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Immersed in Christ

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By Linda Rex

January 9, 2022, Baptism of the Lord | EPIPHANY—When I was a girl, my mother and I would often play in the kitchen, trying out new recipes. One of the projects we tried one summer was making pull taffy. This involved cooking sugar and butter at high temperatures on the stove, and when the taffy was made, pulling it into long strips, folding it, and pulling it again and again. It was fun to do, and the final product was extremely sweet and chewy.

In order for the sugar and butter to be transformed into candy though, it had to be cooked at very high temperatures for a precise amount of time. One time, a tiny bit of this extremely hot syrup splashed onto my hand and burnt it badly. This was a painful experience which taught me to be very careful around boiling sugar and butter.

The process of candy-making was necessary and dangerous, but the result was a delightful treat for us to share with others. I suppose I might have decided to never again attempt to make any kind of candy on the stove. That would have protected me from ever getting burnt again, that is true. But at the same time, I would never have had the joy of making and sharing with others the delightful treat of homemade candy. There is often a cost and a challenge involved in making something meaningful and valuable.

This Sunday is the first one in the season of Epiphany, a time when we focus on the revelation of Christ as our Messiah—the Son of God, come in human flesh. We find that even though God knew beforehand the cost that would be involved in sending his Son on this mission to bring all humanity home to the Father, he did not resist, avoid, or fail to do what was necessary to accomplish his purpose. Indeed, we find that Jesus embraced his calling, going forward into the flames of God’s cleansing work in the Spirit, beginning with his baptism.

We hear the words of his heavenly Father as he rose from the water, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” and realize the pleasure and joy the Father had in the self-offering of his Son on our behalf. Throughout his life, Jesus did not withdraw from the flames of God’s loving judgment on evil, sin, and death. No, he walked steadily toward that end when all would be consumed in the fire of the crucifixion. Jesus forged his life of obedience into our humanity, putting to death all that did not belong, and in dying our death, burned up all the chaff of human wickedness and sin, cleansing us in his perfect sacrifice on the cross.

When we see Jesus risen from the grave, we find ourselves included in his resurrection life. We live forever in the presence of the Father in Christ—as humanity is included even now in that perfect relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. What was finished in Christ is offered to us individually in the Spirit—we by faith participate in Christ’s life in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit. What a gift and blessing this is!

Often, if and when we are honest with ourselves, we can clearly see that our lives and our way of living does not match the truth of who God has declared we are in Christ his Son. Many times, we don’t even care that we are not living in the truth of our existence as image-bearers of God. We are indifferent to our calling to love God and love others—at times, we barely even love ourselves. We may even live in ways that deserve a harsh judgment, so we look for ways to cope with guilt, shame and self-condemnation.

But this was never God’s desire for us. His heart is filled with love for us and a desire for us to be all that he meant for us to be. He longs for us to embrace the fire of his transforming love, to find healing and wholeness in intimate relationship with him and healthy relationships with others. What we refuse to do, often, is walk bravely into that fire of God’s love and allow him to do what he needs to do to transform, heal, and renew us.

We tend to prefer that God doesn’t mess around in our innards—we prefer that he mind his own business, and let us go on about ours, doing what we want to do with our lives. What we run from or resist is being immersed in Christ. Are we willing to go all the way down into the water of Christ’s death and resurrection? Are we willing to walk on into the flame of God’s love and allow him to burn away all the chaff of what we were not meant to carry around with us? This takes courage and faith, and a willingness to allow God to do whatever he wills in our hearts and lives. It requires a willingness to surrender—to give all of ourselves, and to hold nothing back.

But we do not face God’s judgment alone. And we need not fear it. When we turn to Christ in faith, we discover he has been through the fire already, cleansing and healing our humanity. Now he wants us to take his hand and allow him to do what is needed to make that cleansing and healing real for us right now in our life today. He wants us to live immersed in him, in his right relationship with the Father, in his life and love.

He’s offering to you and to me, all that he has done for us—so that judgment is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced. The process may be painful for a while as we grow up in him, but Jesus walks us through it by his Spirit, and brings us through to a new place of healing and wholeness, as well as giving us a promise and a hope for everlasting life with God in the new heavens and earth. Turning to Christ in faith is our participation in God’s judgment on evil, sin, and death. We turn away from ourselves and this broken world and turn to Jesus—his life for our life. We begin to live in the truth of who God has declared us to be.

One day, God will bring all that is not included in Christ to an end. We see in the final end that even death and evil will be cast into the lake of fire. This will be the culmination of God’s judgment on all that entered our human existence to bring about sin and death. With gratitude, we will rejoice in that day, joyfully dancing in celebration at what God has done.

Thank you, Father, for the new life you offer us in your Son Jesus. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit through whom we participate in Christ’s life even now. We offer ourselves anew to your transformation and restoration, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; …”     Isaiah 43:1–3a NASB

“Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ … Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’”      Luke 3:15–17, 21–22 NASB

The Price We Won’t Pay

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By Linda Rex

October 10, 2021, PROPER 23—One of the things I’ve noticed more than ever recently is how many people contact me in an effort to buy my home—which isn’t for sale. Today someone called me to help me remove the mortgage interest from my home—which I have no interest in doing. And this week I received a note from an auto dealer, wanting to purchase my car—which at the moment, I’m not planning to replace.

There’s a common thread through all of these phone calls, texts, emails, and letters—someone somewhere wants to make a buck, at my expense. I would like to believe these good people are truly seeking to help me in some way, but unfortunately, experience has taught me that this is far from the case. It is a rare individual or business that is genuinely seeking my best interests rather than seeking to line their own pockets.

While reading Amos 5:6–7, 10–15 this morning, I was struck by the way the prophet’s words resonate with our experience in this country today:

“Come back to the Lord and live. … You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed. You treat the righteous like dirt. … How you hate honest judges! How you despise people who tell the truth! You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses, you will never live in them. Though you plant lush vineyards, you will never drink wine from them. For I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions. You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. So those who are smart keep their mouths shut, for it is an evil time. Do what is good and run from evil so that you may live! Then the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will be your helper, just as you have claimed. Hate evil and love what is good; turn your courts into true halls of justice. Perhaps even yet the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will have mercy on the remnant of his people” (NLT).

It’s rather rough reading, isn’t it? But so many of the things Amos enumerates are part of our experience today! And in the midst of this truth-telling, there is a call from the heart of God to turn away from evil and to turn to good, to be just and gracious rather than continuing to oppress or deceive others.

What price are you or I willing to pay to live in the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God? What price are we willing to pay to hate evil and love good? If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that many times the bottom line drives our decisions regarding these things. I find myself preferring comfort, ease, convenience, being pain and stress-free, rather than doing the hard and painful work of taking a stand against evil and for good. I bow to my natural proclivity to mediate rather than to weather the hurricane blast of someone’s resistance to my honesty and declaration of truth. My preferences too often guide my decisions rather than the quiet inner voice of the Spirit telling me to do the hard and difficult thing.

When the rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, I doubt he realized the innate contradiction which existed in his words. In his world, the more he did what was considered good, the more he had value and worth, and the greater his significance in society and in the kingdom to come. But Jesus held him up to an entirely different standard—God himself. If only God is truly good, and Jesus is the good teacher, where did that leave this young ruler? He had always kept the commandments as he understood them—and Jesus loved him for this. But it wasn’t enough.

Jesus looked the young man in the eye—looked at him with a heart filled with the love of the Father—and saw the root of the problem. He understood why this young ruler would always feel like he was never quite good enough for eternal life. His value, his worth, and his identity were based in what he had and what he did, not in who he was in relationship with his heavenly Father. Jesus told him what he lacked. The keys to the kingdom lay solely in a faith-walk with Jesus, trusting in the Father’s love, and living in obedience to the Spirit. This was a price the young man would not pay—and he walked away heartsick.

This is tough. Are we willing to have Jesus’ loving, yet perceptive view go all the way down into our own souls? Where is our worth, our value, our identity really placed? If it is anywhere but in God himself—centered in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—in his gift of the Spirit—we are off-center. If we are trusting in anything or anyone else in this life, we will eventually find ourselves in a place where we have no hope whatsoever. Whether we like it or not, the things of this life—money, belongings, homes, and even people—are only temporary and cannot be depended on in every circumstance. Sooner or later, they will fly away like chaff in the wind.

Jesus told the disciples that it is very hard for people of wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Simply put, when you have everything you need or want, and what you don’t have you can easily get, and what gets broken you can easily replace or fix, what do you else do you need? And if you are so busy taking care of every need yourself, you may find that you have no time to consider the spiritual realities or to encounter Jesus in your everyday life. And apart from a relationship with Jesus, how can you begin to experience the eternal life which is available to each of us right now by the Holy Spirit?

The disciples were aghast at the point Jesus was making. He was telling them that it is an impossible task to enter the kingdom of God. Our best efforts will not earn us a place at the Lord’s banquet table. Eternal life is something we inherit, but we cannot make ourselves children of God. This is a task Jesus did in our place, on our behalf. Jesus, in his finished work and in his life in us by the Holy Spirit, is the one who has made us right with God, bringing us by faith into right relationship with God as his adopted children. We have eternal life in Jesus Christ alone, as we trust in him and in his ministry of adoption.

In Jesus Christ, God has made the impossible possible. We have, in Jesus, all that we need to be included in God’s love and life as his adopted children. By faith in Christ we receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus invites you and me to follow him—but there is a price that goes with that gift of eternal life. It is not the price we might expect. We need to tear up our list of good deeds, and get rid of our dependency upon our piety, and simply follow Christ. This walk of faith or walk in the Spirit requires a commitment on our part, and a willingness to pay the ultimate price.

My heart goes out today to those followers of Christ who experience a very hefty price in this life for their commitment to faith in Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in many areas of the world cannot simply say the name of Jesus out loud in a public place without endangering their lives, their families or income. They are in my thoughts and prayers. I pray God will meet their every need as he is present with them right now by the Spirit in their suffering. As for those of us who live much more freely in this nation, what price are we willing to pay for the privilege of knowing Jesus and having the gift of eternal life? What are we willing to lay down or give away for the sake of following Christ?

Heavenly Father, forgive us for setting our hearts on so many valueless and worthless things that have no lasting benefit. Grant us the grace to lay down everything that we trust in and simply place our faith in your Son Jesus and all he has done in our place on our behalf. Thank you for your love and grace, for providing for our every need, and for your gift of eternal life, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness,” Do not defraud, “Honor your father and mother.”’ And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were even more astonished and said to Him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Looking at them, Jesus said, ‘With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.’ Peter began to say to Him, ‘Behold, we have left everything and followed You.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.’”      Mark 10:17–31 NASB

Mirror of the Human Heart

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By Linda Rex

August 29, 2021, PROPER 17—I have been in tears lately over the reality of the inhumanity with which we as human beings exist in this world. I am sick of the betrayals, the deceptions, and the manipulative messages meant control, use, and steal from innocent, trusting individuals. How low can we as humans go? Apparently, after all these millennia we still have not plumbed the depths of the human depravity we are capable of.

All of the evil I see around me right now is nothing new—we’ve been going at this inhumanity to humanity thing since we were first created. Perhaps our capacity to self-destruct and to destroy our planet is greater than it ever has been. But what we as humans do to one another that is evil and depraved is nothing new. It is birthed out of the heart of the evil one which we have too often given heed to and followed since the beginning of time.

Sadly, I find that we as followers of Jesus Christ can be just as bad or worse than those we like to point our fingers at and declare to be sinners. Too often, we are simply just more effective at disguising or hiding our failures to love God and others. In our gospel reading for this Sunday, we see Jesus taking some Pharisees and scribes to task for their hypocrisy. They may have been very religious, but their oral traditions actually enabled them to look like they were good people when in reality they were avoiding their responsibility to their fellow human beings.

Jesus was not unfamiliar with the depravity humans are capable of. His point was that it is not the external things which make us unclean or unacceptable to God. Not washing our hands a certain way or not doing a certain religious ritual correctly does not determine our uncleanness or unacceptability to God. It is the things that are birthed in our hearts and pour out from us which defile us. Jesus said things such as “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness” come from within and are what make us unclean (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21–23 NLT). Our only hope with regards to these things is for God to give us a new heart and mind.

When we focus on our failures as human beings to love one another as God meant us to, we can become very angry or depressed. Focusing on the evil human beings dump all over one another does not resolve the issue. We need to remember the admonition the apostle James gave us regarding looking into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who is the exact representation of the Father in human flesh, the perfect image-bearer of God each of us is created to be. He is the One we are to keep our eyes on, for he is the living Word of God present in our humanity by the Holy Spirit, ever at work transforming human hearts and minds.

In Christ we have been given a new heart and mind. When we look into the mirror who is Jesus Christ, the One who kept the law of liberty fully and completely as we should, do we see only the broken humanity which is caught in the cesspool of evil and sin? Or do we see the resurrected crucified Lord, who took all that evil and sin upon himself, died our death, and rose from the grave, ascending into the presence of the Father, bearing our glorified humanity now and forever. In the beloved Son of the Father, through whom we are forgiven, accepted and beloved children of God, we find our life is hidden with Christ in God.

As we gaze into the face of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we find we have a choice. We can refuse to believe and accept who he is for us and what he has done for us in giving us himself. We can walk away and resume our old ways of thinking and living. Or we can begin to live into the truth Jesus has revealed to us about who we are as the beloved, forgiven and accepted children of God. We can live and walk in truth, or we can continue in the self-deception, corruption and stubborn willfulness of our lives as disobedient children.

James reminds us that the superficial gloss of religiosity is valueless and is despised by God. Jesus, on many occasions, condemned hypocrisy in self-proclaimed religious people. Saying the right words, even getting the rituals right, is meaningless if it is not backed up by the evidence of our faith in Christ. True religion that is acceptable before God comes from a heart filled with the presence and power of Jesus by the Holy Spirit which is expressed in the care of those who are not able to care for themselves and a life lived out of the truth of who we are in Christ.

The struggle to be what we were meant to be rather than what we find ourselves so often being is a real one. In every moment of every day, we are called once again to turn away from ourselves and to turn to Christ. We are called again to lay down our lives, pick up our cross, and to follow him. We are reminded by the Spirit to gaze again into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus, so we can remember whom we are and begin anew to live out the truth of whom we are in him by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Self-deception is easy. We can always find ways to excuse or rationalize our behavior or our failure to live as we know we ought to live. Those of us who share the good news of the gospel find it a tough challenge to really live out the good news of Jesus Christ in a world which is constantly tempting us to turn away from him, and is ever pulling us back into our old ways of thinking and living. It is so easy to put on the façade and never let anyone know how far we have fallen from the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.

But that is why we are called into fellowship with other believers. The point of gathering with other believers is to grow in our relationship with God and one another, and to grow in Christlikeness. There are many ways in which we gather together—whether at church for worship and hearing the Word, or in a small group for learning and fellowship, or coming together for the simple purpose of praying together as brothers and sisters in Christ. In these spiritual communities, we are living in a small way the kingdom life we were each created for and in which we will live forever when Jesus returns in glory. We have the opportunity right now to express true religion day in and day out as we interact with the people God puts in our lives, offering kindness, service, and humble obedience to the will of God by genuinely loving and caring for them in the name of Jesus.

Sincere, heartfelt love and care for others is a reflection of the nature of Jesus Christ himself, as God in human flesh. He is the mirror we gaze into—and which we want to reflect as we live day by day in this world which has drifted so far from what God meant it to be. Not everyone appreciates a mirror, nor do they care to have reflected back to them how far they have fallen from what they were meant to be. There are places in this world today where people are suffering deeply from choosing Christ and living his way. When the time comes for us to make that same choice, what will we do? Are we willing to be true reflections of the mirror that is Christ, no matter the cost to ourselves?

Heavenly Father, how far we have fallen from all you meant us to be! Thank you so much for not leaving us here forsaken in our darkness. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us and bringing us out into the light, and for sending your Spirit so we can share in your life now and forever. Grant us the grace to worship you, Father, in spirit and in truth, as accurate reflections of your glory and goodness, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”     James 1:17–27 NASB

In the Strength of that Food

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By Linda Rex

August 8, 2021, PROPER 14—I was looking on a neighborhood site this morning, seeing what Nashvillians have on their mind, when I came across a story about a cat. This cat would leave the house in the morning to go hunting, apparently, and come home at night to sleep in the owner’s house. She was a beloved pet who was well-cared for by her owner.

The owner noticed one day, though, that someone was replacing the collars on the cat. She began, over time, to realize that the cat must have another owner somewhere else who was also taking care of her. The cat was at home in both people’s houses, allowing them both to believe they were the sole owner and caregiver for her. I was amused by how the smart pet got her needs taken care of abundantly by having two homes instead of one.

This resonated a little with our readings for this Sunday, which talk about finding our provision in Christ. For example, 1 Kings 19:4–8 is about the time when the prophet Elijah, after facilitating a triumphant display of God’s power and a recommitment of the people to God, received a death threat from Queen Jezebel. Elijah fled into the wilderness, crawled under a tree and asked God to take his life. After the supreme heights of spiritual victory, the prophet hit bottom, and could not go any farther.

In this short clip, we read that God took seriously Elijah’s depression and exhaustion. An angel brought him food, and then the prophet slept. More food appeared, so Elijah ate and slept once more. Eating again, he then traveled, “in the strength of that food” for forty days and nights to Mount Horeb to meet with God. It was at Horeb that God showed himself to Elijah in “the still small voice” rather than in the big, boisterous natural events of a windstorm or earthquake.

There is much we can learn from this short glimpse into Elijah’s life and ministry. In our gospel passage for today, Jesus repeated the phrase, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus called himself the living bread. He revealed himself as the “I am” of the Old Testament, who was the One who met Elijah in the midst of his struggle, and took care of his needs. The people of Jesus’ day, however, could not get past the fact that Jesus was the son of Mary and Joseph, someone who grew up in their village and that everyone knew. How could he possibly have descended from heaven?

Jesus was making some very serious claims. He was saying, in effect, that he was God, present in their midst. He was saying that he eternally existed and yet was born and raised among them as a human being. He told them that his flesh was to be their sustenance—he was to be the source of their life, and that he was going to give his flesh for the world. This was all really hard for his hearers to get their mind around. They simply could not accept the full implications of what he was teaching.

Drawing upon Elijah’s experience, though, let’s look at what Jesus was offering them—and offering us today. First, they were like Elijah, and like the rest of us, hiding in the wilderness of evil, sin and death—facing the consequences of all our decisions as human beings to do things our own way, under our own power. There is no freedom from our slavery to sin, self, and Satan apart from God’s intervention. What hope do we have? Only God himself can deliver us from our bondage to these things. And this is what Jesus came to do.

Secondly, we often as human beings often do our best to get right with God on our own. We can be incredibly religious in how we go about it too. Or we can simply say to ourselves, why bother? There is no way for us to make things right with God or ever be what we should be. So, we don’t even try. Thankfully, this is also why Jesus came. In fact, Jesus tells us to find our rest in him—to take on his yoke, for it is light and easy. Jesus lived our life, died our death and rose again so that these chains would be broken and we would have new life in him. What a precious gift! We have freedom in Jesus as we rest in him, trusting in his perfect finished work, not in ourselves or any of our own efforts.

Thirdly, we are reminded to feed on Christ. Yes, we do regularly take communion in remembrance of what Christ has done, but in this instance, what Jesus means is that we draw our life, our sustenance, our existence from him. We feed upon him by living life in an active, ongoing relationship with him, spending time in conversation with him, trusting in his love and grace, reading his word, fellowshipping with other believers, walking in love, and growing up in Christ.

And finally, it is in the strength of this nourishment, this divine food, that we meet with God. It is in and through Jesus that we are brought up into the inner fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit, in union and communion with the Triune God. Christ bears our glorified humanity in the Father’s presence now and forever, and shares this close, intimate relationship with each of us as we turn to him in faith. What could be more glorious than that? Always and ever, in Christ, we are held in the midst of the divine life and love, included in their loving fellowship.

Whatever struggles we may have in this life, and no matter how dark into the depths of despair we may go, we can have great peace as we rest in Christ and in his finished work. Our life is in him now. He is our hope, for he is our life. The Father draws us to his Son—inviting us to come, to believe, and to rest in him. Jesus promises, as we do so, that beyond living with him now day by day in the Spirit, when he returns in glory, he will raise us up to live with him forever and ever in the new heavens and new earth. Now that is a meal worth savoring!

Thank you, Father, for drawing us up into relationship with you through Jesus in the Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for offering yourself to us and giving us real life—life in the Spirit—a life full of faith, hope and love in fellowship with you now and forever. Grant us the grace to rest in you, trusting in your finished work, your love and care. Amen.

“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.’ He lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, there was an angel touching him, and he said to him, ‘Arise, eat.’ Then he looked and behold, there was at his head a bread cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you.’ So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.”      1 Kings 19:4–8 NASB

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”      John 6:(35, 41–51) 47–51 NASB

All Sins Forgiven

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By Linda Rex

June 6, 2021, PROPER 5—There are times when we wrestle with the reality that we have fallen short of what it means to be image-bearers of the God who is Father, Son and Spirit. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the way we act, the things we say and do, and especially our thoughts, are a far cry from what God intends. None of us love God or love others in the way we were originally designed to, though there are moments when we may experience a little bit of the bliss of us being in sync with the heavenly realities.

Even so, we discover in the person of Jesus Christ that God is still present. In Christ we see that God is immeasurably patient and gracious, though he does at times hold our feet to the fire so we will repent and turn back to him. The ultimate spiritual reality is that all our sins are forgiven in Jesus, and we have an incredible hope because of what he has done in our place and on our behalf. The One who is our Judge is also the One who is the perfect Lamb offered on our behalf for our sin and the High Priest or Mediator who intercedes for us with the Father.

As we move from the season where we walked with Jesus through the crucifixion into the tomb, and from there rose with Jesus in the resurrection and ascension to the Father’s side, receiving from God the promised Holy Spirit, we find ourselves in a whole new place. As those who trust in Christ, we live in God’s presence even now as we by faith are empowered by his Spirit to follow Jesus and participate in his mission in this world. In Christ, God has defeated Satan and is making all things new.

But when we look around us and within ourselves, we often see only brokenness, evil, and sin. We experience the consequences of ourselves and others living in ways which God never intended—pain, sickness, broken relationships, and death fill our world and touch our lives. Where is God in all this? It’s hard to see that Jesus is present by his Spirit and at work in this world when our tangible experience tells us otherwise. The evil one is quick to point out to us all the ways in which he is still in control and we are left abandoned, orphans in this broken world.

We need to own up to the reality that what we experience in this way is a result of human choice and the work of God’s adversary. One of the passages for this Sunday, (1 Samuel 8:4–20; 11:14–15) tells the story of the elders of ancient Israel coming to Samuel the judge and asking him to install a king in his place. Up to that point, God had been their king and he had worked through judges to provide shepherding for his people. But the people didn’t like how Samuel’s sons were leading and Samuel was getting old, so they felt it was time for a change in leadership. Samuel was very upset about this, but the Lord told him that whoever rejected him was rejecting the Lord. The reality was that even in this rejection of God and his kingship, the people of Israel would still be God’s people, and the Lord would be faithful to his covenant with them. On God’s side, the relationship was secure in spite of, on the nation’s side, their rejection of their Redeemer, and God would still accomplish through them, the coming of the Messiah.

This echoes the story of beginnings in another passage for this Sunday, Genesis 3:8–15. Here Adam and Eve hear the Lord walking in the garden of Eden in the cool of the day. This was a time when God would walk and talk with his creatures, sharing the pleasant and joyful fellowship of God with man we were created for. But on this day, because of their sin in eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve heard God coming, became afraid and hid. Instead of rejecting them because of their sin (for God already knew what they had done), God sought them out, calling them out of hiding back into relationship. Yes, they had to answer for what they had done, but God did what was needed to bring them back, covering them with skins through the shedding of blood, prophetically pointing the day when Christ would shed his blood on the behalf of all humanity to restore our relationship with our Maker.

As the Lord spoke to Adam and Eve, it became evident who the real culprit was—the serpent. In the Bible, we see a progression of understanding regarding this being—this is God’s adversary, the one who is ever at work in this world in opposition to God’s will and purposes. Jesus himself called Satan the father of lies, the one who was a murderer from the beginning, who constantly works to deceive humanity and turn them away from God (John 8:44). His favorite deception of all is convincing us that God doesn’t really love us or want what is best for us—that God is holding out on us, keeping us from having everything we deserve or desire.

What we believe matters! If we believe God doesn’t exist, or that if he does, he doesn’t care, we will live in ways that demonstrate this. If we believe God doesn’t want what is best for us, then we will decide for ourselves what is best for us, and reap heavy and painful consequences which come from such choices. Since the beginning, humans have not trusted God to know what is best for them or to genuinely love them and care for them. What Israel did in rejecting God as king is not an unusual incident. This is just a manifestation of the nature of humanity throughout the ages—we turn away from God—we do things our own way. In Christ, God is calling every human being back to himself, asking, “Why are you hiding?” We have all been covered by the blood of Christ and clothed with his righteousness—why reject this gift and the Giver who went to such lengths to provide it?

As the psalmist said, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness… (Psalm 138:3).” We have God’s assurance that he will do and has done all that is needed to make us right with himself. The evil one is defeated by Christ, who entered the strong man’s (Satan’s) house and plundered his goods, releasing humanity from the clutches of the devil as well as evil, death, and sin (Mark 3:27). On God’s side, Satan is a defeated foe. Those of us who trust in Christ can rest in his finished work, knowing that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church, the body of Christ. When all is said and done, God’s kingdom will stand and Satan and his minions will be removed, unable any longer to affect or harm God’s new heavens and earth.

In the meantime, we live in the already-not yet of the kingdom of God. That means that we still experience trouble in this life. We don’t lose heart when the externals of our existence and our human flesh wear down or fall apart, because what is at work within us is eternal and will last forever (2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1). The truth is that followers of Christ will experience difficulties in this world. Added to the normal experience of the consequences of the fall, of humanity’s turning from God, we as believers also experience rejection and criticism from those who reject Christ. There will be people near and dear to us who may ridicule our faith in Christ or our efforts to live in obedience to God’s will. They may even accuse us of being out of our minds. But we can be assured that as we do the will of the Father, Christ will count us as his very own, his true family—the ones who share in the life and love of the Father and Son in the Spirit.

Life in the Spirit is what we have been given in Christ, and this is ours both now and forever. The Spirit who lives in us is forming Christ in us as we respond to Jesus in faith and obedience. The purpose of our struggles is to grow us up in Christlikeness, not to destroy or harm us, as Satan is prone to do. Now and forever, we have moment-by-moment fellowship with God in the Spirit, because God has restored the fellowship of God with man once experienced when Adam and Eve first walked with God in the garden. In Christ, all sins are forgiven and the Spirit has been given so we can participate in that new life which is ours in him right now and on into eternity.

.Dear Abba, thank you for making us your very own through the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for delivering us from Satan and his demons, for giving us new life, and enabling us to share in your life and love now and forever. Finish what you have begun, even as you have promised, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And He came home, and the crowd gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, ‘He has lost His senses.’ The scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.’ And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but he is finished! But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house. … Answering them, He said, ‘Who are My mother and My brothers?’ Looking about at those who were sitting around Him, He said, ‘Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.’”      Mark 3:20–35 NASB

The Gate of Grace

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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

The Poetry of God’s Mercy

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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

With Jesus in the Wilderness

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By Linda Rex

February 21, 2021, 1st SUNDAY IN LENT [Easter Prep]—There is one thing which has become clear in my mind recently and that is that we as the body of Christ are in a time of wilderness wandering. In many ways we are being brought face to face with our fragility as humans in the face of powerful temptations such as those Jesus faced when he was led into the wilderness following his baptism. During this Lenten season as we move toward celebrating the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection, we have the opportunity to reflect on our need and weakness in the midst of Jesus’ sufficiency and provision.

In the book of Mark we find the condensed version of Jesus’ early ministry. First he was baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptizer, and as he came up out of the Jordan, his heavenly Father affirmed him as his beloved Son and the Spirit descended upon him in the tangible form of a dove. Mark tells us next that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan.

As Jesus was in a place in the wilderness which was filled with wild animals, so he was vulnerable and in danger, open to harm. During his wilderness experience, he went without food, causing him physical weakness. In the midst of this preliminary walk through death’s dark valley, he stood in opposition to God’s adversary, faithfully keeping his focus on his heavenly Father, and on his identification with all of humanity as God in human flesh, and on his purpose in laying down his life on behalf of all people.

We all, in ways similar to Jesus, experience the temptation to resolve our problems under our own power by taking matters into our own hands or manipulating people and circumstances to accomplish what we believe needs to happen. Jesus, being extremely hungry from fasting for several days, was challenged to prove he was Son of God by turning stones into bread—something he could have easily done simply with a word, since he was the Word of God in human flesh. But to do so would have caused him to cease to identify with you and me in our weakness and need, our human frailty and weakness. Jesus instead drew upon the written word of God to combat this temptation, saying that we as humans are not to live only by bread we put in our mouths, but by every word of the living God.

We all love magical solutions to our problems, a simple app to resolve our difficulties. But we often miss out on a deeper solution which goes down into the very core of our being. The real difficulty often lies in our refusal to believe that we can’t work it out somehow—we keep believing we can solve it, if we just try a little harder, or change things up a little, or maybe find a better way of doing what we’ve been doing. However, we often need to come to the simple realization that we are powerless—we do not have within us the capacity to heal ourselves, to fix things, to make things the way they need to be.

We need to embrace the truth that we need a power greater than ourselves—we need a savior or rescuer to deliver us. Jesus expressed this truth on our behalf when he chose to honor his own humanity by depending upon his heavenly Father to care for him, rather than solving his temporary need for food by using his hidden divine capacity to turn stones into bread. Following the confrontation in this story, we find that Jesus had angels tending to his needs, providing for him as he recovered from his conflict with the evil one—which proved the point that he did not need to do this himself under his own power—his Father faithfully provided.

In the midst of these challenging times, as we struggle with the pandemic and accompanying financial and political stress, are we questioning God’s goodness and faithfulness? Are we testing God with poor decisions and irresponsibility, attempting to make him prove to us that he loves us and wants what is best for us? Jesus himself was tempted by the evil one to prove he was the beloved Son of God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that the angels would catch him. The adversary even used scripture in an effort to prove to Jesus that he should do this. To jump in this way would have tested his Father’s goodness and faithfulness—something Jesus refused to do. Like Jesus, we need to refuse to test God, choosing instead simply to trust and obey him, and walk each moment in loving obedience to him in spite of how difficult or dangerous our experiences may be at the moment.

Again, the Son of God did not need to prove his Father’s love and faithfulness—he was confident of it, having experienced it since before time began. But as a human being, the temptation was there and was real. We may have walked with God for many years, and have experienced his love and faithfulness through many circumstances and situations. But in this time of crisis, have we lost our confidence in God’s goodness and love? Will we simply trust that he has our best interests in mind and is still watching out for us and providing for us even though the evidence seems to show otherwise? Or will we take matters into our own hands and try to work it out ourselves?

Finally, Jesus faced the third temptation—that of being offered the all kingdoms of the world if he would just bow and worship the evil one. This temptation is not unique to him, but is one we each face as children of the Father. Surely we all have had opportunities where we were promised the world, if we just did that one thing which was unjust, unholy, inhumane, or unloving. How often have we traded in our eternal glory for the transient glories of this world? We are not alone as we face this temptation—we turn to Jesus who knew and gave the perfect response which silenced the enemy.

Jesus was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness. And we can see that while he was there, he faced the reality of what it meant to be truly human and to face the evil one’s temptations, while he was at his weakest and most vulnerable. In identifying with us in the wilderness, Jesus joins with us as we wander through our own wilderness times.

Experience this Lenten season or preparation for Easter as a wilderness journey, similar to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness with God, and Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness battling the evil one. During this time, we may choose to fast or practice other spiritual disciplines as a participation with Christ in his own wilderness experience. We may want to spend extra time in reflection and humble repentance, acknowledging our need and weakness, and our dependency upon God. We may want to surrender ourselves anew to the purposes and will of our heavenly Father, trusting in him for provision, healing, renewal, and restoration, through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. As we wander through these forty days of Lent or Easter preparation, let’s draw near to God as he draws near to us, resist the evil one as Christ resisted him, and rest in God’s faithfulness, grace and loving care.

Dear Father, thank you for always being with us in every circumstance, caring for us and strengthening us even when we are at our weakest. Thank you, Jesus, for being with us in the middle of our temptations and struggles, enabling us to resist the evil one and endure whatever may come our way. Spirit, grant us renewal, refreshment, and transformation, as we turn to Christ in faith, praying in his holy name. Amen.

“Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’ Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Mark 1:10-13 NASB

See also 1 Peter 3:18–22.

Lord of the Spirits

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By Linda Rex

January 31, 2021, 4th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—There is a fascination nowadays with the spiritual. Stories, information, and related materials can be found in movies, books, anime and television shows. It seems as though, even in our information age, we are seeking for something beyond the physical, as though we sense there is more going on than what our reason tells us. We seek out the occult, the mystical, the mythological. But when I speak of spiritual things truly existing and that God or Jesus are real, people immediately take offense or ridicule the idea.

Sometimes I am told that Jesus is just some historical, mythical figure and he has no existence beyond this one. Even many Christians today believe that healing and other miracles no longer occur in the world. In all practicality, they are atheists, living as though God doesn’t really exist and if he does, that he doesn’t care. Indeed, how would one explain an encounter with the living Jesus when there are so many practical reasons not to believe it occurred? It is difficult to explain the way in which the things of the Spirit invade our human existence and genuinely alter it, and it is equally difficult to explain to someone else what it is like to encounter the living Lord. We each have to experience this for ourself.

The gospel of Mark describes how Christ during his ministry would follow the common Jewish practice of attending synagogue on the Sabbath. There the scrolls would be opened and read, and the scribes would expound as best as they could what the meaning was. Their interpretations were drawn from the many writings of the scribes and rabbis before them. They spoke of only that which they understood, and focused on the details of the law and all the meticulous rules these forebearers had established in an effort to keep these laws properly.

On this particular Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue at Capernaum and began to teach. He amazed the listeners because he spoke, not upon the authority of the those prior to him, but upon his own authority. It was as though inherent within himself was the authority to declare the meaning of the scriptures. He didn’t need someone else’s exposition of the Old Testament scriptures to inform him—he simply knew what the intent was and so he presented it. The implication here was that he knew the intent of the scriptures because he was the One who had given them to his people in the first place.

Jesus’ teaching that day was interrupted by a man who was under the control of a presence other than himself. This spirit, Mark explained, was “unclean” or “impure” or “evil”—it is translated in different ways. But the unclean spirit obviously did not have the man’s well-being in mind, but had completely supplanted the man’s will with its own evil will. The spirit in the man called out to Jesus, seeking to silence him by exposing who he was—the “Holy One of God.” He challenged the Lord, asking whether Jesus had come to destroy him and those like him.

It was significant that Jesus immediately silenced the evil spirit and told it to leave the man. Jesus was indeed beginning his warfare against the kingdom of evil, but not in the way which was expected of him. He did not want people to get in mind a wrong idea of what kind of Messiah had come to them. Nor did he need evil spirits to affirm who he was as the Son of God in human flesh. He was Lord over all these spirits, the evil and the good, for they were created by him and had to bow to his will and wishes at all times.

The obedience of the spirit to Jesus’ command astonished the crowd. Here was another way in which Jesus’ authority was made evident. He didn’t need fancy incantations and magical spells. He didn’t use the formulas the Jewish leaders used for exorcism. No, he had the power over the spiritual world as well as the physical world, so he simply commanded and it was done. This was an epiphany—a clear revelation of who Christ was as God in human flesh, the Lord over all his creation, of both the physical and spiritual realms. From this event in the synagogue the news spread out all over the area about Jesus and what he had done.

One of the hardest things for us as humans to accept is the reality that there are some things we just don’t have control over. Some may seek out the things of the spirit as a cry to be able to know something which can’t otherwise be known, to do what could not otherwise be done, or to control others or situations which are out of their control. They do not realize that when we seek the things of the spirit world apart from God that we will often end up enslaved, controlled by forces and spirits beyond ourselves which steal from us our ability to make our own decisions and choices, and in the end, drive us to self-destruction.

We also tend to give ourselves over to attitudes and behaviors which in many ways take control in the same way as the spirit described in this story. Sometimes we allow anger to dig deep roots in our soul, creating a bitterness that begins to affect everyone around us. Resentment and bitterness, and a desire for revenge, can so consume us that we in time we may lose all desire or ability to choose another option apart from God’s intervention on our behalf. There are many other desires that we have as human beings which when properly used within God’s limits are healthy and build us up, but when we give ourselves over to them, they in the end begin to consume us and to control every aspect of our lives, even removing from us our own ability to choose another way.

God does not deprive us of our will nor control it—even though he could—because he loves us and respects our personhood. Any other spirit than that of God will not treat us with this type of respect. This includes some humans, who seek to control our will and keep a tight reign on our every decision, forcing us to do what we do not wish to do. This is not God’s way of being, nor what he created us for. He does not force himself on us. He created us and redeemed us to be his dwelling place through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, to worship and serve him joyfully out of gratitude and love—voluntarily, simply because we desire to.

God through Jesus invites us into relationship with himself and offers himself to us in the Holy Spirit, allowing us to resist, reject, or silence him. He asks us to open ourselves up to him, to make ourselves available to him, to participate with him in what he is doing in the world, but he always leaves us free to say no. When a follower of Jesus speaks of surrender to God, or being filled with the Holy Spirit, they do not mean that they intend to lose their own ability to make decisions or to lose control of their own mind or body. Rather, they are saying that they are agreeing to God’s invitation to voluntarily give space for him to live within them and form them into what all of us were originally created to be—places where God dwells through Jesus in the Spirit so that we might be true image-bearers of Jesus Christ who both love God and love others as we love ourselves.

Mark tells us this story about Jesus so we can discover for ourselves who this teacher is. It is the Holy Spirit in us who enables us to see with spiritual eyes—to see beyond the words on the page and the historical figure of Jesus into the reality of who he is today as our living Lord. This is the beginning of Mark’s testimony that this person Jesus Christ was God in human flesh—the One who lived, died, and rose again, and who comes to us as the living Word in the Spirit. This living Lord Jesus Christ is not just a prophet or teacher, but One at whose word evil spirits are silenced, teachers are amazed, and people are healed. Invite Jesus to make himself real to you—to enable you to see him for who he really is. Seek him out, and he will, in time, enable you to find him. Then you will know, in that moment, that all I have said is true—there is a world beyond this world, and Jesus is Lord of both, and is just as alive today as he ever was, and best of all—he loves you.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the precious gift of your Spirit through your Son Jesus. May your Spirit open the eyes of our minds and hearts so that we may perceive the spiritual realities and come to know Jesus personally as he really is—the living Savior and Lord of all. May we freely give ourselves to you, God, that we may receive ourselves whole and complete through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in return. Amen.

“Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, ‘What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!’” Mark 1:23–25 NASB

See also Mark 1:21–22, 26–28; 1 Corinthians 8:1–13.

God’s Word to a Sinful People

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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.