by Linda Rex
January 1, 2023, CHRISTMAS | New Year’s Day—Do you remember anything from when you were a toddler? One of the stories that goes along with the birth of Christ is an event which occurred when Jesus was about two years old. At that time, Scriptures say that Jesus and his family were living in a house in Bethlehem. What kept them in Bethlehem those two years? Were the couple there simply to avoid the notoriety going back home would give them?
The magi or wise men from the East came to visit Joseph and Mary, bringing gifts for the newborn king. Unfortunately, in their search for Jesus, they stopped in Jerusalem and enquired of King Herod as to his location. Herod asked his counselors what they knew about the prophecies of the coming Messiah and they told him that Bethlehem was where the Messiah would arrive. In response Herod sent his visitors from the East to Bethlehem with instructions to come back and see him and let him know where the baby was, so he could also pay his respects.
Even though the magi didn’t know the truth, God knew King Herod had no intention of letting the baby Messiah live. For that reason, he sent an angel to warn the magi, and they took a longer, more inconvenient way home so they could avoid returning to Jerusalem and endangering baby Jesus by reporting to Herod where they had found him.
This is where our gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 2:13–23, begins. Joseph, warned in a dream about Herod’s evil intentions is told to take his family and flee to Egypt. He immediately obeyed God’s instructions and began the dangerous and arduous trip, which was lengthened by the necessity of avoiding Jerusalem. Matthew recorded the horrific massacre of all infants under the age of two years which occurred shortly after they left Bethlehem. How must have Mary and Joseph have felt when the news reached them in Egypt of their close call!
Joseph, realizing that the hard work of his past two years disappeared in an instant simply because Jesus needed to be kept safe, must have had some real challenges in having to relocate and find work again. It is interesting God permitted circumstances to occur which would require that they end up in Egypt, and eventually then have to move back from Egypt, though up farther north in Galilee. Matthew, when recording these events, pointed out how each of them was a fulfillment of the prophetic word regarding the Messiah. Even though to Mary and Joseph these seemed like random events, in reality they were events which fulfilled God’s plan and purpose for his Son Jesus.
God grants us humans great freedom in living our lives, making decisions, and choosing whether to obey him. But none of the decisions we make prevent God from ultimately accomplishing what he has in mind. What they often do is complicate our lives and create issues for us when we don’t follow God’s leadership and guidance, or we work in opposition to God. But God can even take our opposition to him and use it to accomplish his best purposes and plans.
The story of the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem is tragic and heartrending. In many ways, it was a foretaste of what would happen to the Messiah himself. The blood shed that day pointed to the blood Jesus himself would shed on the cross on behalf of every person, including all those innocent ones who lost their lives. It was never God’s intention that the children die—that was the plan of the evil one and a sick king. But having happened, every child who died that day participated in Christ’s own crucifixion by the hand of broken, sinful people. And they rose, and will rise, in Jesus’ own resurrection.
Tears are often a part of our story. We’d all like to have stories which never have dark places in them, but the reality is that a good story includes both light and darkness. It is the conflict between the two which speaks to our hearts and captures our imagination. We know that our human existence in this crazy world is full of both sides of the coin. That is the reality of life right now apart from Christ.
What brings us joy, peace, and hope in the midst of such a place where evil stands in such strong opposition to what is good is the incarnation. It is that this God, who is greater than any evil that exists, has come into our human existence and taken on our human flesh. This God, though attacked by evil even as a child, continued to realign our human flesh with his eternal purposes and plans throughout his time here on earth, forging within our human flesh a capacity for genuine, other-centered love toward God and one another.
No matter how dark things get in our world, Jesus brings light. No matter what the evil one may attempt in a parasitic effort to destroy God’s good purposes and plans, he will ultimately fail. This child, born in such humble circumstances and threatened by human powers and evil plots, was guarded by his heavenly Father. He experienced the crucifixion of his human flesh in so many ways besides what happened on the cross. Here, in this part of his story, he became the one who lived when others died. He became the one who escaped while others suffered. But at the same time, he was the one in whom they suffered and died in his own cruciform offering. And he was the one in whom they will rise again in his own resurrection.
What darkness are you facing today? What battle are you fighting? What loss are you grieving? What addiction are you shackled by? Does the New Year look bleak considering what you are facing?
Jesus reminds us that whatever our story may be, it is caught up in the midst of his Father’s great big story. And however bad the evil may be, it is no match for the greatness and goodness of our loving God. And it’s never over, until God says it’s over. So there is always hope, peace, and joy in Christ as we are held in the midst of God’s love and grace. We are forgiven. We are accepted. We are beloved. And we most certainly are included—invited into and held within the inner circle of Father and Son in the Spirit. Praise God!
Thank you, dear Jesus, for going to such lengths to make us a part of your Father’s story. Thank you for forging for us the gift of life in the midst of death, of grace in the midst of our failures to love and serve. Thank you for including us in your life with the Father in the Spirit. Amen.
“For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, ‘I will proclaim Your name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in Him.’ And again, ‘Behold, I and the children whom God has given me.’ Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.” Hebrews 2:10–18 NASB
“Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.’ So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.’ But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, ‘Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.’ So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ ” Matthew 2:13–23 NASB
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by Linda Rex
December 18, 2022, 4th Sunday in ADVENT | Love—We’ve come to the fourth Sunday in Advent already, and while contemplating the topic of love, it occurred to me that Joseph is a hidden gem in the Advent story.
Today in our media and literature, it is common to ridicule or demean men, especially fathers or men of faith. Granted, some of us have had fathers who utterly failed at their job of reflecting the nature of God and his love to their children. But I have met men who, though faulty and broken like the rest of us, took seriously their responsibility to serve, care for and honor the people in their lives, especially their wives and children.
Reflecting upon Mary’s story, it must have been so hard for the young woman after the angel told her she was going to become pregnant with a child who would be the Messiah. According to custom, she probably would not have had a single private conversation with Joseph at any time during their engagement. And though their engagement meant she was technically married to Joseph, they had to wait for a year to prove she was not expecting a baby by some other man. For her then, to end up pregnant meant disaster for her relationship with Joseph.
Joseph had every reason to divorce Mary, and was expected to. Thankfully, the custom of stoning unwed mothers was not as faithfully observed as divorce and public shaming was. It says something about Joseph’s heart and character that when he discovered Mary was pregnant, he sought to privately divorce Mary, not wanting to bring her to public shame. Considering the public humiliation of having a pregnant fiancée he himself was going to experience, Joseph also had to deal with all of the family and social consequences of what had occurred.
Then Joseph had a dream. In his dream, an angel told him to wed Mary, that the child she carried was conceived by the Holy Spirit and should be named Jesus, for he would save his people from their sins. Most of us don’t remember our dreams when we wake up in the morning. But Joseph was singularly moved by this dream, so much so that he broke all custom and immediately married Mary and brought her home. He honored her and her baby by caring for them and providing for them from then on.
Throughout Mary’s pregnancy, travels to Bethlehem, and subsequent travels to Egypt and Nazareth, Joseph listened to and obeyed the instructions he received from God through angels about taking care of the baby Jesus. Joseph was a father to Jesus, one who was led by the Spirit, so that Jesus could fulfill the mission his heavenly Father had given him while here on earth.
Whatever Joseph did, though, was merely a participation in God’s story. Israel for years had cried out, longing for redemption and deliverance. They would slide into slavery and sin, and then God would rescue them again, only to repeat the process. One of the readings for this Sunday is a beautiful psalm which reminds us that our only hope of being anything other than our broken, sinful selves, is for God to smile on us and to restore us into right relationship with himself. The psalmist says:
“Oh, give ear, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who are enthroned above the cherubim, shine forth! Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up Your power and come to save us! O God, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved. O LORD God of hosts, how long will You be angry with the prayer of Your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and You have made them to drink tears in large measure. You make us an object of contention to our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves. O God of hosts, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved. … Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself. Then we shall not turn back from You; revive us, and we will call upon Your name. O Lord God of hosts, restore us; cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”(Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19 NASB)
Do you see the repetition of the request, “O God restore us…cause Your face to shine upon us”? The expression “cause your face to shine upon us” is another way of asking God to smile on us. This song hints at the coming of God’s Son, the Son of Man, who will be instrumental in our salvation—our only hope of being restored and revived. And only because God smiled on us.
Since our heavenly Father was so willing to smile on us that he would send his own unique Son for our salvation, we truly have great hope, no matter how difficult our struggles. Since our heavenly Father was so willing to smile on us that he made provision for our forgiveness and our reconciliation with himself, we truly have peace and joy no matter how far we have fallen or how miserably we have failed. And since our heavenly Father was willing to do whatever it took to turn us back to himself, even offering us his own Son to us, we are able to rest and find comfort in his everlasting love.
We are caught up in the midst of God’s story, and like Joseph, are participating in what God is doing to turn us all back to himself. Advent reminds us that even when we are at our worst, God has smiled on us. Christ has come, is coming even now by his Spirit in our everyday lives, and will return again in glory one day. We are reminded to look away from our problems, look away from ourselves, and to look up into the face of our loving Father, to see him smile on us. And right there—we discover, we are saved.
Heavenly Father, thank you for smiling on us and giving us the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Remind us anew to turn away from ourselves and our sorrows and to turn to you. Smile on us again, so that we might experience anew our salvation, through Jesus, your Son. Amen.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,’ translated means, ‘God with us.’ And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” Matthew 1:18–25 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/12/olitbecause-god-smiled.pdf ]
[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]
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by Linda Rex
December 11, 2022, 3rd Sunday in ADVENT | Joy—At times I wonder what it would have been like to have been a close relative of Jesus Christ while he lived here on earth. What stories would we have been told about the birth of our cousin? Would we have known the story about how John jumped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when his pregnant relative Mary came for a visit?
Some commentators say that John and Jesus probably did not know each other very well while others picture them as close kin. But when Jesus came to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing the people, the prophet knew exactly who Jesus was and why he was there. He pointed Jesus out as being the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the people.
Later on, John spoke out against King Herod Antipas’ recent marriage to the wife of King Herod Philip, Herodias. The result of John’s truth-telling was a stint in prison, without any deliverance in sight. The gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 11:2–11, describes how while John the Baptizer was in prison, he sent his disciples to Jesus to verify that he indeed was the promised Anointed One or Messiah.
It’s possible that John thought Jesus, if he was truly the Messiah, should have been doing something to ensure his release from prison, or perhaps even have been speaking out against Antipas. But Jesus merely pointed out to John’s disciples that as the Messiah, Christ was busy doing what the Coming One was predicted to do—healing the sick, raising the dead (like he had just done for the widow in Nain) and casting out demons. In the midst of his dark and difficult circumstances, John the Baptizer may have needed some reassurance that all of his own efforts were not in vain. Or he may simply have been continuing to do what he did before—point away from himself, and point his disciples toward Christ.
Jesus’ words about John were not critical, but supportive and understanding. In fact, he let his listeners know that John was a great prophet even though he would be surpassed by the least in the kingdom of God which Jesus was inaugurating. Christ challenged the crowd, saying, “blessed is he who does not take offense at Me” (NASB; in the Greek, καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί). I’m not a Greek scholar, but it is interesting to note that σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthí) looks a lot like our English word scandal. As Jesus points out, we find blessing or joy in not being scandalized by Jesus and what he is doing, even though he might be doing things differently than we expect.
How often are we scandalized by the way Jesus is doing something in our lives or in this world? Can you think of a time when you were infuriated with the way something turned out, wondering why God didn’t intervene? Why is it that the Lord allows things to happen a certain way when he could, being God, make things so very different, so very less painful or awful?
It is easy to pass judgment on God—we do it all the time. Just as the people in Jesus’ day judged him as being un-Messiah-like, we expect God to jump certain hoops, and when he doesn’t, we are offended or scandalized. And often we’re just not honest with ourselves in regards to these things, since, as good people, we know we shouldn’t be mad at God, or offended by how he runs the world.
But let’s think for a moment about judgment as it was expressed in the coming of God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. First off, God judged us as human beings of being worthy of his love and attention. He knew we couldn’t get ourselves into right relationship with him on our own, so he planned from the beginning to do what was necessary to bring us home. In Christ, God judged us as being a good creation gone astray, which needed to experience healing, redemption, renewal, and reconciliation.
All of this at work in our world was evident in the ministry and life of Jesus Christ as he cast out demons, healed the sick and broken, preached the gospel to the poor, and even raised the dead. Jesus, as a human being himself, went so far as to allow human beings to reject him, crucify him, and kill him. Even so, his judgment as he hung on the cross was forgiveness, caring for his mother, and welcoming a criminal into paradise. And God’s judgment on all of us as human beings in our imprisonment in the kingdom of darkness, was to bring us all into the kingdom of light as Jesus rose from the grave in the resurrection.
Do you see that God’s method of judgment is so laden with grace that it looks so much different than ours? Jesus says we aren’t to stumble over him or be scandalized by him. Instead, we are to accept Jesus for who he really is—God in human flesh, our redemption and salvation, our heavenly Father’s Word of grace sent to us, birthed of the Spirit. Are we scandalized by the grace God expresses to us as human beings in Christ? Or is this grace the source of our blessedness and our great joy?
During the season of Advent, we rehearse anew our preparation for the coming of the Messiah, specifically as God came in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, a baby which was laid in a manger while angels announced the good news to shepherds on a hill nearby. Are we scandalized by the coming of God in human flesh in this humble way? Or are we grateful at God’s humility and love?
Jesus Christ, as God in human flesh come for our redemption and salvation, took on a particular human body in a specific place and time. The one who made all things and sustains all things by his word and power became our close relation, becoming one of us that we might share eternity with him some day. And Jesus was willing to do this, even though he knew from the beginning what the cost would be. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. With open hands, we share in his joy, as we receive the grace he so generously offers us, rather than being offended by the way he runs his world.
Dear Jesus, thank you for coming to us and being willing to take on our human existence as your very own for a time. Thank you for sharing your joy with us by your Spirit. Father, grant us the grace to not be offended by your Son, but to embrace him fully, allowing Jesus to be who he is for us, our joy and our salvation. 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. … Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. … the redeemed will walk there, 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 35:1–10 NASB
“Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘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.’ As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “Behold, I sent my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’ ” Matthew 11:2–11 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/olitjoy-in-judgment.pdf ]
[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]
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by Linda Rex
December 4, 2022, ADVENT | Peace—We’ve made it through another election season here in America. We have yet to see the full ramifications of our choices. Some prognosticators are predicting worst case scenarios, while others are optimistic and hopeful. We can make lots of predictions, but the ultimate reality is we do not know what the future holds for us as a nation or as individuals.
It appears conflict is one way we exist as human beings. Even though we were designed with differences in mind for the sake of the greater good, we have yet to learn how to bring those differences together as a means of creating unity rather than division. What is meant to bring joy and variety to our lives so often ends up creating stress and heartache. How hard it is for us to learn to live together as unique, equal persons in oneness, peace and harmony!
On this second Sunday in Advent, we read Matthew 3:1–12 and are reminded of how John the Baptizer prepared the way for Jesus, baptizing people in the Jordan River. If we had lived in Jericho in that day, we would have heard the stories told in the marketplace about this strange man who lived in the uninhabited regions near the Jordan, who ate wild locusts and honey, and who baptized Jews—God’s own people who didn’t need to be baptized. We would have heard how he criticized the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and greed, and how he called all people to repent, for the kingdom of God was near.
But John didn’t come just for himself or simply to do an oddball, aesthetic ministry in the wilderness of Judea. No, John the Baptizer was certain he was meant to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah. He was given instructions to point out God’s gift to Israel, which John did when he saw the Lamb of God and baptized him. John knew in the larger scheme of things his own ministry would end, but that of the Messiah would expand to fill the whole universe.
John was not intimidated by people in authority. He told the religious leaders they could not count on their birthright as God’s chosen people to ensure they were in right relationship with God. Just because someone was born into the right family or had a position which they purchased from the Romans, this did not mean that they were right with God. How they lived their everyday lives and how they treated others around them spoke volumes about who they were and what their relationship with God really was. And for that reason, they needed to repent—to turn away from themselves and turn to Jesus, the One who was the king of the kingdom of God, which was being set up in their midst.
The psalmist in Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19 speaks of a king and of his son. Even though it was probably speaking of a human king, the Messianic implications of the psalmist’s poetry are clear:
“Give the king Your judgments, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s son. May he judge Your people with righteousness and Your afflicted with justice. Let the mountains bring peace to the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he vindicate the afflicted of the people, save the children of the needy and crush the oppressor. Let them fear You awhile the sun endures, And as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may the righteous flourish, and abundance of peace till the moon is no more. Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who alone works wonders. And blessed be His glorious name forever; And may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen” (NASB).
What the “king’s son” in this psalm would do is what Jesus did. As the Son of the divine King of Israel, Jesus’ purpose was to fill the earth with his Father’s glory and peace. Jesus, as God in human flesh, ensured that we as the image-bearers of the Triune God would in the end actually reflect God’s glory in the way he intended.
Think about the leaders to whom John the Baptizer was speaking. There must have been some who were really trying hard to do the right thing. But from what John was saying, too many of them were more concerned about the opinion of the people and keeping their positions of authority and prominence than they were about vindicating the afflicted, saving the children of the needy, and crushing the oppressor. And John said that there was someone in their midst, who he wasn’t even worthy to loosen the sandals of, who would do all these things.
The reality is, though, that often we are more like the religious leaders in this story than we are like the Messiah John the Baptizer was speaking of. We wrestle within ourselves, knowing that apart from the grace of God, we are the ones who are too concerned about other people’s opinions and keeping things in our lives how we want them to be. We are the ones who so often are indifferent to the needs and suffering of others. We are the ones seeking glory for ourselves at the expense of others. And this is why we have no peace, either within ourselves nor within our relationship with others and with God.
John’s message is simple, though. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” That message was one that Jesus also carried and passed on to his disciples. As the king of the kingdom, as the Son of the King over all, Jesus has come, is present now by his Spirit, and will return in glory to set up the new heavens and earth where God will dwell with man.
In the end, when Jesus finally returns to finish what he began centuries ago, we will see the culmination of all that began when the Triune God decided to share his loving relationship with those he had created. John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” echoes even today in this world where we still have not learned what it means to live at peace with one another or to be at peace with ourselves and with God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand because Christ has come, has lived our life, died our death and risen, bringing all of us home to his Father to share in that close, loving relationship he has always had in the Spirit.
Do we hear the echo in our own souls of John’s message and of Christ’s answering response? What is it we need to turn away from so that our sole focus is on Christ and what he is doing in our lives and in this world? How is it Jesus is wanting us to join with him in caring for others the same way he has cared for us? Today, in this moment, how will you and I heed the call by the Spirit, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?
Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. We realize that apart from you we have no peace, no hope, or joy. It is your love shed abroad in our hearts by your Spirit which changes us and changes our world. In this moment, Lord Jesus, we again turn away from ourselves and from this world and turn to you. Grant us anew the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.
“Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight!” ’ Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ ” Matthew 3:1–12 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/olitwaking-up-to-peace.pdf ]
[For more devotionals, visit https://lifeinthetrinity.blog. ]
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By Linda Rex
December 19, 2021, ADVENT | Love— As I put out my nativity set in my living room each year, I hide the baby Jesus away for the miracle of Christmas morning. The shepherd watches from a safe distance, and the wise men with their camel are hidden back on a shelf temporarily until closer to that day. On that sacred evening we celebrate on Christmas Eve, I bring out the baby Jesus and pause with wonder at the miracle of this special event. The shepherd draws near to worship and the wise men on their journey come closer, seeking this chosen One.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in relationship with this God who would go to such incredible effort to draw every human being to himself in the miracle of the incarnation. I personally know the anguish and struggle that go with giving birth to a firstborn son, and the incredible joy and wonder which result when holding him in my arms for the first time. How could this marvelous bundle of possibilities have ended up in my arms? What does God have in mind for his life? How much more amazing must it have been for Mary to consider the wonder of being chosen to bear the Messiah!
But there is an undercurrent to this marvelous story which I believe is important to understand, and it goes along with this theme of being in relationship with God. And it is this: Jesus came because it was the will of God that he do so. He came because it is the nature of God to love and care for those he has created and brought into relationship with himself. The divine Son came willingly, and obediently, as an expression of God’s covenant love and faithfulness. The Son of God knew the Father in the Spirit, and trusted fully in his love—so he freely offered himself in obedience to the will of his Father.
My heart is heavy right now with all I see going on in my world. We are experiencing the consequences of our continual choices to do things our own way—to decide for ourselves how we will live and how we will treat one another and this world we all live on. I am broken by the way we live and the consequences of our choices. And it breaks my heart to think about what our children and grandchildren will be having to deal with when my generation has passed from the scene. What a price we pay for doing things our own way!
I often hear this time of year that the reason Jesus came was to die on the cross. In one way, I agree with this, but in another, I feel as though it truncates what Jesus actually came to do. The author of Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in whole burnt offerings and’ sacrifices ‘for sin you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come (in the scroll of the book it is written of me) to do your will, O God.” ’ … By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:5–7, 10 NASB)
I believe the Scriptures teach us that Jesus came to bring us into right relationship with God and subsequently with one another. Doing so required so much more than simply dying on the cross. It also involved being conceived in the womb of a woman, being a babe in her arms, growing up as a child into adulthood, and learning a trade at the feet of his father. Jesus experienced all of the everyday activities of our human life in a human body, being tempted in every point, but without sin. The forging of our true humanity occurred throughout his life, from birth even to death and on into the resurrection and ascension. In his human existence on this earth, Jesus “learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, … (Heb. 5:8–9 NASB).”
The song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” comes to mind as I am writing this. In this hymn which expresses our deep longing for our redemption and salvation, I hear echoed our longing for this transformation of our human existence:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
And order all things, far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
And cause us in her ways to go
O come, Desire of nations bind
All peoples in one heart and mind
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
(Latin Hymn, Translated by John M. Neale and Henry S. Coffin; Adapted from Plainsong by Thomas Helmore)
We also need to attend to the reality that there was a substantial difference between the responses of the two representative females in God’s story: Eve did not believe God, and ate of the tree she was told not to eat of, while Mary believed God’s word to her through the angel Gabriel and told God to do with her as he wished. In Eve, disbelief resulted in disobedience and all of the subsequent result of that as sin and death entered our human existence. In Mary’s belief and obedience, we find the life-giving God enters into our death- and sin-bound human existence in the person of Jesus Christ and restores our true humanity in his life, death, resurrection and ascension—making possible our right relationship with the Triune God now and forever in the gift of his Son and his heavenly Spirit.
What if we willingly surrendered our independence, our preferences, and our expectations to the God who came to us to bring us into right relationship with himself? What if we, like Mary, believed that God was good and loving, that he was faithful and trustworthy, and that he sought what was best for us? What if we actually said to God each day and in each moment, “Do with me as you wish”? What if we indeed brought every thought captive to the will of God in Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)?
The good news is that this is the very reason Jesus came. Jesus took our stubborn willfulness and turned us back toward obedience to the Father—even to the point of death on the cross. Jesus bore the suffering and agony of our rejection and resistance to God upon himself, took it to the grave, and emerged offering us new life in himself. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:16–17 NASB).”
What a lovely reason for the season! All that is left for us is to respond to Christ’s gift in faith, being filled with the Spirit and pouring out our gratitude in praise like Elizabeth, Mary, and Zacharias—all participants in this miraculous event. What we could not and would not do, Jesus did in our place and on our behalf. Such great love expressed to us by God above! We humbly receive with open hands and hearts, and respond with gratitude, saying, “Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” Your life, Jesus, for my life. Thank you, Lord!
“O God of hosts, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.” Psalm 80:7 NASB
“Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.’” Luke 1:39–45 NASB
By Linda Rex
December 12, 2021, ADVENT | Joy—During my recent retreat, I spent some time on a pleasant property out in the country, where the rolling hayfields were dotted with limestone and the trees were covered with autumn-colored leaves. On my walks outside, I would pass by a small fountain of water pouring down over a pile of rocks and into a lovely outdoor pool surrounded by cattails and aquatic plants. The steady rush of water from fountain to pool gave the area a feeling of restfulness and inspired a sense of renewal.
As I was looking over the passages for this Sunday, I was reminded of the many ways in which the replenishing properties of water were used in Scripture as a way to describe the Holy Spirit—the living presence of God himself. We are reminded that there is only one cure for the unending thirst in our soul, and that our efforts to fill that emptiness on our own will inevitably end up fruitless.
Indeed, we were created for joy, but we often find our human experience falls way short of joy. If anything, we experience everything but joy in this broken and hurting world. But the apostle Paul told us to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Phil. 4:4 NASB)!” How in the world do we rejoice in the midst of our everyday struggles, difficulties and hardships? How do we find true joy when all we are given are ways to experience temporary pleasures and fleeting happiness instead?
There’s a story in the Old Testament about when Israel was traipsing around the wilderness and began to complain because they were thirsty. The place where they had been led to by God did not have any water sources. As they focused on their lack of water, they began to believe that God was not with them. They kept their eyes on what they didn’t have, and forgot what they did have—the presence and power of God in their midst (Ex. 17:1–7).
So often, this is our own issue. We can get so focused on our circumstances, or on the immediate situation—the politics, the environment, the people down the street, whatever we are concerned about—and lose sight of the spiritual realities. This is the problem. We forget that we have in our midst the Source of living water—God himself in Christ by the Spirit, living and active in our lives and circumstances.
This is God’s word to us: “Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; … The LORD your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will [renew you in his love], He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zeph. 3:14–17 NASB). God calls us to joy because he is living, present and active as the One who victoriously conquered over evil, sin and death.
During Advent we are reminded to watch attentively for the coming of the Righteous One, the coming of God into this world to deliver, restore, and renew. As we draw near the celebration of Christmas, the coming of God into human flesh becomes the focus of our worship and praise. God has not left us alone in the midst of our darkness. No, he has come to us. The Word of God, the eternal Son who has always lived in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, has come, taken on our flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again. He is that baby, born to Mary on that blessed night, for the sake of every human being. He is the fountain of living water in the midst of our arid desert. He is the spring of renewal and refreshment in a dying world.
We are called to be attentive to the reality that God in Christ by the Spirit is our salvation. “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation,” Isaiah wrote. “Cry aloud and shout for joy…for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 12:2, 6 NASB).” Shout for joy! God has come to dwell with man! Rejoice in triumph! Jesus is a victorious warrior, who is exulting over us with joy and renewing us in his love. Christ has come, and freed us from evil, sin, and death! He has brought us hope, peace, joy and love!
We need to grab hold of the spiritual reality that God in Christ has come and by his Spirit is present and real right now in us and with us. He knows we need spiritual water and is more than ever ready to provide it—are we receptive and open? Are we awakened to our need, and rather than complaining, are we humbly asking for God’s supply?
Jesus calls to us and says: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:37–39 NASB).” “… whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:13–14 NASB).” Jesus, in his self-offering, is the endless supply of spiritual refreshment and renewal we need in every part of life. By the Spirit, he is present and available, and will fill us as we repent and turn to him in faith.
It is ironic that in the gospel passage for this Sunday we find John the Baptizer contrasting his water baptism with Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire of judgment is something we get very concerned about, not realizing the significance of Jesus’ self-offering in our place and on our behalf. As God in human flesh, Jesus forged into our humanity the love of God and crucified in himself the sin, evil and death to which we had enslaved ourselves. In the resurrection we find that all that chaff that is not part of the fruitfulness of life in Christ was blown away. The apostle Paul wrote that “from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:16–17 NASB).” Humanity has new life in Christ! This is reason to rejoice.
So, what will you do with Jesus Christ? What will you do with the reality that God is now in the midst of us by the Holy Spirit, offering to each of us the living water of life in relationship with God through Jesus? Will you gaze anew with wonder and joy on the Christ child this year, gratefully receiving the life in the Trinity he has brought you in his life, death, resurrection and ascension? Will you receive from him the living water he has given—the blessed Spirit of life in Christ Jesus?
We have every reason to rejoice. We are not left alone, abandoned to this crazy world and all its darkness and despair. God has cracked open the rock and poured out abundantly his living waters of salvation, and calls us to drink deeply, to satiate our souls in his real presence in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. Jump in the river! Dance in the shallows! Soak it all up! Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!
Thank you so much, dear Father, for not leaving us hungry and thirsty for your love and grace. Thank you for planting us by your streams of living water and offering us reconciliation, refreshment, and renewal—life in Christ by the Spirit. Fill us anew with the joy of salvation. Enable us to celebrate this year with a real sense of your presence in us and with us by your Holy Spirit, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.” Luke 3:16–18 (7–18) NASB
See also Philippians 4:4–7; Zephaniah 3:14–20; Isaiah 12:2–6.
By Linda Rex
December 27, 2020, HOLY FAMILY | CHRISTMAS—A lot of times we include the visiting of the magi from the East in the Christmas story. The wise men followed a star, or angel, to Jerusalem, asked King Herod about the Messiah, and found he was to be born in Bethlehem. Having heard this, they left to find the child in this place. And this is where we encounter the dark side of the Christmas story.
It was significant that these wise men from other nations were seeking out the Messiah, while apparently, the chief priests and elders of the Jews only looked into it when King Herod asked them to. It was tragic that King Herod used the information he was given to have the infants of Bethlehem slaughtered. He didn’t want to risk losing his throne to a messianic upstart. Having been warned ahead of time by an angel, Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaped to Egypt, while the infants in Bethlehem were being killed by Herod’s soldiers. There was horrible loss and suffering that was experienced by so many because of Herod’s evil actions. He had no idea that his violent attack upon Jesus in this way predicted what would happen to Jesus as an adult when he died on behalf of all people, young and old.
But let me go back before this event. We often miss an important part of the story when we focus solely on the magi and the genocide in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem with baby Jesus about forty days after he was born. They, as pious Jews, wanted to be obedient to the law of Moses as they understood it. So, they came to Jerusalem to do three things: 1) They offered the sacrifice necessary for Mary’s cleansing after having given birth to a son—forty days after the birth they offered the sacrifice of poor people of two turtledoves or two young pigeons. 2) They paid the redemption price for Mary’s firstborn son, Jesus, of five shekels. 3) And following the example of Hannah in the Old Testament, they presented their son to God for his service. The parents of Jesus, who was born under the law, fulfilled the requirements of the law as they understood them.
What would King Herod have thought if he had known the real Messiah was present in Jerusalem without his knowledge? It wasn’t like Mary and Joseph snuck in and out without anyone noticing. Luke tells about two elderly Jews who took special note of Jesus, acknowledging and proclaiming that he was the expected Messiah. Simeon and Anna were guided by the Spirit to affirm the special anointing which was on the Christ child. Anna celebrated loudly the redemption of Israel through this child. Simeon said that Jesus would be a light to the nations, but would face great opposition and one day Mary would experience the sharp pain of the loss of her son—there would be a dark side to Jesus’ life and ministry. I imagine the prophetic words of these two elders must have created a lot of talk among the people at the temple.
Somehow Mary and Joseph took care of what they felt was needed at the temple and returned to Bethlehem without raising the attention of the authorities or King Herod. We don’t know what they were doing during those first two years in Bethlehem before their flight to Egypt. Perhaps Joseph was doing work as a carpenter and was able to eventually provide them with a house to live in, for that is where the magi found them. In Christ’s story, we find Jesus identifying with a variety of people—working poor, pious Jews, humble shepherds, and in time, endangered refugees hiding in another land. If we look closely, we can see that as an infant and as a child, Jesus experienced the human condition—what people everywhere, in every nation, go through at some time and in some way.
Sometimes people project onto Jesus some fantasy childhood, where nothing ever went wrong and where his circumstances were always ideal. It could not have been easy for Joseph and Mary to drop everything to go to Bethlehem just because the Roman government was doing a census. What did they face due to Mary’s unexplained pregnancy? When they did arrive in Bethlehem, did they endure criticism or rejection from extended family members? When the baby came, did anyone help Mary out or was she left all alone with Joseph? What was it like for Joseph to be the guardian of his adopted son, knowing Jesus would never be fully his own? When Jesus’ parents knew that they had to flee Bethlehem, did their hearts ache for their friends and neighbors who were facing the loss of their children at the hands of the soldiers?
These are human experiences which can be found in nations all over the world among people of a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities. When Jesus came as a light to the nations, he did not do so externally to all we are as human beings, but as one of us within our humanity. He entered our human existence, to forge within us a new humanity able to share in his close relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. He did not bring a political redemption, but a spiritual renewal and an ushering in of the age of the Spirit—a time when every human being could participate by faith in Jesus’ life of union and communion with the Father in the Spirit.
The prophet Isaiah celebrated this prophetically, saying:
“I will rejoice greatly in the LORD,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (61:10 NASB).
He spoke of our salvation as something God clothes us with—”garments of salvation” and “a robe of righteousness.” These are not things we create for ourselves—our best efforts never gain us a right relationship with God, nor do they save us from the consequences of our sin and rebellion against God. Nor do they free us from evil, sin, or death. Only God could and did do what was needed in and through his Son. He even went so far as to adopt us into his family—to make us his very own children rather than just merely his servants.
But there was a cost to God’s Son coming into our humanity to bind us in himself to the oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit. What those children and families in Bethlehem experienced was the dark side of the coming of God into our humanity—when evil resisted the goodness of God once again, turning the beauty of what God had done for each of us in the Christ child into something horrific and tragic. What Jesus experienced in the wilderness and later on the cross, what he resisted each time he healed someone or delivered them from an evil spirit, was that darkness which from the beginning has resisted and sought to overcome the light of God’s love and life. The reality is that Jesus came and did what only God could do—delivered us from Satan’s hands, freed us from sin and death, and rising from the grave, brought our humanity into a new place in the presence of his Father now and forever.
In our western world today, we often are so comfortable that sometimes we forget what it is like to struggle, suffer, or go without. When a tragedy, violence, or natural disaster occurs, we are faced once again with the reality that we live in a broken world in which evil is still at work. We, in the already/not-yet of God’s kingdom, experience both the blessings of God’s presence and power at work in this world, but also the opposition, oppression, and assaults of the evil one as he opposes every good thing God is trying to do. There is evil at work in this world—but evil is always a parasite on what is good—it has no power that is not derivative. God always and ever has the final word—and this is why we pray, resist Satan and evil, and seek what is good, even when doing so may cost us our life, our financial well-being, or our good standing in the community.
There is a cost to following Jesus. Jesus said anyone who wanted to be his disciple needed to “lay down his life, pick up his cross, and follow” him. The price of doing this is what we may struggle with. But realizing that Jesus went first, and that he includes us in his perfect life of obedience with the Father, can enable us to do the difficult thing. Christ went first—and whatever we do, we do as a participation in his perfect and finished work. This can give us hope and courage when life gets hard, no matter who we are. We are not alone—he is present now and forever by his Spirit—and includes us as adopted children of a loving Father who by his Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are his very own, no matter the circumstances of our lives or the difficulties we face.
Dear Abba, thank you for making us your very own. We look forward to that day when evil, sin, and death are cast into the lake of fire and once and for all removed from our world. In the meantime, hold us close, Abba, and deliver us anew from evil people and the evil one, from the sin which so easily seduces us—we are helpless and hopeless without you. Thank you, Jesus, for sharing in our human existence so fully, and for coming to be with us and in us by your Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.
“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:4-7 NASB
See also Luke 2:22–40 and Isaiah 61:10–62:3.
By Linda Rex
November 29, 2020, ADVENT | HOPE—Last night I was watching a report by Nashville’s mayor in which he was describing the latest spike in COVID-19 cases and an upcoming mandated reduction in the size of gatherings. As you can imagine, my heart turned over. I’m not looking forward to the isolation and health problems this will bring about for so many, nor am I thrilled about the loss of income, business and other difficulties it will create for those already struggling.
In some ways, I can identify with the prophet Isaiah when he wrote:
“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,
That the mountains might quake at Your presence—
As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-9 NASB)
What is interesting about the rest of this passage, though, is how Isaiah didn’t focus on the glorious entry of God into the human sphere to exact his fiery judgment, but rather on God’s deliverance for us from our human proclivity to sin and our futile efforts to do the right thing. This one-of-a-kind God, who Isaiah describes as the potter, is called upon to do the work only he can do for and in us as his clay (Isaiah 64:1–9).
The psalmist in Psalm 80 acknowledges that the only hope for any of us is for him to smile upon us and restore us. This request is repeated three times—emphasizing a passionate desire for God’s grace and good will to be showered upon us. At the end of this psalm, he writes:
“Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
Then we shall not turn back from You;
Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
O LORD God of hosts, restore us;
Cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”
(Psalm 80:(1-7) 17-19 NASB)
Do you see it? Here is a hint of how God is going to save his people—something related to a “son of man” whom God places his hand on and makes strong. Our only hope for God’s grace, restoration and renewal begins with God himself and his desire for and accomplishment of our transformation and healing through the Son of Man.
In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, when the apostle Paul speaks of the final revealing of Jesus Christ, he affirms that we are found blameless not by our own efforts, but because God is faithful. God’s faithfulness is expressed to us in his gift of grace through Jesus Christ which enriched us in speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts, and in the testimony of Christ being confirmed in us. He has called us into and has ensured we can participate in Christ’s fellowship by the Spirit with his Father.
So often we look into passages regarding the coming of Christ in glory and begin to impress upon them our private expectations and opinions rather than seeing them from God’s point of view. We see the world around us as very messy, filled with evil and sin, and right away call for God to rend the heavens and come down in a dramatic deliverance. We can easily diminish the incredible reality of what God has already done for us in the entrance of his Son into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.
We’re entering into the Advent season, and I am reminded of that beautiful night when the shepherds were quietly tending their flocks on the Judean hillsides. Suddenly an angel appeared—“rending the heavens”—with an incredible message that would change the world forever—the Messiah had come in the person of an infant lying in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem. The angels gathered around and celebrated this good news, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).
Later on, this Savior, as he faced his upcoming death on the cross and resurrection, spoke of the transition which would occur between the kingdom of God which he was inaugurating in his passion and that glorious day when he would come in power, ushering in the new heavens and the new earth. He knew there would be a substantial time lapse between his ascension and the day of his final arrival, and he wanted his followers to stay in a state of continual readiness and diligence, especially with regards to sharing the good news of what Christ did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
What Jesus forged for us in our humanity tore open our cosmos and set it upon a new footing—in the all-ready/not-yet of God’s kingdom, he has made all things new. We have an incredible hope that bursts into our gloomy sin-laden world and lays bare all our futile efforts at being good and forces us to a crisis—where will we put our faith? Will we continue to trust in our human efforts to rule ourselves—to count on our 201 ways to solve our own problems and save ourselves? Will we keep to our own agenda or will we submit ourselves to God’s plan for our lives? Is Christ—the way he really is—good enough for us? Or do we need to add something to the simple reality of his grace and truth?
Our attention does not need to be on some particular plan or outline of end-time events, but solely on Jesus. Christ is our life. We participate through baptism in his death and resurrection, renewing this covenant relation as we take the bread and the wine in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith. We live each day in attentiveness to Jesus’ coming and presence—both in his presence here and now by the Spirit at work in this world, but also in anticipation of his coming glorious presence at the renewal of all things. As things grow more difficult for us, as we struggle to stay the course, we can hold ever more tightly to the reality that Christ has come, he is come now by the Spirit, and one day he will come in glory. We have every reason to hope. Maranatha—even so come, Lord Jesus!
Father, thank you for the grace you have given us in your Son, for the work you already accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and are working out in this world even now by your Holy Spirit. Keep us ever diligent, ever faithful, attentive to the end to our precious Lord Jesus by your Spirit. Amen.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 NASB
See also Mark 13:24–37.
By Linda Rex
December 22, 2019, 4th Sunday of Advent—I was reading a devotional this morning which used the story in the gospels of a man who was bound by demons and wandering about in the tombs, in the region of the dead. This man broke any chains that held him, but when Jesus spoke to him, he found true freedom.
How often I have felt like this man, wandering about in my own personal chains, unwilling to be shackled by the bonds of love God has for me. How often I have harmed myself rather than submitting myself to the love and grace of God as expressed to me in his will for my life! I know I am not alone in this—I see it often in people around me. It is our human condition apart from God’s merciful intervention.
One of the most basic steps in facing our addictions and being freed from them is coming to understand that apart from the intervention of a “higher power’, we cannot be free. We can try harder and harder, we can work the plan faithfully, but we have to eventually end up at the place where we realize in a deep and significant way that apart from divine intervention, we have no hope of ever being any different than we are right now.
God’s method of intervening in our circumstances did not involve him being a distant, cold and uninvolved deity. Nor did he seek vengeance on us for our pitiful failures at trying to be what we believe we need to be in order for him to accept us. God’s way of turning our hearts back to him, of restoring our relationship with him, was to enter into our very existence as a human being and to personally turn us around back into face to face relationship with himself.
Historically, the nation of Israel was in many ways like you and me. They were brought into relationship with God, but they refused to let him be the center of their life. For a while they would live as his people, but in time they would turn away from him, back into their idolatry and hedonism. They would reap the results of living life on their own terms, come to the end of themselves, and then turn again to him—for a while.
But this was not a surprise to God. None of this is. He knew long before our cosmos existed that we would have this proclivity to turn away from him to other things. He knew it would require his personal involvement to restore us back to our original design so that we could be the image-bearers of God he intended us to be.
We hear the cry in Psalm 80:2b-3, 7, 17-19 of the psalmist Asaph asking three times, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” Prophetically he pointed to a Son who would be the source of our genuine revival, the only means by which any of us will be saved. Our only hope of being people who would never abandon God would be for God to himself turn our hearts back.
So we have in Isaiah 7:14 the promise of a virgin bearing a son who would be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us.’ What a thrilling promise! This Advent season, as we gaze upon the nativity scenes we see around us, as we are reminded of the reason for the season, we are given a hope for something more than our constant failures to love. We are able to have peace of mind and heart because we know God has sent us a Savior—someone who has done and will do what we cannot and will not do. We are able to have joy, because we are celebrating the reality that God has come and stands in our stead, on our behalf, filling us with his real presence in the Holy Spirit.
Advent reminds us that when Israel had absolutely no hope of ever getting anything right with God ever again, God did not forsake her. He came himself, in the womb of a virgin, allowing himself to be carried as a promise to his people of their deliverance. Advent reminds us that we are not left abandoned in our sin and selfishness—there is a Savior who is one of us and yet is God himself—he has come to bind us once and for all to God with unbreakable cords of love and grace.
The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and today we as his people are pregnant with his presence by the Holy Spirit. God is even at this moment working deliverance in this world—preparing for the day when all things will be transformed completely and God will finally dwell forever with humankind. Our failures to love, our sinfulness and the evil which so often enslaves us, do not and will not stand in the way of God accomplishing what he set out to do from before the beginning of this cosmos. He will finish what he has begun—he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Advent teaches us love in a profound way—of God’s desire to be near to us, so near that he actually enters into our human existence himself. The presence of God in our humanity is the greatest gift of love God could ever give. He knew the cost of this gift would be the suffering and death of his Son, but he gave it anyway. He knew the rejection of his Spirit which would occur, but he gave his Spirit anyway. God freely gives—do we receive?
Whatever struggles we may have with our addictions or failures to love God and others, we find in Jesus that God is present and real in the midst of them. He is at work, as we are willing, to heal, restore, and renew. We are given Jesus Christ—he is in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. What is our response?
I’ve often thought that Joseph was an incredible man. He had betrothed himself to a young virgin who turned out to be pregnant with someone else’s child. He could have made a public spectacle of her—but he was so loving in not wanting to do this. And when God told him to marry her anyway, he did it (Matthew 1:18–25). His humility and sacrificial spirit bear witness to the humility and sacrificial Spirit of God himself. Will we in this same Spirit of humility and sacrifice receive the wonderful Gift of God in our humanity? Will we surrender to the reality we are in desperate need of God, and God in Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and will come again one day?
Thank you, Abba, for loving us so well. It was not enough for you to create all things, to set everything in motion, and to walk away. You dove right in, taking our very humanity upon yourself in your Son Jesus, renewing us from the inside out. Thank you for sending us your Spirit, enabling us to be one with you, and to be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“… concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power 1by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God…” Romans 1:3-7a NASB
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