faith

Lord, Increase Our Faith

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By Linda Rex

October 2, 2022, PROPER 22—Nowadays, when someone wants to move a grown sycamore tree, if they can afford it, they call up the local landscape company who sends out a large truck with a digger on the back. The workers use this machine’s massive teeth to dig the tree up, roots and all, and to tip it back and up over the truck in order to carry it. Then the workers drive the truck with the sycamore tree on top to its new location, dropping the tree there into the ground.

In reality, a lot of us exercise some kind faith without knowing we are doing it. Looking at this activity on the surface, we may wonder exactly how much faith is needed to move that full-grown tree to a new location. For example, the workers need to trust that the people who put the truck together and the digger together did their job properly, enabling the workers to drive the truck back and forth, and to use the digger to safely remove the tree from the ground. The workers trust that the spade will hold the tree safely until they get it to its new location rather than dropping it in the middle of the highway, creating a massive traffic snarl. The workers trust in the digger’s ability to place the tree safely in its hole, and in the owner’s promise to pay them for their efforts. There is a lot of faith being expressed in this simple act of everyday labor.

In my recent studies with Grace Communion Seminary on the topic of Paul’s epistles, I am learning about his concept of faith. Faith, for the apostle Paul, not only has to do with the trustworthiness of the One being trusted—Jesus Christ, but also about his complete and perfect trust in the Father expressed in his self-offering on the cross. This faith is given to us to participate in by the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. The matter of having sufficient faith to move anything at all has been taken care of by the One who is not only perfectly trustworthy, but who also has total faith in our trustworthy Father—and Jesus enables us to participate in that perfect faith in the Spirit.

When Jesus said that with the faith the size of a mustard seed one could move a tree and plant it in the ocean, he probably had in mind the previous conversation he and his disciples were having about forgiveness. When we come face to face with impossible tasks such as continually and freely forgiving those who deeply wound us, we discover our inadequacy, our inability to do what God asks of us in those situations. It is not a bad thing to realize that our best efforts are insufficient—it reminds us to turn to the One who, by his Spirit, can and will live our best response in and through and out from us.

In our New Testament reading for this Sunday, 2 Timothy 1:1–14, we hear the apostle Paul reminding us to “kindle afresh” or “fan into flame” (NIV) the gift we have been given. Adding fuel to a fire or kindling to hot coals causes the flame to leap up and again begin to burn intensely. Paul is reminding us that there is a fire we are baptized with, the Holy Spirit, and we do not want to “quench” this fire in any way. Rather we want to facilitate and encourage its continued flame.

In speaking of this gift of the Spirit, Paul reminded Timothy that this “sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” was indeed living within him. Because God by the Spirit was living within Timothy, he did not have a spirit of timidity or fear, but one of “power and love, and discipline”. The indwelling presence of God by the Spirit enabled Timothy to do the ministry he was called into, and it was by the Spirit that Timothy found God’s grace and purpose at work in his life. It was not all up to Timothy, but rather a walk of faith in which the “faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” were expressed as he lived out God’s calling on his life.

When asked by the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus spoke of the tiny amount of faith necessary to pick up and move a large tree from land into the sea. And then he went on to use a parable, which in our culture does not really resonate with us, since so many of us object so strongly to slavery. But what if we looked at it a little differently?

Think of a college intern, Gracie, who works for a fashion designer, Laurel, in hopes of one day she might have her own designs looked at and used. (Sorry if this sounds like a romcom plot.) Gracie spends her days fetching Laurel’s coffee, running her errands, picking up her dry cleaning, and taking care of the designer’s everyday tasks. Gracie doesn’t get paid much of anything since she is an intern—she’s lucky to barely have enough income to cover her expenses with her side job waitressing in the student union.

If Gracie is out running errands for Laurel, is the designer going to call her up and invite her in for tea and crumpets, offering to serve her? No. Instead, Laurel will probably call her up and tell Gracie that while she is running around, she is to stop by Laurel’s favorite dinner spot and pick up a meal to go and to be sure to bring home Laurel’s favorite coffee while she is at it. Gracie will be expected to do all that, finish her errands, and clean off the coffee table so Laurel has a place to eat her dinner. And while Laurel is eating, Gracie will be expected to take the dog Feathers out for a walk and to feed her. And when Gracie shows up and finishes all her tasks, she should not expect praise and gratitude from Laurel, since Gracie is simply supposed to do what she was instructed to do, since she is just an intern.

Now, in the real world, I would like to hope that if there are any Laurel’s out there, that they would reconsider how they treat their interns. But this is a parable, right? It is to help us see in our minds eye what Jesus is saying. The disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus said that even the tiniest bit of faith can move a large tree to the sea should it be exercised.

The only way any of us has any faith at all is in Christ, as we participate with him in his death and resurrection. It is Christ’s faith at work in us by the Holy Spirit which enables us to do difficult things such as forgiving what seems impossible for us to forgive. And when we do forgive, when we do live like we should, when we do say what is healing and encouraging rather than hurtful, should God stand up and applaud? No, because we are simply doing what we were created to do, being who we were created to be—image-bearers of the divine, reflections of the glory of God in Christ by the Spirit.

It is God’s life at work in us by the Spirit who gets the credit. It is for his glory and to fulfill his purpose. The life of faith begins with a God who is trustworthy and who, in Christ, lives the life of faith we were created to live within, and who gives us, in Christ, the faith necessary to follow him and live in the truth of who we were created to be as children of the Father. I would imagine that even the angels of heaven have delight as does the Father when his children return home to their real selves, living in right relationship with him and each other. But truly, isn’t that where we belonged all along?

Father, Jesus, Spirit, you made us to live in loving, other-centered relationship with you and each other. We cannot and will not do this apart from your life in us and with us by your heavenly Spirit. Thank you for giving us the faith of Christ by the Spirit, enabling us to trust you in any and every situation, as you always meant for us to trust you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea”; and it would obey you. Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat”? But will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink”? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.” ’ ”       Luke 17:5–10 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/09/olitlord-increase-our-faith.pdf ]

Finder of All Lost Things

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By Linda Rex

September 11, 2022, PROPER 19—The other day I drove downtown to do something at the Howard Office Building. I used my GPS to remind me of how to get there, but as I was leaving the parking lot to head home, I decided I could find my way home without help. About ten minutes later, I realized I was headed the opposite direction from where I needed to go, and that I was thoroughly lost. Grumbling with frustration, I finally pulled over and got out my phone for directions to get back home.

Being lost means that fundamentally, underneath all of the lostness, lies the reality that one has a home to return to. There are some people today who do not have a home to return to—they long for a home, a place of settled rest where they are beloved and safe. Others have a house, but it’s not much of a home. They may have a place to live, but there is no sense of welcome or peace in that place they go to after work each night. Some of us are simply looking for a spiritual home—a place where all the time, we are accepted, loved, welcome, and included.

In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 15:1–10, we find Jesus feeling right “at home” with tax collectors and sinners—people that the Pharisees and scribes of that day excluded from the community of faith. Jesus included them in his life, fellowshipping with them, and drawing them close into relationship with himself in spite of their failure to live up to the expectations of their religious leaders. These people who had no spiritual home were finding their home in Jesus, and he wanted the leaders to understand that if anyone was really lost in the situation, it was those who believed they were already found.

Receiving criticism for welcoming tax collectors and sinners, Jesus began a series of parables about lostness and foundness. He told a story of a shepherd who had a hundred sheep, one of which had wandered away. This good shepherd knew each of his sheep so well that he was very aware when one of them left the flock. So, he put the others in the care of those who would watch over them, and went to find the lost sheep. His purpose was to bring the lost sheep back home, to be cared for and kept safe with him. He took whatever risks were necessary, took however long it took, and endured whatever deprivations, struggles, and suffering were required so he could bring home the single sheep that was lost.

Significantly, the shepherd’s attitude about the whole process, in spite of the inconvenience to himself, was joy. He didn’t lash out at the sheep when he found it, nor did he reject the sheep for what it did by wandering away. Instead, the shepherd picked up the poor bedraggled sheep, wrapped it around his neck to carry it on his shoulders, and made himself fully responsible for its care. He did the heavy work of bringing the sheep home and making sure it was safely back in the sheepfold.

This is such a profound picture of our Lord and what he has done for us in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. As our Good Shepherd, he was willing to set aside the comforts and privileges of his divine home for a time in order to find us in our humanity in the wilderness of evil, sin, and death, to bring us back home to our Father. As we read in Hebrews 12:2, Jesus willingly and joyfully underwent this self-offering for our sakes, finding us in our lostness, and in spite of the supreme cost to himself, bringing us to safety and rest in his Father’s arms.

What Jesus brought the Pharisees’ and scribes’ attention to was that the shepherd in this story was not focused on the failure of the sheep to stay in the sheepfold. There was no condemnation of the sheep for having wandered off. The concern of the shepherd was for the wellbeing of the sheep, of its need to be brought back home, back into the fold, not to be punished or excluded for how it failed to obey the expectations of the shepherd. He was simply rejoicing that the sheep was once again home, back with the other sheep, where it belonged.

The Lord has been showing me more and more how we as humans love to create divisions between “us” and “them”, especially religious ones. We differentiate between those who are in and those who are out. If someone doesn’t measure up to our expectations of holiness or of the Christian life, we exclude them from our relationships. Instead of this, we need to realize our own lostness and need for a shepherd, and treat them as the brothers and sisters they are. The human race as a whole was included in Christ’s self-offering, and that means that at any moment, we may be and are the lost sheep he is joyfully bringing home on his shoulders.

I love the next story Jesus told, about the woman who lost a coin. She searched all over her house, sweeping the dirt floor and crooks and crannies, trying to find the small piece of metal. Obviously, the woman would not have been so diligent in her search unless that coin was very important to her. Was it a part of her dowry? Was it her only hope for a morsal of food that week? She even used some of her precious lamp oil to try in her dark house to see where the coin had gone.

Today, when we drop a penny, we may not be as diligent in our retrieval of this small coin. But the coin in this story had a place where it belonged—in the care of the woman. This coin was not meant to be lost and all alone in some forgotten space in the house. It was meant to be a part of the collection of ten coins that she was keeping for a specific purpose. Her joy at the finding of the coin reflects the same joy that the shepherd had upon finding his sheep. She was so delighted about finding her lost coin that she shared the good news with everyone around her.

What a different response compared with the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes! Isn’t this what our response ought to be when Jesus goes to work to bring a “lost coin” home? Shouldn’t we be equally delighted to share the good news with others of what Jesus has done for us in his finished work as our Lord and Savior? Instead of the critical and negative response Jesus experienced from the Jewish leaders of that day, he should have received joyful gratitude and celebration for bringing the “lost coin” tax collectors and sinners into relationship with himself, and thereby bringing them home to our Father.

Over the years, as I have had many different experiences with God helping me find what I’ve lost, he’s become for me the Finder of All Lost Things. Indeed, Jesus still is the One who seeks out the lost and brings us all home to his Father. And Jesus includes us in his mission of finding all lost sheep and all lost coins—of finding all who are longing for a spiritual home. He invites us to be a part of the process of helping others see their home is in him. We can get out our lamps and begin looking for the “lost coin” alongside the Finder of All Lost Things by joyfully including family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances in our life with Christ. Together we can celebrate our common return home on the shoulders of our Shepherd, rejoicing with Jesus as he brings us all home to the Father.

Thank you, Good Shepherd, for the extent to which you have gone to bring each of us home to be with you forever. Thank you for searching for us in the wilderness of our humanity, seeking each one of us out and including us in the Triune life and love. O great Finder of All Lost Things, grant us the grace to remember our own lostness and foundness in Jesus as we include each and every person in our own celebration of all you have done to bring us safely home. Amen.

“Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable, saying, ‘What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!” In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ ”     Luke 15:1–10 NASB

See also 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Psalm 51:1–10; Psalm 14.

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/olitfinder-of-all-lost-things.pdf ]

[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, Tennessee area or in a Zoom group, please drop me a line at ourlifeinthetrinity@gmail.com. ]

Life in a Paper Cup

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By Linda Rex

September 4, 2022, PROPER 18—I know I will show my age by asking this question, but do you remember back when going to a water cooler, you would find a holder full of little paper cups in the shape of a cone? They might hold one small serving of cold water, but then they could not be reused more than once or twice because the water would soak the cup, causing it to leak.

Early this morning I woke up from a weird dream in which I was being sung a song about a paper cup. It was beautiful and I wish I could have written down the lyrics, because they were profound. But the point of the song was that I and every other human in this world are like paper cups—fragile and yet containing a valuable substance which is life-giving. Like the clay vessels which the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 4:7, we are fragile containers filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s real presence in us and with us.

So often, we minimize our worth and value as human beings, not realizing how absolutely precious we are. All we see is a little paper cup, plain, easily squashed, and short-lived. If we look solely at our usefulness, we may find that we have a small something to offer others—a life-giving drink that may do a little good when a person is thirsty. But we are in no way able to supply the real need of a person who has just wandered in off the desert, not having had a drink for hours.

I suppose we could begin to look at ourselves from the point of view of what we contain, rather than who we are as a container. Often, we want to focus on the presence of God within. But in Psalm 139 we read how God created each of us very carefully and he knows everything about us. He knows when we awaken and what we will say before it even comes out our mouths. And he knew us before we were born, and knew what we would become and planned for us to share life with him now and forever.

Like the potter the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to learn from, our Lord has carefully fashioned each one of us, making us vessels who are able carry his very presence and power. (See Jeremiah 18:1–11.) And even though, like the potter’s flawed vessel, none of us have taken the shape God originally intended, Christ took our human flesh and reforged it into the shape needed to be true reflections of our Triune God, able to participate in a real way in all he is doing right now and in the world to come.

The thing is, many of us have a tendency to argue with God about his creative efforts. We tell God, “I have no interest whatsoever in being a paper cup. Why did you make me like this? Why was I even born?” (See Rom. 9:20.) I can understand how someone may feel this way when all of the experiences in their life up that time have told them they are somehow worthless or unlovable. But our everyday experience of life does not determine our value or worth—God has already declared our value and worth and lovability in Jesus Christ.

In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus was walking along, being followed by large crowds of people.  Significantly, he turned around to face them and began to talk with them about seriously considering the cost of following him. He knew many of them did not realize the price that would be asked of him—crucifixion, and his followers—persecution. They were looking at him as the one who would deliver them from Roman oppression and make their life abundant and blessed again, where he was seeking to free them from an even greater oppressor—sin, evil, and death. They did not even see how they were being held in bondage by their flesh and how desperately they needed to set free, free to be who God always meant for them to be—those who loved him with their whole beings and who loved one another as themselves.

Can you see the connection? How often we get swept away into false view of ourselves and of why we are even alive! We get pulled way from the simplicity of what God meant for us to be all along—paper cups that would hold his life-giving water providing refreshment for others. We were never meant to be the Savior or Redeemer—that is why Jesus came. Our participation in God’s life is precious and of great value to him. And he will not stop until we are all gathered around his table—his very own adopted children in Christ the Father’s Son. Paper cups—adopted children. Isn’t that enough for us?

Jesus didn’t pull any punches that day—he told the people the stark and painful truth. He told the people following him that no one in our lives, not even ourselves, should be of greater importance to us than him. If there is anyone else who is of greater importance to us than Christ, then are we truly his followers or disciples?

He also said that we each have our own cross to bear—some place in which we ourselves must be willing to lay down our lives as Jesus laid his down. What needs to be put to death in us that Christ may live? Too often we make the profession of faith in Jesus, but then we want him around just to make sure we are successful, wealthy, popular or blessed in some way. We certainly don’t want him to ask anything of us. We don’t want to have to give up things we may be attached to, such has unhealthy relationships or habits. Why should we have to give up a good paying job just because what we are doing is unethical or destructive?

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the difference between following our Lord Jesus Christ and simply professing our faith in him. We need to take seriously Jesus’ words about considering the cost. When we plan to build a new home, often we don’t realize the extent of the details involved and all of the decisions which have to be made in order to complete the project. Imagine multiplying that by the thousands of decisions and millions of dollars needed to complete the construction of a modern-day skyscraper? The leaders and generals of Ukraine and Russia, we’d like to hope, are taking into account the cost of their war against one another—are they prepared to finish what they have begun?

In the same way, we need to take seriously our commitment to Christ. Why? Because Christ is the one, as God in human flesh, who took our little paper cup humanity and transformed it. He’s the One who did all that was needed for us to live the life we need to live, die the death we deserve to die, and to bring us into his own relationship with the Father in the Spirit. When we follow Jesus, we lay down all our possessions—our own effort to find life in this world, our own expectations, our own will, our own solutions to life’s problems—and we receive gratefully everything from him. Jesus is our life. He is our hope. He is our past, present, and future—the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. We gratefully follow him wherever he goes, no matter the cost to ourselves, because by the Spirit, he has included us in his life and love, now and forever, as beloved children of the Father.

Lord, thank you for inviting every one of us to follow you. Grant us the grace to count the cost of discipleship, but even so, to choose to follow you wherever you lead. Thank you for including us in your love and life. By your Spirit, make us true reflections of you, for the Father’s glory. Amen.

“Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.’ ”     Luke 14:25–33 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/olitlife-in-a-paper-cup.pdf ]

[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, TN area, or participating in a Zoom group, drop me a line at ourlifeinthetrinity@gmail.com ]

God’s Unkept Promises

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By Linda Rex

August 14, 2022, PROPER 15—Even though I have experienced many healings from God in my life and have felt his comforting presence with me through this current battle with cancer, a part of me still asks at times, “But what about all those prayers and anointings for healing? Doesn’t God keep his promises?”

It is not unusual for us to come up against the reality that we do our best to trust God and he doesn’t seem to follow through on his promise that if we ask, we will receive. In fact, such seeming fickleness with regards to our sincere efforts to trust and depend upon God might even cause us to turn away from him, as we question God’s goodness, love, and faithfulness.

The book of Hebrews is a powerful testimony to what Jesus Christ, as God in human flesh, did in our place and on our behalf. And chapter 11 reveals a gallery of witnesses to the faithfulness and love of our gracious God, witnesses who experienced a full range of responses from God to their circumstances of life. “By faith,” it says, many of these people experienced God’s powerful intervention in their lives and circumstances as they participated in what God was doing in their world.

But then comes verse 39: “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised.” Apparently, some people never received from God what was promised. Having faith was not an issue for these people. And they had gained God’s approval by faith. But in spite of their faith and God’s approval, they did not receive what was promised. Instead, they experienced great suffering, loss, deprivation, and even death. How can this be? Why go through all those experiences if they would never receive the promises?

There is an underlying story beneath these stories which we need to keep in mind. All of our stories, as those made in the image of the God who is love, are swept up into his story, creating the history of our lives as a participation in all God is doing in this world. Because we share in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have an existence far beyond this current one. And we can participate in that new life both now and in the world to come.

We discover, if we look closely, that our temporary existence in this world is merely a prelude to our full real life in eternal union and communion with the Father, through Jesus in the Spirit. Even if we were restored back to our physical human existence through “resurrection”, we would still eventually die. So, we seek a more wonderful resurrection, one in which we share in the glorified resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ.

It was in expectation of this that Jesus, with joy, faced the challenges, suffering and shame of the crucifixion. The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus the author and perfector of our faith, which means that it’s not all up to us to come up with enough faith to be pleasing to God. Jesus had and has perfect trust in our heavenly Father. His Father did not leave him in the grave after the crucifixion, but kept his promise to raise him up, restoring him to his place in face-to-face relationship with the Father in the Spirit.

So, if faith in a trustworthy God is not the issue, then what? Well, apparently there are times when what God asks of us is perseverance and endurance. He wants us to keep our focus off ourselves and to keep it on Jesus Christ, the one who bore so much suffering and shame on our behalf, for the joy that would come when all those who believe in him would receive in fulness what was promised them—life in intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit.

In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 12:49–56, Jesus expressed his longing that he didn’t have to wait for the crucifixion to be done with. For our sakes. Because he knew what a blessing and benefit his death and resurrection would be for all humanity. He knew we needed to be able to trust in and rely upon a good, good Father, and that was the very reason he had come—to bring us home to the Father, restoring our right relationship with him.

In this passage, Jesus reminded his followers that following him exacts a cost. And that cost may include being rejected by those closest to us, by our friends and/or family. This cost may include going through situations and circumstances without the answers we prefer—did not Jesus tearfully ask his Father for some way to accomplish his will other than the cross? And his Father, who promised to deliver him (Psalm 22) did not do so on this side of the grave. No, he waited while Jesus suffered horribly at the hands of human beings and while he laid in the grave.

Sometimes the cost of new life is death. I was walking the other day at Fontanel, feeling the presence of God so near to me. And I was enjoying the flowers and the fragrant scents on the air. The trees, grass, and kudzu were so green, and the butterflies were flitting here and there as they gathered the nectar from the blooms. In the midst of all that green, though, were the brown, black, and grey heads of dead plants and flowers. This thought came to me then: “In the midst of death lie the seeds for new life.”

In Christ’s death, we have been given the seeds to our new life. What we do with those seeds is up to us. Just because some circumstance, relationship, or desire comes to the place of death does not mean that is the end. When we look at Jesus Christ, to what extent he was willing to go so that we might be with him and his Father in the Spirit forever, we can discover the seeds to our own new life in him.

What may seem for a moment to be God’s unkept promises may, in fact, be his offering to us something greater, more wonderful, more eternal. What if, instead of focusing on the suffering, the difficulty, or the loss, we focused on Jesus Christ? What if we allowed God to be who he is, our loving heavenly Father, who knows what is best for us and who wants to bring us into new life, deeper into warm fellowship with himself both now and forever?

Heavenly Father, thank you for your love and faithfulness. Grant us the grace to keep our eyes on Jesus and off of the difficulties and struggles of this life. Enable us to walk by faith, trusting in your perfect love and faithfulness, no matter how things may appear at the moment, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“By faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land; and the Egyptians, when they attempted it, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace. And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on 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.”      Hebrews 11:29–12:2 NASB

See also Luke 12:49–56 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/gods-unkept-promises.pdf ]

Why Look at the Sky?

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By Linda Rex

May 29, 2022, ASCENSION Sunday—The past few years I have been slowly working toward a divinity degree. Last week I started a new course with Grace Communion Seminary called Church Planting and Development. As I was writing a reflection paper last night, it occurred to me that the timing of this class fits right in with where we are on the Christian calendar.

Indeed, this Sunday we are celebrating Jesus Christ’s ascension, a significant event in God’s story. Here we focus on the spiritual reality of the fulfillment of an essential part of Jesus’ mission here on earth, him having been sent by the Father to bring all humanity home to eternal fellowship with the Triune God. It was necessary for Jesus to live, die and rise again as God in human flesh in order for all of us to be included in his own intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. It is in Jesus’ ascension that the mission of God to restore our relationship moves into the realm of the Spirit, who is sent so that each of us individually can participate by faith in what Christ has done.

Luke’s gospel version of the ascension event, Luke 24:44–53, gives the impression that it all happened on the same day as the resurrection. However, when he describes the event in Acts 1:1–11, we see that all these things happened over a period of forty days following the resurrection. The disciples and others were given many opportunities to experience firsthand the risen Lord, to talk and eat with him, and to hear him expound the Old Testament scriptures which spoke of his coming and his mission. At the end of this time, he blessed his followers and ascended to his Father’s side.

In Acts 1, Christ’s followers stood there for a while after being blessed, looking up into the sky. This makes me ask: I wonder how long they stood there before the angels spoke to them, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?” I can imagine Jesus, having already made the transition into glory, saw them standing there still trying to see him and he finally said to the angels nearby, “I think you’re going to have to tell them to quit looking for me and get busy.”

But this does speak to what we as the body of Christ have often done when it comes to the whole idea of the ascension. It’s as though we believe Jesus is done with his project, has gone home, and we just have to wait until he comes back. Faith in Christ and salvation become all about us being good people who live good lives until Jesus returns in glory. And we miss the point of it all—God bringing all of humanity back into relationship with himself through Christ in the Spirit.

What had Jesus told the disciples to do? He had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received the promised Holy Spirit. Then they were to go and make disciples, baptize them, teach them, and include them in Christ’s mission to the world. Jesus came as God in human flesh to draw all of humanity up into right relationship with God in the Spirit. He’s still on that mission. Having been sent by the Father, he has returned home and sent the Spirit to continue his efforts. We, as the body of Christ, are set apart to participate in that mission of reaching out to all the world, sharing the good news and making disciples or new followers of Christ. Our unity and our love in the body of Christ, the church, are meant to testify to the presence of the kingdom of God here on earth by the Spirit, a kingdom in which all people are welcome to participate.

Even at the end of John’s apocalypse, he points out the reality of the body of Christ, his bride, being on mission with Jesus. He writes, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who hears this say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life (Rev. 22:17 NASB).” Our role is to join with Jesus in the Spirit to say to the world around us, “Come.” Anyone who is thirsty is welcome to come. The water of life is available to everyone now in Christ, so every is able to drink if they so wish. And the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the church, is called by God in participation with Jesus by the Spirit to freely offer that water of life to all.

And, if this seems to be an intimidating prospect, consider the indicatives which went with Jesus’ command to preach the good news and to make disciples. First of all, as we read in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus has ascended to his Father’s side and has received all authority and power and glory in his exaltation as the risen Lamb of God (Ephesians 1:15–23). Secondly, he has promised to be with us until the end. And thirdly, he has sent the Spirit, the One who empowers us to do the ministry and mission Jesus has called us to. God is doing the heavy lifting—we just get to join in with what he is doing through Jesus in the Spirit.

As Luke explains, our mission to the world begins where we are, and moves in ever-widening spheres of influence as we respond in faith to the voice of the Spirit and move out, sharing the good news of God’s love expressed to all of us in Jesus Christ. What is your current sphere of influence? Are there people God has placed in your life that you have conversations with and do everyday activities with? These are opportunities for the gospel. And sharing the good news is what Jesus has called us to participate with him in doing.

When I think about how far God has brought me in this journey of faith, I see that we have traveled a longways together. But I also see that I have only begun to really understand what it means to live on mission with Jesus, and to be a genuine follower of Christ. It is so easy to be distracted with the concerns of everyday life. And so easy, too, to place my focus on how well I am doing in my own relationship with God, rather than on remembering that others need to hear the good news too, and need to experience the joy, unity, and love of the body of Christ for themselves. Oh, for the heart of Jesus for others!

May we remember today, and every day, to pray for the people in our lives, to ask Jesus for opportunities to share the good news, and for the courage and faith to do so. May we quit looking up at the sky and be busy doing what Jesus has called us to do—to move out on mission with him, sharing the good news of all God has done for us in sending his Son and his Spirit for our salvation.

Heavenly Father, thank you for all you have done in sending your Son and your Spirit for our salvation, for drawing us up into life with you now and forever. Grant us the grace to move outside of ourselves into genuine relationship with the people around us, and give us the inspiration, courage, and wisdom to share with them all you have given to us through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.

“The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.’ ”     Acts 1:1–11 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/why-look-at-the-sky.pdf ]

Clearing the Way for Fruit

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By Linda Rex

March 20, 2022, 3rd Sunday in LENT—Today our neighbor is having her fence replaced. One of the blessings that came with it was the removal of a small tree next to our shed which had been holding up her fence. It is amazing how the removal of this one misplaced tree enabled us to clean up some things next to the shed we hadn’t been able to reach, while at the same time facilitated the installation of something new which our neighbor was needing done.

As I was studying the readings for this Sunday, I was struck with how this little event in my day coincided with the Word of God for today. The gospel reading tells us about people coming to Jesus with a couple of stories of how several people lost their lives—some in a Roman bloodbath within the temple grounds, and some when a tower fell on them. The common thought of the day was that if something bad like this happened to you, it was because you were a horrific sinner and you were getting what you deserved.

Jesus told them that this wasn’t the case at all—that’s not how his Father works. Instead of worrying about the spiritual condition of the people who died in these events, Jesus’ listeners were admonished to consider their own spiritual condition. He pointed out that they needed to be sure they were right with God themselves rather than focusing on the sinfulness of others.

Isn’t this typical of us, though? I remember years ago when God woke me up to the reality that I needed to quit focusing on the faults of my spouse and others, and start looking at my own issues. You and I are unable to change another person or fix them. The only person we have any control over is ourself, and there is extreme doubt that we can even regulate ourself—we are utterly dependent upon God making us what we need to be by his Holy Spirit. For that reason, we need to do what Jesus was telling these people here to do—repent. We need to experience a change of mind and heart as well as action—a turning away from ourselves to Christ in faith.

After reminding his listeners of their need to repent, Jesus told a story about a vineyard owner who had a fig tree that, after three years, still hadn’t borne any fruit. The owner told the vineyard keeper to cut it away, removing it because it was occupying space needed for production. It was hindering the growth of everything else by blocking the sun, and was taking up resources that were needed for the other plants and trees to be fruitful. The vineyard keeper, like Christ did for all of us by the way, interceded on behalf of the fig tree. He said he would dig around the tree, fertilize it and give it another year to see if it would finally bear fruit.

The point is, there are things in our lives which may simply not be fruit-bearing. Sometimes the things we believe about God or ourselves are inaccurate, misplaced, or even toxic, and they need to be removed so that healthier patterns and beliefs may take their place, and we may begin to bear spiritual fruit. Sometimes the issues may be so small and seemingly insignificant, we miss them, and don’t realize they are symptomatic of some bigger issues—things we need to face up to and repent of so that God can bring us to a healthier, more wholesome way of living and being.

Sometimes the way we read the written Word of God is part of the problem. We may need to go a little deeper in our own personal study of God’s Word rather than just going by what other people say about it. Let me give a couple of examples, drawn from the readings for this Sunday.

First, we read in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 about how God in Christ walked with the nation of Israel through the wilderness, being the spiritual rock from which they drank and drew their life. When someone is, like I am now, going through a time of intense trial and difficulty, people have a tendency to say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” They believe they are quoting 1 Corinthians 10:13, when it actually says: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (NASB). If you look at the context of this verse, you will find that the apostle Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about difficult times or trials. Jesus is the way of escape from temptations to sin, and he taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13).

A kinder, better statement for someone going through tough times, I believe, is that Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He may not keep us from the flames of fire, but like he did with Daniel’s three friends, he will stay with us in the midst of those flames and carry us through to the other side (Dan. 3). We can be truthful with the text at the same time we are compassionate with the person who is hurting, thereby avoiding toxicity and unhealthy spirituality.

Another passage in the readings for today which leapt out at me is Isaiah 55:6–9. When we are faced with difficult or confusing situations or hard times, I often hear people quote verse 9, pointing out that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

I’m all for God being way beyond anything I could be as a human. But the context of this particular passage is about grace. It’s a call to repentance, to turn back to God. It’s about God not looking at sinful people the way that we look at them, or the way we look at ourselves and God when we fail to live the way we know we ought to. God is offering his grace, his mercy, if only we would just turn away from ourself and turn back to him.

Just like the people Jesus was talking to in the gospel passage for this Sunday, we often get focused away from where God would like our focus to be—turning away from ourself and turning to Christ in faith. I’ve been thinking about why we go to church—is it so that we can get a free meal, or help with our bills, or so that we can feel better about ourselves? Or is it part of a personal relationship with the God who has called us to himself in Christ by the Spirit and is wanting us to be a part of what he is doing in the world? Yes, we need to experience God’s love through the good deeds done for us, but shouldn’t we be going beyond that to sharing God’s love with others, once we have experienced the profound goodness and mercy of God?

God is so incredibly patient and generous with us. He continues to bury us with Christ that we might once again rise with him to new life. Christ was willing to be the fertilizer in the ground, placed in the earth so that we might be given the ability to produce lasting spiritual fruit. He offers himself to us, inviting us to turn from ourselves and to turn to him in faith, allowing him produce spiritual fruit in us by the Holy Spirit, as we open up to One who is the Light of the world. May we respond to him in faith, trusting he will finish what he has begun in us.

Thank you, Father, for not cutting us out, but allowing your Son and your Spirit to intercede for us, drawing us deeper into life with you. Grant us the grace to ever turn to you in faith, trusting in your faithful love and mercy, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ And He began telling this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” And he answered and said to him, “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.” ’ ”      Luke 13:1–9 NASB

[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/clearing-the-way-for-fruit.pdf%5D

Faith, Hope and Love Abide

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By Linda Rex

January 30, 2022, 4th Sunday | Epiphany—At times I am amazed at how fickle we can be when it comes to our interests and affections. I remember when we loved using our VCR. Then one day, we discovered DVD’s. Now I have a shelf full of VCR tapes destined for the thrift store, in hopes someone somewhere will still find them useful.

Unfortunately, our transient passions and affections also affect our relationships. We don’t always realize that we base our interactions with one another on this flimsy foundation of human attachments rather than in the faith, hope, and love expressed towards all of us in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. What is the basis of our relationships with family members, work associates, or community members? Are they grounded in Christ, in his self-offering of love?

This story of Jesus attending the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth is instructive. Look at how Jesus, as was his custom, enters the synagogue and is invited to speak. At first, he is welcomed with open arms, people having heard of his miracles and the popularity of his preaching. They seem to be amazed at his words of grace, saying, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Perhaps it wasn’t even astonishment. They may simply have been appalled that he would imply that he might be more than just the boy down the street.

That’s where the tide begins to turn. Joseph’s son—the child everyone knew growing up, not as a person in his own right, but as the son of Joseph, the craftsman. This young man was daring to step out of the box his hometown had enclosed him in, and was challenging them to rethink who the messiah would be and what would happen when he came. How dare this homegrown hero declare that he was the Anointed One!

Jesus was quite aware of the transition in their affections and was not fazed by it. In fact, it was almost as if he were baiting the crowd when he pointed out the historical reality of Israel’s response to the prophets of old. Anyone can read about Israel’s refusal to believe the prophets when they came. Jesus reminded them of how, during a famine, God sent Elijah to the home of a Gentile widow, and that the only leper healed by Elisha was Naaman, the Syrian. This infuriated the people listening to Jesus. In their rage, they grabbed Christ and tried to shove him off a cliff to kill him.

How interesting. The people of God, the congregation of God’s people, gathered before the living Word of the Lord reading the written word of God, and when he spoke, they were so infuriated, they sought to kill him! This gathering of God’s people should have been the place where faith, hope, and love abode, where the presence of the Lord rested by the Spirit. And instead, the spirit of hate and murder arose in their hearts and they sought to kill Jesus.

But it was not his time—so he walked right through them and went on his way. When it was his time to be killed, in the garden of Gethsemane he willingly offered himself to the temple guards to be taken to the cross to be executed. The reality is that our refusal of Christ’s finished work and our efforts to keep Jesus in our box restricted to our expectations does not alter his perfect gift as the Anointed One on behalf of all people, in his perfect timing according to his Father’s perfect plan.

In living our life, dying our death and rising again, Jesus calls us into a new relationship which we can attempt to ignore or we can joyfully embrace. Jesus, by including us in his intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit, has brought us up into the reality of the abiding presence of faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these, of course, is love, because that is the very nature of the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit—the God who lives eternally in perichoretic love.

The finished work of Christ invites us to live in a new way—the way of love, expressed in a community of faith which offers the hope of salvation, available to us in Jesus Christ. The Spirit calls us together as the body of Christ, not just so we can hear educated people talk about the Bible. The Spirit calls us together to join in what God is doing in this world through Jesus in the Spirit. The essential ingredient to participation in God’s life and love is relationship, growing in healthy relationships with God and one another—abiding in the faith, hope, and love which is ours in Christ by the Spirit.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Growing up, I was taught to keep to myself, to not interact with people who did not think or act like me. I was expected to keep my distance from anyone who did not profess Christ in the same way I did. I was not much different than the people in the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown. I had Jesus pigeonholed into a particular belief system and way of living, and would not allow him to be who he really was, because that did not fit my expectations and preferences.

God has taken me down a long road of repentance—of turning away from what was false and misguided into what is true, healthy and whole. I still have a long way to go. I realize this because I still struggle with staying in that place where faith, hope, and love abide. I don’t always ground my everyday relationships in Christ and in his perfect self-offering. I spend way too much time avoiding intentional participation in Christ’s mission here on earth rather than immersing myself in everything he is doing. It is a challenge to participate rather than to hide or self-protect—but that is what we are called to do as God’s adopted children.

We don’t get to choose our spiritual siblings. We are all included in God’s embrace, whether we realize it or not, and in spite of our refusal to accept or embrace it. Our experience of life in the abiding presence of God through Christ in the Spirit may be like the warm fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit, or it may be like that angry, violent mob furiously hanging onto their self-dependency and stubborn willfulness. Christ has planted our existence within himself in the center of the inner relationship of the Trinity, where faith, hope and love abide. Will we live there, or continue to seek our own existence, according to our own rules and preferences? Apart from the abiding presence of faith and hope centered in God’s love, we just sound like a noisy cymbal, adding little value apart from that which has been provided by God himself, in Christ by the Spirit.

Jesus Christ is our “rock of habitation to which [we] may continually come.” He is our salvation. This is what is true. What will we do with this blessed gift? Will we abide in Christ, the place where faith, hope, and love abide within the Triune God? Will we walk in love, in the Spirit, intentionally building relationships with those around us as full participants in God’s mission in this world to let everyone know of God’s perfect love and life? Or will we go our own way?

Dear God, thank you for inviting us to participate in your life as Father, Son, and Spirit. Thank you for inviting us up into the place where faith, hope, and love abide. Grant us the grace to abide there with you and one another through Jesus in your Spirit. Amen.

“And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, He went His way.”     Luke 4:(21–29) 28–30 NASB

“Be to me a rock of habitation to which I may continually come; You have given commandment to save me, for You are my rock and my fortress.”     Psalm 71:3 (1–6) NASB

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. … But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.”     1 Corinthians 13:1–13 NASB

Preparing for a Royal Visit

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By Linda Rex

December 5, 2021, ADVENT | Peace—As a college student, we took a class trip our senior year to Palm Springs, California. This city is located in the Sonoran Desert, so it hot in the summer and very dry. Since growing anything of significance in southern California requires the use of water, which was often in limited supply, it was common to see rock gardens blended with cacti, succulents and palm trees in the front yards of homes and businesses.

There are a variety of stones used to create rock gardens. Today, one can purchase large bags of pea gravel or attractive polished rocks at a do-it-yourself home supply store or even have a truckload of these products delivered to one’s front door. Here in Tennessee, we have contractors blasting rock, digging it out and removing it in order to build a home and create an attractive front yard. There they were filling their yards with rocks!

But this whole discussion about rocks came about because I was thinking about what Luke said John the Baptizer was doing when he came into Judea before the coming of Christ. He said that he was preparing the way before the Messiah. Back in those days, when a ruler was planning to visit a particular place, an announcement was sent ahead, telling the people to prepare the road. They would go out and clear all the rocks off the road so that the visiting dignitary wouldn’t be jostled about, nor end up with a broken axle or wheel on his conveyance.

Having lived some time on a farm in southeast Iowa, I know what it is like to try to travel on a gravel road or, even worse, a dirt road. And this is while driving a car. All it takes is one large rock in the wrong place and you are in serious trouble. Or if the road isn’t level—many times they had a large mound in the middle or a deep, muddy hole a tire could get stuck in—you would end up stuck or broken down, and not being able to get safely where you needed to go.

Since most of us today here in America travel on asphalt, and apart from the occasional pothole, do not face these types of issues, we may find it difficult to understand fully the importance of John’s message. For many of us, the hard work of removing the rocks and leveling the road has already been done. We take for granted that we can safely travel from one city to another at a high rate of speed on interstate highways which extend for miles in every direction. We also assume that we can, apart from road construction or accidents, easily travel back and forth from work, school, or the store.

What we need to realize is that what Jesus did for us was to create this amazing paved road to life in the kingdom of God in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—and then he gave us the ability to travel it by sending his Spirit from the Father to dwell in human hearts as we place our trust in him and his finished work. We celebrate an important step in this amazing work of redemption during Advent as we prepare, in a sense, for the coming of the Messiah in the incarnation. John’s message is important because it reminds us that, apart from the coming of Christ, our road is unlevel and full of rocks and obstructions.

John’s call to prepare the way involves the call to repentance and baptism for the remission of sins. By necessity, we need to discern the difference between just feeling bad because we messed up or sorry because we got caught and are experiencing consequences, and truly being repentant. Biblical repentance involves a change in both one’s mind and heart. It involves a turning away from one’s self and one’s own will, and a turning toward Christ and his will. To repent in this way means a total change in one’s direction and way of living. It’s the beginning of a lifelong journey on the kingdom path of God’s righteousness being worked out in us by the Spirit, as we grow up into Christlikeness.

But this awareness of need and turning away from sin, Satan, and self is a lifelong process. We never want to take this level road Christ has given us for granted. It is good to ponder the message of John and ask ourselves again: What rocks of sin, Satan, and self are lying about in my soul today? What do I keep tripping over or crashing into, forcing my life to come to a complete stop? How deep a rut am I caught in right now that is tearing up my heart and destroying my relationships and my health? Perhaps it would be good to reflect a moment on the message of John—prepare the way of the Lord.

We, as the body of Christ, have often taken this message—prepare the way of the Lord—to mean that we need to preach the gospel in order to hasten the second coming of Christ. It is a good thought, and I would not want to resist what positive affect it may have on our spiritual renewal and preparation for Christ’s return. But I humbly submit that perhaps there is another preparation for the way of the Lord we need to consider—the preparing of our hearts and minds anew to receive the gift of the Christ child—of Christ in us, the hope of glory.

Are we open to the coming and presence of God by the Holy Spirit within our souls right now, in each and every moment? Is there someway in which perhaps we need to take seriously the call to repentance that we have previously ignored? What have we put in the place that only Jesus Christ should have in our minds and hearts? Are we living in the realization that all of our life is in Christ, and that every moment is meant to be filled with his presence and power by the Spirit?

It is hard to move forward in life when we are constantly dealing with the rocks of sin, self, and Satan. Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders of his day was not about their devotion to God and his ways, but for their arrogance in believing they did not need to repent of their sins and be baptized in his baptism in the Spirit. Could it be that our struggle even as followers of Christ today is that we are so sure we are traveling the right path and are rightly related to God that we are missing the simple reminder, prepare the way of the Lord?

Jesus has come, he has offered us the free pardon of grace. He has paved the way. But do we recognize the reality that we are traveling on an unlevel road filled with rocks and holes and ruts? Repent—turn around—go the other way, he calls to us. Trade in your path for my easy path. Make a way—clear a path—these are all the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives. But God calls us to participate by doing our part—repent and believe. Be washed in baptism, if you haven’t taken that step. Then feed on Christ—on his life, poured into you through his Word and by his Spirit, and in joining together with other believers as we share communion. This is the easy path forged for us in Christ. We receive it daily by faith, in gratitude for all God has done, as we travel daily down this road called life.

Dear heavenly Father, thank you for creating in Christ and by the Spirit a path to travel in life that is free from the rocks and obstructions of Satan, sin, and self. As we travel day by day, grant us the grace and humility to remain repentant and to ever make way for your royal coming and presence through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every ravine will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be brought low; the crooked will become straight and the rough roads smooth; and all flesh will see the salvation of God.” ’ ”      Luke 3:3–6 (1–6) NASB

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on ‘before the Lord to prepare his ways’; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, ‘to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death’, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”     Luke 1:76–79 (68–79) NASB

Finding Our Security in Christ

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By Linda Rex

November 7, 2021, PROPER 27—One of the hazards to being a pastor is having to sit before God’s Word, letting it penetrate to the core of one’s being, while maintaining one’s ability to speak that Word to others. The Lord showed me years ago that when I read the Word, I must let him speak to me first by the Spirit through it, and then speak to the congregation. This means that the Word applies first to myself and then to those I am responsible for ministering to. I am often convicted by God’s message, cut to the heart and broken, but find I still have to preach that message in such a way that others may also experience God’s penetrating ministry. Thankfully, this is the work of Jesus Christ by the Spirit in me.

In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Mark 12:38–44, Mark brought up two significant and powerful lessons which were intertwined into a central theme—false religiosity contrasted with humble, sacrificial giving. First, Jesus spoke to the crowd, warning them about the scribes, whose ostentatious displays of religious observance hid hearts full of greed, pride, and self-aggrandizement. Secondarily, Jesus showed the profound difference between giving out of one’s abundance and giving out of one’s poverty.

On the one hand, the scribes, who were often the ones entrusted with the financial wellbeing of the widows and handled their legal affairs, many times worked it out so they were, through the temple, the beneficiaries of the widows’ livelihood. Those they were to protect and defend ended up being taken advantage of and made dependent upon others due to the scribes’ clever manipulation of their affairs. Even though the scribes feasted upon the adulation of the people, enjoying the notoriety of special greetings in the marketplace and the seats of prominence in the synagogue and banquets, and gave lengthy showy prayers, these scribes were facing acute condemnation due to the true state of their hearts. They looked great on the outside, but their inner beings desperately needed cleansed and restored.

Then, as Jesus sat and watched the people enter the women’s court in the temple and place money in the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles, he pointed out the profound difference between the size of the gifts given. On the one hand, the wealthy entered the temple and poured extremely large amounts of money into the boxes. What they gave was impressive and, no doubt, brought them admiration and praise for their generosity. But Jesus was not that impressed.

What caught Jesus’ eye was the widow who came into the area and went to place her gift in the receptacle. She, possibly a victim of the scribes’ graft and greed, poured the last two coins in her purse out into her hand. These two lepta, the smallest of the Roman coins, were all that she had left. But she placed them in the box. Jesus was deeply moved by this woman’s willingness to lay all she had at God’s feet, trusting he would care for her and provide for her. She did not think about how the money might be mismanaged or misused. She simply gave, from the heart, all that she had to God.

On both of these levels, we see that the central issue is a matter of the heart. Who has the heart Jesus is looking for? Obviously, the widow. She is the one who best resembles her Lord, the One who would soon lay himself down on the altar of sacrifice, offering all of himself in our place and on our behalf. Jesus shunned the notoriety, ostentation, and prominence that the scribes thrived upon. He preferred to be humble and self-effacing, displaying a servant’s heart throughout his life and ministry, willing to give it all up for our sakes.

We often struggle with the idea of the kind of generosity the widow displayed. It is instructive that her generosity provided a teaching moment for Jesus to use with his disciples. Some of us would say that she was very unwise, and should not have given her last bit of funds to the temple. Some of us would say that she would have been better off using those few coins to provide for herself in some way. But she seemed to understand something many of us struggle to understand and it is simply this—God knew exactly what that widow’s situation was, knew exactly what she needed, and was already working in that moment to provide for her and take care of her needs. Her security was not in her money, but in the God who was trustworthy, dependable, and faithful.

In 1 Kings 17:8–16, we read of when Elijah was told by God to go to Zarephath and find a certain widow. This widow was in dire straits, having only a little flour and oil left, enough for one last meal for her and her son. There was a famine in the land, so it was a real struggle for her to find anything for them to eat. Directed by God, Elijah asked the woman to give him a piece of bread before she fed herself and her son.

What was the widow to do? Logically, it would have been insane to give the last of what she had to the man of God simply because he asked for it. Why should she risk death by starvation any sooner than necessary?

But, as we see in this story, the woman did not put her faith in the oil and flour. She did not put her faith in her ability to stretch what little she had out as far as possible. She simply trusted that what Elijah said was true—that once she served him first, she would have a continuous supply of oil and flour from then on. She trusted in the Lord’s provision, even though what she had been asked to do didn’t make any sense at all.

God has a special place in his heart for widows and orphans. He knows how hard it is to hold everything together when it’s just you. He also understands the intensity of the temptation others face and fail to resist of taking advantage of the weakness, poverty, and defenselessness of these vulnerable ones, and he offers them his grace. And he sees the heartfelt self-sacrifice and service of those left at the mercy of others that so often exemplifies the heart of God expressed in his own self-offering in Christ.

Mark’s gospel message resonates within me on all levels, calling me to reexamine my heart and my motivations for what I do. Why do I get up each day and do the work of a pastor? Are my motives self-seeking or are they self-sacrificing? Do I depend upon myself or others for my security and worth, or do I simply trust in the love and grace of my heavenly Father, and in my kinsman-redeemer Jesus Christ to meet my every need? These are matters of the heart—and Jesus came to write God’s law and ways on our hearts, enabling us to be and do what does not come naturally to us. He is the One who with a pure heart, offered himself in such a way that each of us by faith can have his heart living within us by the Holy Spirit.

Today is a good day to pause and look at our loving Savior, asking him to renew by the Spirit his heart of humble service and self-sacrifice within us. We can practice his presence and trusting in his provision by praying a simple breath prayer. Breathe in: “Trustworthy Father;” breathe out: “I trust you.” Or, breathe in: “Jesus, pure of heart;” breathe out: “I rest in you.” May you find comfort and peace in the presence of the one who knows our hearts and loves us still.

Heavenly Father, thank you for caring so tenderly for us, and for reminding us of what really matters to you. Grant us the humble, serving, self-sacrificing heart of your Son. By your Spirit, may we worship and serve you whole-heartedly, for your glory and praise, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you?’”     Ruth 3:1 (2–5, 4:13–17) NASB

“And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.”    Hebrews 9:(24–26) 27–28 NASB

“In His teaching He was saying: ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.’ And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.’”     Mark 12:38–44 NASB

Living the Kingdom Life

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By Linda Rex

October 31, 2021, PROPER 26—Often when I hear someone speak of the kingdom life and living it, what they mean is living a life full of physical blessings and positive experiences. What I hear people say is that if you live in a certain way, then you will experience abundance, prosperity, and a life of ease and plenty.

It is instructive that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom life, he spoke of living in such a way that one loved God with one’s whole being and one loved one’s neighbor as oneself. He put it in terms of a way of existence which resembles that of the Father, Son, and Spirit in union and communion with one another. This, indeed, is the image of God we are meant to reflect—to bear witness to God’s nature of love by how we live in relationship with God and one another.

One of the stories for this Sunday is found in the book of Ruth. Many Christians like to recite the words from this book during their wedding ceremonies as a promise of devotion and faithfulness to their spouse. But the words were spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi as a pledge of faithfulness even though Naomi had encouraged her to go back to her family after her husband, Naomi’s son, had died. The beauty of this passage is unsurpassed for its expression of commitment:

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me’” (Ruth 1:16-17 NASB).

Ruth was willing to leave her homeland, her family, what was comfortable and familiar, to go with Naomi and help care for her as she returned to her native land.

What is often overlooked are the messianic implications held in the midst of this passage. Isn’t what Ruth did for the sake of Naomi just like what the Son of God did for you and me? He left behind the privileges and benefits of his divinity to take on our human flesh, joining himself to us, making us his people, living where we live, dying as we die, and being buried in a tomb as we are often buried. Jesus refused to be separated from us, even when tempted to do so by Satan, and even to the point of death on the cross and burial in a tomb. How profound and wonderful his commitment to you and me, and to every human being!

When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment in the law, he focused on the central thought of the covenant commitment given to Israel—love. To love God with one’s whole being and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self—this is an accurate expression of the being of the God who is a unity, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. This love is what was expressed by God in the coming of Jesus here on earth in human flesh—the faithful commitment of laying down his life for the sake of all, no matter the cost to himself. This is the kingdom life—God’s life—lived out in our sphere of existence.

Our struggle with understanding the nature of the kingdom life is that we often make it about what we do or don’t do, or about what we have or don’t have. But Jesus makes it about being rightly related to God and one another. He takes the law, which was an expression of what it looks like to live rightly related to God and one another, and in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the sending of the Spirit, writes that law on our minds and hearts. He lives out the true expression of God’s love in our humanity and then gifts it to us in the Spirit, enabling us to be, in him, what God created us to be—image-bearers of the divine, living the kingdom life, in right relationship with God and man.

Instead of being focused on which law is the most important or least important, we are now able to focus on loving God and one another because the desire to love and be loved as God intended is now, by faith in Christ, imprinted on our human minds and hearts. The Spirit compels us to respond to God in the same way that Christ responds: “God, I will not leave or forsake you; where you go, I will go; your people will be my people; you will be my God. When I die, I die in you; I belong to you, now and forever.” It is not our efforts which save us, but Christ in us, transforming our hearts by faith, bringing us into the fulness of Christlikeness, as we follow the Spirit’s lead.

The kingdom life involves a leaving behind of our former life and embracing our new life in Christ. It involves cleaving to Jesus while rejecting anything that is not in agreement with God’s will and ways. This is the tough part in following Jesus—he asks things of us that we would prefer not to do, to give up things we would prefer to hold on to. He asks us to find our life in him and him alone, rather than in the things of this world and its ways.

In the story of Ruth, we see how she lost everything of significance in her life—her husband, then her homeland, her family and her people. But then she gained so much more. She gained a new husband—her kinsman-redeemer—and a new home, and even the child she had always longed for. And what she never knew was that she had also gained a place in the lineage of King David, and of the Messiah to come.

Jesus said that whatever we give up for his sake, he would return a hundred-fold (Mark 10:29-30), but we may not receive the full benefit of our return in this life. Yes, we experience a lot of positive blessings for doing things God’s way rather than our own. But we are also promised a share in the sufferings of Christ. Both are a necessary part of our human experience. God’s purpose is to grow us up into Christlikeness—to enable us to reflect more clearly the love of God and the nature of the God who made us in his image to share life with him now and forever. He does this so that we might experience more profoundly the life and love of the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit and who is love.

Now would be a good time to take a moment and reflect: Have you received the gift of eternal life which is yours in Christ—life in loving relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit, which is reflected in loving relationships with oneself and others? Receive it by faith. Trust in Christ, in what he has done and is doing in you by the Spirit. What have you given up for the sake of following Christ? If you haven’t given up anything at all, then are you are truly following him down the road into death and resurrection—finding your life solely in him and not in the things of this world? Take a moment and listen anew in silence to hear the Spirit speak God’s words of love to your heart and mind, reminding you of all Jesus has done and is doing and will do as your faithful Lord and Savior. Receive with gratitude this wonderful and perfect gift of right relationship with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for the wonderful and perfect gift of your Son in our place, on our behalf, and for the precious gift of eternal life in the Spirit. Fill us to overflowing with your love, that we may love you and others as we were created to, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’ ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.”     Mark 12:28–34 NIV