faith

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

The Affliction of Blindness

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By Linda Rex

October 24, 2021, PROPER 25—One of the things I’ve noticed lately is that there is an upswing in the pandemic of blindness at work in this community, our nation, and the world. This affliction of blindness is one that is so pervasive that it affects every level of society, afflicting the poor, the wealthy, those who are surrounded by family and friends, and those who are left all alone. It crosses every racial or ethnic boundary, and afflicts people of every age and gender.

This pandemic of blindness is nothing new. It has plagued humanity ever since we began to walk here on earth. Our experience of our human existence revolves around this affliction, and we so often struggle to find some relief while ignoring the only solution offered to us. In many ways, humans over the millennia have constructed their own means of resolving this pandemic but often ended up creating patterns of thinking and behaving which enslave, oppress, or corrupt instead of healing or restoring those who are suffering.

In the gospel story for this Sunday, we find that a simple blind beggar by the side of the road humbly reaches out for and finds the answer to this affliction. As Jesus walked his final steps towards Jerusalem where he would be crucified, the beggar cries out to him for mercy. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he cries, using a Messianic title as he asked for help. Here in this simple statement lies the solution to our affliction. What do I mean?

Previously, James and John had come to Jesus and had asked to sit on his left and right hand in glory. The evidence was that they were still blind to the spiritual realities. When Jesus spoke of his upcoming sacrificial offering, they were still thinking in terms of a physical restoration of their nation and people. They still did not see their blindness—a spiritual blindness, an inability to see Jesus for who he was, God in human flesh, the Savior of the world, who would lay down his life in sacrifice for the sins of the world to free them from evil, sin, and death. The blindness which afflicted them kept them from seeing their need for redemption, salvation, and deliverance on a deep, spiritual level. They did not need a position of authority. What they needed was mercy.

This is what Jesus sees in this blind beggar, Bartimaeus. He sees this man believes he was his only hope for rescue—the only way he would ever be able to see again. Bartimaeus knew and understands his need and cries out desperately, refusing to be silenced by those who think he is a hinderance to the Messiah. He believes only Jesus can heal his blindness—which says a lot about who he thinks Jesus was. Jews believed only the Messiah was capable of taking away blindness.

When Jesus hears the man, he stops in his tracks and calls him to himself. He stops in the middle of what the disciples probably considered a royal procession, and simply waits there so the blind man could follow his voice and find him. When Bartimaeus hears Jesus’ voice, he does what you and I and every person who hears the call of Jesus needs to do—he drops everything of value, leaps up, and runs to him. He leaves behind his cloak, which kept him warm and was used to collect his coins. His focus is solely on getting to Jesus and being with him.

His request is not for power, prominence, position or wealth, like that of James and John. Rather, it is a simple request—he merely wants to be able to see. And he believes Jesus can do this for him. So Jesus does. And we find that the man’s response to this miracle of sight is an even greater miracle—spiritual sight. He leaves all behind and begins to follow Jesus. The healing of his affliction of blindness results in a life transformation, a renewal in which he begins to walk a new path with Jesus toward death and resurrection.

Our affliction, which keeps this world we live in enslaved to unhealthy ways of living and being, is spiritual blindness. We value things that are transient and ultimately unfulfilling. We trade in the true values of honesty, integrity, humility, service and generosity for temporary experiences of luxury, pleasure and self-indulgence. There are a lot of wonderful things in this world God gave us to enjoy, but he never meant them to be the sole focus of our existence. There are many things we do have that we aren’t enjoying because we are too busy chasing the next experience or the next level of success—and then one day we discover we have lost the things that really matter in life. We find ourselves alone, empty, and disillusioned about life.

The problem we have with spiritual blindness begins simply with our inability to or unwillingness to admit that we are blind. Jesus reminds us that it is when we say we see that often we are the most blind. We can be so certain we are okay just the way we are that we don’t realize how much we are like Bartimaeus—in desperate need of a Messiah to save us.

If you were to take a day or even just an hour in silence and solitude to look deep within yourself—what would you find yourself facing? Would you feel overwhelmed by the inner darkness or distress? Would you feel as though your world would fall completely apart if you weren’t there to hold it together? How well are you seeing yourself and the Savior who walked the road to Jerusalem on your behalf?

Jesus, right now by the Spirit, is present with you where you are. All you need to do is simply have the courage and humility to own up to and express the cry of your heart, “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” See, before you can even say the words, Jesus is already calling you to himself. He is already offering you his healing and redemption. Will you drop everything and run to him? Will you leave all and follow him?

Lord Jesus, I sense you now coming near in this moment. I cry out to you, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Lord, please do what only you can do. Save me! I pledge my life to you, to follow wherever you lead, now and forever. Amen.

“Then they came to Jericho. And as He was leaving Jericho with His disciples and a large crowd, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the road. When he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many were sternly telling him to be quiet, but he kept crying out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him here.’ So they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take courage, stand up! He is calling for you.’ Throwing aside his cloak, he jumped up and came to Jesus. And answering him, Jesus said, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ And the blind man said to Him, ‘Rabboni, I want to regain my sight!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him on the road.”     Mark 10:46–52 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

Bold Faith

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By Linda Rex

September 5, 2021, PROPER 18—Wouldn’t it be nice if we could simply ask God to heal someone and he would? What if we could just ask God to fix a situation—get rid of that political leader, close that company, get those people working—and it would just happen? We kind of like the idea of a vending machine God.

Or, when we think of having the faith to receive God’s “yes” to our requests, we often put the burden solely upon ourselves. We catch ourselves starting to move to the place of asking God for something, only to back away and say, “If only I had the faith to….” I wonder if often the issue isn’t with our faith or lack thereof, but rather with our inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of who God is. We don’t know what our Father’s heart and mind toward us really is and we don’t trust him to have our best interests at heart in every situation.

I suppose that if we knew God well and were walking day by day in intimate relationship with him, we might come a little closer to knowing how he perceives a certain situation and what it is he would do in that situation. Over time, by experiencing his answers to our prayers and his faithfulness to us in difficult circumstances, we might be able to ask with greater assurance for his intervention and receive what we request. But God doesn’t always say “yes.” The reality is sometimes he says “later,” or “no.” And we need to be okay with this.

In the gospel passage for this Sunday (Mark 7:24–37) we read that Jesus was trying to find a place where he could teach and minister to his disciples. He went to the region of Tyre, and entered a house, seeking privacy and quiet—time away from the crowds and their demands on his time and energy. In spite of Jesus’ efforts to remain anonymous and isolated, a Syrophoenician woman came to him in great humility and asked him to heal her daughter of an unclean spirit.

Jesus’ reply seems at first glance to be rather rude and disrespectful. He told her it was not fitting to take food away from the children and to feed it to the dogs. She as a Gentile may have experienced often the use of the term “dogs” by the Jews in reference to herself. But in reality, Jesus used a diminutive term when talking about the dogs, which showed he was referring to puppies or the family pets. He was not insulting her, but rather was explaining that his first responsibility in that moment was to his disciples, those he was training and teaching at that particular time.

The woman was not put off by Jesus’ initial refusal to help. It was quite common for her people and his, like ours today, to have family pets around the dinner table. Her reply to him was witty, saucy, and genuine—she quickly pointed out that the pet dogs could eat at the same time as the children, since they picked up the crumbs which fell off the table or ate those tidbits handed to them by the children. There was a picture of pleasant domestic tranquility in her words, a thing she may have been missing due to her daughter’s current illness. She boldly made her request, no matter the cost to herself or the inherent risk of refusal. She trusted in his ability, and willingness, to do what was needed to heal her daughter—which in the end, he did.

There are many stories in the Old Testament of people who had the boldness to ask a big thing of God, believing they would have his “yes” in response to their request. Jacob, who wrestled all night with God, would not let go until God gave him his blessing—and received it. Elijah asked God to make a visible sign of his power and glory in front of the worshipers of Baal—and he did. Elisha asked for a double portion of the Spirit which was on Elijah—and it was his when Elijah was taken. A woman who lost her son came in great grief to Elisha—and her son lived again. Nothing was too large for these people to ask for—and God happily said “yes” to each of their requests.

What if they had never asked? What if they had believed that God was not interested in what was important to them?

The thought came to me—what if Peter and John had met that man at the temple who had been lame from birth and had said to him, “We don’t have any silver or gold” and then simply walked away? Thankfully, for his sake, they did not just walk away. They offered what they did have, and that was healing in the name of Jesus Christ.

Peter and John had experienced God and his love for them in a profound and deep way. They had walked and talked with the Son of God who had taken on human flesh and lived alongside them for three years. They had sat around the campfire with Jesus and had heard his teaching and preaching. They had watched him be betrayed, be crucified and die, and then had walked and talked with him after the resurrection. The consequence of that ongoing relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ was a confident assurance and trust that enabled them to boldly ask for whatever was needed in the moment, even when it was a huge request like making a lame man walk.

If Peter had come across this lame man that night when the rooster crowed three times marking his denial of Christ, would he have responded in the same way? What would have been God’s answer to his request at that time? Peter’s faith experienced a time of testing through which he learned the heart of Jesus and his Father. He came to know Jesus in a way he had never known him before. He discovered God was not only trustworthy, but he was also gracious and compassionate—a faithful God who knew him intimately, and loved him completely and fully anyway. Filled with the Spirit following Pentecost, Peter, and his co-laborer John, had a sense of certainty about what the risen Lord would do in the situation with the man who was lame, and so they told him to walk in Jesus’ name—and he did.

Have you ever had that kind of conversation with God in which you were frankly honest with him, where you boldly asked for what was needed for yourself and others? In the midst of an ongoing conversation with God, a growing relationship with Jesus through the tests and trials of life, there is certainly room for truth-telling—for being genuine in your expression of your anger, your fear, your frustration or your need. Whatever it is, understand that God meets us where we are, not just where we ought to be or wish we could be or believe we should be.

How well do we know God? I find that way too often I make God much, much smaller than he really is. Too often I make him in my image instead of remembering I am made to reflect him. I may understand intellectually that he is greater than my problems or concerns, but my actions demonstrate that I don’t truly believe he is. I may believe that he has the capacity to fix whatever my situation is, but I simply don’t act on that capacity by boldly requesting his intervention in my situation and trusting him to do what is best. When the apostle James said that faith without works is dead, he was pointing out that too often what we say we believe about God isn’t demonstrated by the way we behave in our relationship with him and others (James 2:1–10, 14–17).

It is critical that our fragile human faith be replaced with Jesus’ implicit faith in the Father. The Spirit is working this transformation in our hearts and lives as we turn to Christ and walk in him. We spend time growing our relationship with God through the study of his word, prayer, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We make room for God to work on our hearts and minds, allowing him to draw us through difficult times and painful situations into closer relationship with him. Our trust in God and in his faithfulness grows as we follow Christ and walk in the Spirit through all of life.

And remarkably, we find that even when we do ask, we are not alarmed when God does not give us an immediate “yes”. Our relationship with God becomes more important than having our way in a given situation. We are willing to trust in God, rest in Christ, allowing the Lord to do what only he can do in the situation, believing he will do what is in our best interests because he loves us and is faithful. We know who he is, that he is trustworthy and faithful—and so we can, in Christ, trust him. We discover that the faith we are needing has been given to us as a gift from God through Jesus in the Spirit. This blessed gift of faith means God’s “yes” is already at work in our situation—we need only rest in Christ and trust in God’s love and faithfulness, for he is trustworthy.

Dear God, thank you for your faithfulness, for being trustworthy, the One we can rely upon in every situation to carry us through and to bring us in the end to where we need to be. Fill us with the faith of Christ by your Holy Spirit, giving us the grace to come boldly to your throne to receive what we need in every situation, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He was saying to her, ‘Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered and said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.’ And He said to her, ‘Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.’ And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.”     Mark 7:25–30 (24–37) NASB

“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?… Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”     James 2:14, 17 (1–10, 14–17) 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

The Lord Is In It

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By Linda Rex

July 25, 2021, PROPER 12—This is a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it. I can hear it now—all the stories of what is going wrong in the world—floods in Europe, droughts in the U.S., and a zillion other tragedies happening all around us. How in the world can I simply say that it is a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it?

I’m sensing more and more that this “information age” we are living in is starting to take its toll upon countless people who can no longer believe in or celebrate a living God who loves them and cares deeply about them and about everything that is going on in their lives. It is easy to find experts who will tell us all the reasons not to believe that Jesus Christ actually lived and was who he said he was—the Messiah, God in human flesh. Why should we bother when by all appearances the evidence tells us otherwise?

For some, it is easy to alter or bring into question the Scriptures the church uses to teach and form its theology. And it is easy to reformulate the creeds or bring into question their validity, challenging what has been held for centuries as orthodox doctrine. We can also quite easily find fault with the early apostolic succession following the resurrection, which ensured the validity of the canon and the creeds of the early church. We realize that humans are faulty and records can be altered or misused or eliminated. But what happens when we end up face to face with the resurrected Jesus Christ? What happens when you or I encounter the living Lord?

When the early Christian martyrs faced their executioners, they were often asked to renounce Jesus Christ in order to save themselves from a horrific painful death. But they would reply, in essence, that to deny Christ was to deny their Lord, the one who saved them, the one who loved them unconditionally and suffered and died on their behalf. Because they had personally encountered the resurrected Lord and received him by faith, they simply could not do it, just as they could not avoid praying for those who were causing them such suffering and death—for this was Jesus’ way. Living in union and communion with their Lord meant for them a sharing in his suffering and death and they thought it nothing to offer themselves in the same way that Jesus had offered himself so freely on behalf of all humanity.

We can get so immersed in the complexities of the theology and doctrine that we miss the simplicity of the gospel. In this moment today, wherever we are and whoever we are—we need to be honest and truthful with ourselves. Instead of critiquing Christians or the Christian faith, perhaps we need to gaze silently upon the One who is the foundation or cornerstone—Jesus Christ.

In gazing upon him, we see ourselves. He is that human we were created to be, who as God in human flesh, loved and obeyed our heavenly Father wholeheartedly and lived a life filled with and led by the Spirit, so he loved and served others as we were created to. The deepest hunger or yearning of our heart was meant to be filled by him—whether we realize it or not. What we stuff with so many other things will never find its fullness apart from his indwelling presence by the Holy Spirit. We were always meant to have God living in us as well as with us.

When Jesus saw a large crowd approaching, he asked Philip about buying enough food to feed them. Philip replied that it would cost about two hundred day’s wages to buy that much food. Andrew, trying to be helpful, offered a poor lad’s lunch—five barley loaves and two fish, but admitted it was nothing compared to what was needed (John 6:1–21). What was needed was enough food to feed five thousand men plus women and children. Jesus’ point was that there was no way they could feed that many people. It was just not humanly possible. But it was still a wonderful day, because he was in it.

Let’s accept that it is just not humanly possible for us to live the way we were meant to live, apart from Christ. We need to be freed from our enslavement to unhealthy ways of living and being. We need to be cured of our self-focused way of thinking and acting. We need to be freed from our enslavement to hedonism, and all the other isms we give ourselves over to in an effort to find some sort of life in this world (Psalm 14:1-4). We may not realize it, but that is why Jesus came, why he sat on that mountainside teaching the crowds, and why he fed the multitudes.

The multitudes of all humanity needed to be fed, to be given the good news that they were loved. “God so loved the world that he gave his one unique Son…” (John 3:16). So God in Christ came, lived our life, was crucified in our place, was buried in a tomb, and rose again, seen by many witnesses who verified his resurrection. Then he sent the Spirit—God come into human flesh in a new and permanent way. The Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, is now received as we place our faith in him. Just as the crowds that day took into their hands the fish and bread and ate them, so we receive with gratitude the new life Christ forged for us in his finished work.

What happens when the Spirit changes someone is truly a miracle—the greatest miracle of all, even greater in many ways than the feeding of thousands of people from five barley loaves and two fish. When Jesus brings us to faith, we are never the same again. This is a genuine relationship with a living Person. This is not a fantasy or a made-up experience. It is real. We continue to be broken, faulty people when we come to faith in Christ, but there is a transformation which occurs—a regeneration—one which becomes more and more evident as time goes by as we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit.

This miracle begins with seeing ourselves in the face of Jesus, looking into his eyes and seeing the reflection of his Father’s love for us. In spite of seeing our failures and sins, we rest on God’s amazing grace—his forgiveness and acceptance. We awaken to the reality that our real food is the love of God expressed fully to us in the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. We have God’s love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and are invited to be led by this Spirit of Christ who dwells in us (Ephesians 3:14–21). We follow Jesus’ lead, learning more and more as time goes on what it means to live and walk as he did, allowing him to bring about the changes in us that are needed to bring us into the fullness of the image of Christ we were meant to bear.

How do we get to the place where we are willing to simply say, “I believe”? It certainly is a divine mystery to me. And it often begins with a simple prayer. But I’ve seen the miracle happen again and again. And it’s only the beginning of a lifelong journey with Jesus in the Spirit for the one who takes that first step of faith and moves on into commitment to Christ. This is why I believe that in spite of all that’s happening around us that seems so terrible, it is still a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it.

Loving Lord, we admit our failures to love, our sinful words and actions, and our broken ways of living life. We believe Jesus, that you are our true sustenance, our life and breath, the living bread we need to truly live. We receive all you offer us in your life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the gift of your Spirit. We commit ourselves to following wherever you lead, now and forever. Amen.

“Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. Therefore Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?’ This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.’ One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?’”     John 6:3–9 (1–21) NASB

Does God Really Care?

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By Linda Rex

June 20, 2021, PROPER 7—These past few weeks I have been faced with one of those household problems that is highly stress-inducing and frustrating. The situation was overwhelming, and I struggled to see any solution to it apart from God’s intervention. In the midst of my distress, though, as I paused to seek God’s face, I discovered once again the reality of God’s presence and provision, and saw that God is present and real and guiding me by his Spirit, leading me in the direction I need to go.

The reality is that every one of us at some point will face a Goliath that we cannot defeat. Remember the story of Goliath? The ancient Israelites gathered against the Philistines for battle, and Goliath came forth as a champion, mocking their God and daring them to send someone to fight him on behalf of their army.

Think about the Israelite army who for so many days faced an enemy they thought they could not defeat. There was no giant champion in their army that could face up to Goliath and win. The question that hung in the air is the one which we so often face in these types of situations—does God really care? Is he even aware of all we’re going through? Doesn’t he realize how desperate the situation is?

How like God to bring David to the battle lines that day on an errand for his father—this young man who was merely a shepherd, and hardly able to fight any man, much less a giant mountain of a man like Goliath (1 Sam. 17). The substantial difference between Goliath and David did not necessarily lie in their size or ability, though. It lay in the source of their strength and their motivation.

Goliath based his ability to win this conflict on his size and military prowess, his disdain for the Israelite’s God, and his intimidating manner. David based his certainty of victory on the God whose name was being insulted by the Philistine, and on his past experience with that God of being delivered from impossible situations—fighting a bear and a lion. David trusted his God and embraced this challenge in faith that God would again bring about a great deliverance for the sake of his great name and his covenant people.

Faith, in midst of this epic event, was the deciding factor. What David did that day was use the talents God had given—his ability to use rocks and a sling—to accomplish what he believed God wanted done. He went courageously forth, did his part, and God did the rest. The giant fell, and the Philistines were routed, and David became an important part of Israel’s history. He became a symbol of a coming king who would ultimately defeat all of Israel’s enemies and usher in the messianic kingdom—that person we know today as Jesus Christ.

This brings to mind the story of Job. He lost all his children, all his belongings, and then lost his health. He began to lose faith that God really cared about what was going on in his life in the midst of the suffering he was experiencing. As Job wrestled with all these thoughts, God reminded him who his Deliverer was and that God was not ignorant of what he was going through. Job needed to be reminded that the One who was caring for him in the midst of his difficulties was the same One who created all things and sustained them (Job 38:1–11).

One time, when Jesus and his disciples went across the sea of Galilee, a great wind began to blow, to the extent that the boats were beginning to fill with water. Jesus, being exhausted from a long day of teaching and preaching, was asleep in the stern. In fear of their lives, the disciples woke him up and said to him, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” All they could see was the intensity of the storm and the possibility that they might, at any moment, drown in the sea.

What they needed to be doing, though, was remembering who was with them in the boat. Apparently, they did not yet grasp the significance of who their teacher, Jesus, was. They did not understand that the One who made the sea and the wind was present with them in that moment—a person who could, merely by his word, calm the storm (Psalm 107:1–3, 23–32). They were not trusting that he loved them and was still looking out for them, and that he would keep them safe in the storm. All they could see was that he was a tired man, asleep on a cushion, while they were facing death by drowning.

When the disciples finally woke Jesus up, he simply said to the wind, “Hush, be still.” And the sea became calm. The Word of God in human flesh spoke a word and it was. How shocking this must have been to them! But what Jesus was seeking in that moment wasn’t fear. He was seeking faith. They needed to asked the question they were faced with—who was this man who could speak and the forces of nature obeyed? They needed to put their faith in this One who was God in human flesh, the Lord of all, Jesus Christ.

We will face difficulties in this life. We will face insurmountable challenges when we participate with Jesus in his mission of sharing the good news (2 Corinthians 6:1–10). We might even come to the place where we will face the loss of all that matters most to us. What will we do in those moments? Where will we place our faith?

We need to turn away from our circumstances, our concerns, and our difficulties, and turn towards the One who is Lord of all—Jesus Christ. Our faith needs to be, not in our ability to resolve every situation and prevent every calamity, but in the One who already knows every possibility and need only speak the word and his purpose will come to pass. We need to trust that God does care, that he does love us, and is concerned about us. Even though things may be difficult at times, and maybe even life-threatening, God is still present and active by his Spirit. Our trust is in him, and he will deliver, in his own time and way.

Perhaps, at this moment, you are in the midst of a difficult circumstance that seems beyond your ability to resolve. Now is a good time to pause and reflect on the God who loves you so much that he came to be a part of your human experience, allowing himself to suffer on your behalf. Jesus, even now, remembers how stressful and painful life can be at times, and is, right now, actively at work sustaining, encouraging, and guiding you by his Spirit. He offers you his implicit faith in the Father, reminding you to trust in him, and to believe that God does care, even when your circumstances may tell you otherwise. Offer up to him what you are able to do. Then trust him to do what only he can do—be with you in the storm, guiding and protecting you, and to calm your storm with a word, when the time is right.

Heavenly Father, thank you for reminding us again how much you love us, and that you are well aware of all we are going through. Grant us the grace to trust you in the midst of every situation, keeping our eyes on you, knowing that you will save and deliver and bring us safely home to you, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“On that day, when evening came, He said to them, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?’ And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Hush, be still.’ And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. And He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? How is it that you have no faith?’ They became very much afraid and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?’”     Mark 4:35–41 NASB

From Small, Insignificant Beginnings

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By Linda Rex

June 13, 2021, PROPER 6—One of the things I learned years ago while still living on the farm was that although my husband participated in the growing process by preparing the soil, planting the seed, fertilizing and cultivating the soil, and applying pesticides and herbicides, the outcome of planting row crops was ultimately dependent upon forces over which we had no control. We could not predict how much sunshine or rain we would have, nor could we plan for out-of-season freezing temperatures, floods, or hailstorms.

There is something about working the land and caring for livestock that can keep a person humble and dependent upon God. When we are aware of the reality that only God really has control over the outcome, then we are actually in a very good place. In this place of trust and dependency, we can experience rest, trusting that God will make it all right in the end, creating a harvest beyond our expectations. Even if there is no harvest, we are still in a good place, because we are safely in the care of our Creator and Redeemer, who loves us and seeks our best.

Take a moment and contemplate the process of growing things. A small, insignificant brown seed, small enough to be lost in your hand, is placed in soil. This dirt, which rubs on our hands and into our jeans as we kneel on the ground, is full of microorganisms and living creatures. The little seed may simply rot away or die, or one day, when we least expect it, send forth a shoot and a root. Over time, this tiny fledgling plant will grow. We nurture it in whatever way we are able, encouraging it to survive and thrive in the sun, rain, and wind until it is harvest time. The neat thing about growing a plant from seed is, we begin with next to nothing and then, at harvest time, we have a multitude of seeds in return.

Jesus used an illustration of a sower and seed, as well as a mustard seed, in reference to the kingdom of God. The sower planted seed in the ground, and it sprouted and grew without his efforts, until harvest time. The mustard seed Jesus described next was a very tiny seed. But in a very short period of time, this plant sprouted and grew into a shrub up to twelve feet tall, with branches on which little birds could sit.

Jesus Christ, who was God present at that time in human flesh, was like an insignificant and tiny seed planted in the ground—a hidden mystery that would someday bear fruit. And just like the seed in these parables, Jesus was, in time, planted in a tomb, having been crucified in our place and on our behalf. The planting of this Seed, the Son of God in human flesh, is enabling the harvest of many children of God, a reality which will be fully manifest at the coming of Christ in glory.

The kingdom of God, his reign in human hearts, began with Jesus Christ planted in our human flesh, and is at work in this world right now by the Holy Spirit, and will culminate in the renewal of all things at Christ’s return. God has come to dwell in human hearts—our faith response, trusting in Christ and living in him—enables us to participate in this kingdom life right now and ultimately, in the new heavens and earth when all things are made new.

The problem we have as human beings is that we so often attempt to bring about the kingdom of God ourselves and on our own terms. We decide what the kingdom of God looks like and we work to bring it about under our own efforts. This has been true for millennia, with the resulting devastation and destruction of war, genocide, starvation, and slavery which accompany it. God never meant for us to bring about his kingdom under our own power, but for us to surrender to the lordship of the One, Jesus Christ, who brought it about in his person and who is present and active right now by his Spirit, working his kingdom into every part of this world.

We want to see active proof right now that Jesus is at work, whereas Christ said that we cannot see or control what the Spirit is doing—we can only see the ultimate results of it. That God is at work in this world by his Spirit is what we need to trust in—Jesus Christ is still present and is still Lord, even though it may seem to our eyes that God is indifferent to what is happening all around us.

What God is doing involves human hearts and minds—something which is hidden but still very important and real. In our world in which reason is worshipped and human achievements are celebrated and tangible, physical realities are preferred, the things of the Spirit and the human heart are often ignored, ridiculed, and rejected. But this makes them no less real.

We can deny that Jesus Christ ever lived, believe that the stories about him are simply religious myth, but we cannot escape the reality of a changed, transformed life in which Christ is the only redeeming factor. And a changed life does not necessarily mean that person is perfect—we are still humans in need of redemption even though our trajectory may have changed and we are finally turned in the right direction. When Christ by the Spirit goes to work in someone, they are never the same. But they are still free, able to make good or bad choices, and sometimes they are seduced by past passions, desires, or habits that cause them to fall. But they continue, daily, to turn to Jesus, trusting not in their own ability to get it right, but in the finished work of Christ and his intercession on their behalf, and in the power of his Spirit.

The divine Sower has planted Christ in humanity and given the Spirit. All is present for the growth of God’s reign in human hearts. We have a part to play—our response is important. What we trust in and build our life around is important. God invites us to cooperate with the grace God has given us in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul reminds us not to quench, resist, or grieve the Holy Spirit. We can choose to insult the Spirit of grace by continuing to live in the sinful ways God freed us from in Christ, or we can daily turn around and choose to live as the image-bearers of God we were meant to be. And yes, one day we will give an answer for our response to God’s gracious gift of eternal life.

But be encouraged. We “walk by faith, not by sight.” We are not what we once were—in Christ, we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:6–10, 14–17). God is at work, the Seed has been sown, is being watered by the Spirit, and this new life is being nurtured and cared for by the Light of the world. We grow up in Christlikeness as we respond in faith, trusting in Christ’s finished work. And our hope is in the promise that what God has begun in us, he will finish. He is the trustworthy Sower who is working toward an abundant harvest, one in which we can participate by faith in the Seed he sowed.

Father, great Sower of the Seed, we thank you for your love, grace and faithfulness, and for what you are doing right now in and through us by your precious Spirit. It is your love which compels us to no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus, who lived and died on our behalf. May your kingdom come, your will be done, here on earth as in heaven. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

“And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’  And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that ‘the birds of the air’ can ‘nest under its shade.’ With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.”     Mark 4:26–34 NASB