By Linda Rex
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?
Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?
We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?
Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.
And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.
A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.
This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.
Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.
Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.
Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?
So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.
Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?
This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?
It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.
May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.
Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB
“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB
By Linda Rex
December 1, 2019, 1st Sunday of Advent—Years ago my body clock used to wake me up before my alarm went off at five in the morning. I was grateful for this because there was nothing I hated more than to be woken from a sweet dream by the hideous drone of the alarm clock. I’ve had that alarm clock for years and now when I set it and then turn it off, in the morning it still buzzes. It’s on those days when I’m trying to sleep in and it wakes me up anyway that I have a distinct desire to throw that old alarm clock in the waste bin.
Back when the apostle Paul was writing his letter to the people in Rome, I doubt very much he had an annoying electric alarm clock. But he understood very well the need for us to be woken from our sleep—to resist our tendency to find that place of least resistance and stay there.
We are entering the season of Advent, when we reflect on and celebrate the entering in of the Word of God into our humanity in the incarnation. The people of Israel had longed for many years for their messiah to come and rescue them from their oppressors. They had the scriptures preserved by their prophets and priests which told them about his coming, and they longed for him to bring to pass the new age of the Spirit when they would be given the heart to obey and serve their God.
The sad reality of the first advent of Christ was that when he did come, he was not recognized. He was not what the people expected, so they rejected him and in the end saw that he was executed in an excruciating death on the cross. What they longed for and wanted for so long, they did not accept, but denied and rejected. They preferred their spiritual sleep, their political power, their religious trappings, and their physical comforts rather than being willing to awaken to their need for the Messiah to deliver them from evil, sin, and death.
If they had been alert to the spiritual realities, they would have remembered the lesson found in their history in the story of Noah. The people of Noah’s day had their focus on eating, drinking, and all the everyday activities of their lives. Even though Noah and his family were a clear witness to them of their coming destruction, these people ignored the warning. They had the opportunity to be saved, but they refused it. The ark was built, the animals—who obeyed the call to be saved—were placed on the ark, but when the flood came, only Noah and his family entered into that salvation and survived the flood.
When Jesus spoke of his second advent, he used the story of Noah to alert people to their tendency to ignore the warning signs of coming destruction. As human beings, we often know the right thing to do, but we don’t do it, even though we know the possible consequences of not doing it. We realize that following our flesh reaps us death and destruction, but we still choose to listen to its desires and fulfill them. We have been given deliverance from evil, sin, and death in Jesus Christ—but what do we do with this gift? This is a critical question.
As human beings, our sinful proclivities draw us down a path God never meant for us to go. And this is why Jesus came—why we celebrate the season of Advent. Jesus came to free us from our sinful nature and to write within us a new heart and mind which wants to live in the freedom God created us for. God in Christ took on our sinful humanity, lived our life, died our death, and rose again, bringing us into the presence of the Father. This is the spiritual reality of our redeemed human existence—the objective union of God with man in the person of Jesus Christ.
God has done in Christ all that is needed for our salvation. He has built the ark, gathered the animals, and has everything in order, ready to save us. We are as good as saved—evil, sin, and death have been conquered by Jesus. We have new life in him—the flood of God’s grace and love has come to cleanse the earth, but are we on the ark? Are we living in the spiritual reality of God’s redeeming grace? Or are we still asleep—laughing at the idiots who would build a big boat when there is no rain or water to be seen?
Paul emphasizes our need to wake up—for our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Indeed, the more we grow in our relationship with our God, the more we see our need for redemption, and the brighter the light of his redeeming grace is in the dark places in our hearts and lives. We can continue to live as though God has not saved us, is not saving us, will not save us. Or we can wake up to the reality that this is exactly what has happened, is happening, and will happen.
Advent is a time to be reminded of our need to wake up to the signs of the times—Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and is coming again to restore all things. We need to be alert to the spiritual realities and live in the truth of who we are as God’s beloved adopted children. The family we have been adopted into does not live in the darkness, but in the light. Our Abba loves and is loved, and this is what we are created for—to love God and love our neighbor.
Our old ways of self-centered, self-reliant, self-indulgent living are but a bad dream. We have a new life we have been given, the life of Christ, and we are to waken and live in the truth of who we are in him. Our loving Father says to us, “Get out of bed, get your dark pajamas of evil, sin, and death off, and put on the heavenly garments of grace and love, the Lord Jesus Christ. Get busy in the new day of your existence in the kingdom of light.”
We sometimes get obsessed with trying to figure out when Jesus Christ is going to return again. But Jesus says to us, “Wake up. Be attentive to my presence and coming right now.” The advent or Parousia (coming and presence) of Jesus Christ is actually one long extended event. Jesus came over 2000 years ago, died and rose again, but sent his Spirit, being present with us even now, and will come in glory when he returns again.
The calling for the church is to live awake to the real coming and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ right now—to live in a constant state of expectation, longing for his real presence in our everyday lives, alert to what he is doing and will do even now to redeem, restore, and renew all things. We are encouraged to put off our old ways of self-centered living and put on the new life given us in Christ. Yes, the alarm is going off and we may not want to admit it, but the truth is—it’s time to wake up!
Dear Abba, we’re finding it hard to get out of bed, to awaken to the glorious reality of our new life in Christ. Help us to get our old pajamas of evil, sin, and death off and to gladly put on our Lord Jesus Christ, the heavenly garments of love and grace you have handmade for us. Holy Spirit, keep us ever awake to the spiritual realities, to God’s presence in each moment of every day, and enable us to live in the truth of who we are in Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.
“Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. Romans 13:11–14 NASB
See also Matthew 24:36–44.
By Linda Rex
November 24, 2019, Christ the King or Reign of Christ—Yesterday I was catching up on a few emails when I noticed one from a publisher. They were wanting to market my book “Making Room” and were telling me how wonderful it was and how it could reach millions of people if only I would sign up with them for their marketing services. When the email reached the place where it said that my book was being considered for being made into a film, I started laughing. Well, I thought to myself, it is pretty obvious that this person never even read my book.
What I found out with a little research on my part was this particular group makes a practice of plagiarizing people’s writing. What appeared to be a wonderful opportunity to share my writing turned out to be a ploy to steal what I worked so hard to put together for the benefit of my readers. Just another case where what appeared to be glorious on the outside turned out to be like the tombs Jesus described—outwardly whitewashed and beautiful, but filled with death and decay on the inside.
It seems that our broken human existence is often like this. Remember the old saying, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch?” We tend to assume that free means free, but more often than not there is a catch of some kind. We end up paying in some crazy way for that thing we thought was a generous and delightful freebie. Because of this, we find it difficult to get our minds around the reality that God has offered us salvation as a free gift in his Son Jesus Christ.
First, the darkness of our human brokenness blinds us to our need for deliverance. We prefer to buy a few cans of whitewash and put a new layer on our evil, sin, and death rather than submitting ourselves to the truth of our humanity—we need Christ. We need to be changed from the inside out—we need a new existence, one in which we are reconciled with God and made whole. The fact that Jesus came in our stead, on our behalf means we were in need of him doing so. In other words, we are sinners in desperate need of rescue. We are, as Israel was, incapable of and unwilling to live in union and communion with our covenant God, and so the Word of God came into our humanity to do what we could not and would not do.
Secondly, submitting ourselves to the transforming power of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ means we are submitting to God as Lord over our existence. Jesus lived our life and died our death, rising again and carrying our humanity into the presence of our Father. Our human existence isn’t defined by our self-determination, our self-will, and self-preservation any longer, but by the self-giving, self-sacrificing, and other-centered being of Jesus Christ. Jesus defines us—he is our identity as adopted children of our heavenly Father. We are called to faith, to trust in him fully, to receive our identity as full participants in the majestic love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
And this is what we resist—Jesus as our King. What we need to come to grips with is our need to surrender to the all-encompassing love and grace of our ever-living Lord. We are so much more comfortable with our fear, our anxiety, and our human efforts to liberate ourselves than we are simply trusting in him, in his goodness, kindness and mercy—that as our Lord and King, he wants only the best for us and is always working things for our good as we trust in him.
As soon as things start to go wrong in our lives, we are tempted to believe that God doesn’t care, that he doesn’t love us, and that he is indifferent to our concerns and needs. We may be dealing with an endless struggle with pain or loss, and wonder why God won’t take it away—how can he really love us when we have to go through this day after day after day? We like to make up our own rules for our existence and don’t like the idea of anyone but us deciding how things ought to be. Why should I listen to God and do things his way, since his way is so hard and difficult? And look at all those people who say they are Christians—what’s the point of following Jesus when it doesn’t change anything?
These are really good questions, and I do believe we need to be asking them. But I also believe we have to be very careful in our search for answers not to ignore the reality of what God has done already in giving his Son Jesus Christ, and what he is doing in each moment right now by the Holy Spirit to bring Jesus’ resurrected life into effect in our human existence as we trust in him.
God is at work in the world through Jesus in the Spirit. He has, in Jesus, delivered all humanity out of the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of light. But our participation is critical. What we believe about Jesus, who he is, what he has done and is doing, is important. Who is Jesus Christ? Who is Jesus to you? Are you in agreement with the spiritual reality that Jesus is your Lord and your Savior? If so, how does this affect the way you live your life?
If we expect it to be all up to us to make the Christian life work, we are going to find ourselves in a very difficult place. God will not allow us to endlessly continue in the false belief that if we do everything “just so” then everything will turn out all right. He will allow us to experience the reality that our rightness is solely dependent upon Jesus Christ. He alone is the sovereign Lord over our whole human existence.
It was our heavenly Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness of the Godhead to dwell in Christ and through him to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth with himself. There is nothing left between us and God—we are fully free to be the adoring adopted children of God we were always meant to be (Col. 1:11–20).
We have been brought out of darkness into the light, so the truth of our existence is that we are children of light. This gift of grace so freely given is meant to be received with gratitude and praise demonstrated by a life lived as those who reflect the glorious image of our loving sovereign King who is Father, Son and Spirit. Let us live and walk in the truth of that, both now and forever.
Abba, thank you for loving us so much that you would not allow anything to come between us and you. Thank you for delivering from the kingdom of darkness and setting us by your Son Jesus Christ in your kingdom of light. Grant us the grace to admit our need for redemption and forgiveness, and to submit to you as the Lord over all things, through Jesus our Lord and Savior. Enable us to serve you faithfully and obediently from now on with gratitude and praise as your beloved children. Amen.
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; And He will reign as king and act wisely | And do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, | And Israel will dwell securely; And this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness.’” Jeremiah 23:5–6
“The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’ Now there was also an inscription above Him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’ And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’” Luke 23:36–43 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 17, 2019, Proper 28—Many years ago, I was faced with the reality that I was going to be on my own with two children to provide for. It was a hard thing to face because up to that point, it had been my commitment to be at home with my children so I could be fully involved in their lives. Reality is not always pleasant but it must be dealt with, and being a single mom meant I needed to find a job as well as hire a caregiver for my kids.
Life as a single mom was difficult for me, but many of the people around me struggled with even harder situations than what I had to deal with. Many of my co-workers juggled two jobs in order to be able to pay for childcare and their monthly expenses. Jobs in that farming community for the most part didn’t pay enough for single income families to make ends meet.
When life was hardest and the mountains around me seemed to grow taller and taller, I wrestled with fear, despair, and depression. The gracious God taught me during that extensive time of wrestling that all I needed to do was to hold his hand and take the next step and do that next right thing. Every month when the bills came due and I wasn’t sure if I would have enough to cover them, I would end up thanking God—he seemed to always come through for me.
During those years I learned that God was faithful and could be counted on, in spite of what I might be going through at the moment. As a follower of Jesus, I discovered that even if people around me ridiculed me and rejected me for living honestly, chastely, and responsibly, God was still present and at work in my life. Over time, as I intentionally began to build healthier relationships with other believers of many different faiths, he surrounded me with loving people who became our extended family, providing emotional and spiritual support through a very painful and difficult time.
Following Jesus is a life lived in the reality that God is our loving Father and we are his beloved children in his Son. When we follow Jesus, we begin to discover that even though each and every person around us is included in the Father’s love, not everyone knows nor do they believe this is the case. This means that as we live in the truth of being God’s beloved, living in agreement with our identity in Christ as image-bearers of God, we will come up against those who live in opposition to him and to us.
Some of the most painful experiences we have as believers are when our own family members and dear friends ridicule us, shame us, or even reject us because we have begun to follow Christ. We may long for these dear ones to share the joy of transformation we are experiencing, but find instead that they will have nothing to do with the truth of God’s love and grace. Life gets really tough when those we love refuse to participate with us in Christ.
Jesus often tried to help his disciples understand the cost of discipleship, of following him all the way through death and resurrection. They couldn’t quite get their minds around the reality that Jesus was not there to be the conquering king messiah—he was anointed by his Abba to be the Suffering Servant messiah, an entirely different concept. The entrance of his people into the kingdom was not going to come about by him waging war on the Romans, but by offering himself up to humanity as a lamb for the slaughter.
The people of Israel had worked so hard to get their temple rebuilt and adorned as an appropriate dwelling for God. But Jesus told them it would be torn down and destroyed. And that it would be okay, because Abba was creating a new temple, a dwelling place for himself—the body of Christ, the church, where individually and collectively God would dwell by the Holy Spirit. In order for this to happen, Jesus would need to experience suffering and death, followed by resurrection.
In the same way, the process of redemption and sanctification for us individually includes our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion as an expression of our inclusion in the death and resurrection of Christ. But we also participate as we experience the consequences of following Christ, of living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh—by sharing in the sufferings of Christ as we find ourselves opposed, resisted, and even rejected by those for whom Christ is offensive.
Our participation in Christ, following Jesus through every experience of life, is a journey, one in which we may experience both joy and sorrow, blessing and suffering. The key is that we are indwelt by God himself and whatever may be occurring in our lives at the moment, he is present and involved and aware. He upholds us in the midst of our struggles, and celebrates with us when we experience the triumphs of life.
Jesus Christ didn’t promise his followers a pain-free life. But he did promise that he would be with them to the end—that in their endurance, they would find true life. The life Abba has given us through Jesus in the Spirit is an intimate knowing and being known. Our knowledge and understanding of who God is grows as we wrestle with hardship and pain, and the other difficulties of life in relationship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.
We, in Christ, are the beloved children of God—and we are to act like it from now on, no matter how difficult it may be to do so. But, remember, we are not alone as we do this—Christ is present and active, participating with us in everything we are going through, keeping us in the midst of God’s life and love, and enabling us to endure to the end. And when we feel we just can’t hold on any longer, as we turn to him in faith, we will find he’s been there all along, holding on to us.
Father, thank you for being present in every circumstance of life. Thank you, Jesus, that we are privileged to share in your sufferings, your life and your death. And thank you, Holy Spirit, that we never do any of this on our own, but always and ever through you in the loving embrace of the Father and the Son. Enable us this day to face the pain and difficulty one more time. Give us the courage to do the difficult thing we don’t want to do, and the faith to trust you when everything around us tells us not to. Grant us the grace to endure, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. Yet not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Luke 21:16–19 NASB
“For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10–13 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 10, 2019, Proper 27—As a pastor of a small church in North America, I have read, heard, and seen many books and conferences on how to grow my church. I have experienced a wide variety of emotions about the state of my congregations and the state of Christian churches as a whole. And so often, I have come away caught between the demand for greater performance and more investment of time and money, and our utter dependence upon a mighty move of the Holy Spirit to transform our society and culture for the better.
Last night some of the members gathered at the church to provide hot chocolate, cookies, and candy for the trick-or-treaters who were walking through the neighborhood. We played some board games, and chatted with the few who came in out of the cold to join us. I was grateful to each person who stopped by, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed more did not come to enjoy a moment with us.
It is easy to feel discouraged when we are trying so hard to reach out to our community members and so often, we seem to have very little response. I was wrestling with this frustration last week when it occurred to me that being aware that things are not changing as I want them to is one thing, but being critical and condemning is another. There has been ample evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work, and I must not imply or infer that he’s not, or that he isn’t doing a good enough job to suit me.
We’ve been able to touch the lives of several people. We’ve had a few baptisms. We’ve had new people join us here and there over the years. Even though our doors aren’t flooded with an overwhelming attendance of new folks, we do have a few here and there who have joined us on the journey. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
I am reminded of the story of Haggai, how the remnant of the people of Israel and Judah had returned to their homeland, but had lost heart in rebuilding the temple. Enough negative resistance and personal distractions occurred that they quit doing what before had been so important to them. They lost sight of a very important truth—the abiding presence of God.
The prophetic word of Haggai to Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the people was for them to “take courage.” They needed the courage to move forward against all obstacles, trusting that God would move away whatever stood in their way and that nothing would prevent them from finishing the task he had given them to do.
The reason they could have this kind of courage was that God was with them. Haggai reassured them that the Spirit of God was abiding in their midst and that they were not to be afraid. We today as the living temple of God’s Spirit individually and collectively need to be courageous and brave about building up God’s spiritual building, and have the same kind of confidence that God is in us, with us, and for us.
He is present and has promised that he would be with us to the end. In Matthew 28:19-20, when commissioning the disciples, Jesus sent them out to make disciples with the understanding that he was with them and would be with them until the end. And that all power and authority in heaven and earth were his, therefore all these resources were theirs to draw upon. There was every reason for them to move courageously out to preach the gospel!
But Jesus also told his disciples to wait on the Holy Spirit—to remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit empowered them for this ministry. There is a two-fold path we take as stewards of the gospel (and we are all stewards of the gospel as God’s children). As we go through our lives, we share with others the miracle of God’s grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. But we also live, work, and share with others the good news of God’s grace and love in full dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance, power, and provision.
I know from personal experience that it is easy to approach the circumstances of my life in such a way that I don’t see my daily encounters with people as an opportunity to share the good news. However, looking at the early church, I find that sharing the good news was an integral part of their individual existence.
In fact, the very reason the early church exploded in numbers was that when persecution happened and people left their homes for new lands, they talked about Jesus wherever they went. They were on fire with the transformation power and love of God in Christ. And this was both the everyday way of being of people who had been touched by the gospel of Jesus Christ and a powerful move of the Holy Spirit.
Coming out of a church paradigm where the denomination headquarters did all the work, where special evangelists were the ones who preached the gospel, I find one of hardest things for me to do is to make everyday encounters with people a venue for the gospel without being preachy or annoying. I want everyday conversations to be opportunities to build meaningful relationship, but find instead that constant inner voice which tells me to put up walls and to self-protect.
Sadly, I do not find within myself as much as I would like that total self-giving which identified so many in the early church who were willing to die for the sake of the gospel. To lay down my life as they did would be considered foolish by many Christians today—unless I was a missionary in a foreign land or in an inner-city ministry. It seems that for many of us as everyday Christians, laying our lives down for the sake of Christ is not what we do—that’s left for certain people to do—pastors, evangelists, preachers, televangelists, for example. But the everyday Christian?
But Jesus didn’t come just for the sake of a few people. He took on our humanity so that every, all, each human being would share in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit—there is a place at the table for each person. If we are believers, then we know this and believe this. So implicit in that knowing is a call on each of us to share that good news with the person in front of us in some way.
So, we pray for open doors, for ways to share this good news. We ask for the words to say and the actions to take. We may only be allowed to help or serve this person in front of us in this moment in some small way. We may not even be able to say anything about Jesus immediately. But we begin in whatever way God puts before us, and we move on from there.
God wants us to be brave and courageous, remembering he is in us, with us, and for us. We can and should share the words of life which have been so life-transforming for us. At the same time, we are to live and share these words in total dependence upon the Spirit’s presence and power, trusting that God will finish what he has begun. May God move in a mighty way, in and through each of us, even today as we yield to and depend upon his Spirit and trust in Jesus.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your love and life through Jesus in the Spirit. Show us the open doors you would have us walk through. Fill our mouths with the words to say in each moment we are given. Fill our hearts with courage and faith, a boldness to share the words of life which have so helped and transformed us. We trust you to finish what you begin, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people saying, ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the LORD of hosts. ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” Haggai 2:2-5 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 3, 2019, Proper 26—Imagine being hired for a job and being told that your best efforts were going to be futile and no matter how hard you tried, you would not succeed. Would you still take the job and be willing to go all the way with it, no matter what might possibly happen in the future?
Isaiah’s prophetic book records his encounter with the Triune God, where he was overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of the Lord’s divine majesty. When the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?” Isaiah volunteered, saying, “Here am I. Send me!” It is then that he heard how the people would respond to his message—they would be deaf and blind, resisting the good news Isaiah sought to share with them (Is. 6).
Throughout the years of his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic message spoke on the one hand to the sinfulness of the nation and called them back to their covenant relationship with God. On the other hand, the Lord also shared through Isaiah the hope for a redemptive future through a suffering servant messiah who would deliver his people and change their hearts and minds so they would finally love and serve their God.
This prophet faithfully fulfilled his calling, speaking words that apparently no one wanted to hear. He recorded the Lord’s words, telling his nation and many others what the consequences would be for their choices and the way they were living. Isaiah was never celebrated during his life, but according to tradition was sawn in two—an ignoble death for one dedicated to the service of God.
The key to Isaiah’s devotion to such a seemingly futile enterprise lay in his relationship with God himself. When faced with the holiness of the Triune God, he saw himself as a man of unclean lips living among an unclean people. But God offered him grace, taking away his iniquity and cleansing him from his sin. Isaiah’s faithfulness to such a seemingly fruitless task wasn’t for his own glory, but in gratitude to God for his gracious redemption.
Thankfully, Isaiah’s efforts weren’t totally in vain. Whatever he did write, whether or not others contributed to it, was preserved for us to read today. If we were to look in the new testament, we would find Jesus himself quoting the words of Isaiah. The gospel writers were happy to show how Isaiah’s prophetic words were fulfilled in Christ. Even Luke, when recording the book of Acts, tells about Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian who was reading the book of Isaiah and wanting help to understand the words he was reading. This led to the man’s baptism.
Sharing the word of God is not always a comfortable experience. What we forget, or at least I do, is that people don’t necessarily want to hear the truth, especially if it will make them uncomfortable or help them see that they are wrong. An innocent statement, couched in the context of one’s relationship with God, may cause an extreme reaction in someone who is resistant to the Spirit’s work in their hearts and minds. We may blame ourselves for not saying things better, but in reality, it may have nothing to do with us and everything to do with that person’s refusal to respond to the Spirit’s work in their heart and mind.
The closer Christ comes to us, the more we see our need for redemption. But for some of us, this may mean the faster we run the other direction or the harder we fight to resist the pull of grace. We cannot coerce anyone with the gospel—that is not God’s way at all. The gospel is an invitation which can be rejected, ignored, or torn up and thrown in the wastebasket.
So, sharing God’s love and his gospel good news must always be done in the context of prayer. We need the presence and power of the Triune God in the midst of our sharing of God’s grace and love. He is the One who changes hearts and minds. He is the one who takes our scarlet sins and makes them white as snow.
We also need to remember how Jesus approached people. The way we talk with them and about them needs to reflect the nature and goodness of our gracious God. In the story of Zaccheus, we find Jesus heading through town, and this man of short stature climbing a tree in an effort to see him when he would pass by. Jesus goes to him and tells him that he must stay at Zaccheus’ house.
In any case, this started the townspeople talking, for Zaccheus was a notorious “sinner”, a tax collector. Jesus did not see the man in this way. He saw him as a redeemed “son of Abraham” and someone who was lost who needed to be found. The approach of Jesus was redemptive and welcoming, speaking to and of Zaccheus as if he was already forgiven, accepted, and found. His gracious acceptance was lost on the townspeople who had their minds set on the sinfulness of the tax collector, but for Zaccheus, they were life. He immediately sought to express his gratitude by making amends.
Our sharing of the good news is a natural outworking of the Spirit’s redemptive work in our hearts and minds, and our lives. We bear witness to what Jesus has done to transform, heal and renew. We may experience resistance—let it be only because we are reflections of the glory, grace and love of God. Let it not be because we have sought to coerce or manipulate or use others. Let it not be because we have maligned the word of God due to our hypocrisy or unloving actions or words.
And let us pray—for open hearts, open doors, open paths for the gospel to spread. Pray for individual people we have met or gotten to know. Pray that they will encounter the Triune God, the living Lord Jesus, and be baptized in the Holy Spirit’s fire of love and grace. And courageously, let us speak the words of life, no matter the result. Someday, maybe in eternal glory, we may be surprised at what God has done with our simple efforts to share his words of life.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, for including us in your mission in this world, to tell everyone of the gracious love of our heavenly Father. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for working to bring each of us to see and know the Father and Son more intimately, and to transform our hearts by faith. Do bring these, our brothers and sisters, to faith in Christ so we can share together in fellowship and unity both now and forever. Amen.
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:10 NASB
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ | Says the Lord, | ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, | They will be as white as snow; | Though they are red like crimson, | They will be like wool.’” Isaiah 1:18 NASB
“How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, | Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, | And in whose spirit there is no deceit! When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away | Through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; | My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to You, | And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; | And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; | Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; | You preserve me from trouble; | You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.” Psalm 32:1–7 NASB