ourselves once through baptism, and then in an ongoing way through taking the bread and wine in communion. We receive what God has done for us in Jesus, allowing the Spirit to form Christ in us. Stewarding the new life God has given us in Christ involves our full participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, living and walking in the Spirit, trusting in the finished work of Jesus and allowing him to do as he wishes with us and our lives.
A good question to contemplate as we move toward remembering the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus is, what consumes us? Is it zeal for the presence of God in us and in our lives? Or is it something a whole lot more self-centered and temporal? Perhaps it is time to reconsider how well we are stewarding the gift of eternal life God has given us in Jesus Christ his Son.
Heavenly Father, thank you for demonstrating your great grace and love by giving us your Son and your Spirit. Enable us to faithfully steward these gifts. We offer ourselves to your transforming touch, Jesus—drive out anything that does not belong here. Fill every corner of our hearts with your very presence, precious Spirit, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18(–25) NASB
“His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” John 2:17 (13–22) NASB
By Linda Rex
February 28, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—One of the things brought to my attention recently in a new way was how subtle the temptation is to take difficult situations into our own hands and work them out under our own power. Some of us feel an urgent need to fix things that are broken or not working the way we think they should and often jump in with both feet, not realizing that doing so may not be what God intends in the situation.
Granted, we do need to invest our best efforts in doing what we believe is the right and holy thing for us to do in each instance as we follow Christ. But when we slide into that belief that it’s all up to us, then we are spiritually on dangerous ground. I wonder if sometimes we believe we are caught in a place where we feel we have been abandoned or forgotten by God. Circumstances in our life may be such that we feel as though we are managing just fine on our own, or the opposite, we don’t see any path by which a solution could come to us for our extreme difficulties. Either way, there is a temptation to trust in our own ability to move ourselves forward rather than simply trusting in God’s promises and provision.
As members of my congregation at Grace Communion Nashville know, we are facing some difficult decisions about the future of our congregation. Over the past eight years since I have pastored this congregation, and long before that, our members have diligently worked to serve and love the people of East Nashville. They have provided free meals, prayed for people, and given what they could to help those in need, whether food, clothing, money, or just heartfelt compassion and understanding. We have done our best to provide upbeat, contemporary Christ-centered Trinitarian worship with an emphasis on communion and sharing the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have joined in with our church neighbors in community service opportunities and events, and have participated with our neighborhood association as they served the neighbors, and have cared for those God has brought to our attention who needed extra help.
To be sure, we have hoped that our little congregation might grow some in the process, but I hope that we did not make this an expectation that had to be realized, or believe that to not have done so means we have failed in some way. I believe we need to see things much differently than that. Whatever may happen to us in the future, we do know this—we were faithful, obedient, and loving, and blameless before God in our love and service to him and others. We have trusted him to do what was needed to keep us going, and he has. We have done our best to implement best practices for church renewal so we are relevant to our community. We have asked Jesus for opportunities to serve and he has given them. We have prayed for people and baptized some, and many have experienced healing, renewal, and transformed lives, or are still in process. In my view, our little congregation has God’s handprint of masterpiece creation written all over it.
As I read Romans 4:13–25, the New Testament passage for this Sunday, I was struck by the significance of what Paul was saying there in relation to this whole topic. God gave Abraham the promise of a son and many descendants, the fulfillment of which was not based on his ability to keep the law correctly or to do all the right things, but solely on God’s goodness and grace. Abraham was honest about the reality of his and his wife Sarah’s inability to bear children at their advanced age. Abraham came to the place where he surrendered to the truth that none of this could be realized by his or Sarah’s effort or ability. Even though he and Sarah had moments of uncertainty—we see this in the circumstances around the birth of Ishmael—Abraham was brought to the place where he simply trusted in God’s faithfulness rather than in his own ability to ensure that he would have what God promised. And God counted this as righteousness.
In their book “Transformational Churches”, Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer remind the readers that one of the most critical steps in church renewal is the congregation’s ability to see and accept the reality that apart from God’s intervention, their church will not be transformed, and that God’s ability to bring about renewal and transformation is far more powerful than any obstacle which may stand against them. God’s whole mission is the transformation of our cosmos, our world, into the truth of what he means for it to be—a reflection of his glory and majesty. Why would he not do what was necessary to bring that to pass? The authors remind us that it is “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6b NASB). When real transformation happens to a person, or to a church, it will be obvious who did it—God did, and he will get all the glory and praise.
Every person and every church comes to a point where the reality of what they are experiencing doesn’t measure up with what they know about God and his purposes for them. In this “cathartic moment” they realize they have come to a place where there is no movement forward. Abraham and Sarah experienced this at one point, and took matters into their own hands, thinking the solution was to have a child by Hagar, a concubine. But this wasn’t God’s solution—it was theirs, and created a whole host of unnecessary difficulties which God hadn’t meant for them or Hagar or even Ishmael to have to experience. Abraham and Sarah may have erred temporarily, but in the long run their faith in God’s faithfulness won the day.
We can be honest about our weakness and our limitations without in any way preventing God from bringing transformation and renewal to pass. We can own the reality that without God’s intervention nothing will be any different than it is right now. And we can embrace the crisis in front of us in faith, trusting in God’s faithfulness and provision, allow him to show us what our next steps need to be, and then, however falteringly, take those steps. Yes, as a church, we can continue to provide leadership that is alive and open to what God is doing, express dependency upon God through prayer, and offer wholehearted, inspired worship to God. And we can embrace new relationships and circumstances God places before us where we can share the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. But anything beyond that—let’s be real. That’s all up to God. And he works in his own time and in his own way.
We stand today at a crossroads where we are reminded by the story of Abraham and Sarah that our covenant God is faithful and keeps his word. Their simple decision to trust in God for the promised child was merely a stepping stone on the journey of the Word of God coming into human flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again, bringing all of humanity into a new place where each and every person may by faith participate in the divine union of Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. This childless couple, if they were standing with us, would be overwhelmed seeing the millions who today by faith are their spiritual descendants. What will we see when we look back at our participation in Christ’s mission as we trust God to finish what he began in us? I believe our faith in God’s faithfulness will be abundantly rewarded, far beyond our ability to ask or imagine, both now and in the world to come. Let’s walk by faith, not by sight.
O Faithful One, you who have ever worked to bring us near you, to share in your life and love, thank you for your faithfulness. Keep us ever faithful, trusting that you will finish what you have begun in us and believing we will see you do a new thing—a thing so great, only you could possibly have done it. Even now, in faith, we offer all the glory, honor, and praise to you. In your Name—Father, Son, and Spirit—we pray. Amen.
“Faith is our source, and that makes Abraham our father. When God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he made a public statement that he would be the father of all nations. Here we see Abraham faced with God’s faith; the kind of faith that resurrects the dead and calls things which are not as though they were. Faith gave substance to hope when everything seemed hopeless; the words, ‘so shall your seed be’ conceived in him the faith of fatherhood. Abraham’s faith would have been nullified if he were to take his own age and the deadness of Sarah’s womb into account. His hundred-year-old body and Sarah’s barren womb did not distract him in the least! He finally knew that no contribution from their side could possibly assist God in fulfilling his promise!” Romans 4:16b-19 Mirror Bible
By Linda Rex
February 21, 2021, 1st SUNDAY IN LENT [Easter Prep]—There is one thing which has become clear in my mind recently and that is that we as the body of Christ are in a time of wilderness wandering. In many ways we are being brought face to face with our fragility as humans in the face of powerful temptations such as those Jesus faced when he was led into the wilderness following his baptism. During this Lenten season as we move toward celebrating the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection, we have the opportunity to reflect on our need and weakness in the midst of Jesus’ sufficiency and provision.
In the book of Mark we find the condensed version of Jesus’ early ministry. First he was baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptizer, and as he came up out of the Jordan, his heavenly Father affirmed him as his beloved Son and the Spirit descended upon him in the tangible form of a dove. Mark tells us next that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan.
As Jesus was in a place in the wilderness which was filled with wild animals, so he was vulnerable and in danger, open to harm. During his wilderness experience, he went without food, causing him physical weakness. In the midst of this preliminary walk through death’s dark valley, he stood in opposition to God’s adversary, faithfully keeping his focus on his heavenly Father, and on his identification with all of humanity as God in human flesh, and on his purpose in laying down his life on behalf of all people.
We all, in ways similar to Jesus, experience the temptation to resolve our problems under our own power by taking matters into our own hands or manipulating people and circumstances to accomplish what we believe needs to happen. Jesus, being extremely hungry from fasting for several days, was challenged to prove he was Son of God by turning stones into bread—something he could have easily done simply with a word, since he was the Word of God in human flesh. But to do so would have caused him to cease to identify with you and me in our weakness and need, our human frailty and weakness. Jesus instead drew upon the written word of God to combat this temptation, saying that we as humans are not to live only by bread we put in our mouths, but by every word of the living God.
We all love magical solutions to our problems, a simple app to resolve our difficulties. But we often miss out on a deeper solution which goes down into the very core of our being. The real difficulty often lies in our refusal to believe that we can’t work it out somehow—we keep believing we can solve it, if we just try a little harder, or change things up a little, or maybe find a better way of doing what we’ve been doing. However, we often need to come to the simple realization that we are powerless—we do not have within us the capacity to heal ourselves, to fix things, to make things the way they need to be.
We need to embrace the truth that we need a power greater than ourselves—we need a savior or rescuer to deliver us. Jesus expressed this truth on our behalf when he chose to honor his own humanity by depending upon his heavenly Father to care for him, rather than solving his temporary need for food by using his hidden divine capacity to turn stones into bread. Following the confrontation in this story, we find that Jesus had angels tending to his needs, providing for him as he recovered from his conflict with the evil one—which proved the point that he did not need to do this himself under his own power—his Father faithfully provided.
In the midst of these challenging times, as we struggle with the pandemic and accompanying financial and political stress, are we questioning God’s goodness and faithfulness? Are we testing God with poor decisions and irresponsibility, attempting to make him prove to us that he loves us and wants what is best for us? Jesus himself was tempted by the evil one to prove he was the beloved Son of God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that the angels would catch him. The adversary even used scripture in an effort to prove to Jesus that he should do this. To jump in this way would have tested his Father’s goodness and faithfulness—something Jesus refused to do. Like Jesus, we need to refuse to test God, choosing instead simply to trust and obey him, and walk each moment in loving obedience to him in spite of how difficult or dangerous our experiences may be at the moment.
Again, the Son of God did not need to prove his Father’s love and faithfulness—he was confident of it, having experienced it since before time began. But as a human being, the temptation was there and was real. We may have walked with God for many years, and have experienced his love and faithfulness through many circumstances and situations. But in this time of crisis, have we lost our confidence in God’s goodness and love? Will we simply trust that he has our best interests in mind and is still watching out for us and providing for us even though the evidence seems to show otherwise? Or will we take matters into our own hands and try to work it out ourselves?
Finally, Jesus faced the third temptation—that of being offered the all kingdoms of the world if he would just bow and worship the evil one. This temptation is not unique to him, but is one we each face as children of the Father. Surely we all have had opportunities where we were promised the world, if we just did that one thing which was unjust, unholy, inhumane, or unloving. How often have we traded in our eternal glory for the transient glories of this world? We are not alone as we face this temptation—we turn to Jesus who knew and gave the perfect response which silenced the enemy.
Jesus was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness. And we can see that while he was there, he faced the reality of what it meant to be truly human and to face the evil one’s temptations, while he was at his weakest and most vulnerable. In identifying with us in the wilderness, Jesus joins with us as we wander through our own wilderness times.
Experience this Lenten season or preparation for Easter as a wilderness journey, similar to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness with God, and Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness battling the evil one. During this time, we may choose to fast or practice other spiritual disciplines as a participation with Christ in his own wilderness experience. We may want to spend extra time in reflection and humble repentance, acknowledging our need and weakness, and our dependency upon God. We may want to surrender ourselves anew to the purposes and will of our heavenly Father, trusting in him for provision, healing, renewal, and restoration, through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. As we wander through these forty days of Lent or Easter preparation, let’s draw near to God as he draws near to us, resist the evil one as Christ resisted him, and rest in God’s faithfulness, grace and loving care.
Dear Father, thank you for always being with us in every circumstance, caring for us and strengthening us even when we are at our weakest. Thank you, Jesus, for being with us in the middle of our temptations and struggles, enabling us to resist the evil one and endure whatever may come our way. Spirit, grant us renewal, refreshment, and transformation, as we turn to Christ in faith, praying in his holy name. Amen.
“Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’ Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Mark 1:10-13 NASB
See also 1 Peter 3:18–22.
By Linda Rex
February 17, 2021, ASH WEDNESDAY—As a congregation, we have been seeking God’s face, participating as a group in prayer and fasting. Ash Wednesday inaugurates the Lenten season, a season of preparation for Holy Week when we celebrate the last supper, Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection. During this season, many of us will choose to fast in some way, whether by ceasing to eat certain foods, or stopping the use of certain items, or restricting our participation in certain activities.
It is good to participate in spiritual disciplines such as fasting and prayer. But the question we need to attend to is, why are we doing it? How are we doing it? And what do we hope to gain from such an activity?
When we practice the spiritual disciplines—and there are a wide variety of disciplines we can choose to practice—we must remember that we do not do them to try to get God’s attention or earn his love. Praying more, studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, and going to worship services do not earn us brownie points with God—he gladly receives our devotion to him, but it is not necessary to his happiness. Neither does practicing spiritual disciplines alter his love for us. God loves us apart from our actively seeking his face—he sent us Jesus long before we ever thought to say a single prayer.
However, there are times when we acutely feel the distance between us and God. Aren’t spiritual disciplines helpful to bring us closer to God? Absolutely, but not in the way we often seem to think they do. They do not change God’s mind or heart toward us but rather, they bring about a change in us toward God and others. What spiritual disciplines do is open us up to the work God wants to do in us by his Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, meditation, service, humility, and even self-care and care of creation, are ways of placing ourselves in God’s presence and inviting him to do whatever he wants to do in us and in our lives.
There is a distinction we must observe between simply being pious and devout for the sake of trying to move or control God and others, and sincerely laying ourselves out before God in open submission and surrender to his will. Doing the first means performing actions which merely give people the impression of our being good and holy while doing very little to bring about healing and wholeness in us or in our relationships with others. The second is profoundly different, for it is a deep personal interaction with God that can be life-changing, and can move us to begin to live in new ways, offering ourselves to God in whole-hearted love and obedience that is demonstrated by loving our neighbors and ourselves as we ought.
Through the prophet Isaiah God took his people to task for doing their humble fasting to be noticed by God. The reason was because in the midst of their religious practices, they were still mistreating people, neglecting the poor and needy, and not caring for their own families. Jesus himself took the religious leaders, who were so pious, to task for doing these things as well. What good is all our religious ritual and practices if we are unwilling to actually love those people who are already in our lives?
Sadly, it is often we as followers of Jesus who are the worst at being critical and condemning of one another. We are most often the ones who are guilty of deceit, denial, sexual promiscuity, greed and gluttony. We cannot get along with one another, it seems—there are so many things we disagree on. And so often we refuse to allow others the freedom of being guided by the Spirit in some direction that is different than the way he is guiding us.
As a congregation, we have had many opportunities to serve and help those who are poor, needy, and homeless, along with those who were simply struggling to get by. Let us not lose heart in our service to those God places in our lives—we have a calling and a gift, a grace to share with each one. In our seeking after God, our following Jesus, let us allow the Spirit to move in our hearts and minds, giving us Abba’s heart for each of his children. Let us continue to open up our hearts to receive his love and grace that we might share the good news of Jesus with others.
The Word of God took on our humanity, to share in our struggles, so that through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, he might bring us up to share life with him now and forever. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul enumerated a great number of ways in which he and those in ministry with him suffered and struggled as they shared the good news with others (2 Cor. 5:20b–6:10) In Christ and in Paul, we see the willingness to simply go to whatever ends were necessary to share the good news of God’s love.
Paul tells his readers, “Don’t receive the grace of God in vain.” There is a cost to the good news of Jesus Christ—he gave up the glories of heaven to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What a precious gift of grace! With this gift in mind, our participation in spiritual disciplines arises, not from a sense of neediness or desperation, but from a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, an appreciation for the gracious gift of eternal life we have been given in Jesus. And our lives will reflect our understanding and appreciation for the gift God gave to us in Christ.
Drawing close to God, then, by practicing spiritual disciplines becomes an expression of thanksgiving, and an opening up of ourself in grateful worship and praise to do whatever God’s will may be in our lives. God has given us so much—so our fasting and prayer, our worship and service, and other disciplines become a laying down of ourselves, a response of love and appreciation to the God who has loved us so thoroughly and so well. The result of genuine spiritual disciplines then will be an even greater desire to share with others what has so freely been given to us and a life which is a fuller expression of Christlikeness, in which pouring ourselves out in service to others is our daily practice.
Dear Abba, thank you for your gift of your Son Jesus Christ and your Spirit. Open us up more fully to you and renew in us a passion for your will and your ways. Give us your mind and heart so that our lives more fully reflect your goodness and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. …
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday.” Isaiah 58:(1–12) 3–4, 9–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
February 14, 2021, TRANSFIGURATION | EPIPHANY—Have you ever noticed how so often the best things in life only come about after a season of struggle and suffering? One of the drawbacks to living in a world where one can easily obtain the things that we desire is that we forget sometimes the cost involved in creating such things and making them available to us. Remember how something as simple as toilet tissue became such a precious commodity when it suddenly was no longer available in the supermarket?
The complicated story of a simple roll of toilet tissue can be instructive when we consider the concept of cost. What are the cardboard and paper made from? What resources are used in the manufacturing of this item? Are machines used? Who is involved in its production, packaging, and distribution? How many trucks does it travel in before it ends up on the market shelf, ready to be sold? Normally all we see is the package on the shelf, and not the toilet tissue itself. We, unless we do some extensive research, probably have no idea of everything which goes into making possible the presence of a single roll of toilet tissue we can buy, take home, and use.
As human beings, we often view ourselves and others through a similar lens. Unless we have made the effort to acquaint ourselves with more personal details, we often know very little about one another. If we meet someone at the supermarket, we may see that they too have a package of toilet tissue in their cart, along with two boxes of mac and cheese, a head of lettuce, and a box of cinnamon rolls. What does this tell us about them? Not much—just as our own cart, with its bags of lemons and potatoes, bag of potato chips and carton of yogurt really doesn’t say much about us.
What reveals the innermost parts of us is often relationship. And isn’t that what we are created for? We also learn about one another as we spend time with each other, in conversation and in shared activities. This is why we find in the gospels that Jesus intentionally spent time with his disciples and with his heavenly Father in prayer. It was during one of these teaching moments that his inner circle—Peter, James, and John—learned something about Jesus they could never have otherwise known. The power of discipleship groups is the creation of a safe space in which people can be genuine, transparent and vulnerable. When Jesus took his three disciples up on the mountain, he was bringing them to a place where they would see something about him that they were instructed no one else was to know—at least not until after his resurrection. These men were privy to the essence of Jesus’ being, and saw him transfigured—shining with the divine glory which was hidden in Jesus’ humanity as God in human flesh.
In this sacred moment, the transfigured Jesus was seen speaking with two men—Moses and Elijah—about his upcoming departure or exodus. The voice of Jesus’ heavenly Father reminded the human visitors that Jesus was the beloved Son and that they were to listen to and obey him. What an experience! The cloud of God’s presence no doubt brought to mind the stories from the ancients about the Shekinah glory of God being with Israel as she traveled through the wilderness. The implications of this whole mountaintop experience was that all which came through Moses and Elijah was now superseded in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.
The reality was that after a while, though, this mountaintop experience would come to an end. The disciples would descend with Jesus as he went all the way down into the valley of his death by crucifixion in the days to follow. Even though they did not understand what lay ahead of them on the road with Jesus, there was a reality they would need to face in the days ahead which went along with the glory they had just seen revealed in Jesus.
The essence of Jesus’ person was hidden beneath his human flesh. As John would write later in his epistle, they experienced Jesus as being fully human while at the same time experiencing overwhelming evidence that he was the Son of God. There was no doubt that in Jesus Christ, the disciples saw something that was not possible by human standards. The reality of what they had experienced in Jesus Christ was transformative in their own lives, bringing John, for example, to the place where he emphasized the love of God expressed to us in Christ which we are to express to one another in love and service.
The process of discipleship necessarily includes spending time with the one we are learning from, Jesus or a mature follower of Christ. Discipleship involves teaching opportunities, shared experiences, and doing activities together. It is in the process of experiencing all these things together with safe people that our true self begins to emerge, and we begin to shine more and more with the glory God has given us in his Son Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
When we are in close relationship with other people, we are challenged to be open and vulnerable when our brokenness may drive us to stay hidden. In a healthy group setting, people will provide one another both grace and truth—speaking the truth in love and calling each other upwards while providing grace and unconditional acceptance at the same time. Keeping secrets does not mean hiding sin or evil, but rather, honoring one another’s privacy and tender spots, not exposing them to open view or the criticism or condemnation or ridicule of unsafe people. In a perfect world, churches would be safe places, but in reality, they are hospitals for sinners, and so there are times when people are wounded rather than cared for in a church setting. For this reason, spiritual development, or growing up in Christ, is more effective in a small covenant group setting.
One of God’s purposes in drawing us together as the body of Christ is to facilitate our spiritual formation—growing us up into the fullness of Jesus Christ. God works to remove those things which restrict the shining forth of the divine glory we are meant to reflect as we become more and more like Christ. When we feel as though we are struggling in our walk with Christ or are stagnant in our growth as a follower of Jesus, it is a good idea to get into relationship with a few others with whom you can covenant to be open, honest and vulnerable. Together as you pray, study the word of God, serve others, and just generally do life together, you begin to expose the broken parts of your being to the healing touch of Jesus through those with whom you are gathered.
This week might be a good time to consider the possibility of doing something new—becoming part of a discipleship group, or creating one. This will require commitment and may even challenge your sense of safety and security—you may need to go way out of your comfort zone to do this. And you may not immediately find someone who will want to do this with you. So ask God for his guidance and provision—it may be that he already has the perfect person or people in mind for you. Open yourself to the possibility of allowing the essence of Jesus to shine more fully through you as you follow Christ up the mountain and down again, through the valley of death and resurrection into eternal life now and forever with him.
Dear Lord Jesus, thank you for bringing us with you through death and resurrection up into intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Show us the people you would have us covenant with, and enable us to make and keep the commitment needed as we gather together. As we grow more Christlike, may we shine more fully with your true essence, as beloved children of the Father. Amen.
“Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them.” Mark 9:2-3 NASB
By Linda Rex
February 7, 2021, 5th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—One of the things I have missed most since moving into metro Nashville has been the ability to walk out my door and simply find solitude where I felt safe to be by myself in nature. Although there are many greenways in the city where we can go walking or cycling, it is not the same as having a few acres of woods where one can wander about and simply experience the relative silence of the outdoors.
Even out in the country where I used to live there would not be genuine silence, since one could still hear the cars passing on a highway half a mile away or on the gravel road where we used to live. But it was possible to walk out our door and into the woods, and there encounter face to face a whitetail buck or doe as they were out on a browsing expedition looking for a meal. I could find wildflowers in the spring, blackberries in the summer, and in the rippling brook, a number of creatures simply being who they were created to be, reminding me of what really matters in life.
When I would walk in the hills or woods out in the country, I would find there a sense of the imminent yet transcendent presence of God. Sitting on a hill watching and hearing the wind blow through the blades of tall grass and wildflowers reminded me of the wind of the Spirit as Jesus described it to Nicodemus—we don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going, but we can see the wind’s affect. Looking up at the dark sky at night, the stars filled the expanse overhead. The Milky Way was quite evident and made even more impressive the psalmist’s praise that the God who set the stars in the heavens calls each one by name (Is. 40:26; Ps. 147:4).
Caught in the daily routine of life in the city, we can lose sight of the magnitude and glory of the creation God made and so simply cease to have a sense of our place in the midst of the universe as his beloved. And we can be so preoccupied with our responsibilities, our activities, and even our entertainments that we never stop to reflect or examine the state of our hearts and minds. Are we so busy that we do not have time in our daily life for solitude and silence—a place where we can receive God’s refreshment and renewal, and be reminded of who he is and who we are as his beloved?
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, we find Jesus going to synagogue with the disciples on the Sabbath and then returning to Peter’s home afterward. There they find Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. Even though the rabbis taught that healing was not to be done on the Sabbath, Jesus went to the woman, took her by the hand, and healed her. Her response was what our response should be to the Messiah’s healing touch—a dedication to the service of God and others. She got up and began to tend to their needs.
One might think that Jesus, as God in human flesh, shouldn’t have had any needs. But in reality, he was fully human, so he grew hungry and weary just like every other person. In this story, as evening after the Sabbath approached, the entire city came to the door of Peter’s home, bringing all their sick and demon-possessed. Mark says that Jesus healed many of them and cast out many demons. He was in his element as the Messiah, but not without a cost to his physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Those doing ministry with Jesus in a wide variety of occupations know how we can grow tired and need moments of refreshment after tending to the spiritual, mental, emotional as well as physical needs of others—it is hard work.
This is why we see Jesus seeking solitude and silence the next day—he sought freedom from the everyday business of the city life of Caperneum. He made the effort to get up long before anyone else was up, even the field workers who rose at dawn, in order to have time along with his heavenly Father. He sought time away in order to regroup, to reflect, to be renewed in the presence of his Abba, so that he might be filled anew with the Spirit’s power and presence, and have the strength to face what he knew would be his next challenge—saying no to the temptation to stay and build a following there in Caperneum.
After a while, the disciples, including Peter, sought him out. They were concerned that perhaps Jesus had left without them. Peter, when he found the Messiah, told him that everyone was looking for him. Jesus’ response was that they would leave Caperneum and travel to the various villages in the region, sharing the gospel or good news of the kingdom of God. His time alone with the Father had renewed his strength and his focus on what really mattered—preaching the gospel to many people in the area—and he was ready to go and do it.
We can grow weary in serving others, in doing good, in sharing the good news, and in living out the gospel in the midst of a world that ignores or rejects the things of the Spirit. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God never grows weary or tired even when we do. When we wait on the Lord, spending time alone with him in solitude and silence, in times of rest and listening, where we aren’t working on something or trying to do something but are simply being present to God, we will find new inner strength and spiritual resources to deal with the difficulties of everyday life (Is. 40: 28–31).
This time of the pandemic and the disruption of our daily rhythms has provided a perfect opportunity to begin to be more intentional about building into our lives times of renewal, refreshment, and reflection. We have the opportunity to begin to practice healthier ways of living and being which include daily times for solitude and silence, or simply for listening to God. We can create space for daily moments of feeding our souls as well as our bodies, by reading inspirational writings or our bibles, and allowing what we read to sink into our beings, renewing and refreshing us.
True spirituality is relationship—an intimate relationship with the God who knows us completely, who calls us by name, and who gives us himself in Jesus Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. It is difficult to build a relationship with someone with whom you do not spend any significant amount of time. Our relationship with God, though, is the source of our inner strength and well-being. We find the capacity to deal with things that are overwhelming, traumatic, or catastrophic by drawing on an infinite Source beyond ourself of strength, courage, faith, and endurance. Intentionally nurturing that relationship only makes sense, and can be the basis for a healthier way of being as we move on into this new decade of 2021.
Dear Abba, Father God, we come to you in gratitude for your love and faithfulness to us. Thank you for the gifts of your Son and your Spirit. Draw us close, renew and refresh us. Remind us again that we are your beloved, accepted and forgiven, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.” Mark 1:35 NASB; see also Mark 1:29–39.
By Linda Rex
January 31, 2021, 4th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—There is a fascination nowadays with the spiritual. Stories, information, and related materials can be found in movies, books, anime and television shows. It seems as though, even in our information age, we are seeking for something beyond the physical, as though we sense there is more going on than what our reason tells us. We seek out the occult, the mystical, the mythological. But when I speak of spiritual things truly existing and that God or Jesus are real, people immediately take offense or ridicule the idea.
Sometimes I am told that Jesus is just some historical, mythical figure and he has no existence beyond this one. Even many Christians today believe that healing and other miracles no longer occur in the world. In all practicality, they are atheists, living as though God doesn’t really exist and if he does, that he doesn’t care. Indeed, how would one explain an encounter with the living Jesus when there are so many practical reasons not to believe it occurred? It is difficult to explain the way in which the things of the Spirit invade our human existence and genuinely alter it, and it is equally difficult to explain to someone else what it is like to encounter the living Lord. We each have to experience this for ourself.
The gospel of Mark describes how Christ during his ministry would follow the common Jewish practice of attending synagogue on the Sabbath. There the scrolls would be opened and read, and the scribes would expound as best as they could what the meaning was. Their interpretations were drawn from the many writings of the scribes and rabbis before them. They spoke of only that which they understood, and focused on the details of the law and all the meticulous rules these forebearers had established in an effort to keep these laws properly.
On this particular Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue at Capernaum and began to teach. He amazed the listeners because he spoke, not upon the authority of the those prior to him, but upon his own authority. It was as though inherent within himself was the authority to declare the meaning of the scriptures. He didn’t need someone else’s exposition of the Old Testament scriptures to inform him—he simply knew what the intent was and so he presented it. The implication here was that he knew the intent of the scriptures because he was the One who had given them to his people in the first place.
Jesus’ teaching that day was interrupted by a man who was under the control of a presence other than himself. This spirit, Mark explained, was “unclean” or “impure” or “evil”—it is translated in different ways. But the unclean spirit obviously did not have the man’s well-being in mind, but had completely supplanted the man’s will with its own evil will. The spirit in the man called out to Jesus, seeking to silence him by exposing who he was—the “Holy One of God.” He challenged the Lord, asking whether Jesus had come to destroy him and those like him.
It was significant that Jesus immediately silenced the evil spirit and told it to leave the man. Jesus was indeed beginning his warfare against the kingdom of evil, but not in the way which was expected of him. He did not want people to get in mind a wrong idea of what kind of Messiah had come to them. Nor did he need evil spirits to affirm who he was as the Son of God in human flesh. He was Lord over all these spirits, the evil and the good, for they were created by him and had to bow to his will and wishes at all times.
The obedience of the spirit to Jesus’ command astonished the crowd. Here was another way in which Jesus’ authority was made evident. He didn’t need fancy incantations and magical spells. He didn’t use the formulas the Jewish leaders used for exorcism. No, he had the power over the spiritual world as well as the physical world, so he simply commanded and it was done. This was an epiphany—a clear revelation of who Christ was as God in human flesh, the Lord over all his creation, of both the physical and spiritual realms. From this event in the synagogue the news spread out all over the area about Jesus and what he had done.
One of the hardest things for us as humans to accept is the reality that there are some things we just don’t have control over. Some may seek out the things of the spirit as a cry to be able to know something which can’t otherwise be known, to do what could not otherwise be done, or to control others or situations which are out of their control. They do not realize that when we seek the things of the spirit world apart from God that we will often end up enslaved, controlled by forces and spirits beyond ourselves which steal from us our ability to make our own decisions and choices, and in the end, drive us to self-destruction.
We also tend to give ourselves over to attitudes and behaviors which in many ways take control in the same way as the spirit described in this story. Sometimes we allow anger to dig deep roots in our soul, creating a bitterness that begins to affect everyone around us. Resentment and bitterness, and a desire for revenge, can so consume us that we in time we may lose all desire or ability to choose another option apart from God’s intervention on our behalf. There are many other desires that we have as human beings which when properly used within God’s limits are healthy and build us up, but when we give ourselves over to them, they in the end begin to consume us and to control every aspect of our lives, even removing from us our own ability to choose another way.
God does not deprive us of our will nor control it—even though he could—because he loves us and respects our personhood. Any other spirit than that of God will not treat us with this type of respect. This includes some humans, who seek to control our will and keep a tight reign on our every decision, forcing us to do what we do not wish to do. This is not God’s way of being, nor what he created us for. He does not force himself on us. He created us and redeemed us to be his dwelling place through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, to worship and serve him joyfully out of gratitude and love—voluntarily, simply because we desire to.
God through Jesus invites us into relationship with himself and offers himself to us in the Holy Spirit, allowing us to resist, reject, or silence him. He asks us to open ourselves up to him, to make ourselves available to him, to participate with him in what he is doing in the world, but he always leaves us free to say no. When a follower of Jesus speaks of surrender to God, or being filled with the Holy Spirit, they do not mean that they intend to lose their own ability to make decisions or to lose control of their own mind or body. Rather, they are saying that they are agreeing to God’s invitation to voluntarily give space for him to live within them and form them into what all of us were originally created to be—places where God dwells through Jesus in the Spirit so that we might be true image-bearers of Jesus Christ who both love God and love others as we love ourselves.
Mark tells us this story about Jesus so we can discover for ourselves who this teacher is. It is the Holy Spirit in us who enables us to see with spiritual eyes—to see beyond the words on the page and the historical figure of Jesus into the reality of who he is today as our living Lord. This is the beginning of Mark’s testimony that this person Jesus Christ was God in human flesh—the One who lived, died, and rose again, and who comes to us as the living Word in the Spirit. This living Lord Jesus Christ is not just a prophet or teacher, but One at whose word evil spirits are silenced, teachers are amazed, and people are healed. Invite Jesus to make himself real to you—to enable you to see him for who he really is. Seek him out, and he will, in time, enable you to find him. Then you will know, in that moment, that all I have said is true—there is a world beyond this world, and Jesus is Lord of both, and is just as alive today as he ever was, and best of all—he loves you.
Heavenly Father, thank you for the precious gift of your Spirit through your Son Jesus. May your Spirit open the eyes of our minds and hearts so that we may perceive the spiritual realities and come to know Jesus personally as he really is—the living Savior and Lord of all. May we freely give ourselves to you, God, that we may receive ourselves whole and complete through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in return. Amen.
“Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, ‘What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!’” Mark 1:23–25 NASB
See also Mark 1:21–22, 26–28; 1 Corinthians 8:1–13.