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
By Linda Rex
November 22, 2020, Christ the King or the Reign of Christ— I think we may all agree that the year 2020 has been one of a kind. If it were true that there was no God and that we were merely highly evolved creatures hanging out here in the middle of empty space on a planet that will one day burn up and drop back into the sun, how hopeless and meaningless this whole experience has been!
The blessing of the Christian faith is that it points us beyond all that is occurring, and reminds us of the love and grace of God out of which all of this was birthed and by which all of this was redeemed and is sustained, and gives us great hope in the midst our messes and disasters. Even though evil happens—and it often does—we don’t need to lose hope. We have an anchor which holds us, the very presence of God in the middle of whatever may be going on. It is God’s presence through Christ in the Spirit which carries us through every circumstance, offering wisdom, strength, comfort and guidance when all we see is destruction, despair, and suffering. It is the ascending, triumphant Lord who gives us hope that this isn’t the end—that there is something so much more wonderful and amazing ahead of us!
God knew that when we made the choice to turn away from him to the things of our flesh and this world that the spiral down into death and nothingness would begin. He set our destiny in motion way before then, as God the Word was elected to one day enter our human flesh to rescue us from this fate and to bring us into union and communion with the Triune God so we might live with him forever. Evil, sin and death were destined to be destroyed, conquered on the cross and in the finished work of Christ as he rose from the grave and ascended to the Father carrying our glorified humanity with him into Abba’s presence.
On this Sunday we celebrate the culmination of all the days on the Christian calendar, having begun during Advent with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, moved through Epiphany and Lent to Easter week with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and on into Ascension Sunday and subsequently Pentecost with the sending of the Holy Spirit. We’ve gotten through the ordinary days, during which we have learned about how to live out this faith we have been given by expressing God’s love to those around us and holding fast to the hope we have in Christ. The summation today then, is Christ coming in his glory, sitting as King of Kings and Lord of all.
In the parable of the sheep and goats, we see the King Jesus sitting on his throne, passing judgment on all the nations. In spite of the Jewish expectation that Israel would be the nation of the kingdom of God, Jesus has included in his person those of every nation and people group. The line that our Lord draws between people who are in and those who are out does not have to do as much with our bad or good behavior, but more with our perception of and participation in who Jesus Christ is as our Savior and Lord. We are brought up against our identity as the image-bearers of God who are created to love him and each other. We are reminded of the reality that our brother or sister is made in the same image as ourselves and that the humanity Jesus took upon himself in the incarnation was our very own as he fully identified with us as human beings in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
In this parable we see King Jesus say that the sheep on his right hand are those who perceived in the people who were poor, needy, imprisoned, thirsty and hungry, the person of Christ. To care for another person in a tangible way, especially those who are followers of Christ, is to care for Jesus himself. When we treat others with indifference, oppression, neglect and injustice, we are doing those very things to Jesus. We are pouring out once again all the evil, sin, and violence of the cross onto the innocent, humble and holy Lamb of God. In doing so we deny our need for Christ and his sacrifice, placing ourselves in his stead as lords of our cosmos and our world. It is no wonder that God’s judgment upon such a choice is that we will experience the reality of eternity without the grace of God since we have determined for ourself we have no need or desire for it.
So what is God’s heart toward humanity in the midst of all that is happening right now? It is the same that it has always been—he wants us to enjoy all the benefits and blessings of life in union and communion with our Creator, in joyful fellowship with one another, and in happy harmony with all he has created. This is what we were created for and destined for. In Christ, this is the future God has planned for us.
In Christ, we have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into this kingdom of light. By faith we can begin to participate in this heavenly kingdom even now, living each moment in the presence of the King by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Lord of all means that he sits on the throne of our heart and has the final say in our lives right now. By faith, we participate in Christ’s face to face relationship with the Father in the Spirit, and enjoy moment by moment spiritual fellowship with God himself. We participate with King Jesus in what he is doing in this world, and by the power of the risen Lord, we overcome evil, sin and death in this world as we wait for Christ’s return in glory.
Just as King Jesus reigns even now over all, he will come one day in all his glory to eradicate once and for all the evil, sin, and death he conquered on the cross and will establish his throne forever in the new heavens and new earth. When that day comes, will we still be reigning over our own hearts and lives, thinking we are the supreme lords over creation and all that is in it? Will we be treating one another with indifference, oppression, neglect and injustice, or with the honor and respect and love due our risen Lord and Savior? Will we be trusting in ourselves and our goodness, or humbly acknowledging our desperate need for the grace and love of our Lord and King Jesus Christ, and so offering that same love and grace to our fellow human? These are questions worth wrestling with on this Sunday, as we reflect on the reign of Jesus Christ, soon to be established in glory, but at work even now in us and in this world.
Heavenly God—Holy Father, Son and Spirit—thank you for loving us so much that you did not want to spend eternity without us. Thank you for sending Jesus so we could be with you forever. Holy Spirit, enable us to love one another as you, God, have loved us. We acknowledge our desperate need for your grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. We receive this precious gift with gratitude and praise, through our Lord Jesus Christ, he who is King of all. Amen.
“For thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.” Ezekiel 34:11-16 NASB
“Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth.
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the LORD Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” Psalm 100:1-3 NASB
“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” Psalm 95:6-7 NASB
See also Matthew 25:31–46 and Ephesians 1:15–23.
By Linda Rex
October 25, 2020, Proper 25—What is your sphere of influence? Is it merely your toddler and four-year-old? Is it the annoying neighbor who never cleans up the trash in his backyard? Is it the guy at the next desk who likes to tell funny stories but doesn’t follow through on his assignments? Perhaps it is simply the boss who comes by your desk each morning to wish you a great day.
We may only have a small number of people we affect each day. But there are some people in this world who have been given a much larger sphere of influence—that of leading towns, cities, states, nations and large organizations or companies. The effect their decisions have on large numbers of people shows the great extent of their influence. Sometimes this influence is for the better and others for the worst. There are people from the past whose lives and choices still affect the world today—we remember them with gratitude or anger, depending on how we have been affected by the decisions they made.
Our spheres of influence, great or small, are places where we have the privilege, even the responsibility, to participate with Christ in furthering his work of healing, wholeness and renewal in this cosmos. We can abdicate this task to others, or we can embrace it as part our identity as humans created to reflect the image of God and to follow Jesus Christ. To be an influencer of those around us by living out the gospel is a way we participate in Christ’s leadership in this world.
Christ first came as a suffering servant, laying down his life for each and every person on earth. He calls each of us to the same type of servant leadership—in whatever sphere of influence we may have. As followers of Christ, we share the gospel with those people who are close to us and we share our lives with them as well. It is our participation in Christ—our dying and rising in him—that gives others evidence of the miracle of grace and makes the gospel come alive, drawing them into the triune life.
As we live in face to face relationship with God as Moses did, we receive wisdom and God’s grace for our lives. Our active participation in the triune life is reflected in the way we live, the choices we make, and how these decisions impact the people in our sphere of influence. Do they see the radiance of God’s glory reflected in our faces, in our attitudes, words, and conduct? When all of these reflect God’s holy, loving nature, then the people around us are influenced to do the same, maybe even to seek the source of our Christlikeness.
Our participation in Christ resembles the other-centered perichoretic giving and receiving of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In the triune life, each pours into the other and receives from the other, as participants in the divine dance. Likewise, every human being has been given a place in this dance in and through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the giving of the Spirit, each may personally join in by faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ. As we trust in Jesus, centering our lives and faith in him, we find the faith, hope and love to effectively influence our family, our community, our nation and all of creation for the better.
In an ideal world, as in the kingdom of God, our leaders would be Christ-centered, seeking the heavenly realities rather than the power, authority, wealth, and popularity of this broken world. They would be seeking the benefit and best of those they served rather than their own pleasure and desire. Even though they are faulty and frail, our human leaders today still can choose to lead out of God’s Spirit of wisdom and love rather than the fleshly values of greed, lust, indifference, and selfishness. But will they?
Our effort, as we make decisions regarding electing our leaders, is to seek out and choose those who will most likely exemplify and support that which is good, true, and holy. This is a challenging task, for we must accept that we are dealing with people who are just as broken and faulty as we are. This is why we seek God’s direction and instruction, and take into consideration the issues and complications involved in electing leaders.
And as we think of our own spheres of influence, how we are we doing in providing leadership which reflects the nature of Christ? Are we holy, as God is holy, living in that loving unity of equal yet different persons we were created to reflect? Do we love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves?
Any change in government, in society, and even in our world, has its roots in the finished work of Christ. For us to experience it within our own sphere of influence, we turn to Jesus and receive his gift of the Holy Spirit. Turning our face away from the values and idols of this world and back towards God is an important start. As our Lord did, laying down our life for the sake of those nearest and dearest to us is another. Accepting that choosing the high road of holiness, service, and obedience to God is going to require a cost, even a sacrifice on our part, is another step. And following Christ in spite of all that may distract or afflict us needs to be our constant decision.
There is a price to pay to have the world we wish we could have. Resisting evil requires effort. Choosing a different path is a great challenge. Continuing in persevering effort is tough. But as we do this individually and collectively, we will find that the people in our spheres of influence will be affected and slowly begin to change. There may be resistance, even severe resistance to any effort on our part to be reflections of God’s goodness, love, and grace in this broken world. But if we hold on to Jesus as he holds onto us, walk in the Spirit and trust in his love and grace, we will find that ultimately the world around us will begin to change for the better.
Holy Father, in our world today, it seems we are too often influenced by evil, sin, and death rather than by your love and grace. We are grateful Jesus, that not only did you come and stand in our stead, offering your life for our life, your death for our death, but you also sent your Spirit to enable us to share even now in your divine life and love. Thank you for forgiving us our sins. Thank you for turning our faces back to yours, Abba. Spirit, thank you that you transform our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses. Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Deuteronomy 34:9-12 NASB
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” … you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.’ ” Leviticus 19:1-2, 19b NASB
“…just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. … Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 8 NASB
See also Matthew 22:34-46 NASB.
By Linda Rex
September 27, 2020, Proper 21—As human beings, we cannot escape the reality that our existence is dependent upon water—whether clean water to drink, rain for our crops, water for everyday uses such as cleaning and bathing, or many other needs. Today in America, many are experiencing the lack of water—fires out of control, or too much water—flooding in the southeast with the impact of hurricane Sally. Whether too much, too little, or just enough—water is an integral part of our human existence.
The story of humanity begins with the Spirit brooding over the waters, and then responding to the Word of God by bringing into existence the cosmos, the earth and all that lives on it. The earth was originally watered by streams coming up from the ground. From the garden in Eden flowed a river which separated into four headwaters, flowing into areas nearby. We may recognize some of the names—the Euphrates, Tigris, Gihon, and Pishon rivers.
After Adam and Eve turned away from God to the things of their flesh, choosing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity declined into a place where even God regretted that what he had made had come to such depravity. When he chose to eradicate evil, he sent a flood—an inundation of water that swept away broken humanity and wiped the earth clean. But it was not God’s heart for human beings to die—he desires life for us. So he made the covenant of the rainbow with us as his pledge he will never flood the earth in that way ever again.
When God brought his people out of Egypt from slavery, he brought them through the Red Sea. Moving the large body of water aside, he dried out the riverbed and made a passage for Israel to get to the other side. When they were safely to shore, he allowed the river to flow freely again, wiping out the Egyptian army which had pursued them into the water. Water, for God, is both a means of redemption and a means of cleansing, healing, and renewal.
Sadly, the Israelites did not seem to grasp the significance of what God was doing in their lives. They did not know God well, and did not believe that he loved them and wanted what was best for them. They did not believe, even though they had witnessed such a mighty deliverance. When they were in the wilderness on the way to Sinai, they grew thirsty. They did not simply trust God or turn to him when they grew thirsty, but rather they complained to Moses and demanded that he solve their problem by providing water. By demanding water from Moses, they were demanding proof of God’s presence among them, something he had already made clear to them.
This continual refusal to believe, to trust in the living God as the Source of all that is good and right, marked Israel’s and then Judah’s relationship with God from then on. Even as their refusal to obey and serve God brought them into exile, they still worshiped idols and refused to submit themselves to the ways and covenant love of their Lord and Redeemer.
The prophet Ezekiel warned them to turn away from their rebellion and sin:
“ ‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore, repent and live’ ” (Ezekiel 18:30-32 NASB).
God did not desire their destruction. He sought their repentance—a turning around, a change of mind and heart—something which they could never achieve on their own. They needed to be saved from their hearts made of stone.
The living Word took on our human flesh to be for us the Rock from whom living water would flow. Jesus Christ lived our life, died our death, and rose again, ascending into the presence of the Father to send the Spirit on all flesh. The Rock, the cornerstone on which God would build his church, was struck in the crucifixion, and from him flowed the living stream of grace and mercy we all needed to be freed from evil, sin and death. And beyond that, through Christ and from the Father, came the living stream of God’s very presence and power, the Holy Spirit, who by faith would come to us individually, to begin the process of transforming and renewing us into the image of Jesus Christ.
One of the remarkable things about water is its ability to alter hard objects like rocks. Place a sharp, jagged stone in running water and over a long enough period of time, it will become smooth. Large amounts of water flowing swiftly over land and rock will dig deep caverns and riverbeds, given time. Moving water in an extremely narrow stream at a very rapid speed can be used to clean or cut certain objects. There is great power in water—and the water of God’s love and grace, His Spirit, does mighty things when it goes to work in us and in our lives. As we respond to God in faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ, the Spirit works in us to heal, restore and renew, to reform us into the image-bearers of God we were created to be.
It is fitting that the final image in Revelation is of the presence of God with man on the new earth. From the temple of God’s presence flows a mighty river which provides healing for the nations. What a fitting picture of what God is doing even now beginning with the body of Christ, working in this world to bring about healing, renewal, and wholeness. Washed in the water of God’s love and grace, the body of Christ in which God dwells is to be fullest expression of Jesus possible in this world, being a temple of living stones from which the living Water flows freely to bring healing to all people. We look forward anticipating the day when Jesus Christ will bring the kingdom of heaven into its fullness. Meanwhile, we participate with Jesus today in expressing by the Spirit God’s faith, hope, and love to everyone around us.
Dear Abba, forgive us our hard-heartedness and stubborn resistance to your loving will and purposes. Thank you for offering us yourself, Jesus, as the Rock to be broken on our behalf so that we might be given a new heart and spirit, and turn to you in trust and obedience. Holy Spirit, please finish what you have begun, transforming our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord all for Abba’s glory. Amen.
“ ‘Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.’ And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ ” Exodus 17:6-7 NASB
“He split the rocks in the wilderness
And gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths.
He brought forth streams also from the rock
And caused waters to run down like rivers.” Psalm 78:15-16 NASB
See also Matthew 21:23–32 and Philippians 2:1–13.
By Linda Rex
September 6, 2020, Proper 18—Lately I have been thinking a lot about how hard it can be sometimes to speak the truth in love to someone I am close to. In fact, as someone who learned painfully the desperate need I personally have for grace, I experienced in relationships the pain and destruction which come from truth applied without compassion or love.
It is important for us as human beings to get our minds readjusted to the reality that God loves us. And he loves us so much that he did everything he could to free us from the chains of evil, sin, and death we so often give ourselves over to. Our loving Abba could not bear to see us diminished into brute beasts enslaved by our passions and lusts. He created us for something so much more wonderful than this! So, whatever it cost him he did—even to the place of giving us his beloved Son in our place on our behalf.
When we talk about loving our neighbor or being good to others or showing compassion to the suffering, it is easy to assume wrongly that love permits unacceptable or abusive behavior. Love “bears all things” we read and so we let the people we love do whatever they want, even if it hurts us and others or is destructive or demeaning. We allow people to take advantage of us over and over and we show them infinite grace, not realizing that we are not genuinely loving them by doing so.
It is in view of this that we need to look at Jesus’ conversation with his disciples about going to one’s brother. To live in relationship is to open oneself up to the possibility of being hurt or offended. When people interact, they will inevitably do or say something that will create difficulties between themselves and another person. It is our human propensity to err that causes chaos and havoc in our relationships.
When we are in a relationship with another human being—any kind of relationship, whether business, friendship, marriage, companionship—we often are tempted to isolate ourselves and hide parts of ourselves away. We do this because we know that if the other person knew the truth about us, they would reject us or wound us, or shame us in some say. Not all people have our best interests at heart, so out of self-preservation, we learn to skillfully hide parts of ourselves away.
Our hiding is something we as human beings have been doing since the garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they knew they had done what God had asked them not to do. So, when God showed up in the garden, looking forward to spending time with them, they did what we as humans do—they hid. When faced with the reality of what we are and what we’ve done, we as humans find a way to hide from God and each other.
But notice what God did. He did not allow them to continue to hide. He gently sought them out, confronted them, and told them that he knew the truth. He told them the consequences of their choice and the pain it would bring to themselves and others. Then he tenderly covered them with skins and sent them on their way. God used truth to call them back into relationship with himself, and then did what he could to get them pointed in a new direction.
This brings to mind the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who was brought to Jesus by her accusers. They believed she was worthy of being stoned and that Jesus was soft on sin because he was gracious. It is interesting that Jesus did not let either the woman or her accusers off scot-free.
The men who were interested in her destruction were told, “You who are without sin may cast the first stone.” At this, each man began to see in his own mind’s eye the truth—convicted of his own error by the Spirit of truth, he walked away. When all the men were gone and only the woman was left, Jesus asked where her accusers were. She said they were all gone. Then Jesus applied the truth gently to her as well, “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” She was not allowed to continue in her way of self-destructive relationship—she was told the truth in love and instructed to begin moving in a new direction.
In Ezekiel 33, the prophet wrote how God made him a watchman over the people of Israel, to give them a warning. The prophet was reminded that when someone is sinning and we don’t warn them about it, we are equally guilty of their sin. If we warn them and they do it anyway, then that’s on them. But we are to do what we can to help people see the truth about their destructive, disobedient behavior—this is an expression of divine love.
What we must do is difficult and can be painful—and it can result in severed relationships. But it must be done—and done in love. Jesus gave a template by which we can introduce a measure of God’s truth into our relationships, enabling a loving environment of grace and truth to help grow people into greater Christlikeness.
We begin first with a humble estimation of our own need for grace. Then we approach the person by themselves, speaking the truth in love and calling them back to what is right and true. If they refuse to hear us, then we take two or three others who know the truth, and bring them into the conversation to help this person see the truth for themselves. It sometimes requires someone other than us to say what needs to be said in order for someone to hear a difficult truth about themselves.
The worst-case scenario is when someone refuses to hear even under these circumstances. In this case, Jesus encourages us to create a protective boundary around ourselves as a church body, family, or other group until this person sees their fault and repents. It is unfortunate, but sometimes a person is so deeply entrenched in sin that it takes the loss of his or her significant relationships before he or she will repent and change.
To refuse to engage someone in this process is to enable them to continue in their sin, and in the destructive cycle that goes with it. We express love by speaking the truth in love, gathering others when necessary to lovingly share with truth along with us, and if necessary, call the church together as a body to call this person back to themselves so they might once again live in the truth of who they are as God’s beloved child.
This is a gift we can give one another if we are willing. It is so easy to be hurtful with the truth—to gossip, to tell everyone on social media what’s going on, to be demeaning and insulting with it. But God means us to use truth to create unity, to bring about healing and restoration, and to create a healthy environment in which people can grow into the fullness of the image of Christ. He means for us to speak the truth in love, to build the person up, not tear them down.
Today, then, what truth have we neglected to tell someone in our life? How are we going to lovingly approach them and talk with them about it? What would Jesus have us say? May God grant us the grace to lovingly build relationship and not destroy it in the process of speaking the truth in love. May we prayerfully and humbly work toward unity, healing, and restoration, by God’s grace and power, through Jesus Christ.
Abba, forgive us that so often we neglect to balance effectively truth and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you brought truth and grace to us, and that you work to grow each of us more fully into your likeness by your precious Spirit. Enable us today to speak the truth in love to those you have brought us into relationship with. Give us the boldness to love people well by enabling them to grow up into all you meant for them to be. In your name we pray, amen.
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB
By Linda Rex
August 30, 2020, Proper 17—The pandemic and its associated quarantine have complicated our lives in so many ways. We are bombarded with new distractions, frustrations, and limitations. Some of us are way out of our comfort zone as we attempt new tasks or abandon comfortable routines. It may seem as though we are caught in the midst of a cyclone of mini-crises with no visible means of escape.
Perhaps it would be helpful to see ourselves on a journey where suddenly we are faced with a desolate mountainside to climb—struggling to carry ourselves forward, navigating dangerous outcroppings and unforeseen chasms in our effort to reach the other side. This journey is never made alone, but with the One who has made himself our companion—Jesus Christ. He says to you and to me, “Follow me.” He already knows the way and intends to take us safely to the other side, no matter what may we may face on the way.
The reality is that when Jesus calls us to follow him he knows that life is going to be a struggle for us. To leave behind our comfortable, cozy mattress to find rest in a sleeping bag on a rocky mountainside is not an easy decision. Along the journey, we may decide we’re done with traveling and start looking for a cushy oasis to settle down into. And our adversary loves to supply us with one if it means we will stop following our Lord and Savior and return to our life of sin.
We need to be like Moses, who when the Lord spoke to him from the burning bush said simply, “Here I am.” To simply offer ourselves to God one more time in this particular moment is to follow Jesus. In the offering of ourselves to God, though, we must remember that God will come to us, reveal himself to us, and call us to join with him on a difficult task. Moses told God, “I’m here” and God told him to go lead the Israelites out of Egypt—a breathtaking task for a self-effacing shepherd on a mountainside.
Jesus had just blessed Peter for recognizing him as Messiah, the Son of God, when he began to tell his disciples what the Sanhedrin was going to do to him when he got to Jerusalem. Peter emphatically refused to believe that Jesus would be crucified and die at the hands of the Jewish leaders. Without realizing it, Peter gave in to the adversary’s effort to distract Jesus from the path he knew he had to follow for the sake of all humanity. What seemed to be loving, brotherly compassion and care in Peter’s mind turned out to be a not too subtle temptation for Jesus in complete opposition to the will and purposes of God.
Strong-willed, impulsive Peter seemed to be struggling with the idea that God calls the shots in this world and that sometimes those decisions God makes are not what we think should happen. What is most important to us is not always what is most important to God. He lives in the realm of eternity—we live in the everyday of the temporary.
It seems that if we were to design the Christian life on our terms, it might look like this: A person comes to faith, says the right words, gets baptized, goes to church, everything in their life begins to start working out properly now, they never get sick, and they start making all kinds of money since now they are giving God his portion. Do you see the issue? Throughout this whole life experience—nothing goes wrong, no one gets hurt, and there is no suffering. But it’s not reality.
Jesus knew the human experience. He knew that the minute any of us stepped foot in one of his footprints, the adversary would be on top of them immediately. He knew how easy it would be for us to return to our old ways of thinking and acting instead of embracing our new life in him. He knew that the only path to true transformation of our humanity would be the one through death into resurrection.
So Jesus says to us that we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. There is a cost to following Jesus and it involves dying to our old ways of living and being, and embracing the reality that there will be suffering and struggle in the process. We need to realize that just as the crowds ridiculed and taunted Jesus, there will be those who oppose our choosing to follow him down the path to the cross. There will be tough decisions to make and difficult struggles to end unhealthy relationships and begin new Christ-centered ones.
And there will be circumstances which come up in our lives where we struggle to make sense of what God has done or is doing. Why does God allow some people to die when others who do so much evil continue to live and cause such destruction in this world? There are so many difficult questions for which we have no answers.
We must come back to that place where we simply recognize the holy ground of God’s presence, take off our shoes, and humbly say to him, “Here I am.” We are but creatures and he is the loving Creator, and he has joined us on our journey, shared our pain and suffering, died our death, and sent his Spirit to be present with us in every moment. We are not alone on this journey—and he will bring us safely to the other side. And that is enough.
When the apostle Paul describes the Christian life, he gives some examples of what it looks like. In Romans 12:9–21, he tells the followers of Jesus to love without hypocrisy, to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good. He encourages them to be diligent and fervent in their service to the Lord. He reminds them to persevere in the midst of life’s trials and to devote themselves to prayer and providing for the needs of their spiritual brothers and sisters. Then he gets to the really difficult things—blessing those who persecute them, associating with the poverty-stricken and needy, and never exacting revenge on those who do evil or harm them.
The life of a follower of Jesus is never intended to always be convenient, simple, and comfortable. If anything, it is an arduous struggle. But it’s never done alone. We have the companionship of our spiritual brothers and sisters to lift us up, encourage, and strengthen us. And we have the intimate companionship of our Lord and Savior who indwells us by the Spirit. On our journey, he is present in every moment as we listen, heed, and yield ourselves to him, to give us direction, encouragement, inspiration, and correction.
The life of faith in Jesus is full of moments of joy, peace, hope, and fellowship. We do not walk alone, but have fellow travelers with us on our journey. Yes, there will be difficulties, struggles, and disappointments. But in the midst of whatever may be occurring, we can know that we need only say, “Here I am” and we will find ourselves encountering the living Lord. He is as near as his name on our lips— “Jesus.” He is as close as the breath we breathe—the Spirit who dwells in us. Take a moment right now to feel his presence in you and with you—and commit once again to following him wherever he leads.
Heavenly Father, you are the source of all things—our life and our existence are in you. Jesus, you went before us, living our life and dying our death so that we might rise with you into new life. Spirit, remind us again that we are not alone on this journey, but we have God’s real presence in us and with us as we follow Jesus wherever he leads. We are here, Lord—bring us to where us want us to be. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’” Matthew 16:21–26 NASB
By Linda Rex
August 23, 2020, Proper 16—Recently, one of the hardest things for me as a pastor was to have to stay at home on Sunday mornings when I would much rather have been at church among the dear people of my congregation, talking with them face to face. I missed the laughter, singing worship songs together, and praying with people carrying heavy burdens needing lifted. We were so blessed to be able to still gather online, but there were so many faces I was not able to see and voices I was not able to hear since the quarantine began.
It is hard to watch the church in exile in this way, and I’m glad so many congregations like our own are beginning to be able to gather again. It is good to remember, though, that it is in times like these that the seeds of God’s greatest work are often planted. It is when the church is resisted or pressed against that it expands and grows in exponential ways.
This brings to mind the Old Testament reading for August 23rd (Exodus 1:8–2:10). Here we find the fledgling people of Israel have been in the land of Egypt for over three hundred years. Over the centuries, the rulers of the land have forgotten the history of this people and how Joseph helped to save Egypt from starvation. Now they only see the people of Israel as a threat to the present regime, so they are enslaved, forced to help the building of Egypt’s great cities.
As the numbers of the Israelites grew, the ruler of Egypt made an edict that every one of their boy babies was to be killed at birth. He increased the toil in their slavery and pressed harder and harder upon them. But no matter how hard he tried to restrict, reduce, or diminish Israel, the more they grew in numbers. In time, God even sent a deliverer, a baby boy placed in a rush basket in the Nile river who was adopted by the king’s daughter. He would, in God’s good time, deliver his people from slavery in Egypt.
This story is a good reminder that no matter how hard any of us try, we cannot resist the purposes and plans of our mighty God. He had made a covenant with Abraham, renewed it with his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob (whom he named Israel). He had told Israel that his people would be in Egypt for four hundred thirty years, and sure enough, when that time was up, God ensured that they were brought out of Egypt and into the new life he had in mind for them in the promised land.
The redemption of the nation of Israel began, in this sense, with the revelation to Moses of who God was—the I Am. He was their deliverer, their redeemer, and he was faithful to them in all their ups and downs, even when they turned from him and fell back into their idolatry and rebellion. The I Am was faithful to them, and even when they ended up in exile because of their turning away from him, he ultimately brought them back to their homeland in Judea.
But the nation of Israel Jesus came to had been through so much. The scribes, Pharisees, and leaders of the nation had made significant changes to how they worshiped God while they were in exile. They had put so many traditions and rituals into effect to ensure their purity that they had actually placed the Jewish people into a new form a slavery. Instead of a joyful relationship with their redeemer, they often found they could not do everything that was required of them. And when it came to temple worship, there were levels of exclusion, with women and proselytes being relegated to the outer courts, and Gentiles of any nation being excluded from table fellowship with the Jews.
This obviously was not God’s intent. We find Jesus near the end of his ministry asking his disciples who people were saying he was (Matthew 16:13–20). The common person believed Jesus was some type of prophet. There hadn’t been prophets for centuries up until the time of John the Baptizer and there weren’t supposed to be any more until the end of the age. This was a significant assumption on their part—the messianic deliverance of their people must be near since now Jesus was present and doing healings, miracles, and feeding the multitudes.
Jesus’ then asked his disciples who they thought he was. This is a good question even for you and me to ask ourselves. Do we imagine that Jesus is just a prophet—a good man who did a lot of nice, miraculous things and taught people how to live? If this is the case, we are missing out on the whole point of Israel’s story. We are missing the message of scripture—in the fullness of time, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Deliverer, not just of his people but of all people everywhere. Jesus, the I Am in human flesh, the Messiah who lived our life, died our death, and rose, ascending into glory, is so much more than just a prophet!
Jesus is the one who establishes in his person our identity as human beings. When Jesus said, “But you, who do you say I am?” he was asking them to accurately ascertain what it meant that he was their Messiah. It did not mean he was a political leader set to take over by powerful, military means. What it meant was that he would allow circumstances to take their course, submitting himself to the evil plans of the leaders of his own people, knowing it would result in his crucifixion. He knew this was the path that was going to be necessary to reconstitute the people of God, Israel.
Peter’s response, given to him by our heavenly Father, acknowledged who Jesus was as the Son of the living God, the Messiah. He may not have understood the distinction between who the Messiah Jesus was and that kind of messiah which the people hoped he was. But his answer pointed to a new reality.
Jesus, in response, took the Jewish rabbis’ authority to ratify what was bound and loosed in heaven and gave it to the apostles, with Peter as their representative. He gave Peter, and the apostles, the keys to the kingdom—and we see in the book of Acts how Peter and the apostles first opened the doors to the kingdom through their proclamation of the word on Pentecost after the resurrection, and subsequently when the gospel was received by the Samaritans, and later the Gentiles at Cornelius’ home. The doors of the church were opened wide to receive all nations and peoples, with all worship and obedience centered in Jesus Christ alone.
Jesus told the disciples that not even death could stop the expansion of the kingdom of God. Death would not prevail against the church, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ was assured and it happened just as Jesus said it would. Yes, he did have to die on the cross and enter the gates of death, but death could not hold him! And neither can it hold us any longer.
Whatever effort the evil one may make to silence or kill the church will fail. We know this because love never fails. Our God, who is love, has come, given himself to us and for us, and has risen from the grave. He has bound all humanity to himself in an unbreakable bond and sent the Spirit to draw us together into a community of faith, a body of believers, the church. By the Spirit we are given special gifts for each member to participate in the edification of the church and the proclamation of the gospel.
Our calling today is to cease giving ourselves over to the ungodly ways of this broken world and to embrace who we are as the called-out ones—the children of God. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds—informing ourselves of the will and purposes of God and living accordingly, participating fully in the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit (Romans 12:1-8). And we can rely fully on Jesus’ assurance that what he has begun in his church, he will finish, even to the end of this cosmos.
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you are Lord of your church, and that death did not, cannot, and will not prevail against it, for its existence is bound up in your very self. Thank you, Spirit, for your giftings and blessing—grant us the grace to edify your church and proclaim the good news with boldness, courage, and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Look to Abraham your father | And to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; | When he was but one I called him, | Then I blessed him and multiplied him.” Isaiah 51:2 NASB
“’Had it not been the LORD who was on our side,’ | Let Israel now say, ‘Had it not been the LORD who was on our side | When men rose up against us, | Then they would have swallowed us alive, | When their anger was kindled against us; | Then the waters would have engulfed us, | The stream would have swept over our soul; Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.’ … Our help is in the name of the LORD, | Who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 124:1-5, 8 NASB
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; | You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, | And Your right hand will save me. | The LORD will accomplish what concerns me; | Your lovingkindness, O LORD, is everlasting; | Do not forsake the works of Your hands.” Psalm 138:7-8 NASB