God

Life in a Watered Garden

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By Linda Rex

January 2, 2022, 2nd Sunday in Christmas—It’s hard to believe that we are beginning a new year again. It seems like just yesterday I was giving thought to what another year might hold, and was pondering what God might have in mind for all of us. Looking back, I am amazed at all that has been written on these pages we call life. So many joys. So many sorrows. So much loss, and yet, so many gifts of grace. So much faith, hope, and love expressed in our world, in ways which have yet to provide full results. And now, looking forward, there is a new blank journal waiting to be written in. What will this new year bring?

I imagine the wonder that Mary felt holding her baby Jesus for the first time. She had no idea what the future held for her, Joseph and the baby. She had no idea that soon she would be visited by dignitaries from the east bringing her magnificent gifts for her son. It never occurred to her that she would end up in Egypt, hiding from King Herod as a result of this visit. Nor did she realize that eventually she would end up in Nazareth, raising a craftsman’s son, who would be rejected by the people he came to save.

What God envisions for us is so often much greater and more involved than what we envision for ourselves. We see a simple path to our dreams or a path full of obstacles, while God sees a bright future with the bumps and bruises we will experience because of the choices we and others will make along the way. It’s possible that we might see a little into our future, but what God sees is what he envisioned for us before any of this was created. He “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world,” the apostle Paul wrote, “that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4–6 NASB).

What God had in mind is evident by how he placed those he created into a watered garden—the garden of Eden. He meant for us to live in this wonderful place of abundance, of joyful relationship with himself, and of meaningful labor and pleasant companionship. How is it that we chose instead a place full of thorns and thistles, of painful labor and heavy toil? Often, what God has in mind for us is so much more than what we choose for ourselves!

But God has always intended our lives to be like watered gardens—a place where we are nourished and blessed by his presence and love. So even before he created us and our world, he committed himself to do everything that would be needed to bring us to that place. First in the garden of Eden, as he walked and talked with Adam and Eve. Then, working with human beings over the millennia, building relationships, working with nations and people to accomplish his divine purpose.

And then he came himself as the Word of God, to take on our human flesh—to go all the way into our human experience, all the way through death to resurrection, in order to bring us into a new place where we could participate with the Son of God in his perfect loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit. The Word of God in human flesh—this was the will of God for you and me, planned and executed—the perfection of the divine life and love to be shared with those God had made. This redemption and ransom of his creation was planned all along—but none of us really came close to understanding it or seeing it until Jesus came and revealed the Father to us and send the Spirit to open our hearts and minds.

As Mary held her baby that holy night, all of this was held in abeyance—God’s plans for the precious infant were beyond those parents’ expectations or comprehension. Letting the infant Jesus wrap his tiny fingers around her own, Mary no doubt felt a deep affection for him, and maybe even an even greater awe at the miracle which had just occurred. God does amazing things when we simply offer ourselves to him in trusting obedience to his will and purposes in this world. But Mary did not grasp the magnitude of what lay in store for this little One.

Over and over, throughout his life here on earth, Mary came face to face with the reality of who her son was—God in human flesh. We read that she would ponder these things in her heart—thinking through what she heard and saw within the context of what she had been told about Jesus before he was born. As Jesus grew up and began to live into his identity as the Son of God and Son of Man, Mary reflected on all that she knew to be true about him. In the end, she came to believe, to put her faith in Christ as her Lord and Savior.

As we face a new year with infinite possibilities, we have the opportunity to pause and give some thought as to what God may have in mind for us as we move forward. Rather than deciding for ourselves what our goals for the next year may be or what our New Year’s resolutions will be, perhaps we could take some time to ask God what he would like to do with our life. What does God have in mind for us in 2022? Does he have a special word for us for this New Year? Is there something new he would like to do in our life this New Year?

In all of our ponderings, we can be encouraged by reflecting on the reality that God has placed us through Jesus in a watered garden. He has given us truth and grace in his Son Jesus, freeing us to live in relationship with God now and forever, as we open ourselves up to the free flow of the water of his Spirit immersing us in his life and love. All of life is lived in Christ now, and can be experienced as constant companionship with the Creator and Sustainer of all. God walks with us and talks with us by his Spirit and his Word, as we turn to Christ in faith. The New Year is full of infinite possibilities and bright hope because we rejoice and dance together in the watered garden of God’s love and life even now through Christ in the Spirit.

Heavenly Father, thank you for planning so much more for us than we could ever plan for ourselves! Thank you for including us in your life and love. Please show us what you have in mind for us this New Year. What would you like to do? How would you have us join in with your divine dance? Do as you will with us in 2022 and beyond, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“ ‘For the LORD has ransomed Jacob and redeemed him from the hand of him who was stronger than he. They will come and shout for joy on the height of Zion, and they will be radiant over the bounty of the LORD—over the grain and the new wine and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; and their life will be like a watered garden, and they will never languish again. Then the virgin will rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old, together, for I will turn their mourning into joy and will comfort them and give them joy for their sorrow. I will fill the soul of the priests with abundance, and My people will be satisfied with My goodness,’ declares the LORD.”     Jeremiah 31:(7–14) 11–14 NASB

“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. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, ‘This was He of whom I said, “He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.”’ For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”     John 1:10–18 NASB

O God, Restore Us!

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By Linda Rex

December 19, 2021, ADVENT | Love— As I put out my nativity set in my living room each year, I hide the baby Jesus away for the miracle of Christmas morning. The shepherd watches from a safe distance, and the wise men with their camel are hidden back on a shelf temporarily until closer to that day. On that sacred evening we celebrate on Christmas Eve, I bring out the baby Jesus and pause with wonder at the miracle of this special event. The shepherd draws near to worship and the wise men on their journey come closer, seeking this chosen One.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in relationship with this God who would go to such incredible effort to draw every human being to himself in the miracle of the incarnation. I personally know the anguish and struggle that go with giving birth to a firstborn son, and the incredible joy and wonder which result when holding him in my arms for the first time. How could this marvelous bundle of possibilities have ended up in my arms? What does God have in mind for his life? How much more amazing must it have been for Mary to consider the wonder of being chosen to bear the Messiah!

But there is an undercurrent to this marvelous story which I believe is important to understand, and it goes along with this theme of being in relationship with God. And it is this: Jesus came because it was the will of God that he do so. He came because it is the nature of God to love and care for those he has created and brought into relationship with himself. The divine Son came willingly, and obediently, as an expression of God’s covenant love and faithfulness. The Son of God knew the Father in the Spirit, and trusted fully in his love—so he freely offered himself in obedience to the will of his Father.

My heart is heavy right now with all I see going on in my world. We are experiencing the consequences of our continual choices to do things our own way—to decide for ourselves how we will live and how we will treat one another and this world we all live on. I am broken by the way we live and the consequences of our choices. And it breaks my heart to think about what our children and grandchildren will be having to deal with when my generation has passed from the scene. What a price we pay for doing things our own way!

I often hear this time of year that the reason Jesus came was to die on the cross. In one way, I agree with this, but in another, I feel as though it truncates what Jesus actually came to do. The author of Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in whole burnt offerings and’ sacrifices ‘for sin you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come (in the scroll of the book it is written of me) to do your will, O God.” ’ … By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:57, 10 NASB)

I believe the Scriptures teach us that Jesus came to bring us into right relationship with God and subsequently with one another. Doing so required so much more than simply dying on the cross. It also involved being conceived in the womb of a woman, being a babe in her arms, growing up as a child into adulthood, and learning a trade at the feet of his father. Jesus experienced all of the everyday activities of our human life in a human body, being tempted in every point, but without sin. The forging of our true humanity occurred throughout his life, from birth even to death and on into the resurrection and ascension. In his human existence on this earth, Jesus “learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, … (Heb. 5:8–9 NASB).”

The song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” comes to mind as I am writing this. In this hymn which expresses our deep longing for our redemption and salvation, I hear echoed our longing for this transformation of our human existence:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
And order all things, far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
And cause us in her ways to go

O come, Desire of nations bind
All peoples in one heart and mind
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

(Latin Hymn, Translated by John M. Neale and Henry S. Coffin; Adapted from Plainsong by Thomas Helmore)

We also need to attend to the reality that there was a substantial difference between the responses of the two representative females in God’s story: Eve did not believe God, and ate of the tree she was told not to eat of, while Mary believed God’s word to her through the angel Gabriel and told God to do with her as he wished. In Eve, disbelief resulted in disobedience and all of the subsequent result of that as sin and death entered our human existence. In Mary’s belief and obedience, we find the life-giving God enters into our death- and sin-bound human existence in the person of Jesus Christ and restores our true humanity in his life, death, resurrection and ascension—making possible our right relationship with the Triune God now and forever in the gift of his Son and his heavenly Spirit.

What if we willingly surrendered our independence, our preferences, and our expectations to the God who came to us to bring us into right relationship with himself? What if we, like Mary, believed that God was good and loving, that he was faithful and trustworthy, and that he sought what was best for us? What if we actually said to God each day and in each moment, “Do with me as you wish”? What if we indeed brought every thought captive to the will of God in Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)?

The good news is that this is the very reason Jesus came. Jesus took our stubborn willfulness and turned us back toward obedience to the Father—even to the point of death on the cross. Jesus bore the suffering and agony of our rejection and resistance to God upon himself, took it to the grave, and emerged offering us new life in himself. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:16–17 NASB).”

What a lovely reason for the season! All that is left for us is to respond to Christ’s gift in faith, being filled with the Spirit and pouring out our gratitude in praise like Elizabeth, Mary, and Zacharias—all participants in this miraculous event. What we could not and would not do, Jesus did in our place and on our behalf. Such great love expressed to us by God above! We humbly receive with open hands and hearts, and respond with gratitude, saying, “Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” Your life, Jesus, for my life. Thank you, Lord!

“O God of hosts, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”      Psalm 80:7 NASB

“Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.’”     Luke 1:39–45 NASB

The Lord Our Righteousness

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By Linda Rex

November 28, 2021, ADVENT | Hope—The other day, my husband was telling me how during his myriad travels he came across a radio station in Florida playing Christmas music. Christmas music in October? Apparently, the station owners believed that all the negative press and bad news needed to be overcome with the good news found within the Christmas message, which brings hope, peace, joy and God’s love.

Indeed, we do well to attend to the spiritual realities which lie behind all the negative noise going on right now in the world around us. We can be overcome with sorrow, anger, and frustration due to the appearance of success that evil seems to be having. Or we can focus on the leaves bursting forth on the fig tree—there is new growth which will one day result in an abundant harvest of righteousness and goodness, to be celebrated forever in God’s loving presence.

The Old Testament is replete with warning to God’s people about what will happen should they wander away from their covenant relationship with God. Indeed, the apocalyptic language of such events strikes terror into us. None of us wish to personally experience the power of a tsunami or the destruction accompanying the alteration of the orbit of the heavenly bodies like the moon or sun.

What catastrophes might we personally dread? Have we ever thought about the consequences of how we live our lives day by day? Jesus says that no earthly catastrophe compares with the consequences of rejecting our one hope of salvation in him. So, he wants us to pay attention—to not take our relationship with God for granted, but to be actively involved in a life in sync with who we are as the beloved, forgiven, redeemed children of God.

I remember how for many years I agonized over whether or not I would qualify for the kingdom of God. Would I ever be good enough? Saints over the centuries have agonized over this question. How many of us have lived in this internal torment, longing for a mere morsel of hope that we will be included in the new life to come?

God gave his people a promise in Jeremiah 33:14-16 that one day a righteous son of David would come forth to execute justice and righteousness on the earth. When that day came Judah would be saved and Jerusalem would dwell in safety. God’s people would be known by this name, “the Lord our righteousness” (NKJV). The NIRT puts it this way, “The Lord Who Makes Us Right With Himself.”

The spiritual reality we need to grab hold of and rest in is that Jesus Christ is our right relationship with God, now and forever. Whatever we may do, whatever effort we put into it, is merely a participation in what Jesus has already done, is doing even now by his Spirit, and will do when he returns in glory. This is why, when the world begins to fill with catastrophes, we have no reason to fear or be afraid—we are already saved, are being saved, and will be saved—in Christ. By faith, we can lift our heads and look with hope and joy at the coming of our Lord in glory.

Truly, Jesus did warn us that it is easy to get distracted by the cares of this life and the pulls of our human flesh. We can learn a lot from those early Christian anchorites, who obeyed Jesus’ command to deny themselves, lay down their lives and follow Christ. They were willing to go to great lengths to forbid themselves the everyday blessings of life because they wanted more of Jesus. They were willing to humble themselves and receive the rejection of their peers and the world around them for the sake of doing what they believed Christ wanted them to do—seek him and him alone. Their eyes and minds and hearts were fixed on heaven, not on this earth and its pleasures and cares. There is much we can learn from them about self-denial and simple obedience to the Spirit.

Jesus and the early apostles called us to prayer—to acknowledging and acting on our dependency upon God in every situation of life. We pray for one another as well, offering up our support and encouragement as we face the difficulties and struggles of walking as believers in a world which opposes and rejects the person and way of Jesus. In prayer we call forth God’s presence and power in and through us—praying for God to increase his love in our hearts and lives, his holiness in our actions and motivations, and enabling us to experience by the Spirit the right relationship with God and man Jesus forged for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

God calls us to alertness—to readiness—a focus on him and his work in us and in this world. We often make prayer about telling God what he needs to be doing. In reality, prayer needs to become a way in which we become present to what God is already doing, attentive to what he wants to do in us and in the world around us, and how we can be a part of that. Prayer, by necessity, needs to become listening to the heart of the Father, and an openness to doing his will in this world, whatever that may be.

Prayer in the Spirit actually begins with God, who shares his thoughts and desires with us by the Spirit, and moves us to pray about the things which are important to him, about those things that he is at work in this world doing right now. As we offer up our prayers in tune with the heart of the Father, Jesus takes them, perfects them, and offers them in the Spirit back to the Father, completing the circle of relationship in which we are included. It is a beautiful thing to pray in the Spirit—sharing in the inner life of the Trinity!

Our attentiveness to God, our posture of listening and receptivity, of participation in the divine life and love, is how we prepare for the cataclysmic end of the world Jesus warned us would be coming. There is no need to fear or be anxious in the midst of difficult or dangerous times, for we are, even now, included in the inner life of the Triune God of love. We are already sharing in that blessed hope which will be fully realized when Jesus returns in glory. By faith, we trust in the finished work of Christ, so there is nothing for us to fear when we see Jesus return again—we’re already active in what he is doing in this world, participating in God’s mission, communing with God, and knowing he is present in every moment. His return in glory is merely the next step in what we are doing with him as the ones for whom the Lord is our righteousness.

Thank you, dear Abba, for including us in your life and love through Jesus your Son and in the Spirit. Remind us constantly to turn our hearts and minds toward you, so that all of life is lived aware of you and your real and active presence. Prepare our hearts to receive you, Jesus, now and forever, by your grace. Amen.

“Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.”     1 Thessalonians 3:(9–10) 11–13 NASB

“But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. … Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”     Luke 21:28, 34–36 (25–36) NASB

Don’t Be Misled

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By Linda Rex

November 14, 2021, PROPER 28—The other day as I was driving home from Charlotte, NC, I heard an old song by Clay Crosse called “He Walked a Mile.” This song really spoke to my soul that day, and I found it resonating throughout my memory for a long time afterward.

This song reminds me that what Jesus did for us is so much more than simply dying on the cross for our sins. The profound dignity he gave us as human beings by taking our humanity upon himself is overwhelming. God had always meant for us to live in intimate relationship with himself, and he was not put off by our turning away to the things of this earth and our self. He knew the cost to himself in creating and redeeming us before he ever breathed life into Adam—and he gladly paid it.

We live in a culture today which tells us that if we purchase the right product, take the right medicine, or purchase the right car, or use the right credit card, we will be happy, healthy, sexy, rich, and blessed. Our political leaders tell us that if they are elected, they will solve all our problems and usher in a new government which will bring prosperity, peace, and other benefits. Sadly, even our religions have embraced this marketing technique, offering us just the right combination of Bible, preaching, and outreach to ensure we will be good Christians and live forever in heaven.

I’m always amazed at how easy it is to take for granted that we are able to solve our problems ourselves. I agree that we have been given a lot of tools for figuring things out and taking care of things ourselves. And yes, we should do our part. But it seems to me that the one thing we all struggle with is coming to the realization that we cannot do what is needed in every situation all on our own without any help from God. We try to all the time, and many times we succeed—at least for a time. But then there comes a crisis. And we find ourselves floundering.

It is ironic that Jesus told his disciples over two thousand years ago to beware less they be misled by those who would promise they were the longed-for deliverer of the people. He knew our tendency to put our faith in our own efforts, in people or systems or ideologies, rather than simply putting it in Jesus our Messiah. It is so easy to be misled, especially when what we hear or see plays right into our deepest longing or need.

It is also ironic how we have spent a lot of effort over the centuries trying to determine exactly when Jesus would return in glory, when he told us no one knew the day or hour. Every time there is a great war, or threat of a great war, there seems to be someone who declares this is the final battle before the return of Christ. But Jesus told us there would be wars and even rumors of wars, but it wasn’t yet the end. He also told us there would be famines and disease outbreaks—which there have been over and over since his time—but it still wasn’t the end.

These are the beginning of birth pangs, Jesus said. As a mother, I know what birth pangs feel like. They are very painful, and there is a point in the delivery process when a mother wonders whether she will ever be free from the intense pain she is going through. But this pain is a necessary part of the birth process. And for humanity, these world troubles are a necessary part of the rebirth process all of God’s creation is experiencing as the children of God are being birthed into Abba’s family.

We must never forget that the first and most excruciating birth pain was experienced by Jesus Christ as he offered himself up in our place on our behalf. He walked a mile—from his birth, to the cross, and through the cross to the tomb, and through death into life everlasting, taking each of us with him on this painful yet triumphant journey.

No matter what we may experience in this life, no matter how many pandemics, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wars we may experience in this life—we are all caught up in Christ’s cruciform suffering. This necessary part of the process of rebirth becomes for us an opportunity for Jesus to forge within us by the Holy Spirit, his way of being. The trials and pains of life, when offered up to Jesus in faith, become the means by which Christ is formed in us, by which we are sanctified, refined, and cleansed. Whatever Satan may mean for evil, as we turn to Jesus, God redeems and restores it, using it for our good.

The good news is our redemption and deliverance are complete in Christ and are being worked out in us and in this world by the Holy Spirit. There are going to be difficulties, struggles, and even great suffering at times, but we never go through any of these alone. Jesus is always present by the Spirit, granting us the grace to share in his life and love, and to bear at times even his suffering so that we may share in his glory.

All of these birth pangs will, in God’s good time, come to fruition as God ushers in the new heavens and new earth. When we experience the completion of our rebirth, when Jesus finishes making all things new, these birth pangs we experienced will be infinitesimally small in comparison to the glorious freedom we have as the children of God.

When we are told to give thanks in all things, we are not expected necessarily to be thankful we are suffering. But rather we can be grateful that in the midst of our suffering, Christ is present and at work, holding us in the Father’s love and by his Spirit drawing us deeper into his life and love. Our gratitude then becomes an expression of our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, of our grateful embrace of our union and communion with God now and forever through Jesus in the Spirit. Rather than being misled by all the false messiahs in our existence, we are led instead by Jesus in the Holy Spirit as the beloved children of the Father.

Thank you, Father, for giving us your Son and your Spirit, and for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, that we can trust in your faithfulness—knowing that you will return and take us to be with you forever. Keep our hearts and minds by the Spirit on things above, so that we will not be misled by those who would turn us away from you. Maranatha—come soon, dear Jesus! Amen.

“As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.’ As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?’ And Jesus began to say to them, ‘See to it that no one misleads you. Many will come in My name, saying, “I am He!” and will mislead many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.’”     Mark 13:1–8 NASB

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”      Hebrews 10:(11–14, 19–22) 23–25 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

Receiving the Kingdom as a Child

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By Linda Rex

October 3, 2021, PROPER 22— What does it mean for you and me to accept the kingdom of God as little children? As Jesus embraced the little children who were brought to him, placed his hands on them to bless them, they received with humble, innocent trust the blessing placed upon them. Their open, obedient receptivity to the self-offering of Jesus forms a pattern for our own. Are we willing to allow God to be who he is and trust he loves us, seeks our blessing, and desires to do what is best for us?

Next year it will be twenty years since the divorce papers were signed on the dotted line. I have often asked myself what it was that drove me to make this decision I swore before God I would never make. Jesus was so right when he said that these types of situations arise out of our very human hardness of heart—our inability to and/or unwillingness to yield ourselves to the will and purposes of God. I believed I was doing the right and best thing at the time I made that decision, but it was not God’s ideal for us, not by any stretch of the imagination.

It takes two to make a marriage more than just words on a page. Both my husband and I have wrestled with the brokenness that caused us to take that road so many years ago. I believed I was doing the most loving thing possible for both my children and my husband when I filed for divorce. But the consequences of that attempt to be loving was great pain for my children, my family and friends, as well as my husband and I, even though we eventually remarried to one another. I do not wallow in guilt or shame about it today, but I grieve and regret the past and present suffering that resulted from this decision on both our parts to go against what God ordained our ideal marriage relationship to be.

In our passage for this Sunday, when approached by the Pharisees who were seeking to trap Jesus and cause him harm, Jesus avoided the current cultural debate as to a strict interpretation of the divorce law or a more lenient, culturally acceptable one by asking what Moses commanded. When they responded with Moses’ concession to the cultural practice of divorce (rather than a commandment), Jesus took them back to God’s original intent. Jesus, as God present in human flesh, explained God’s ideal of intimate union and communion between two unique yet equal persons who were so closely and permanently joined together that they could and never should be separated.

When taken in the context of the entirety of God’s word, we find that marriage was to image the relationship between God and Israel (which these Pharisees were violating). And since the Spirit was sent after the resurrection, it models the relationship between Jesus, the Bridegroom and the Church, the Bride. It can also be said to image what happened in the very person of Jesus Christ in the incarnation—the joining of God with man, it being God’s intention from before time began to unite himself with humanity through Christ in the Spirit, no matter the cost—even to the cost of his human life.

When we contrast God’s ideal with the reality of life in a world of brokenness, we find ourselves often at difficult crossroads. What does it mean to accept the kingdom of God as a little child when all of the decisions facing us seem to be extremely painful grownup ones that have no obvious answer? How do we wrestle with issues like genetics, gender, abuse, PTSD, and so many factors we have no control over? What do we do in the face of impossible situations when there seems to be no way out?

What about the pain and devastation that is caused when a man abandons his wife? How is she supposed to move on with her life or care for herself and her children? And what about the man whose wife is never faithful, even when she tries? What about the wife who discovers her husband is a dangerous man who might very well kill her someday in a violent rage? The real, everyday life decisions we face because of our broken humanity need answers. And normally, the only way we know how to deal with it is to make adjustments to the law so that we don’t feel guilty about doing what we feel we need to do to survive or to find some peace. The law, so often, is impossible to keep. The Pharisees—and even Moses for that matter—found themselves needing to make concessions.

The reality is that God isn’t the one who gets us in these situations—we as broken human beings are the ones, who through hardness of heart, find ourselves in impossible places, needing to work out some solution, since doing it the ideal way doesn’t seem to work. Pain is pain. Abuse is abuse. Adultery is adultery. Unfaithfulness is unfaithfulness. These things happen because we are broken human beings. We are all sinners. Does God turn away from us when we are in these desolate places? Where did he go when I was facing having to do what I never, ever wanted to do so that I could protect myself and my children?

The comfort is, Jesus became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. He has taken our place. He stands in our stead. In these painful and difficult situations, as we remain open and receptive and trusting, we discover that Jesus is just where he always has been—present by the Holy Spirit. It has more to do with how open and receptive we are to the kingdom of God present in this world by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus Christ in us leads us, directs us, and offers us his love and grace. How willing are we to allow Jesus to guide and direct our decisions, and to heal our broken hearts and broken lives?

I look back now and thank God for the journey he took me on when I felt led to divorce my husband. I see now how much I needed to grow in maturity, dependency upon God, in humility and in so many other ways. My husband needed to grow as well. God used this crucible of pain to grow us both up in ways we did not know we needed to grow up in. Was it the ideal situation? No. But when offered to God, it became a time of growth, reconciliation, renewal, and transformation. As we received and responded to Jesus in the midst of it, it became a participation in the kingdom of God.

God is still healing all the people and places that were broken due to our turning away from his ideal with regards to marriage and family. We are still working out the differences that are a natural part of two unique persons bound together in a permanent union before God. I am still learning to trust Jesus and to allow him to bless me and care for me the way he desires, even in a new and challenging way through this blessed gift of a husband who loves and wants to obey and serve his Lord. This journey with Jesus, and thankfully, my husband, will continue on into eternity. For this is the fundamental purpose of our existence—life in intimate relationship with our God as Father, Son, and Spirit, both now and forever. And life in union and communion with one another.

Where are you in your journey with Jesus? In what ways has your life fallen far short of God’s ideal? Have you offered this up to Jesus and allowed him to use it to refine, heal, and transform you? May you experience great grace for the journey as you walk in the Spirit and trust in Abba’s perfect love, allowing Jesus to hold you in his embrace and speak his blessing over you.

Heavenly Father, how heart-wrenching it must be for you to see us wander away from your ideal into barren wastelands full of pain, suffering, and loss! Thank you for meeting us there in Jesus and for sending us your Spirit so that we are never alone, but are always held in your love and grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.’ And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them.”      Mark 10:(2–12)13–16 NASB

“The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”     Genesis 2:(18–21) 22–24 NASB

Salted Sacrifices

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By Linda Rex

September 26, 2021, PROPER 21—Recently I was reflecting on memories I have of going to the beach with my friends. We would go in the late afternoon, find a spot with a firepit and roast hotdogs and marshmallows as we watched the sun go down over the water. Even today I can almost smell the scent of saltwater and seaweed, feel the rough sand between my toes, and hear the cries of the seagulls as they hover over the water.

At times we would do bodysurfing and ride the waves in to the shore, finding ourselves at times shoved under the water and pounded by the waves. Even though I’d always regret getting sand in my swimsuit, I loved swimming in the ocean and riding the waves. The water that I sometimes inadvertently drank when I got knocked over was very salty, too salty to swallow, and it burned my eyes.

It is amazing to me that there are creatures and plants which can live in an environment like the ocean even though the water is extremely salty. Salt, we have learned over the millennia, works well as a purifier, preservative and in helping wounds heal. Salt has been so valuable at times that it has been used as coinage for trading. Today salt is used in a myriad of ways, being essential in the manufacture of a wide variety of products. And in spite of being villainized as the culprit in high blood pressure and other health issues, people still season their food with salt.

If you want to ruin a batch of biscuits or cookies, though, just add too much salt to the recipe. Salt is meant to be used in limited amounts as a seasoning, to add flavor and zest to otherwise bland foods. When Jesus said that his followers were the salt of the earth, he meant that they added something pleasant and enjoyable to the world. If they became just like everyone else in the world, they would have lost their zest and tastefulness, and become worthless and unbeneficial.

Jesus was incredibly patient with his disciples. They were focused on who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus reminded them that they needed to be like little children—humble and dependent rather than arrogant and prideful. The measure of a person was not determined by their greatness in the human scheme of things, but by their spirit of humility and service, of laying down their lives for the sake of others.

The disciples saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name (which they had recently tried to do and failed) and insisted that the person stop. The man wasn’t part of the twelve Jesus had chosen, so they assumed he wasn’t supposed to be using Jesus’ name, even though God was honoring his efforts. Jesus told them they were wrong. They needed to stop excluding people Jesus was including in his ministry and life. They needed to stop attempting to resist and quench the Spirit at work in the lives of those other than themselves.

In Leviticus 2:13, the priests were instructed to season every grain offering with salt, “so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (NASB). The apostle Paul wrote that we are to present our bodies as living and holy sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), as an expression of true and proper worship. Our lives are not to be spent solely for our own glory and our own pleasure, but in love and service to God and others. This is why Jesus told the disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Jesus told his disciples that everyone would be seasoned with fire. The context of this particular statement is in the midst of several teaching sessions in which Jesus instructed the disciples about what would be soon happening to him—that he would suffer and die on behalf of the world for their salvation. The salt he was seasoning the world with was his own self-offering, and they needed to be willing and prepared to walk that same road with him. They needed to give up their human way of thinking about things and surrender to the spiritual realities of life in the kingdom of God. To truly live, we must be prepared to die—die to self, sin, Satan, and the things of this world.

Jesus used strong hyperbole or metaphorical language to make a point. He said that we must be prepared to eradicate or cut off anything in our lives that keeps us from participating in the kingdom of God. We want to enter into life, eternal life, that life in relationship with God that we were created for. But in order to do so, certain things in us must die with Christ—greed, lust, pride, selfish ambition, jealousy—these must be burned away by the baptism of fire Jesus offers us in the Spirit. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we are given new life—but it is an invitation, one offered to every human, that we receive and act upon.

What price are we willing to pay to receive that new life and begin to live in it? For the kingdom of God is both a present and a future reality. We begin even now, by faith in Christ, to live and walk in the way Christ forged for us. We live and walk daily by the Spirit in close relationship with God, and in warm fellowship with others God has called to himself. God’s purpose for our lives in Christ by the Spirit is not division or exclusivism, but unity, harmony and peace. As we are salted with the heart of Jesus by the Spirit, we will live in peace with one another. This was Jesus’ point.

We may be pounded by the waves and tossed about in the water of life’s experiences, but our certainty is in Christ. He is at work in us and in this world by his Holy Spirit purifying, healing, and preserving. As we respond to him in faith, we participate in his mission and work in this world, and act as a pleasant seasoning in a world devoid of true spiritual flavor. Our service and sacrifice brings a taste or a hint of the glories of the kingdom of God which we will one day experience in its fullness. In the meantime, we turn to Jesus, trusting in his finished work and living day by day as salted sacrifices offered in true worship to God.

Heavenly Father, thank you for washing us in the water of your Word, Jesus Christ, and for sending him to purify, heal, and preserve us. Grant us the grace to let go of everything that may get in the way of us walking freely as your beloved children, allowing ourselves to be living sacrifices, salted with your indwelling presence through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.

“John said to Him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, …. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, …. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’”      Mark 9:38–50 NASB

See also Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29.

Wisdom Has the Last Laugh

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By Linda Rex

September 12, 2021, PROPER 19—The earth turns slowly on its axis while wobbling through space. Along with its celestial brothers and sisters, it spins around the sun, traveling about in a rhythmic dance with the moon. Because of this, we step out of the house at dawn and watch the sun rise over the horizon. As night approaches, we watch the sun set in glorious array. We don’t sense any movement ourselves, but day by day, we experience the consequences of this movement.

In Psalm 19, King David wrote that the sun rising and setting each day, the magnificent heavenly bodies glittering in the night sky, and the wonders in heaven and on earth are all consequences of the actions of our God. His actions have led to life—life in a myriad of shapes and forms on this earth, in outer space, and in the vast oceans of the earth. God’s heart of love and grace are expressed in a real and powerful way in all he has made, and are a visible demonstration of his glory, his generosity and wisdom.

King David’s son Solomon wrote that wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks to us constantly, calling to each and every person to listen to her and to do what she directs. Why do you want to be ignorant and naïve, she asks, and suffer the consequences of foolish choices and decisions? “Turn to my reproof,” she warns, “Behold, I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you.” Then she says she will laugh in the day when the foolish experience the consequences of their refusal to listen to the voice of wisdom—she did her part but they turned away and chose to take their own path (Proverbs 1:20–33 NASB).

Wisdom, in this passage, involves a knowledge and understanding of God’s ways, his glory and his goodness. We were made in the image of God, after his likeness, to be reflections of his Triune nature of love. If this is our identity as human beings, what does it look like when we live it out? It looks a lot like Jesus.

Wisdom is available at all times—like the air we breathe and the sun coming up each morning and setting each night—it’s a part of our universe, constantly pointing out the reality that there is a better way of living, that there’s more to life than just this. God gave his wisdom in the creation of all things, in the revelation of himself to Israel, and in the giving of the law to his people. But going way beyond that, God has given us his profound wisdom in the person of Jesus Christ. He sent his Son, who took on our human flesh and lived the life we were meant to live. The law of God lived out in a human person, fully dependent upon the Father, in obedience to him by the Spirit, even to the point of giving up his life at the hands of others—this is what it looks like to be truly human and to be the wisdom of God present in this cosmos.

So often we ignore the wisdom God gives us. He tells us the best way to live and we ignore him, choosing our own way, our own path, to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. And then we become angry when we begin to experience the consequences of our choices. But there are consequences to choosing to ignore true wisdom, especially the true wisdom given to us in the person of Jesus Christ and his presence here in this world right now by the Holy Spirit.

God has always wanted us to experience the consequences of obedience to him—the benefits which involve life, a life lived now and forever in union and communion with him in the Spirit. God wants the harvest of our lives to be faith, hope, and love—a joyful experience of union and communion with him and our brothers and sisters, now and forever. He does not want us to, and has never wanted us to, experience the consequence of death. He always and ever wanted us to have life, true abundant life as he has always experienced it in the unity and harmony of the Father and Son in the Spirit.

True wisdom calls to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Come—this is the way you were created to live—in loving, faithful obedience to the Father by the Spirit expressed in loving care and concern for God and others. While the world around us and our broken flesh calls us to the pleasures of this life and to self-centered ways of living and being, Jesus calls us to a better way—a way of self-sacrificial service and humility. “If anyone wishes to come after Me,” he said, “he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” The consequence of following Jesus may, in the immediate sense, require sacrifice, suffering, and/or death, but in the end, it will result in eternal life—life in intimate relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit and in joyful life with others both now and forever as brothers and sisters in God’s kingdom.

The world around me is constantly encouraging me to believe that I am able to do whatever I want without any cost associated with my decisions. I am free, I am told. No one can tell me what to do. But just what is true freedom? Doesn’t true freedom require that we be willing to pay whatever price is necessary for that freedom to exist? Doesn’t true freedom involve other-centered love, limiting oneself for the sake of God and others?

What price are we willing to pay for the choices we are making today? Do we realize the full extent of what we are giving up in our current pursuit of self-absorbed living and self-centered pleasure-seeking? Do we realize the price we are going to pay if we continue to refuse to listen to the voice of Wisdom which is constantly calling out to us to turn from ourselves and to turn to Christ? Are we hearing even now the laughter of Wisdom as the consequences of our stubborn resistance to her are beginning to show themselves in our world and in our lives?

All of us make decisions while ignoring the consequences of those decisions. All of us stubbornly and willfully choose to go our own way at times, even though we know better, and know that it will cost us. Jesus, the wisdom of God present by the Holy Spirit, calls us to come to him, to find our rest in him. He calls us to turn from ourselves and the things of this world and turn to him, finding our true life in him instead. We may, in the short term, have to sacrifice or give up some things we value, but in the view of eternity, they are nothing compared with the glory God has planned for us as we share in his life and love as glorified human beings in the new heavens and new earth.

Dear Lord, everything you have made has been done with great love and abundance of wisdom. Thank you for giving your Son, your wisdom in human flesh, to be the true reflection of your glory and goodness we are to follow and obey. Thank you for planting your wisdom in human hearts by your Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to listen to and obey Wisdom as she calls to us day by day, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Jesus went out, along with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He questioned His disciples, saying to them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ They told Him, saying, ‘John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets.’ And He continued by questioning them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And He warned them to tell no one about Him. And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.’”      Mark 8:27–38 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