faith

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

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