By Linda Rex
April 3, 2021, HOLY SATURDAY—Sometimes life sends us curveballs we don’t expect. It can be very difficult when the unexpected happens and causes life as we know it to be completely disrupted and overthrown. The death of a loved one is one of those things that ensures that our life in this world will never be the same again.
Whether we like it or not, we must accept that death is coming for us one day, and that it wouldn’t hurt for us to be properly prepared for it when it comes—while we have the opportunity. Death shows no favoritism—it happens to those close to us and it will happen to us one day. It is part of the human condition.
It wasn’t always that way. God meant for us to have abundant life, now and forever. It is because we were created to eat of the tree of life, not the tree that brings death, that death causes us such pain and sorrow. Apart from the hope of salvation in Jesus, death brings great fear and dread. It is because God did not want us to go into death apart from his presence that the Word of God, Jesus Christ, entered into death for us and with us.
Death often leaves us with regrets, painful memories, along with memories of joyful companionship, pleasant outings, and family gatherings. Unfortunately, death can also leave horrific memories when it comes through disaster, accident, abuse or violence. We may really struggle with moving beyond death if we are unable to reconcile the circumstances around a death with a loving and compassionate God.
It is for good reason that Jesus intentionally walked the path to the cross and died in our place and on our behalf. He, as God in human flesh, was lovingly placed in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, surrounded with the aroma of herbs provided by Nicodemus. Under the watchful eye of his mother and the other ladies, Jesus was wrapped and placed in the tomb, which was sealed with a large rock. The Messiah lay quiet and still, all life gone from his human body.
What was Jesus up to in that moment? Where did he go? Is this what Job was talking about when he asked God to hide him in Sheol or the grave (Job 14:4)? Jesus entered the gates of death. The nothingness out of which all was created and to which all was returning due to death, lost its hold on us when Jesus died. As God in human flesh, he was triumphant over the grave—it had no power to hold him. Death was defeated in Christ’s death, for this dead human came to life again, rising from the grave on the third day!
But before we leave the tomb, perhaps we need to sit in the darkness a little bit and ponder the significance of Jesus in the grave. If you and I, and every other human, died when Christ died, what does that mean for each of us? Those sins that Jesus died for laid in the tomb with him, just as we did. We died to our sins once and for all when Jesus died—Jesus, who knew no sin, was “made to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21 NASB).
Let’s play a little “what if” game. What if all those things we regret, the shame we feel when we remember past events, are still laying in that tomb? What if the sorrow of all we lost when someone near and dear to us died is still laying in that tomb where Jesus laid? What if the hate, resentment and anger we feel toward those who have hurt us is resting on the slab where Jesus was placed? What if every lustful, selfish, and greedy desire is hidden in Christ, entombed with Jesus?
We can even expand this “what if” game a little farther. What if all of those atrocities committed by violent and twisted people are wrapped up in the cloth bound around Jesus, rubbing up against the wounds inflicted on him in his scourging? What if the loneliness we feel, the sorrow we are bound by, and the rejection we’ve experienced, are all laying there, enclosed within Christ’s heart? What if every hateful word anyone has ever said to us—or we have said to another—is ringing in the ears of the Savior as he rests in death?
There, in death, lies all that we are not—all that God is calling us out of and lifting us up from. Everything that holds us in our brokenness, in our weakness, in our sin—is held in that moment of death in Christ. Now, I invite you to leave it there. What do you need to be freed from? Lay it down in his hands—let it rest in his embrace.
You are going to walk out of that tomb with Jesus when he rises, so you do not want to take any of that baggage with you. Is there something you have been carrying around that has been weighing you down and preventing you from living freely and joyfully? Now is the time to let it remain entombed in Jesus’ death. For you, in Christ, are risen! Realize that here in the death of Christ, you live!
Job, when reflecting on death and his suffering asked, “Who can make the clean out of the unclean?” It was a rhetorical question in his mind, for he did not see how it was possible. But we today, looking back on the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, realize that there is only one way this is possible—in Christ. By participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are able to experience the reality that God makes the unclean clean by joining us in our uncleanness and taking it through death into resurrection.
When what was in the past tries to rise zombie-like out of the grave again, remember that it no longer has any real life. Its existence ceased in Jesus’ death. Your real life now, your zōē life, is in Jesus Christ, in his resurrection. As the apostle Paul said, “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. 5:16-17a NASB).
We will remember the past and old associations, but we no longer have to be held captive by them. We are now free to move into the new life God has in mind for us—one full of freedom, joyful fellowship, and growing in Christlikeness. Death now is our passage into the life to come, and we are able to face the loss of those near and dear to us with hope, knowing that we are still joined with them in Jesus Christ. They are forever connected with us and we with them in and through Jesus. Our memories can now be filtered through the lens of Christ, enabling us to release the burden of pain, sorrow, and grief and hold on to the blessing of new life in him.
Dear heavenly Father, thank you for not allowing us to dwindle back into nothingness through death, but for sending your Son to join with us in our passage through death’s door. Thank you, Jesus, for suffering on our behalf, going all the way into death and out the other side. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for enabling our participation in all that Christ has done for us in his life, death, and resurrection. We receive all you have given God, and release into your care all that needs to remain entombed with Jesus. In his name we pray. Amen.
“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:1–8 NASB
See also Matthew 27:57–66; John 19:38–42.
By Linda Rex
April 2, 2021, GOOD FRIDAY—It is easy for us to get swept up into feeling frustrated or sorry for ourselves because life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We can look at others and wonder why their lives are going so well when ours isn’t. This is especially true when we look at social media, and all we see are everyone else’s efforts to paint the best picture possible of their life.
Nicodemus was a Jewish leader who came to Jesus at night to ask him some questions. When Jesus began explaining to Nicodemus about the kingdom of God, he used an illustration from the history of his people. As the ancient Israelites traversed the wilderness, he explained, being carefully led by the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and sustained by bread from heaven (manna) they struggled to deal with the difficulties they faced.
Like all of us, when faced with things not going the way they thought they should go, they began to complain. From there on it went downhill, for soon the people were dying from snakebite as their camp became infested with venomous vipers. Finally, they begged Moses to intercede for them with God, and he did. God’s response was rather interesting, considering the covenant he had made with them.
In spite of the fact that God had told them not to make graven images, he told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to place it on a pole. When a person who had been bitten by a snake looked up at the bronze serpent in faith, they would not die—they would get well. Those who refused to look up at the serpent, of course, would die of snakebite. As Moses and the people followed God’s instruction, the Israelites’ camp was soon free from death.
In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus used this example to illustrate the importance of his ministry and why he had come. He pointed out that his purpose was to be lifted up in the same way as the serpent was lifted up, thereby drawing all humanity to himself. What would be meant for evil, for his destruction, would be turned to good, to the deliverance of all from evil, sin, and death.
To create a bronze serpent, the craftsman would place metal into a crucible, bring it to an intense heat to melt it. He would purify the metal by increasing or maintaining this intense heat, and working to bring all the impurities to the top to be scooped off until the surface was fully reflective. At the height of its purity, the craftsman would see his own face reflected in the molten metal. Then the metal would be poured into a mold or fashioned over the heat by hammering, twisting, and so on, into the desired form. Over and over the craftsman would work to forge the piece, until he was satisfied that it was exactly right, smoothing and polishing the surface, and finally, adding the details that were desired.
To say that he would be lifted up like the bronze serpent shows how Jesus used powerful but simple imagery to explain something with great depth and meaning. God as a craftsman began the process of the redemption of his creation by forging for himself a people from which his Messiah would come. This people, Israel, was taken on a wilderness journey, then across the Jordan River, and on into the promised land. They journeyed with God, struggling against and within their covenant relationship with the Creator, not realizing the magnitude and wonder of what God intended to do through them. God even took them into the crucible of the exile where they began to understand that their relationship with their Adonai was not solely dependent upon the temple and its sacrifices.
In the dark years of prophetic silence following the exile, when their descendants wrestled with their various overlords, we find the remnant of the people of ancient Israel, the Jews, yearning for their Messiah to come and deliver them. They sought a deliverer to set them free to be their own kingdom again, to be able to worship their Adonai, God, freely and to enjoy the prosperity and security of the age of the Spirit.
It is at this time that the Word of God, Son of our heavenly Father, took on our human flesh in the incarnation. This was an unexpected event, for this Messiah was not intent on a political, military redemption, but a redemption of our humanity from its slavery to evil, sin, and death. He fulfilled the prophetic testimony of Isaiah, who predicted that he would suffer on behalf of his people, redeeming and restoring them (Isaiah 52:13–53:12). This Messiah, Jesus Christ, throughout his life on this earth, forged into our humanity the capacity to be truly human, to be the proper image-bearers God meant each of us to be. The crucible in which God in Christ took our humanity—his flesh, was placed into the flame of the crucifixion, taking our human flesh into death itself, and in three days, Jesus rose again, bringing all humanity into a new existence as refined by the fire.
Jesus’ people played a significant role in the redemption of all humanity and even all creation, albeit an unpleasant one. God knew from the beginning what it would take to forge within our humanity the capacity to live eternally in union and communion with the divine. He created a womb, Israel, in which the Savior would be formed and an instrument by which he would be crucified, all for the sake of every human being sharing in the life and love of God in Christ by the Spirit. The disciples and Jesus were clear in their day about the sins of God’s people, but recognized that the Jews are still, as they are today, God’s covenant people and the Savior’s human family.
It is instructive for us that when God, the divine craftsman, goes to work in our lives, he doesn’t always bring us to pleasant, happy places. There are times when he allows us to wander through difficulties—not to harm us or do us evil, but to forge within us a new way of being which more deeply reflects his image.
We turn to Christ in these moments, for he was lifted up in the crucifixion and entered into death itself for our sake. He stands eternally as our high priest even now, interceding for us as Moses did but also standing in our place on our behalf, having taken upon himself all that is ours and reforming it into what God always meant it to be. As the eternal Son of the Father, he brings humanity by faith into God’s intimate union and communion in the Spirit, enabling us to participate in the divine life and love now and forever.
On this Good Friday, as we reflect upon the sobering experience Jesus went through on the cross, let us be reminded of the faithfulness and goodness of our God. May we sit silently in the shadow of the cross, weeping for the price that was paid but being filled with the joy for which Jesus did it, for he saw beyond the crucifixion into the redemption of all humanity and the restoration of all things. As refined in the fire, he was lifted up, to draw all to himself, so all may truly live. Praise Adonai!
Our heavenly Father, thank you. Thank you for the gift of your one unique Son, Jesus the Messiah. Thank you, Jesus, for setting aside the privileges of divinity for a time, so that we might be freed from the snakebite of evil, sin, and death, and be brought up into life eternal in the presence of the Father by the Spirit. We praise you for your faithfulness and goodness, one holy God in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.
“Pilate came out again and said to them, ‘Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.’ Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold, the Man!’ So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out saying, ‘Crucify, crucify!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.’ Therefore when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid; and he entered into the Praetorium again and said to Jesus, ‘Where are You from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to Him, ‘You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.’ As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, ‘If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.’… “And he said to the Jews, ‘Behold, your King!’ So they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified. They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, ‘JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’” John 19:4-12, 14b-19 NASB
By Linda Rex
March 28, 2021, PALM SUNDAY—LENT (EASTER PREP)—Etched into my memory from my childhood in southern California are avenues of palm trees of all different shapes and sizes. There is something about the tall, stately trees, bending slightly in the ocean breezes that speaks to me of salt water and sand, hot summer sun, and tropical flowers.
On this special Sunday in some churches, small palm fronds are handed out in memory of the branches laid on the road as Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem. The songs of “Hosanna” we sing today echo the shouts of the pilgrims as they entered the city in celebration of the Messiah’s arrival. In many ways we also anticipate with glad rejoicing the coming of King Jesus into our world to restore all things.
In John’s version of this story, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt and the people threw down branches of palm trees. They shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” “Hosanna” is a phrase which in essence means “O, save!” This greeting resonates with the Hillel psalms often sung or recited by the pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem. Psalm 118:25, which we read on this Sunday, says “O Lord, do save, we beseech You; O Lord, we beseech You, do send prosperity!”
When looking forward with the travelers entering Jerusalem, excited about the possibilities present in the Messiah they thought Jesus was, it is understandable that they would lay out palm branches as though a victorious king were entering the city. It makes perfect sense that they would be praising and celebrating such a momentous event. How wonderful it would be to finally be free of their oppressors!
The problem was that they were mistaken in Jesus’ intention and purpose for being there. They neglected to attend to the other parts of the scripture which included predictions about his suffering and death. For example, in Psalm 118:27 we read, “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” There was to be a sacrifice made, but it wasn’t going to be an animal offered on the altar, but the humble king who was at that moment entering the city on a lowly colt of a donkey. Jesus had no illusions about what faced him as he entered the city. They might glorify him as a conquering king now, but in a few short days, he would be hung on a cross.
As I recently read the passages for Good Friday, I was struck by the interrogation Pilate did right before Jesus was sent out to be crucified. Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of the Jews. As they spoke to one another, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, otherwise his servants would be fighting. Pilate asked him again if he was a king and Jesus affirmed it, saying that it was the reason he had come into the world. At the end of the interrogation, Pilate went out and told the people he found no guilt in Jesus, and offered to exchange him for a robber named Barabbas.
Jesus was scourged and again placed before the crowd with Pilate’s pronouncement that he was not guilty. But the people cried out for him to be crucified, as Jesus stood there with a crown of thorns on his head and a purple robe draped around his shoulders. The Jewish leaders affirmed that he had to die because he claimed to be the Son of God. This alarmed Pilate, who, no doubt remembering his wife’s strange warning, asked Jesus where he was from. But he would not answer. When Pilate warned him that he had the authority to have him killed, Jesus merely replied that Pilate had no authority but what was given him from above. At this, Pilate attempted again to free Jesus, but the Jews threatened to report him to Caesar for treason. In the end Jesus was led away, carrying his cross beam to be crucified on Golgotha.
What a contrast between the two pictures of Jesus. First, he is praised joyfully with loud hosannas as a celebrated deliverer. The second, he is led away, dripping with blood, bruised and torn, to the abuse and ridicule of the crowd. How can he even be the same person? But this is Israel’s king, the King of the Jews, as Pilate so aptly wrote on the nameplate which hung over Christ on the cross.
Historically, if we were to look at the King of the Jews, we would see that Jesus on the cross is a fitting description of the way the true ruler of Israel, Adonai, had often been treated by his covenant people. His covenant love for them had weathered their long history together when at one moment God would be their beloved deliverer and in the next was traded in for the gods and kings of the nations, and the people’s preference to follow their own ways. Even the efforts of the leaders to be more faithful in their obedience ended in rigid restrictions and rules that isolated and excluded people rather than bringing all people deeper into relationship with God.
Lest you think I am speaking merely of the ancient Israelites, I would like to point out that it is a human proclivity to love God when he is good to us and to drop him with disinterest when something more enticing shows up on the horizon. We are all just as vulnerable to missing the truth that there is, and should only be, one king in our life and it’s not us, and it’s not any other human being even though we may live under the authority of human government.
Jesus Christ invites us to go with him through the gates of grace into death and resurrection because this is where we were created to go. We were meant to enter into the gates of righteousness in participation with Jesus in his perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit. There really is no other directive in our life which can and will give us true peace and freedom than that of surrendering to the lordship of Jesus Christ, allowing him by the Spirit to reign supreme in our lives.
Celebrate Palm Sunday in gratitude and praise for the King, our Messiah, who has come as God in human flesh to die and rise again, is coming right now by his Holy Spirit, and will one day come in glory to establish the new heavens and new earth. Choose to walk with him all the way into death and resurrection. What is he asking you today to lay down in honor of him, in humble submission to his reign in your heart and mind? How might you enter with him now into the gates of grace so that you may experience new life?
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending us your Son to save and deliver us from evil, sin, and death. Thank you for sending us your Spirit so we might participate in your divine life and love, through Jesus Christ our Lord and eternal King now and forever. Amen.
“On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, ‘Hosanna! “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, even the King of Israel.’ Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, ‘“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him.” John 12:12–16 NASB
“Open to me the gates of righteousness;
I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
The righteous will enter through it.” Psalm 118:19–20 (21–29) NASB
By Linda Rex
March 21, 2021, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—Last fall as some of my flowers went to seed, I decided to spread some of them in the empty spots in our garden. This winter, I gathered more of the seeds and sprinkled them in a pot on the patio. As time went by, I began to see little sprouts rise from the soil. Are they weeds or flowers? I’m not quite sure yet. And I’m not sure how many will survive the freezing temperatures.
But what I do know is that even though the process of planting looks a lot like death and burial, it is the means by which new life happens, new flowers bloom and fruit is borne. What seems to be the end is actually the way in which new possibilities open up—planting season accomplished means harvest season may be looked forward to with anticipation and hope. God is our divine Gardener, and he loves to plant seeds and watch them grow. When we come to situations in life that appear to be an end, we need to remember they may just be a seed God is planting so he can later reap a bountiful harvest.
When Philip and Andrew told Jesus about some Greeks who wanted to see him, he said that his hour had come. The hour Christ was speaking of was that time when his ministry would culminate with his death on the cross. I stand in awe of Jesus’ ability to confidently and courageously walk intentionally toward the crucifixion, while knowing the consequences of that decision. In close relationship with the Father, he did not ask that the hour be removed, but continued to move forward, thinking of all humanity’s need, and joyfully anticipating our freedom from evil, sin, and death.
Jesus said that when he would be lifted up, he would draw all people to himself. In the crucifixion, all humanity finds itself at a new place—dying in Christ’s death and subsequently rising in his resurrection and ascending with him into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. When the disciples saw the crucified and dead Lord planted in the tomb, they believed it was all over—even though Jesus had told them he would rise again. To them, death was the end.
Today we can look back with joy and see that death isn’t the end. The celebratory voice of the apostle Paul comes to mind here—“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (1 Cor. 15:54b-55)? In the gift of the Spirit, we receive by faith all that Jesus forged for us and begin to participate in the divine life and love, sharing in Christ’s perfections.
The psalm passage for this Sunday, Psalm 119:9-16, contains meditations on God’s ways. The psalmist uses the phrase “your word” three times in this pericope. The first, in verse 9, says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word.” When the living Word took on our human flesh, he experienced our human existence, and forged into our flesh the obedience and faithfulness we are unable to practice on our own. In sending the Spirit, Jesus enables each of us to participate by faith in his purity and obedience. Members of the early church were called followers of “the Way,” a good description of what it meant to follow Christ. To keep our way pure, we need “the Way, the truth, and the life”—Jesus—implanted in our hearts. It is Christ in us, the living Word, planted in our hearts by the Spirit, who enables us to bear the fruit of purity and faithful obedience to God’s will.
The second phrase I’d like to mention is in verse 11, which says, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” Here again we see the idea of the implanting of the Word of God in our hearts—and treasuring its presence there. We implant the written Word by reading, listening to, and studying the Scriptures. But the living Word coming to us is a gift of God through Christ in the Spirit. God himself comes to dwell in our hearts by faith, as we trust in Christ and in his finished work. We want to treasure this precious gift, for this is how God writes his law on our hearts and minds, enabling us to have the desire as well as the ability to obey him (Jer. 31:31-34). By faith, we find ourselves in a new relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit—one in which we depend upon Christ’s obedience, not our own, and on his right relationship with the Father in the Spirit, not on our own.
We find the third phrase in verse 16: “I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word.” The reality—if we are honest with ourselves—is that we don’t remember the written Word of God like we should. Maybe we really don’t have an interest in remembering anything about God. And even when we’ve spent time learning the written Word, we find that in critical moments, we seem to completely forget all we have learned or memorized of God’s ways. This is the human condition. Our flesh gets in the way and we begin relying on our human understanding or efforts rather than pausing to remember what we know from the Scriptures.
But when by faith, the Spirit of Christ is planted in our hearts, we begin to discover that we don’t always forget. There are little seeds God has spread about in there that we aren’t even aware of. We are at times surprised by a small snippet of Scripture popping into our mind, offering us encouragement or guidance when we need it. A song we’ve sung or heard on the radio begins to run around in our head, reminding us of our belovedness or the grace of God. A friend calls or stops by and mentions something that brings to mind exactly what it is we need to remember. The reality is that there is divine life at work in us—the living Word implanted in human hearts by the Spirit produces fruit! God is always at work as a good Gardener, doing all that is needed in order to bring forth the fullness of Christ in each of us.
As we can see, the work Jesus accomplished through the crucifixion, as well as in his death, resurrection and ascension, made possible so much more than simply our rising from the grave one day. Jesus looked forward with joy to the cross because he knew that the culmination of all his efforts would mean our healing and transformation, and the renewal of all things. The planting of the Seed, the Word of God, in the grave means in due time there will be an abundant harvest—one we are able to participate in even now by faith in Jesus Christ.
As we approach Holy Week, we have the opportunity to take some time in reflection, allowing ourselves to listen for the living Word at work in our hearts and minds. How is the Spirit affirming in you that you are the Father’s beloved child? What is your relationship with the written Word of God right now—do you need to go deeper with the living Word so that the written Word has greater impact in your life? What are some ways in which you need to participate in Christ’s death so that resurrection and new life can burst forth in your life?
Heavenly Gardener, gracious King, thank you for your grace extended to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thank you for raising us up in Christ, and for sending your Spirit, awakening us to new life. Enable us to trust in your faithfulness and goodness, allowing you to finish what you have begun in us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And Jesus answered them, saying, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, “Father, save Me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour.’ … ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.” John 12:23–27, 32–33 NASB
(All references above, NASB.)
By Linda Rex
March 14, 2021, 4th SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—I may be mistaken, but every generation seems to have its own story of struggle and difficulty. I often hear how the world today is such a mess, so much worse than it ever was before. And yet, I wonder if that is the way the Jewish people of Jesus’ day felt about their experience under the oppressive Roman government.
No doubt, there are a whole lot more people on the earth today, so there is a whole lot more room for evil and sin to abound in and among us. But the cry of the human heart for redemption from oppression is one common to the human experience throughout the centuries. We must be honest about our experience wherever and whenever we live—all people are messy creatures in serious need of healing and transformation!
Jesus explained to Nicodemus that our only hope of salvation was in looking up to a crucified Savior in faith, as the Israelites looked up to the bronze serpent on a stake. The problem is, though, that we as humans often choose hiding away from God rather than living in the light of his love and grace. If only we understood that the Light of God, Jesus Christ, is not a destroying flame, but rather a healing and restoring fire that seeks to make all things new.
In Ephesians 2:1–10 the apostle Paul reminds us that even though we as humans were caught in a way of being that was not what God designed us to be as his image-bearers, Christ came and via the cross, lifted us up into the divine life and love. It was never about us or our ability to earn eternal life, but simply a gift of grace. God was not going to allow his masterpiece to dwindle into nothingness, but determined to restore and renew it. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ forged within our humanity the capacity to participate in the divine life and love—reforming us in himself into the image-bearers of God we were always meant to be.
In the spirit of us as God’s children, being his masterpiece, his poetry, I include this little poetic creation:
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!
We need broken, Lord,
Rebellious children that we are,
But mercy, mercy, mercy!
Burn us up completely,
Consume us in your fire
Of love and grace,
That others too may experience the flame.
Mercy, mercy, mercy!
O, that we could see your face,
Know the power of your love,
Know the power of your grace!
Burn us in your flame
That all people may catch fire with
Your love and grace,
Be ignited, each and every one.
Mercy, mercy, mercy!
O, we are desperate for a change,
To see the power of your love,
To see the power of your grace!
Mercy, mercy, mercy!
Lord of all, fill us with the joy
Of I in you
And you in me.
Ignite us with your eternal flame
Of I in you
And you in me.
Mercy, mercy, mercy!
© Linda A. Rex, 3/5/2021
We can have great joy that God has included us in his life and love—not because we deserve it, but simply out of his love and grace. We look up to Jesus Christ in faith, we receive all he has done for us, and we live into the reality that we are God’s adopted children, included in his life and love now and forever.
God has gone to great effort in Christ to free us from evil, sin, and death—to bring us into his Light. Now we come to the difficult question—what will we do with Jesus Christ? Will we continue to live with our backs to the light, living as though none of this happened—as though God doesn’t love us and doesn’t care? Or will we simply turn to the Light, turn to Jesus, and allow him to illumine every part of our life, our being, our existence? You are worth so much more than you ever thought—you are God’s priceless masterpiece, his treasured poetry! Run into his embrace today!
Dear God, thank you for valuing us so greatly, that you would go to such great lengths to ensure that we are with you now and forever in an intimate relationship of love and unity and peace. Lord, we turn away from all that is evil and sinful, and we turn to you, Jesus, trusting in your love and grace, and opening ourselves up fully to your gracious presence by the Spirit. Amen.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3:14–21 NASB
By Linda Rex
March 7, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—While taking a walk with my son this week he surprised me by showing me a colony of herons who were nesting high in a tree over the Cumberland River. On our walk we also saw a couple of deer next to the path, squirrels hunting nuts, and many other types of birds flitting here and there. The frogs in the water-covered ground were singing their hearts out. It almost felt like springtime.
I love being out in creation, and am truly grateful God gave us so many marvelous gifts when he made everything. One of the books I’ve been reading lately is called “Care of Creation” and is a collection of articles centered on the topic of the stewardship of God’s creation. In recent years, I have been learning about stewardship in a lot of different aspects of life—finances, health, creation, and personal belongings are some of these areas. Stewardship recognizes that we are not the owners of what we are caring for, but are merely stewards or caretakers of what we have been given by God.
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, we find Jesus entered into the area of the temple where there were moneychangers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. He drove the animals out, overturning the tables and telling the people to stop making his Father’s house a place of business. Mark, the author of the gospel, wrote that this fulfilled an Old Testament scripture which said, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus’ actions in the temple were on behalf of his heavenly Father.
As stewards of the temple, the place of worship, the Jewish leaders had allowed people in to do what they believed were necessary transactions to accommodate the worshippers. But what happened was that making money at the expense of the people became more important than facilitating worship of Israel’s God. Jesus’ indignation was well-founded, as his Father was not being honored, since worship of God was being supplanted by greed and extortion.
We do not want to be like these Jewish leaders of that day who were more concerned about what authority Jesus had to do these actions than they were about the “whitewashed tombs” they had become (Mt. 23:27). They did not seem to realize they were needing to have the greed and other sins in their hearts driven out—and this is why Jesus was there among them. Temple sacrifices did not remove sin from the human heart, and our proclivity to return to sin even when we have forgiveness offered us shows that we need something deeper and more permanent. Jesus removed sin by one sacrifice for all time for all. His death on the cross permanently removed all sin, therefore all need for sacrifices (Heb. 7:27).
The leaders asked Jesus by what authority he drove out the money changers and he simply told them, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days.” It wasn’t until after the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection that the disciples understood that the temple Jesus was talking about wasn’t Herod’s temple, but Jesus’ own body. When Christ told the Samaritan woman that the day was coming when true worshipers of God would worship him in spirit and in truth, he was meaning this very thing. The place where we go to worship God would not be a building, but a person—Jesus Christ.
Jesus forged within our humanity a space for true worship, where the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in human hearts, transforming us from the inside out. Jesus lived our life, died our death and rose again, sending us the Spirit so we could participate in his own intimate relationship with the Father. When we turn to Christ, trusting in his finished work, we are joined with Jesus and begin to experience the reality of God dwelling in us by the Spirit. When we worship God, Jesus stands as the high priest, mediating between us and the Father in the Spirit, so that all our worship is received and accepted by God.
The temple of the Spirit today is not only each of us individually, but more specifically the body of Christ, the church. God indwells the community of believers—those who follow Christ, leading and directing them by his Spirit. As believers gather for worship and to serve others, they are brought together by the ministry of the Spirit. What is the focus of our attention as we gather together? Specifically, worship is to be Christ-centered and Trinitarian in focus. And our discipleship is also designed to draw us in relationship with others more deeply into the life and love of the Trinity.
What Jesus forged for us is a place in human hearts for God to dwell in by the Spirit. At this time of year, we can ask the Spirit to show us those things we have introduced into our lives and hearts that have supplanted the place meant only for God himself. We can invite Jesus to chase the usurpers out of our hearts, making more room for the Spirit to work in our hearts and lives.
If we do this, though, we need to realize that it will require us participating in the process Jesus described to the Jewish leaders—destroying the temple and rebuilding it. There may be things Jesus asks of us—denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following him. We trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection—symbolically participating ourselves once through baptism, and then in an ongoing way through taking the bread and wine in communion. We receive what God has done for us in Jesus, allowing the Spirit to form Christ in us. Stewarding the new life God has given us in Christ involves our full participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, living and walking in the Spirit, trusting in the finished work of Jesus and allowing him to do as he wishes with us and our lives.
A good question to contemplate as we move toward remembering the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus is, what consumes us? Is it zeal for the presence of God in us and in our lives? Or is it something a whole lot more self-centered and temporal? Perhaps it is time to reconsider how well we are stewarding the gift of eternal life God has given us in Jesus Christ his Son.
Heavenly Father, thank you for demonstrating your great grace and love by giving us your Son and your Spirit. Enable us to faithfully steward these gifts. We offer ourselves to your transforming touch, Jesus—drive out anything that does not belong here. Fill every corner of our hearts with your very presence, precious Spirit, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18(–25) NASB
“His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” John 2:17 (13–22) NASB
By Linda Rex
January 24, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—One of the fun Bible stories put into film by Veggie Tales was that of Jonah the prophet, who was eaten by a large fish and then spit up on the shore near Nineveh three days later. Not many people today have much faith in the miracle of this story, but it is one of the signs which Jesus said pointed toward his death and resurrection. Beyond Jonah being the big fish’s dinner is an element of the story which touches all of us and speaks to much of what we are facing today as a nation, and as a world.
With the number of deaths due to COVID-19 reaching beyond the two million mark, we are faced with the reality of the transience of human life and the fragility of its existence. We are impacted by the limitations of our circumstances and where we live—we may never see the blessing of a vaccine if we do not live in a country where they are provided and paid for. And if we choose the option to not receive this vaccine, what will be the impact on those around us whom we may infect or be infected by? What has been happening lately illustrates powerfully that what we do as individuals has consequences—not just for us, but for everyone else around us.
The story of Jonah speaks to the reality that every nation or people group, no matter its history or military prowess, has to answer to God for its conduct and the way its citizens conduct their lives. God told Jonah that the people of Nineveh were so overcome by evil and depravity that they were facing destruction—but later explained to Jonah that the people simply did not know their right hand from their left. In other words—they didn’t know any better. Jonah, whether he liked it or not, was sent to the Ninevites to help them see they needed to change—to turn away from their evil ways, and to begin living the way they were meant to live.
The church in many ways has failed our nation and the world by not simply helping people know they are loved and accepted, and that there are healthier ways of being in which we can and should live. So often as believers we have been happy to wish upon others God’s flaming judgment of destruction, just as Jonah sat up on the hill waiting to see God pour down flames of fire on Nineveh in response to their sin. We must never forget that God’s heart is not for any person’s destruction, but rather their salvation. It is more important to God that people see they are wrong, turn away from their sin to him in faith, and begin to live in outgoing love and service, than that they pay a painful and destructive consequence for the evil they are doing.
When Jesus arrived on the scene in Galilee following John the Baptizer’s imprisonment, he told the people that the time was fulfilled, the kingdom of God was at hand, and they were to repent and believe the gospel. He called people to believe and live out the good news of God’s love for humanity expressed in Christ—the One who revealed to us the Triune God who lives in other-centered love, unity, and equality as Father, Son, and Spirit. In Christ’s birth and as he lived here on earth, the Son of God inaugurated the kingdom of God. As the king of the kingdom, he called people to turn away from themselves and their sinful ways toward him in faith. Jesus spent time teaching disciples who were called to create new disciples, who would continue to expand this kingdom with more and more disciples or followers of Christ.
God’s word to Jonah as he sat waiting to see Nineveh get what it deserved is his word to the Church today. Are we waiting for Jesus to come and set everything to rights by bringing death and destruction to everything and everyone we believe is evil? Or do we recognize the simple truth that all people, including ourselves, simply do not fully realize what it means to be God’s beloved, those meant to be his adopted children who were created to love God and one another in other-centered love and humble service?
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward those he believed were unworthy of God’s love initially motivated him to try to avoid going to Nineveh at all. The ship he got on was headed for Tarshish instead. As believers, what ship are we on? Are we seeking the healing, transformation, renewal, and blessing of those who have different ideologies or beliefs than us, or whose background, status, or position in society is different than ours? Do we pray for, encourage, help, support, and speak words of life into those who just can’t seem to get beyond their addictions, poverty, or mental illness? Or do we avoid them, insult them, or even worse, seek their ostracism or destruction?
Jonah told the men on the boat headed for Tarshish as the storm grew stronger and stronger that they should just toss him over the side of the ship. He would rather have died than have done the simple thing God wanted him to do—call a people to repentance so that they would not die. Are we more willing to bury ourselves in our personal interests, agendas, and activities than to help others hear God’s word to them and to know that they are loved, and that God does not want their destruction, but rather, their salvation?
The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 reminds us that the world in its present form is passing away. In time, all that we see around us will be either completely different or entirely gone. We are only passing through—we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom which will last forever, long after everything we see, feel, touch, taste, and hear is gone. Surely, we want to encourage each and every person we know to make a better choice, to choose a better way, than the path to desolation, separation, or isolation they are currently on. There is a way that leads to destruction and death, and then there is a way that leads to life and relationship, healing and renewal.
Jesus says to us, “Follow me.” His call to discipleship, to follow him and his ways, is a call to immediate action. Just as Jonah’s message was emphatic and urgent (within 40 days), Jesus’ message is also emphatic and urgent. Participate in the kingdom life now—don’t wait! This is the heart we are to express toward each and every person in our lives—now is the time of salvation! The kingdom of God has come in Christ and will be established in its fullness when he comes in glory to set up the new heavens and new earth. One precious blessing we will experience then will be life with each and every person with which we have had the privilege of sharing this good news today. What a great reason to get busy sharing the good news right now!
Dear Lord, thank you for your forgiveness of our refusal to share the good news with others. Thank you for resisting and working against our prejudices, our hatred, and our condemnation of others. Grant us the grace to receive your correction, to accept your heart of love and grace toward all people, and to embrace the urgency of sharing the good news of Jesus. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
“Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.” Mark 1:14-20 NASB
See also Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:9–12.
By Linda Rex
January 3, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY | CHRISTMAS—We live in a world today, especially those of us hooked into digital media, where we are told on many fronts who we are, what we are to believe, how we are to act, and what is most important in life. It would be easy to go through life and allow others to assume responsibility for much of what is ours—so many people are happy to do it for us! And we are also reminded often that people don’t really want to know the truth about us—they are willing to accept the externals or the great story we tell about ourselves, but they don’t want to know the truth.
One of the reasons many of us avoid building relationships with people is that we don’t want people to know what we are really like. Allowing people to get close enough to us to see our flaws and failures means putting ourselves at risk for rejection or exclusion. Some of us get really good at only letting people see the pleasant façade—we don’t want to experience the shame, guilt or just humiliation of letting people see what we are really like.
There are others of us who love to tell everyone about how bad things are for us. We are caught in this place where the only attention we find we can get is when people feel sorry for us—so we come up with the best stories we can to get people to care. It does not matter to us that we adjust the truth a little to get the response we want. There is a way to manage or manipulate people to get them to respond in the way we want them to. It really has nothing to do with true relationship or truth—it’s just a means for us to get our needs met in that moment.
If we are struggling to figure out who we are and why we are here on earth, or how to have healthy relationships, the best place to begin is with examining the person of Jesus Christ. I say this simply because Jesus is the grace of God to you and me who reveals to us the truth about whom you and I are. One of the things we learn as we grow up in Christ, becoming more like him, is the truth about ourselves as human beings and that we are ultimately responsible for what is ours, and that caring for ourselves and what is ours also involves loving God and those around us. We find in Jesus Christ both the perfect image-bearer of God himself, but also the perfect human in our place, in our stead.
The law was a gracious gift from God to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament days. The law and sacrifices explained what it looked like for that nation to live in covenant relationship with him, and provided a means of gracious restoration when the people broke that covenant. The law pointed out the truth of their disobedience and rebellion, and pointed out the way they were to live. All of these things the people were to obey and practice pointed them to the Messiah who would one day come and make everything right, enabling true obedience by the Holy Spirit.
The law, though, didn’t change or heal anyone. There wasn’t transforming power in the law itself. Even though the Spirit works through the word of God to bring about healing and change, there is no genuine and lasting change apart from the gracious work of the Spirit in human hearts and lives. So Jesus came and forged within our humanity the capacity for the Spirit to indwell us permanently, bringing us into union and communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. By faith we participate in this inner relationship the Son of God has always had with the Father in the Spirit.
Jesus, born under the law, lived out the Old Testament law as God intended. Moses may have been the one who mediated this law, but Jesus was the one who fulfilled it perfectly. The apostle Paul tells us that to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves fulfills the law. Jesus was ever faithful, devoted and obedient to his heavenly Father, doing only what he asked him to do or what he saw his Father doing. Jesus loved each and every person—disobedient or obedient, loving or unloving—as much as, or even more so, than himself, for he laid his life down for each and every one. As the Truth embodied in human flesh, we find reflected in him the truth of our human existence lived out the way it was meant to be lived.
Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the perfect image-bearer of God you and I were created to be. When we look closely at Jesus, examining his life, his words, his way of being, we come up against grace and truth—the truth of who we are in all our brokenness and sin, the truth of who we are meant to be as image-bearers of God, and the truth of what Jesus did for us in coming as God in human flesh to live our life, die our death and rise again—the grace of God for you and me as sinners in need of saving. God enables us to participate in Jesus’ perfected humanity by sending us the Holy Spirit as we trust in Christ and in his finished work.
Grace and truth come together uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ. As we begin to looking into the perfect law of liberty, Jesus Christ, we see the truth about ourselves, but always in the context of grace. We may fall very short of the glory we were created to bear as image-bearers of God, but God still loves us and values us, enough that he put a plan into action before time began so that we would be met in the depths of our depravity, and even on into death itself, and brought back up into eternal life with the Triune God. This is our true freedom—we are known down to the core of our being, all the way into our darkest places, and we are forgiven, accepted, and beloved, and are included in God’s life and love.
God goes even farther than his in his Son Jesus Christ. He not only reconciles all things and all people with himself, he also includes us by faith in the intimate relationship he has with his Son in the Spirit. The heavenly Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are the adopted children of our heavenly Father through Jesus his Son. We hear in our hearts the Spirit calling him “Abba” or Father—because by the Spirit we know we are his beloved children.
What a gift to know who we are! We aren’t just ordinary folks lost in a sea of faces, or a list of friends on a social media site. We are special—uniquely set apart and chosen from the foundation of the cosmos for a relationship with the One who made all things, who includes us in his own loving relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. We have a home with God just as he has a home in us by the Holy Spirit. We are included in his life and love just as we make him welcome in our hearts, our lives, our work, home and family each and every day. Daily companionship with God is our reality now and forever. What a gracious gift from the God of truth!
Dear Heavenly Father, God of truth, thank you for sending your Son as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, to live, die, and rise again for us. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit so we can know the truth about who you are and who we are in Christ. May we ever grow more like you, as your perfected image-bearers, children of you, Holy Father, through Jesus Christ and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:12-14 NASB
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Ephesians 1:3-6 (7-14) NASB
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
December 13, 2020, ADVENT | JOY—As I was sitting and writing this blog today, I couldn’t help but gaze through the window at the dark, gloomy sky. The cold, damp grayness of this winter day is a good picture of what so many are experiencing right now in the midst of the pandemic and election limbo. Many of us have experienced 2020 as a year which brought us to the brink of disaster, and for some—tipped us on over into a pit of darkness, depression, and even despair.
Even as we wonder how much deeper we will go into this pit before things get better, we find ourselves moving on into Advent. We’ve celebrated hope and peace, and now we come upon a Sunday when we ponder the miracle of joy. How can one possibly feel any joy in the middle of all we are going through? How can God expect us to find joy when everything we are facing gives us anything but joy?
The spiritual gift of joy is something which isn’t based upon our circumstances. That feeling of happiness or gladness which is induced by positive, enjoyable circumstances and experiences is not the same as the joy that is spoken of by the apostle Paul. When he says to us, “Rejoice always,” it’s not because he is insane or unfeeling. It is because joy’s roots go much deeper than the everyday situations of life. It is God’s will that we always rejoice—he wants us to have a deeper inner joy which will carry us through the most difficult times of our lives, enabling us to bear up under unbearable struggles and losses.
One of the scriptures for this Sunday is Psalm 126. In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. | He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, | Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (NASB). Here we have a picture of a farmer who is weeping while he is spreading seed on the ground in the spring; but when the wheat is harvested, he shouts with the joy of it all.
Understand that the road Jesus, the Son of God, took for our salvation took him through death to resurrection. He was the Seed promised to Adam and Eve and then to Abraham as a solution for the evil, sin, and death we brought into this world. He was buried in the grave like a seed, but when he rose, like a fruit-bearing wheat stalk from the ground, he brought all humanity forth into new life. The author of Hebrews said that “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). Notice that Jesus endured all of the suffering of the cross “for the joy set before Him.” In Christ, God is harvesting many souls—something that brings him great joy even though it cost him a great deal in the suffering and death of his Son.
Jesus described his mission as the One anointed by the Holy Spirit using the prophetic word of Isaiah 61:1–2a: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, | Because the LORD has anointed me | To bring good news to the afflicted; | He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, | To proclaim liberty to captives | And freedom to prisoners; | To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD…” (Lk. 4:18-19 NASB) This passage in Isaiah goes on to describe the work of the Messiah in bringing about redemption to his creation. The purpose of the Word, the Son of God, coming into our humanity that we celebrate at Christmastime is to bring humanity out of the deep dark hole of evil, sin, and death in which we placed ourselves. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings all of us as we trust in him into a new place where we find healing, hope, freedom, and transformation.
In verse 10, Isaiah goes on to say, “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” (NASB). What Isaiah was describing was the day when God in Christ would do for us what we could not do—save us, bring us into right relationship with himself and one another.
This is why the apostle Paul so often uses the language of taking of old garments and putting on new clothing when speaking of the new life we have in Christ. God has already done for you and me all that is needed for our healing and renewal in giving us his Son for our salvation and sending his Spirit for our regeneration. Now we simply, by the Spirit, have to put on Christ the way in which a couple gets dressed up in a tux and gown for a wedding. We turn away from ourselves and our own way to doing things and our own ability to save ourselves, and we turn to Jesus Christ in faith.
This is why it is possible to rejoice in the midst of difficult and painful times. There is an underlying assurance that no matter what may happen, we are held. Christ has come, he is present by the Spirit, and he will come again, to do what only he can do in our situation. However bad it may get, we have the assurance that Christ is present with us and is standing in our place willing to do whatever is needed to carry us through to the other side. We simply need to trust him and continue to pray, to give thanks and to rejoice.
There is a story which children are often taught in Sunday school which comes to my mind in regards to this. It is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These three young Jewish men had been chosen to serve the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar while Judah was exiled to his kingdom. One day some of the Chaldeans told the king that these men refused to bow to the new idol the king had set up and they deserved to be thrown into the furnace. Now the king liked these men and he tried to talk them into simply bowing down to the idol so they wouldn’t die. Well, they chose not to, telling the king that God would save them, and even if God didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to another God but the God of Israel.
What captures my attention so often in this story is that God didn’t keep the men from being thrown in the fire. In fact, the king made the fire in the furnace seven times hotter before having them thrown in. And the fire was so hot that the people throwing in the men died. This is when the story becomes supernatural—when the king looked into the flames, he saw four men walking around, the three who had been tied up and thrown in, and another who looked like “a son of the gods.” The king finally called all of them to come out of the furnace. The three men did and there was no evidence on their bodies that they had ever been in the flames.
I hope you are grasping the point I am trying to make. We have to place our faith beyond our own ability to help ourselves and the ability of others or our government to help us, and to simply place our faith in the God who has done everything in Christ by the Spirit which is needed for us to be saved. This is the God who came into the flames of our human existence to walk and talk with us, and to bring us out with him into new life. Our joy in the midst of our struggles, suffering, and loss is based in the reality that God will bring us out of them to the other side, and that even if he doesn’t rescue us, he will be with us as we go through whatever may be required of us. We are not alone—he is Immanuel, “God with us” now and forever.
This is our hope, our peace, and it is also our joy. Whatever may happen, we are not alone. God is with us, working things out for our best and caring for us no matter how intense the flames of trial and struggle we are experiencing may get. God in Christ holds us. We trust in him, allowing his Spirit to dwell richly in our hearts, giving us the assurance that he is near, providing the guidance and direction we need, and reminding us of his promise of life eternal when this life is over.
Our ability to “rejoice always” is found in Christ’s joy, in his personal presence in us and with us by the Spirit, as we go through every circumstance of life. As we keep our eyes on the heavenly realities, on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, walking with us in the flames, we will be filled with an unexplainable joy that is grounded in the presence and person of God himself.
Holy Father, thank you for holding us in the midst of all our struggles and suffering. Thank you, Jesus, for being ever present by your Spirit and for filling our hearts with your joy. Enable us to rejoice always, remain constant in prayer, and be grateful in every circumstance, as we trust in you now and forever. In your name, we pray, amen.
“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 NASB