grace

Preparing for a Royal Visit

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost of Truth

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By Linda Rex

November 21, 2021, Christ the King or Reign of Christ, PROPER 29—I was standing in an aisle of the grocery store last week looking at the wide variety of crackers available for purchase. I was happy to see that there were more wholesome, natural products being offered at a price point similar to the common brand names. Then I looked more closely and realized that the price may have been similar but the amount of the product was significantly reduced in comparison to the others. It was obvious that an effort was being made to get buyers to choose their product, believing they would be buying a better product at a reasonable price, while in reality the buyer was being given much less product at a higher price.

I am saddened by all the different ways in which truth seems to inevitably depart from our human existence, especially when money or politics are involved. We give ourselves over so easily to the will and purposes of the father of lies rather than taking the difficult stand on what is truthful, authentic, and sincere. So often, we offer up our integrity on the altar of ease, comfort, pleasure, prosperity or popularity. We have made truth out to be something which is adjustable, according to our opinion or preference, rather than rooted in Someone outside ourselves—the One who is the God of truth, who came to us in Jesus—the way, the truth, the life—and who sent us the Spirit of truth to dwell in human hearts.

When Jesus was standing in the presence of Pilate during his last days here on earth, he was interrogated, asked whether or not he was the king of the Jews. Jesus did not lie about who he was, but rather, embraced the cost that went with telling the truth. He was born to be a king, but not the kind of human, political ruler Pilate should be concerned about. Jesus was the ruler of a spiritual kingdom—one which would be grounded in truth, rooted in his own self-offering on behalf of all humanity.

Pilate’s flippant comment at the end of their interview, “What is truth?” is a question that humans have wrestled with over the centuries. When we are not grounded in the One who is truth, we struggle to have a basis on which to establish truth. The loss of truth in our daily lives finds expression in a society and culture in which relativity reigns, where people adjust truth to suit their personal preferences and opinions, and where relationships falter and fall apart due to a lack of trust and authenticity.

There is a reason that truth is so essential. It is central to who we are. If we cannot simply be who we are—be truly sincere, genuine, and real—we find ourselves self-destructing and destroying our lives, our relationships, and the world in which we live. God never meant for us to struggle in this way. We were created to live and walk in truth because he is the God of truth in whose image we are made. We were designed to be people of integrity, honesty, and faithfulness because we are created in the image of the God who is faithful, honest, and reliable.

The necessary ingredient for truth to be central to our existence in relationship with God and others, though, is grace. We cannot have truth just on its own or it will destroy us, since we so often, by our human sinfulness, never seem to choose truth. Or we use truth to harm or destroy others rather than to build them up in love. This is why Jesus brought us both grace and truth. God knew that apart from him offering us forgiveness and mercy, we could never walk in truth—we always seem to wander away from this way of being we were created to live in.

Jesus was telling the truth to Pilate when he said he was born to be a king, and was the king of the Jews. He knew that his kingship was being rejected in that moment by his people, even though he had come to them and was offering them the opportunity to participate in his kingdom right then by faith. Jesus was establishing the divine kingdom of God in his flesh—living our life, dying our death, and he would rise again, bringing all of humanity into a new realm of existence in which they, by faith, could participate in his kingdom by the Spirit. This sacrificial self-offering was necessary for grace to undergird the kingdom of God being established by the One who is the truth of our existence as those made in the image of God.

When we read God’s word, we see how much God hates untruth. He hates it because it dehumanizes us—makes us what we were never meant to be—dishonest, unfaithful, inauthentic, untrustworthy—all ways of being which destroy and tear down society, relationships, and families. Untruth, though often considered an essential business practice, actually destroys people’s trust and ruins the reputation of a business or organization or leader. The power of untruth to destroy is seen all around us every day, but we still seem to choose it as an option when faced with the consequences of telling the truth.

This is because telling the truth, being honest, sincere and authentic, has a cost. This cost resembles what Jesus went through when he told the truth about who he was as the Son of God, the king of the Jews. The cost of telling the truth is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you want the benefits of the kingdom of truth, you need to be willing to pay the price of entering into the kingdom—truth-telling involves dying to self, laying down one’s preferences, popularity and all the perks of this life, for the sake of the kingdom of God—for the sake of living and walking in truth.

How easy it is to varnish the truth a little! To slip in a little white lie rather than have that difficult conversation! To polish or add a little glitz rather than to humbly admit what really happened! It takes a great deal of humility, courage, and faith to simply speak the truth in love when we would rather do otherwise.

One of the spiritual disciplines we have studied in our spiritual formation group is truth-telling. In Adele Calhoun’s book “Handbook of Spiritual Disciplines”, she explains that truth-telling is an offering up to God of space in our hearts and lives by telling the truth, in love, in every situation, no matter the cost to ourselves. This can be a very difficult thing for some of us, because we may have lied so often to ourselves and others that we have a hard time discerning what the truth really is. This is why we turn to Jesus, the One who is the truth. We receive from him the Spirit of truth—Christ’s nature of honesty, integrity, and truthfulness. It is by grace that we become truth-tellers.

We can begin the process of truth-telling by humbly coming to Christ the King and telling him the truth. We do not need to fear telling Jesus the truth because he already knows it—he simply wants us to admit it, and to receive his grace for having been less than truthful. We can ask God for the grace to tell the truth in every situation, receiving from him the Spirit of truth we need so that we can be Christlike people who live and walk in truth. What will it cost you to tell the truth today? Receive from Jesus his own self-offering of truth so that you can pay the cost of being a truth-teller in his kingdom.

Dear Father of truth, forgive us for our dishonesty and untruthfulness, for all the ways we embellish or alter the truth. Thank you for the grace you offer us in Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Grant us, by your Spirit of truth, the grace to be truth-tellers, now and forever, in your heavenly kingdom, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?’ Pilate answered, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.’ Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’”      John 18:33–37 NASB

Living the Kingdom Life

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hidden Glory

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By Linda Rex

October 17, 2021, PROPER 24—One of the reasons I find the gospel stories so compelling is that they strike a chord within me. I resonate with the experience of the disciples in their foolish attempts to find significance in being the Messiah’s followers, even though their hearts were filled sincerity in the pursuit of the Christ as he made his way to the cross. Jesus often brought his disciples face to face with their pride, exclusivism, unforgiveness, and other very human traits which badly needed to be removed in his sacrificial offering of himself.

Jesus often does this for us today, bringing us face to face with those things that mar our true humanity. He longs for us to relinquish these aspects of our being that were transformed in his offering of himself in our place on our behalf. But instead of surrendering ourselves to his transformative work, we often try to hide those parts of ourselves we believe he doesn’t like. What we may not realize is that those places we hide, our weaknesses and failures to love, are often the very place where he wants to do his greatest work.

This week, as I was reading the gospel passage for this Sunday, Mark 10:35–45, I was amused to see how the moment Jesus began to tell his followers that he was going to die and rise again, they began wonder who was going to be put in charge. James and John, with the help of their mother, asked Jesus to put them in the right- and left-hand positions when he came in glory. Jesus, of course, asked James and John whether or not they could drink the cup he was going to drink and be baptized with the baptism he was facing. They agreed that they could.

However, Jesus was referring to his upcoming suffering and death on the cross. The disciples probably had no idea that this was what they were agreeing to, but simply thought Jesus was exaggerating his concerns about the upcoming messianic battle with the reigning authorities in Jerusalem. They were still focused on bringing about a new political, militaristic physical reign, while Jesus was centered on the epic spiritual battle he would soon have in his crucifixion against evil, sin, and death. The Lord had his mind on paying the price necessary to ransom the world from its spiritual captivity. The disciples had their mind on the details of a physical reign on earth.

It’s not surprising that the other disciples were indignant when they found out that these two were asking for the best positions—not because they thought James and John shouldn’t have made this request, but simply just because they didn’t get to ask Jesus for those positions first. In reality, the disciples’ motivations and attitudes and behaviors were the very reason Jesus needed to walk the path he was walking toward the cross. Every human being, apart from Christ’s redemption, is caught in slavery to their fallen will, unable to do what is right, loving, and holy. It is Jesus’ work that broke the chains that bind us, and he gives us the Spirit to awaken us to the new life he forged for us. He knew we needed redeemed and came for that very reason—to rescue us and set us free—freeing us to love, serve and obey God, and to love and serve one another.

One of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, in my opinion, is Isa. 52:13–53:12. Here, the prophet Isaiah describes in great detail the ministry of the Suffering Servant who would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. He would take on himself our iniquity, and would be pierced for our transgressions. The ministry of this Anointed One is full of humility, suffering, and quiet endurance. What Jesus did as our Messiah fulfilled this prophetic word and accomplished what no other human could do—justifying humanity, interceding on their behalf, cleansing them of sin and reconciling them with God.

As we come to understand the servant heart of Jesus Christ, illustrated so well in Isaiah’s prophecy, we may begin to grasp what the disciples were not understanding—the Messiah came to serve, not to be served. As we reflect on the servant heart of Jesus, it may be wise to look at our own heart and ask—do I expect to be served or am I focused on serving? What is my motivation for what I do? If I am a leader, or desire to lead, what is my motivation for doing so? Does it reflect the servant heart of Jesus?

Because of what Jesus did in his sacrificial offering on the cross, each of the disciples came face to face with the reality that what they had hoped for and set their hearts on wasn’t going to happen. And they each had to deal with the reality that when they were put to the test, they let Jesus down. And, ultimately, Jesus hadn’t done what they had expected him to do. It was in this place of fear, distress and disappointment that the risen Lord met them. Here, in their loss of all their dreams and expectations, Jesus met them—risen from the grave, breathing his life into them by the Spirit.

Jesus Christ meets us right where we are—in our brokenness, our weakness, our sin, and our shame. He has taken all that on himself and in its place, he gives us his righteousness, his perfection, his renewal. This is the miracle of grace. Jesus stands right at this moment as our high priest, interceding on our behalf before the Father. He knows our weakness and our suffering because he has experienced it himself. He knows what temptation is like because he experienced it too, but without sinning. The cup of God’s judgment against sin was drunk completely by Jesus, as he offered himself in our place so that we might receive forgiveness and reconciliation and redemption—he is our salvation.

Maybe it doesn’t seem intuitive that servanthood would be a blessing and a privilege. But Jesus has made it so. He has humbled himself and served each one of us, bringing us up into his life with the Father in the Spirit. He gives us himself in the Spirit so that we can share his servant heart and begin to humbly serve one another. What we may prefer to hide, when given to Jesus, becomes in him a means by which his kingdom life may be experienced by those still living as though they are captives of evil, sin, and death. By faith in Jesus, we even now and will forever share in his glory, as we come out of hiding and begin to shine with the radiance of his goodness and love by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Loving Abba (Father), thank you for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, for humbling yourself to serve each of us, giving yourself to us as a true self-offering, freeing us from evil, sin, and death so that we might, by your Spirit, be true reflections of your glory and goodness, now and forever. Amen.

“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, | And our sorrows He carried; | Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, | Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, | He was crushed for our iniquities; | The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, | And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, | Each of us has turned to his own way; | But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all | To fall on Him.”      Isaiah 53:4–6 (7–12) NASB

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’; just as He says also in another passage, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’”     Hebrews 5:1–6 (7–10) NASB

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

Mirror of the Human Heart

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By Linda Rex

August 29, 2021, PROPER 17—I have been in tears lately over the reality of the inhumanity with which we as human beings exist in this world. I am sick of the betrayals, the deceptions, and the manipulative messages meant control, use, and steal from innocent, trusting individuals. How low can we as humans go? Apparently, after all these millennia we still have not plumbed the depths of the human depravity we are capable of.

All of the evil I see around me right now is nothing new—we’ve been going at this inhumanity to humanity thing since we were first created. Perhaps our capacity to self-destruct and to destroy our planet is greater than it ever has been. But what we as humans do to one another that is evil and depraved is nothing new. It is birthed out of the heart of the evil one which we have too often given heed to and followed since the beginning of time.

Sadly, I find that we as followers of Jesus Christ can be just as bad or worse than those we like to point our fingers at and declare to be sinners. Too often, we are simply just more effective at disguising or hiding our failures to love God and others. In our gospel reading for this Sunday, we see Jesus taking some Pharisees and scribes to task for their hypocrisy. They may have been very religious, but their oral traditions actually enabled them to look like they were good people when in reality they were avoiding their responsibility to their fellow human beings.

Jesus was not unfamiliar with the depravity humans are capable of. His point was that it is not the external things which make us unclean or unacceptable to God. Not washing our hands a certain way or not doing a certain religious ritual correctly does not determine our uncleanness or unacceptability to God. It is the things that are birthed in our hearts and pour out from us which defile us. Jesus said things such as “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness” come from within and are what make us unclean (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21–23 NLT). Our only hope with regards to these things is for God to give us a new heart and mind.

When we focus on our failures as human beings to love one another as God meant us to, we can become very angry or depressed. Focusing on the evil human beings dump all over one another does not resolve the issue. We need to remember the admonition the apostle James gave us regarding looking into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who is the exact representation of the Father in human flesh, the perfect image-bearer of God each of us is created to be. He is the One we are to keep our eyes on, for he is the living Word of God present in our humanity by the Holy Spirit, ever at work transforming human hearts and minds.

In Christ we have been given a new heart and mind. When we look into the mirror who is Jesus Christ, the One who kept the law of liberty fully and completely as we should, do we see only the broken humanity which is caught in the cesspool of evil and sin? Or do we see the resurrected crucified Lord, who took all that evil and sin upon himself, died our death, and rose from the grave, ascending into the presence of the Father, bearing our glorified humanity now and forever. In the beloved Son of the Father, through whom we are forgiven, accepted and beloved children of God, we find our life is hidden with Christ in God.

As we gaze into the face of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we find we have a choice. We can refuse to believe and accept who he is for us and what he has done for us in giving us himself. We can walk away and resume our old ways of thinking and living. Or we can begin to live into the truth Jesus has revealed to us about who we are as the beloved, forgiven and accepted children of God. We can live and walk in truth, or we can continue in the self-deception, corruption and stubborn willfulness of our lives as disobedient children.

James reminds us that the superficial gloss of religiosity is valueless and is despised by God. Jesus, on many occasions, condemned hypocrisy in self-proclaimed religious people. Saying the right words, even getting the rituals right, is meaningless if it is not backed up by the evidence of our faith in Christ. True religion that is acceptable before God comes from a heart filled with the presence and power of Jesus by the Holy Spirit which is expressed in the care of those who are not able to care for themselves and a life lived out of the truth of who we are in Christ.

The struggle to be what we were meant to be rather than what we find ourselves so often being is a real one. In every moment of every day, we are called once again to turn away from ourselves and to turn to Christ. We are called again to lay down our lives, pick up our cross, and to follow him. We are reminded by the Spirit to gaze again into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus, so we can remember whom we are and begin anew to live out the truth of whom we are in him by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Self-deception is easy. We can always find ways to excuse or rationalize our behavior or our failure to live as we know we ought to live. Those of us who share the good news of the gospel find it a tough challenge to really live out the good news of Jesus Christ in a world which is constantly tempting us to turn away from him, and is ever pulling us back into our old ways of thinking and living. It is so easy to put on the façade and never let anyone know how far we have fallen from the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.

But that is why we are called into fellowship with other believers. The point of gathering with other believers is to grow in our relationship with God and one another, and to grow in Christlikeness. There are many ways in which we gather together—whether at church for worship and hearing the Word, or in a small group for learning and fellowship, or coming together for the simple purpose of praying together as brothers and sisters in Christ. In these spiritual communities, we are living in a small way the kingdom life we were each created for and in which we will live forever when Jesus returns in glory. We have the opportunity right now to express true religion day in and day out as we interact with the people God puts in our lives, offering kindness, service, and humble obedience to the will of God by genuinely loving and caring for them in the name of Jesus.

Sincere, heartfelt love and care for others is a reflection of the nature of Jesus Christ himself, as God in human flesh. He is the mirror we gaze into—and which we want to reflect as we live day by day in this world which has drifted so far from what God meant it to be. Not everyone appreciates a mirror, nor do they care to have reflected back to them how far they have fallen from what they were meant to be. There are places in this world today where people are suffering deeply from choosing Christ and living his way. When the time comes for us to make that same choice, what will we do? Are we willing to be true reflections of the mirror that is Christ, no matter the cost to ourselves?

Heavenly Father, how far we have fallen from all you meant us to be! Thank you so much for not leaving us here forsaken in our darkness. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us and bringing us out into the light, and for sending your Spirit so we can share in your life now and forever. Grant us the grace to worship you, Father, in spirit and in truth, as accurate reflections of your glory and goodness, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”     James 1:17–27 NASB

The Lord Is In It

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Cost Goes Up

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By Linda Rex

July 11, 2021, PROPER 10—Here in Nashville, it’s becoming pretty obvious that the cost of everything is rising. My heart goes out to those who are already struggling to make ends meet. Businesses who are simply trying to weather this economic storm are doing what they have to do—it has been hard for them too and now it is hard for those of us who are their customers. Whether or not we like it, there is a cost we pay to have the things we want in life, and sometimes that cost goes up.

This is especially true when it comes to the things of the Spirit. There is a cost to following Jesus. And what we may struggle with is that the closer we get to Jesus, the higher this price goes. This may be why so often we do not attend to the spiritual realities—they come at too high of a price.

Coming to faith in Jesus doesn’t mean everything in our life suddenly goes well or we become prosperous, popular people. Following Christ actually involves death—death to our old ways of being, to our selfish and self-centered ways of living, to habits which hurt us and hurt others. This price goes up as we may lose relationships or jobs as we begin to follow Christ instead of following our old ways of living. And this can be hard and painful. None of us easily gives up what is most pleasant and comfortable to us. We prefer to continue in paths that our feet easily trod without having to struggle or climb.

But Jesus provided a way for us, walking ahead of us into death on the cross, and through it into resurrection. Hidden with Christ in God is our true humanity—that person you and I were created to be as image-bearers of God himself. What we struggle with is living today in the already-not yet of our humanity, where what our broken sinful flesh wants us to be and what Jesus created us to be live in conflict with one another. Thankfully, in Christ, we receive the life of God by the Spirit who enables to live out the truth of who we are as adopted children of God, image-bearers of the divine in spite of all the inward and outward pressures not to.

In 2 Samuel 6 we read the story of when David was going to bring the ark of God to its resting place in Jerusalem. The first attempt to move the ark ended in death, because of the irreverent treatment of the ark of God’s presence. David was wiser the second time around. He found out what the word of God said about how the ark was to be handled and moved, and followed what he learned there. This time the occasion was filled with joyful praise, offering of sacrifices, and giving of gifts. But sadly, his wife Michal, as she watched David dancing uninhibitedly before the Lord, despised him in her heart. The king’s passionate worship of God became a barrier in their relationship, separating them from that day forward (2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19).

Our obedience to God and following his call upon our lives will not always be met with gladness and appreciation. Many times, it will be met with resistance or rejection. Amos was a herdsman and grower of sycamore figs in Israel. He obeyed God’s command to warn the nation of Israel about the consequences it was facing due to its rejection of God and his ways. His efforts were not met with joy or gratitude. Rather, he was accused of treason. His humble efforts to be obedient to God’s instructions and to help his people ended in rejection, not in praise and celebration (Amos 7:7–15).

In last week’s sermon, we saw that in Jesus’ own hometown, he was not believed. He was met with criticism and suspicion rather than with praise and gratitude. Jesus was amazed at the people’s unbelief. And then Jesus sent out his disciples into the communities around, empowering them to heal the sick and to cast out demons. His ministry, which occurred through their hands and efforts, began to create talk. Who was this man? In Mark’s gospel, we find even the tetrarch Herod Antipas began to be a bit concerned about this miracle worker. But his concern was rooted in guilt. He had previously beheaded John the Baptizer. His conscience was working overtime, giving him concern that maybe John had risen from the dead and was now empowered to do miracles.

We find the backstory to this event inserted here. John had followed God’s call upon his life, and had warned Herod and Herodias that their relationship was illicit and incestuous. This infuriated Herodias and she began to plan John’s execution. Herod held John in prison, listening to him and being intrigued by his preaching, but wanting to thwart his wife Herodias’ attempts to kill John. Herodias, in the end, was able to find a way to trap Herod into having John beheaded, since he was more concerned about what others would say about him than about what was right and holy.

As leaders of the people, these two followed their own passions and desires rather than obeying God’s instructions on living. What we see in this story is the profound cost of following God’s call upon one’s life rather than simply doing what is culturally and politically expedient. When John did what he believed God wanted him to do, he ended up in prison. When Herod and Herodias did as they pleased, John ended up beheaded. The price John paid for following God’s will, and being the Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, was death.

In his death, though, we see foreshadowed what would happen to Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus was also following the will of the Father, and speaking truth to the multitudes. When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he sought time alone with the Father. He knew that he was next. There was no other path for him, for he was seeking, for our sakes, to go all the way to the cross to raise all humanity up into new life.

Although Jesus had a large following, what those followers needed to understand was that there is a cost to following him. And the closer you get to Jesus, the higher that cost will go. In today’s cultural and political climate, to take a stand for what is just, right, and holy, is to open oneself up to criticism, condemnation, and death. Saying death here may seem extreme, but it isn’t at all when you consider how many people lately have experienced death to their businesses, their relationships, and their involvement in community because they have stood up for what is honest and true, what is good and godly.

To say that there is one way in which we are all called to live is to take an extreme risk. How can we say there is only one way when everyone is free to decide for themselves? The reality is that we are all free to choose, but there is only one way to live that brings genuine freedom, genuine joy and peace, that truly brings life. The way you and I were created to live as image-bearers of the divine, is to live as unique persons in equality and unity just as God lives.

The Father, Son, and Spirit, who lavished upon us such great grace in Christ, are calling each of us into relationship, to live together even now and forever in the oneness and love in which we were created to live (Ephesians 1:3–14). There is no other way but this one way of being, of truly being ourselves, that will bring genuine fulfillment and real life. But there is a price to pay, and that price goes up as we draw closer to Jesus. Are we willing to pay it and go all the way with him into death and resurrection? Or will we choose the cheaper, easy path that requires nothing of us?

Heavenly Father, thank you for lavishing on each and every one of us your grace and love through your Son Jesus. Thank you, Christ, for living our life, dying our death, and bringing us up into new life, by faith into eternal union and communion with God in the Spirit now and forever. Grant us the grace to willingly pay the price to follow wherever you may lead us, in Christ’s holy name. Amen.

“And King Herod heard of it, for His name had become well known; and people were saying, ‘John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.’But others were saying, ‘He is Elijah.’ And others were saying, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has risen!’”     Mark 6:14–16 (17–29) NASB

Offended by the Ordinary

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By Linda Rex

July 4, 2021, PROPER 9—We are currently going through “ordinary” days on the Christian calendar. During this particular time of year we reflect on the life and ministry of Christ and how God is at work in the ordinary things of our lives. We turn our attentions to the day-to-day experiences of God’s presence as we go about our jobs, caring for our loved ones and simply doing life.

When something is ordinary, we can take it for granted. When people get to know you well, they can easily dismiss anything you do as ordinary and unimportant. When we do the same things over and over every day, those things can lose our interest and attention. We can even begin to take for granted those we love when we get caught up in the routines and expectations and demands of our everyday life. Life in relationship can become ordinary and lose its attraction and appeal.

Unfortunately, this is also true of our relationship with Jesus. In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Mark 6:1–13, we find Jesus returning to his hometown. He went to synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom, and stood up to read. His reputation for miracles was impressive and his wisdom in explaining the scriptures was evident, but the people of his hometown couldn’t get past the ordinary. This was an ordinary man, a carpenter of questionable lineage, whose brothers and sisters and mother they knew well. How could he do the things he did?

Jesus was amazed at their inability to see beyond the ordinary. They were offended rather than amazed by the anointing of God which was evidently upon him. They could not reconcile his miracles and preaching with him being an ordinary man from an ordinary family in an ordinary town in Galilee. They were scandalized by the idea that he might be the Messiah, so could only attribute his gifts and signs to the evil one.

I wonder whether when such things happened Jesus was reminded of the ministry of Ezekiel. This prophet was told by God at the beginning of his ministry that he would speak the truth to God’s covenant people, but they would reject his message (Ez. 2:1–5). We can be inspired by God, empowered by God, but still be offensive to and rejected by those to whom we are sent. We can follow Christ, allow his Spirit to transform our lives, but still be considered profane and worthless by those who will not believe that God has redeemed and restored us.

We need to be careful not to fall prey to the lie that how well we live out the Christian life immediately determines peoples’ response to the message. Yes, our lives should reflect Christ—as image-bearers of the divine, we should be living expressions of God’s love and grace. But Christlike living does not guarantee us a welcome response. Nor is walking about with a façade of perfected holiness needed here. What is truly needed is a genuine expression of humble dependency upon God’s mercy and goodness, which reflects the reality of God at work within the ordinary.

The apostle Paul reminds us that God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Cor. 12:2–10). God’s grace is sufficient in the midst of whatever we may be wrestling with. To touch other people’s lives effectively, we need to be genuine and real about the work God is doing in our own life. Being honest about our struggles, our failures and need for grace, and how God is redemptively at work in us, is a powerful witness to the gospel. Evidence of what God is doing by the Spirit is seen when we are pushed beyond our human ability and are struggling with issues we cannot handle, and God intervenes in unexpected ways.

What is ordinary becomes glorious when Christ is in it. We open ourselves up to the work of God’s Spirit and amazing things can happen. But if we are focused on the ordinary to the exclusion of the divine, we may find our outlook becomes much dimmer. We may not experience the real personal presence of God when we are focused merely on the everyday to the exclusion of our relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit.

Like the people in Jesus’ hometown, we can become so focused on the ordinary in situations and circumstances that we miss the reality that God is present and at work by his Spirit. We can become offended by evidence of Jesus’ power and grace because it doesn’t fit our preconceived ideas of what it should look like. We can be scandalized by the grace God shows to people we believe are worthy only of condemnation. We need to be careful not to get so in tune with the ordinary that we forget the miracle Jesus has done for each and every one of us, drawing us into his intimate relationship with the Father and enabling us to participate in it by the Spirit.

When God goes to work, things happen. Changes occur. Lives are transformed and healed. People who are spiritually asleep wake up. Those who have always been alone suddenly find they have to learn how to live happily in relationship. Those who are weak suddenly find the strength to do and say those things which in the past always seemed to escape them. Those who are hateful and resentful suddenly find they are compassionate and caring towards others.

What is our response? Do we mock these changes as mere flukes in our human experience? Are we offended that God might be doing something new or different which we don’t agree with? The ordinary days on the Christian calendar are a good time to evaluate how attentive we are to what God is doing in this world, in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Are we attending to, rejoicing in, and bearing witness to Jesus and his ministry by the Spirit in us, our community, and those around us? Or are we offended, scandalized by his goodness, mercy and love?

Thank you, Father, for never turning away from us, but rather embracing us in the midst of our rejection and rebellion and turning our face back to you, in and through Jesus and by your Spirit. Enable us to see clearly your presence and power at work in us and in this world, and to actively share this good news with those you have placed in our lives, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

“‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at Him.”     Mark 6:3 NASB

“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”     2 Cor. 12:2–10 NASB