gifts

Walking in Unity With God

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By Linda Rex

May 8, 2022, 3rd Sunday in EASTER—When we had our Community Café ministry running strong, I remember sitting at the table talking with some of our church neighbors. Around us, busily taking care of all of us, were the Martha’s of our congregation—those with the gifts of hospitality, service, and helping. How tangible was the expression of the love of God through their hands!

I believe this is the significance of the story in Acts 9:36–43 about the disciple named Tabitha (or Dorcas). Luke tells us that she was “abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did.” Apparently, she used to make clothing for people, providing a necessary service for those in her spiritual community. When she passed away, the loss was felt keenly—keenly enough that they call for Peter to immediately come.

Indeed, I think about those who are no longer with us who had this same gift of the Spirit of service and helping. It would be nice if they could have stayed awhile with us so we could continue to enjoy the blessing of their loving care. But this was not God’s best for us or them, and they have moved on.

What we can learn from them, though, is that we help to make Christ visible to others when we serve, help and care for others. These tangible expressions of God’s love enable people to not just hear about Jesus, but to feel and experience his love in a real way that can be life-changing. These expressions of God’s love testify to the truth of the good news of Jesus’ finished work. When we live out what we say we believe, then the gospel, or good news, begins to carry some weight. When we don’t live out what we believe, we dishonor and grieve the Spirit, and make all that we might say about Jesus appear to be false.

The apostle John told about a time when Jesus was walking in the temple during the Feast of Dedication, what we today call Hanukkah. The Jews there gathered around him, hoping to catch him saying or doing something they could use as an excuse to arrest him. They wanted him to plainly tell them that he was the expected Messiah. But Jesus knew their intentions were not honorable and that they did not have his best interests in mind.

Jesus reminded them that he had already clearly told them the truth about who he was. Then he said to them, “…the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me.” Jesus was saying that they should have known who he was by looking at the things he was doing. What he was doing—healing the sick, casting out demons, giving the blind sight and the deaf hearing—was all done in his Father’s name by the power of the Holy Spirit. No one else could do these things in the way he was doing them. His actions quite clearly showed who he was—the Son of the Father, the Anointed One.

Question: do our actions quite clearly show who we are—the adopted children of God? How well are we reflecting our Lord Jesus Christ? We may preach the gospel effectively with our words, but how are we doing with our actions?

This question can be quite intimidating for a pastor. I realize that I stand up each week and preach, telling people what I believe God wants us to hear and do. But it never ceases to amaze me how that very thing I preached on or planned to preach on becomes an object lesson for me personally. God doesn’t want us to just talk about Jesus and his ways. He wants everyone of us to live and walk at all times “in Christ”—so all of life is swept up into walking in the Spirit in such a way that when others look our way, they tangibly experience God’s love—Jesus Christ in us by the Spirit.

Every one of us has opportunities throughout the week to offer help, care, and service to others.  When GCI talks about the Love Avenue, this is what is meant. We are each called and gifted by God to love others. God has shed his love abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Participating in the Love Avenue is what we all do, though some of us are more gifted by the Spirit for these specific types of ministries.

And those who are especially gifted in the area of helping, service, and hospitality, I encourage you to be sure to find ways to use your gifts to express God’s love. You are a blessing to this world and I am very grateful for each of you—you are the reason that we have truckdrivers, farmers, caregivers, nurses, cooks, and all of those who work in hospitality, medicine, and many other fields where having people who serve others is essential to our well-being. When you are busy and active using your gifts to serve others as to the Lord, not only are people blessed, but you become a vibrant, tangible expression of God’s love.

Some of us find serving others in this way to be challenging. For all of us, trusting in the Spirit is essential. The apostle Paul said that if we work, we work as if we are working for the Lord. All of life is lived “in Christ” now. Just as Jesus did what he did in his Father’s name, we do what we do now in Jesus’ name and for the Father’s glory. What Jesus did, he did motivated by God’s love, since he was filled with the Spirit. Paul says for us to let the Spirit fill us. And, knowing we are compelled by God’s love, we are to love one another—proving we are Christ’s disciples.

The reason Jesus did the works he did was that he lived in united with his Father in the Spirit. It is because Jesus and his Father were one in will and action that by the Spirit Jesus expressed love so powerfully and profoundly. The reason we do caring, helping, and serving things is because we are united with Christ by faith, therefore united with the Father in the Spirit. It is our unity with God through Christ in the Spirit that we receive the capacity and desire to love and serve others effectively—and God offers this to everyone. May the Lord fully express through each of us by his Spirit the love and grace of our God.

Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us people in our lives who are especially gifted to serve, help and care for others. Thank you for pouring your love into our hearts by your Spirit so each and every one of us can serve, help and care for those you place in our lives. Grant us the grace to love others even as you have loved us, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“At that time the Feast of the Dedication [Hanukkah or Festival of Lights] took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ ”      John 10:22–30 NASB

[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/walking-in-unity-with-god.pdf ]

Grateful for the Gifts

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By Linda Rex

January 16, 2022, 2nd Sunday in Epiphany—The sun is shining over my yard filled with snow. There is every reason to be filled with joy, but this morning my joy is tempered with grief at the passing of Bob Taylor. Bob was a mentor to me as well as a support in many ways in our ministry here in Nashville. I still remember how he and Jan made me feel welcome and at home when I was so nervous and anxious about starting my first pastorate. I was a newbie and they were gracious and patient as I learned the ropes of ministry.

I learned a lot from Bob over the years. We did not always agree on things, but he opened my eyes to see things from another viewpoint. Through his eyes I saw my need to grow up and my need to be gracious to those whose strong opinions did not agree with mine. He encouraged me to develop the spiritual gifts of ministry—preaching, leading, administrating. And he supported me in ways for which I am very grateful.

It is significant that this Sunday’s reading from the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 12:1–11. It is the Holy Spirit who gifts people for ministry of all kinds and in the unity of the Trinity, works out the purposes of God in this world. Even though each of us is different and excels in our gifting in unique ways, all our gifts have their source in the one, unique Spirit who is Lord of all.

Bob definitely had the gift of administration and finances. He could do things with numbers that would make my brain fog over. He helped a lot of people over the years by offering up his gifts in service to Christ. Many members recall his visits during the critical transitional years in GCI, and are grateful for the sacrificial service he offered during that time.

At times, when I am speaking with a follower of Christ, they will tell me that they have no spiritual gifts. I certainly do not believe that to be true. In most cases, I have found that it is not a matter of them not having gifts. It’s more a matter of them not having the courage and faith to try something new and discover the latent gifts they do have. Or not being willing to offer up to Christ and his Church the gifts he has given them, but choosing to hide or ignore them instead.

In refusing to believe God has gifted us in any way, we deny the work of the Spirit in our lives. Take for example a mother who chooses to stay at home and care for her children full time. Having done this at one time in my life, I understand the negative messages such a mother may receive from the culture regarding her decision. She may believe she has no spiritual gifts. In reality, she is doing a powerful ministry to her children and family—one that will last on into eternity. Isn’t the ability to love and care for others a gift we receive from the Spirit?

We all have been given unique gifts, talents, abilities, experiences, and educations. The spiritual gifts listed in Scripture are important as well. All of these gracious gifts from God, when gratefully offered up to him, have an impact on our marriages, our families, our communities, God’s creation, and his world. Why would we want to hide what God meant to be a blessing and a joy for him and others?

Developing the gifts, talents, and abilities we do have is important as well. Bob and the church graciously supported my completion of a masters in pastoral studies. This was such an encouragement to me, as it affirmed my worth as a woman as well as a pastor. When someone offers up their gifts to Christ, we can offer our support by coming alongside them to help them on their journey of obedience and service. Often it is the encouragement, financial or physical support, prayers, and help of others that enables someone to courageously step out in faith to offer up the gifts God has given them.

There is also the matter of finding our giftedness and growing in it within the context of community. There are times when we may decide we have a certain spiritual gift, when others around us see clearly that this is not our gift at all. It is important for us to listen to those around us in the body of Christ who love us and know us well. They often see what we do not see. They may call forth a gift in us by pointing it out and encouraging us to develop it. Or they may point out that there are others who are more gifted than we are in an area we believe we are gifted in. In humility, we can receive this information and be blessed by it, for God’s Spirit guides us in the recognition of and development of our gifts as we are open to his leading.

I was thinking about these things and reading the gospel story for this Sunday. It’s the story about Jesus going to a wedding in Cana with his disciples. His mother realized that the host was out of wine—a very embarrassing circumstance in that community. She took the problem to Jesus. His response was, “What does that have to do with us/me? It’s not my time yet.” But she responded by saying to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

A couple of things popped out as I looked at this. First, why did Mary immediately go to Jesus with the problem? Was she expecting him to pull out his wallet and go shopping? Or did she realize the Spirit had uniquely gifted her Son, and that he could do exactly what was needed in that moment? At times, the Spirit places us in a circumstance in which we are the ones with the gifting which is needed to do what needs done in that time and place. We may not realize that we are the ones gifted by the Spirit to do what is needed, but others will and they will come to us and invite us to be a part of the solution. Has that ever happened to you? What was your response?

The second thing that popped out was what Mary said to the servants. The thing about spiritual gifts is that they are given by the Spirit for a purpose and to fill a need. What has the Spirit prompted you to do? What is the Spirit calling you out to provide in that moment of need? I would say to you what Mary said to those servants: Do whatever the Spirit tells you to do. Follow the lead of the Spirit as he directs you and affirms that direction by the unity of the body of Christ.

Jesus very well could have pulled out his wallet, told the servants to go into town and buy up all the wine they could find. He could have hidden his anointing a little longer if he had wanted to. But he didn’t. He knew that the minute he turned that water into wine, he was headed for the cross. But that did not stop him from doing the one thing only he could do—transform H2O molecules into wine molecules. He offered himself up freely for the sake of others, a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. May we offer our own spiritual gifts up in that same Spirit of self-sacrificial offering.

Thank you, Father, for freely offering us your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for freely offering us yourself. Thank you, Spirit, for coming and filling us, and gifting us so generously. We offer ourselves and all these gifts back to you with gratitude, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.”      1 Corinthians 12:1–11 NASB

See also John 2:1–11 NASB.

Entrusted with What’s His

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By Linda Rex

November 15, 2020, Proper 28—It can be easy to believe that God has a funny way of running the universe. He makes these creatures who have intelligent minds, the ability to make decisions and to create things. He gives them the ability to reproduce themselves. And then he gives them the capacity to ignore him, reject him, and even turn against him. And to top it all off, he gives them the responsibility to care for all he has made!

What was God thinking? Perhaps I’m being a little too humorous about this, but I believe we can take this in two ways—1) we can believe that God is loving and good and believes in the creatures he has made and is working for their good, or 2) we can believe that he is a hard, cruel God who is setting up humanity from the beginning for failure. How we respond as human beings to our call to care for and steward all God made and to love one another is essentially grounded in what kind of God we believe in, if any.

Moving forward, then. What kind of God would take on a human body and live in it, allowing himself to be ridiculed, rejected, and even crucified? And even after all that, entrust to his followers the Holy Spirit, sharing the good news of God’s love, and the responsibility of building the church and equipping the saints? The track record of the believers and the church over the millennia hasn’t always been the best, but knowing this would happen didn’t keep Christ from charging his followers with this responsibility.

It seems that too often, we as human beings have spent our time playing video games when we could have been washing the dog, cleaning our rooms or having friends over for a play date. Rather than creating a Play-Doh masterpiece for mom, we’ve been battling virtual ninjas, ending up with nothing to show for it but a great score on the leaderboard. Believe me, I love a great video game, but my point is that too often we as human beings have missed the boat when it comes to understanding who we are and what we are meant to do with our time here on earth. Too often we have taken the overflowing sack of God’s love and grace and buried it in the ground.

When we look at Jesus’ parable about the talents, we tend to narrow it down to believers needing to use their spiritual gifts in his service. I think there is a whole lot more at stake than simply that. The context is the kingdom of heaven—Jesus is describing the kingdom he was inaugurating in himself, in his presence as the Creator within his creation. As God in human flesh, he was seizing back what humanity had lost by turning away from God to the things of this world and Satan.

What every human being needs to come to terms with is that God loved him or her enough to set aside temporarily the benefits of his divinity, to come and live in our humanity, for each person’s sake. He sought to raise humanity up out of the spiritual poverty and death we had fallen into so that we could live now and forever in right relationship with him and one another. He freed us from evil, sin, and death, not so we could party however we wanted, but so that we could be a part of his heavenly celebration now and for all eternity. He sent his Spirit so we would be empowered with his very presence and person to enable us to live as we were meant to live—in other-centered love with God and each other.

What would happen if we came to terms with the reality that God loves each of us, immensely, completely, and forever? What if we understood that God has entrusted us with his Son, his Spirit, and all he has made—offering life in union and communion with him now and forever? What are we doing with this grace God has given us?

God gives us his creation to steward. God gives us himself in his Son and in his Spirit. Repentance and faith, with baptism into the body of Christ, are the immediate response he seeks. We’ve been given a huge bonus check of grace—do we go to the bank and open up an account so we can put the grace to work? Or do we cash the check and then hide the bills in the wall of our house? What do we do with the grace and love God lavishes on us?

Grace put to work opens the door for others to experience and share in God’s grace. This is our participation in the life of Christ. He is at work in this world, bringing others to the knowledge of himself and enabling them to participate as well in what he is doing in the world. By faith and through baptism, new believers are welcomed into the body of Christ, and included in our participation in the mission of Jesus to spread the gospel (the good news of God’s love expressed to us in Christ) throughout the world.

And yes, the Spirit showers spiritual gifts on believers, enabling them to play particular roles within the body of Christ—teaching, preaching, administrating, sharing, helping, and serving for example. These gifts are meant to enable believers to participate more fully in stewarding all God has given. Some are meant to equip others to do ministry and to build up the body of Christ. Some are meant to demonstrate God’s love in tangible ways in this world so that others can experience God’s love and grace in their lives.

The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just a story we tell. It is a life which we live. It is a person we reflect. As image-bearers of Christ, we bear his name, his Suffering Servant nature, by his Spirit in our person. As we respond to God’s love and grace expressed to us in his Son Jesus, we recognize that we are merely stewards of what belongs to the God who is the Lord over all and who dwells in perichoretic love. This reminds us to responsibly care for the world and cosmos we live in as our participation in his life and love—we seek his best interests, not our own. It reminds us to love our neighbor as ourself rather than being self-seeking, self-willed, and self-indulgent. And all of this we do empowered by and infused with the very presence and person of Jesus Christ in the Spirit.

God has lavished his love and grace on us as creatures meant to reflect his nature and way of being. He has entrusted this world to us and in Jesus has enabled us to be faithful and obedient children who serve him diligently. What are we going to do with the great big sack of God’s love and grace we have been given? What have we been doing with it? Is it time to make a change?

Father, thank you for the generous love and grace you have lavished upon as your creatures, for this amazing creation you have given us, and the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for doing for us in our place what we could not do for ourselves. We trust in your perfect stewardship that we may be by your Spirit good stewards of all we have been given. Amen.

“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
You turn man back into dust …
You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep;
In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew.
In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew;
Toward evening it fades and withers away. …
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
Psalm 90:1–3a, 5b–6, 12 NASB

See also Matthew 25:14–30; 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11.

Unfathomable Riches

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By Linda Rex

Epiphany
Imagine yourself in the position of Mary, who had this incredible experience of hearing from God through an angel. Her surrender to the will and purposes of God meant she became pregnant by the Spirit, and she had to explain to her fiancé how this came about. There was no reason for him to believe her story.

Thankfully, Joseph was equally visited by God and chose to marry her in spite of all this. As the time of the baby’s birth came close, she ended up traveling to Bethlehem with her spouse for a census. Here she had a baby in the most uncomfortable circumstances, and named him Jesus as instructed. She and Joseph took him to the temple as the law required, and her baby was prophesied over and praised by two elderly God-fearing people.

Mary and her husband Joseph remained in Bethlehem for a while, and then one day, out of the blue, this entourage showed up at the door. These visitors were not typical Jewish people but foreign magi, and they came bearing expensive gifts. The frankincense, gold, and myrrh were gifts fit for a king, and they were presented to Mary’s child. Perhaps Jesus was old enough by this time to toddle over to the magi and explore what he was given. Mary and Joseph probably had to put the gifts somewhere safe so they would not be ruined.

But these wonderful visitors traveled many miles following a star and sought the one who was born king of the Jews. Having found him, they worshiped this special child, and gave him gifts which were precious and which honored his dignity as our prophet, priest, and king. And then these special people returned home by another way.

In some ways, we can say that these magi reflect the divine story. Our Abba’s Son too went on a journey far from home, into a land which was foreign to his divinity—he became flesh and dwelt among us. He took upon himself our broken humanity, bearing our frailty and weakness.

The Son of God was seeking the children of the King—the ones who were born to share life with his Abba. He was following the star of Abba’s heart—the covenant made with his people, the fulfillment of his divine destiny as the Elected One, the Son of God. He came to give us gifts, to restore to us the dignity of our personhood as those made in the image of God, and to provide for us a way home to Abba.

On Epiphany, we are reminded of how the Son of God stooped to join with us in our brokenness and shame to lift us up into the divine dance of the love and life of Father, Son, and Spirit. He identified himself with us so completely in our humanity, he came to John the Baptist at the River Jordan to be baptized by him “to fulfill all righteousness.” As he came up out of the water, heaven burst open, and the Spirit lighted on him like a dove. The voice of Abba declared, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

The way heaven opened and Abba and his Spirit embraced Jesus, is the way God has embraced all of us. Jesus has brought us into the intimate relationship he has with his Abba in the Spirit, and has shared this precious gift of relationship with you, and me, and every other person on this planet. No one is excluded from Jesus’ baptism in the Father’s amazing gift of love and grace. Each and every one are held in Abba’s embrace. All have available to them the precious gift of God’s presence and power in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

Like the magi, Jesus came out of the water and began to travel a new way home—the way we are to walk—in utter dependency on his Father. The Spirit immediately sent him out into the desert, and he was met there by the devil, who did his best to attempt to get Jesus to draw upon the benefits of his divinity rather than continuing to identify with all of humanity by depending solely upon his Father by the Spirit. But Jesus stood his ground—he would continue to set aside the benefits of his divinity for your sake and mine, so he would completely identify with us in our dependency upon Abba.

In Christ we are called to surrender our willfulness, our stubborn resistance against the love and grace of God, and our refusal to allow God to be the God he is and to define for us what it means to live in perfect, loving relationship. In Christ we are brought up against our surrender to the evil one’s way of doing things—participating in his desire to kill, steal, and destroy—and we are given the freedom to choose to submit to Abba and trust in him instead.

Just as Jesus did the right thing on our behalf by allowing himself to be baptized for us, we participate in his baptism by confessing our sins in repentance and obeying Abba’s instruction to be baptized for the remission of sins. We receive Abba’s gift of his Spirit in the same way his Son Jesus welcomed the heavenly Dove. We participate individually in what Jesus did for all.

And we begin our journey home to Abba by another route than the one we first came in on. We don’t seek our own path home but rather, we follow the bidding of the Father, keeping in step with Jesus by his Spirit, trusting in Abba’s perfect love and grace. Just as Jesus participated fully in our human existence, we begin participating in Jesus’ divine life within the embrace of Abba in the Spirit. We have a new life to live—in Christ we are dancers stepping in time with the heavenly music of Abba as we by the Spirit share in the Triune divine dance of love, of knowing and being known, for all eternity.

Dear Abba, thank you for sending your Son to come and find us, and to bring us home to you. Thank you, Jesus, for coming and sharing in our brokenness, and for identifying with us in our sin and dying our death in our place. Thank you, Spirit, for all you have done and are doing to bring us into full participation with the Father and Son in their love and life. Holy God, please grant us the repentance and faith we need, and the grace to obey your call to be baptized, so we might fully participate in your divine life and love. Lead us home to you, Abba, for we know you stand watching, expectantly awaiting our return, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about and see; they all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, and your daughters will be carried in the arms. Then you will see and be radiant, and your heart will thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you, the wealth of the nations will come to you. A multitude of camels will cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba will come; they will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.” Isaiah 60:1-6 NASB

Rejected, but Beloved

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By Linda Rex

Creative people such as writers, songwriters, and artists will most likely at some point experience the painful reality of rejection or dismissal of their creative efforts. Sadly, many a gifted person has walked away from pursuing a career in a particular field because a significant person or instructor has rejected or harshly criticized what they have offered.

I remember as a youth I had loved to write little stories and poetry. I thought maybe I might like to be an author someday, but my writing always seemed inadequate and trite. When I first went to college I turned in a paper for an American literature course. The teacher gave me a C, which was a new experience for an A student. I finally got up the courage to ask her why she gave me such a low grade on what I thought was a good paper. She proceeded to annihilate all my efforts at writing. If I had been emotionally healthier, I believe I might have handled her criticism better, but as it was, it took me a long time before I allowed someone else to read or critique my creative writing.

I realize today rejection is a part of our human experience. None of us like it, especially when we have become hypersensitive due to attachment wounds. Rejection can feel very much like a death, because it penetrates down to the core of who we believe we are. We can allow fear of rejection to hamper us and tie us down, even to the place we are immobilized by it in the very areas we are the most gifted.

Rejection is not something we are alone in experiencing, though. Throughout the centuries, our loving God has experienced the rejection of his chosen people, and the rejection of the creatures he created in his own image after his likeness.

I would say in many ways our experience of rejection, whatever it may be, is a sharing in the rejection God has experienced since the first rejection of Adam and Eve. They chose to turn away from him and trust in their own ability to determine what is right and wrong rather than embracing his gift of the tree of life in relationship with him.

If we were to accept our common experience of rejection, we might find ourselves better able to handle rejection when it happens to us. We can be compassionate when it happens to another person, and more thoughtful before rejecting someone else. And if anything, it ought to at least make us sympathetic enough to reconsider our own personal response to God’s personal offer of love and grace to us.

Truly, we are each put in the place of having to make a decision when we encounter Jesus Christ. When we come face to face with the living Lord, we must embrace him or reject him—he does not give us any middle ground.

The story in the Christian calendar which is normally told on December 28th involves the encounter of the wise men from the east with the newly born Messiah. In this story, we see two completely different responses to Jesus Christ’s arrival. The correct response is illustrated by the wise men following the lead of the Spirit and the light of a star, seeking out the Christ child, and upon finding him, worshiping him and offering him gifts. This is the best response any of us can give when we come face to face with the truth of God’s love and presence in the person of Jesus Christ.

The other hell-bent response is illustrated by King Herod. Yes, he sought to know where the Christ child was, ostensibly to worship him, but in reality, for the sole purpose of destroying him and preventing him from fulfilling his purpose for coming into the world. King Herod wasn’t satisfied with ignorance of Jesus’ location, No, his rejection of the Messiah went so far as to include massacring all the boy babies in Bethlehem.

The rejection of the Messiah by King Herod is only the beginning of the many ways in which Jesus was rejected during his lifetime on earth. Though he “grew up healthy and strong” and “he was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him” as a human boy (Luke 2:40), we find out later by some of his people he was considered an illegitimate child only worthy of contempt (John 8:41).

Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus either embraced or rejected by the people he encountered. Indeed, the ones we expect to see him welcomed by are the ones who actually opposed him. Sitting at his feet were the lost, the least, and those rejected by the religious leaders. Those same leaders rejected Jesus’ person and ministry, even though he demonstrated by miracle and acts of love he was the Messiah, the Son of God in person.

Toward the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus began to push the buttons of these leaders. He brought them face to face with the sinfulness of their hearts, and exposed the evil motives which drove them. He brought them to judgment, to krisis, to a place where they would have to choose. He sought to bring them to repentance and faith—but he knew they would not make that choice. He knew the Jewish leaders would reject him, and he warned his disciples this would happen.

We are reminded on Palm Sunday how the crowds welcomed Jesus with joy, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem. And then on Good Friday we are reminded anew of the real extent of all of humanity’s rejection of the Savior of the world as Jesus died at our hands in the crucifixion. It is not enough that Judas Iscariot betrayed him, but then Peter his close companion denied him. You and I stand there in each moment of rejection, betrayal, and denial, and we find ourselves betraying, denying, and crucifying Christ Jesus ourselves.

This should not create an oppressive sorrow, but rather the deep sorrow of repentance which is overwhelmed by the joy of renewal and forgiveness in the resurrection. This rejected One took your place and mine and in our stead gave us new life—the acceptance and embrace of our heavenly Abba.

Jesus Christ, the rejected One, does not reject us—he saves us! Abba, the Father we turned our backs on and rejected, receives us in his Son Jesus Christ—we are accepted in the Beloved. The Spirit is sent to us so we can participate fully in the divine perichoretic relationship of love and grace.

We find in Christ, the rejected One, a unity with God and with one another which would not otherwise exist. In Jesus Christ by the Spirit we find the capacity to forgive those who reject us, and the ability to embrace those we would normally reject.

The beauty of the Triune life in each Person’s unique relationship, equality, and unity begins to be expressed in our relationships with God and one another as we turn to Christ and receive the gift of the Spirit he gives us. This time of year, as we ponder the loss of so many innocent lives both then and now, we are comforted by the gift God gave us in his Son Jesus Christ. As we receive this precious gift and open ourselves up to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, we will find we are not rejected, but beloved and held forever in the Triune embrace of love and grace, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Dearest Abba, thank you for your infinite patience, compassion, and grace toward us in spite of our rejection of you and our refusal to humble ourselves to accept your love as obedient children. Grant us repentance and faith—a simple trust in your perfect love and grace—a turning away from ourselves and a turning toward your Son Jesus, and an opening up of all of ourselves to you and the work of your Spirit of truth. May we walk in love and grace towards one another in Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

“They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11 NLT

Your Light Has Come

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Ice on holly leaves and berries
Ice on holly leaves and berries

by Linda Rex

This season of year has its ups and downs. It can be so heartwarming and inspiring, while at the same time full of stress and anxious care about shopping and decorating and family complications. I have a special fondness for this time of year since God has awakened me to the wonder of its deep meaning. Understanding the mystery of the incarnation (can one truly understand a mystery?) carries me through all the hassle and frustration which can come from the external efforts to celebrate Christmas.

At this time of year I’m especially mindful of the time in my life when I distained Christmas as being a pagan holiday we should not celebrate if we are true Christians. While I’m still trying to determine exactly what a “true Christian” is (as compared to a “false Christian”), now I see a whole lot more clearly how we can get so caught up in a religious paradigm we cannot see what is right in front of us. We can be so focused on the “truth” that we miss seeing the living Truth who has entered our world and has begun to transform it from the inside out.

Today is Epiphany, and the gospel reading from the lectionary for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Here we read about the magi from the east who traveled many miles seeking to find a newly born king of the Jews. They followed a star and ended up in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was quite unnerving for King Herod to have these men asking about a king he knew nothing about. And no doubt it made him feel quite insecure about his throne.

So Herod called all together the chief priests and scribes—the ones who were supposed to know the Hebrew scriptures and history—and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. The high priests and scribes were the ones who probably would know the answer to the magi’s question, so Herod addressed the question to them.

They told the magi to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem. Now, it seems to me, if they had a real interest in knowing about the Messiah or in seeking him out, they would have been alert to what was really going on. They would have joined the search party, or would have maybe even led it. But King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and told them to look for the child and to tell him if or when they found him. And the magi left all by themselves, with no Jewish people in their party.

These people who were trusting in astrology to guide them, who were in essence, pagan Gentiles, were seeking to find a child who was Jewish. Now there were some Jews who were pagan enough that they believed the stars ordained certain events. But the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles, and because of this they missed something very important which was happening in their world. Their religious paradigm did not allow them to believe that someone other than a Jew might know something about the Messiah they had been expecting for centuries.

Is it possible to have the light of God available to you and still wander around in darkness? Apparently so.

The gospel story we read in the Bible shows us that these Jewish leaders were a whole lot more interested in retaining their positions of power and influence and in restoring the Jewish nation to prominence than they were interested in finding out if the messiah had arrived and had something important to say to them as his people. Their paradigm assured them the messiah would appear in a certain way, he would do certain things, and he most certainly would not look, talk or behave anything like Jesus Christ.

When I was growing up, I was told a lot of things about the Christmas holiday and what it meant and why it shouldn’t be observed, but no one ever told me the truth. I was told a lot of superstition, a lot of hearsay, and a lot of heated explanations of why observing Christmas was a sin, but none of those things turned out to be based on facts or on a mature, well-examined explanation of Christian history.

I remember one afternoon sitting in the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium listening to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. It stirred something deep within me. I knew the event of Jesus Christ coming to us and dying on the cross was significant, but I still missed the crucial point—God came into human flesh to live and die and to rise again, and now he bears our perfected humanity for all eternity in the presence of the Father. Forever, we are with God, in Christ by the Spirit. We are embraced, held, in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by God’s infinite grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

We can focus on whether or not something is pagan, and miss the light of God in the midst of the darkness. Whatever we observe as human is bound to be pagan in some way because we are all broken people. All our righteousness ends up being filthy rags to God—we must never forget God reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus.

Whatever we offer to God is broken and flawed—our efforts to get it right are feeble at best. This is why we follow the lead of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We count on God’s grace to carry us. We need to be alert to the living Truth in the midst of all our darkness and brokenness. The Light has come—we need to pay attention, turn to the Light and allow him to show us what is really going on, and to follow where he leads us rather than stay in our misguided paradigms.

Who we listen to is crucial. The magi listened to God when he spoke to them in a dream (would we ever consider doing that)? These people who the Jews distained listened to God and obeyed him, and went home a different way, and in the process, they were kept safe from King Herod’s evil plot. They had followed the light of a star, had worshiped the Light who had come and offered him gifts, and by the light of the revelation of God in a dream, found their way safely home.

When Jesus grew older, the scribes, the high priests—this group of people who should have known, recognized and received him as the Light of God—were the very ones who rejected him and crucified him. As John wrote in his gospel: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:9–11 NASB) Their preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be, and their preoccupation which the things of this life—money, power, prestige—blinded them to the true Light which was in their midst.

On this day of Epiphany, it would be good to pause for a moment and to consider this Light of God who has entered our world and brought to us a whole new way of being—the life of God in human flesh. It would be good to ponder the ways in which we close our eyes to the light he wishes to bring into our world: What paradigms do we need to set aside? What old ways of thinking and believing do we need to suspend in order to embrace the possibility we could be wrong or might need to change? What things are we trusting in which have nothing to do with God’s values and God’s desires and what he wants to accomplish in this world?

God’s Light has come, and he is renewing our broken world and existence from the inside out. We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace this New Year in a new frame of mind and heart—one in which Christ is the center rather than us. May your 2017 be full of an abundance of all God’s blessings in Christ!

Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the gift of a new year ahead of us. You are always working at creating new beginnings. Grant us the grace to keep our life and our being centered in your Light, in Christ your Son, and to stay in tune with and obedient to your Spirit of Life, through Jesus our Lord, amen.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.” Isaiah 60:1–3, 19 NASB

What Did You Get for Christmas?

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by Linda Rex

I was mulling over the Christmas tradition of gift giving and a question came to my mind as to the difference between getting a gift and receiving a gift. Are these two acts the same? Are these expressions synonymous?

It seems that the whole Santa tradition here in America has become more and more a commercial enterprise rather than the fairy tale it started out as. When I hear people talk about Christmas for their kids I hear a lot of anxiety about being able to get the presents their children want and whether or not they will be in hock for months on end because of what they spent on those presents. Some people who are not financially savvy will spend their rent money or bill money on presents for their kids just because they want them to have Christmas (Nevermind that their electricity is turned off for the next three months of winter!).

As a child sits on the mall Santa’s knees the jolly fellow in red and white will ask him or her what the child wants for Christmas. If the child is not too shy, he will receive a litany of hopeful expectations of presents. Whether or not the child will receive those presents, unfortunately (Santa unbeliever that I am) will depend pretty much on the parents’ budget and the thoughtfulness of grandparents and others. The child really doesn’t have a whole lot of control over what is going to show up in his stocking or under the Christmas tree.

Sometimes I think the whole process would be a lot healthier and happier if children and adults alike not only understood the nativity and the gift of the Christ child, but also understood that there is a difference between getting what we want and receiving what is given.

In getting what we want, we are an essential part of the process. We get to decide what we want. We get to decide what’s important to us and what matters most to us. We get to make a list of all the things we think are essential to our life and happiness.

In receiving, we really are not a part of the process at all except in that we reach out and receive what is given. We don’t really have a say in what we receive—we just receive it and make it ours. It becomes essential to us when we receive it in gratitude and put it to use.

In M. Craig Barnes book “Sacred Thirst”, the author tells about the Asian custom of gift giving and receiving that is always done with two hands. He explains that there is a moment in this act of giving when both the giver and the receiver share the gift. He draws upon this image as he reminds us of “the two hands of God”, the incarnate Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In giving us Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God gives us himself. All we are asked to do is to receive with open hands the gift that was and is given.

To receive God through Jesus and in the Spirit means that we need to come with empty hands. We need to shred our Christmas wish list of expectations and receive what God has given with humble thankfulness for God’s grace and generosity. We need to give up our insistence that what’s in the stocking and under the tree is what we think we need to have for our life and happiness. We need to stop eating from the tree of good and evil and start eating from the tree of life.

This is another reason it is a good idea to teach children the story of the coming of God in human flesh in the person of baby Jesus. Santa can also be a fun story to tell, but personally I chose instead to tell the story of Kris Kringle who was generous in heart and gave to the poor children who had nothing and were grateful to receive whatever he gave.

This is a picture of you and me, the spiritually poor and needy, longing to have the deep needs of our heart and soul, as well as our body, fulfilled. We come to God with open hands and hungry souls and he generously gives us all we need for life and godliness.

It also teaches us to reach out to others with all God has given us and to freely fill their empty hands with his love and grace, and whatever other needs we may see. When we toss aside all our preconceptions of what God is doing and will do, and receive full what he is offering—himself in Christ through the Spirit in intimate relationship, moment by moment—we will never be the same. Because we will be living out Christmas all year round.

God has given us himself in Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and continues even now to pour himself out to us in the Holy Spirit. We can live as though none of this is true and continue to work to get the things we want and think we need all on our own—trying to fill the thirst of our soul in our own way. Or we can let go of all our expectations and receive the gift God has given—new life in Christ through the Spirit.

May your New Year be full of God’s love, truth and grace!

Thank you, Father, for the beautiful and generous gift you have given us of yourself in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to let go of all the expectations and desires that consume our attention and to receive with open, empty hands your perfect gift. Throughout this new year and into the future, pour into us your new life, hope, joy, and peace. You are all we need. Amen.

“After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11 NASB

You are Enough as You Are

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by Linda Rex

Last night I was at a sub shop exploring the pages of Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics” and I overheard a young lady in the booth behind me informing a couple new employees of company policy. Having performed that routine myself in my previous employment as a human resources director, I found it amusing to inadvertently hear her slam the company’s policy against profanity. Apparently the opinion of the two young women she was instructing was more important to her than the preferences of the owner of the business.

At that particular point I had been reading what Barth had to say about spiritual gifts and service within and without the church. Barth emphasized that the new life God has given us in Christ includes all of life, not just the going-to-church parts of life. When we recognize who we are in Christ, it impacts how we think, live, talk, and relate to others. Having Christ and therefore the Father living within via the Holy Spirit means that all of our human existence is taken up and made sacred, holy, and should be committed to God’s purposes. This includes telling a new employee what the company’s expectations are.

Some of us focus on learning what our gifts are and strive to be putting them to use in God’s service. Others of us are still struggling to figure out if we even have any gifts to offer in this way. But what God is helping me to see is that just finding and offering my gifts is not all that God has in mind for me. Indeed, he is looking for something a little deeper.

Truly, to seek to know God not only as Father, but as the indwelling Christ, is a lifelong process. It takes time and experience to come to know and recognize the voice of God in the Spirit, and to obey Jesus as he leads us in a real and personal way moment by moment. This being led by and filled with the Spirit is a challenging process, to say the least.

And it’s all of grace. For I realize again and again that God speaks and too often I am preoccupied with my own concerns, or too busy, or I miss the cues he is giving in showing me where to go and what to do. I don’t always see with his eyes, even though he gives me the eyes of the Spirit. I don’t always hear with his ears even though so often the Father is speaking—through other people, through events in my life, through the book I’m reading or the movie I’m watching. If I were alert to all the ways God is interacting with me moment by moment, I think I would be overwhelmed. I am so very grateful that God is gracious and kind!

So the result of that little episode in the sub shop was that I once again saw that I need to take some time for silence and solitude to hear the Word of God to me. What gifts, abilities, and skills has God placed within me and how does he want me to use them in this season and situation in my life? But more than that, I need to quit apologizing for who he has created me to be and start fully using what God has poured out on me. I need to quit caring so much about the opinions of others and place as first priority the will and sovereignty of God and the full expression of the Christ within by the Holy Spirit.

And that’s tough. Not only does it involve a letting go, but it also involves a grabbing hold of life and making full investment of all that I am as a human being in the things that really matter. I can’t afford to be a part-time, half-hearted Christian any longer. I can’t let other people decide for me what I am to do with my time, energy and efforts. That’s what Christ meant when he said “Follow me.” It’s his call, not theirs or mine.

Jesus told the man who wanted to go home to bury his father “Let the dead bury the dead.” Christ is calling us into a priority relationship that involves giving all of life to him, even if that means giving him preferential treatment in comparison to our relationships with those near and dear to us. To give one’s life as a “living sacrifice” means that there is a laying down of all that matters most to us so that, in Christ, we can receive it all back in a new way in his kingdom life.

Who we are in Christ is enough. We don’t have to reach any other standard. Christ is the standard we are to meet and he has met this standard for us in taking on our humanity in the incarnation through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the gift of the Spirit, he invests himself in us. And so, we are enough, in him, for whatever we may face in our lives.

But let’s you and me be a full expression of Christ, not just a brief glimpse. Let’s respond fully to the Spirit and let him transform us—transfigure us—conform us to the image of Christ. Because this is what God wants for you and for me.

Lord, thank you that you have given us yourself by the Spirit so that we can be a full expression of you in your life and love. Thank you for your grace through which we are able to grow up in you and become all that you have in mind for us. For it is only through you, by you and in you that this is possible. In your name, we pray. Amen.

“I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him….So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.” Romans 12:3, 6 MSG