Holy Spirit

Blind to Our Best Blessing

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By Linda Rex

March 27, 2022, 4th Sunday in LENT—As we journey through the season in preparation for the events of Holy Week and reflect upon our own personal need for the Savior, it’s a good time to consider the many blessings we receive at the hand of God—many of which are undeserved, especially when we are more like prodigal children than faithful ones. However, the miracle of Holy Week is that God cares not only for all of the prodigals in the world, but also for all of the older sons who year after year faithfully serve God and seek to do his will.

In his book, “The Pressure’s Off”, psychologist and author Larry Crabb draws attention to our tendency to focus more on working to receive God’s blessings than we do seeking God himself and being in relationship with him. It is easy to see why he would say this—simply walk into a bookstore and you can see the many books written about ways in which we can be blessed in our lives if we just follow the authors’ guidance in getting our act together and living in a way that pleases God.

Now, I agree that we were created to love God and love one another—that this is our way of being we were created to live in. And when we don’t live in that way, we experience a lot of unnecessary heartache and suffering. But the central issue Jesus pointed us to was loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and being—i.e., all that we are—and to love our neighbor as ourself. This has more to do with a focus on right relationship and a lot less on having a good life in which we are free from pain and suffering.

As I was reading the narrative for today’s gospel reading, Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32, I was struck by the similarity of our misguided focus and the story’s ending where the older son came home from a hard day of work only to find everyone having a huge party in his absence. When he asked what was going on, he was told that they were celebrating because his younger brother had arrived safely home. This, understandably, made him livid.

Furious, he ranted at his father, “All these years I worked to the point of exhaustion, obeying every little instruction you gave me, and not once did you ever even buy me lunch or take me out to dinner! And now, this wastrel, who threw all your money away and made us almost lose the farm, shows up and you throw a party? You even killed the calf we’d been fattening up and invited the whole neighborhood over!”

If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to say that the response of this older son is not much different than our own response when we see God go to work in the life of someone we can’t stand and turn them completely around, drawing them out of their broken, shattered life into one centered in Christ. The memories of all the harm they have done, the broken promises, the losses and griefs we suffered at their hands, are hard to ignore. No, it’s just not that simple to let them off the hook, especially when we see little or no proof that they have genuinely changed.

Or, we may have spent our whole life doing our best to be a good person, going to church faithfully, donating to every good thing we thought might be worthwhile, and trying to take good care of our health and our family. But then we end up in the doctor’s office facing the reality that we are dying of cancer. Or the officer shows up at the door to tell us our teenage child was killed in a car wreck by a drunk driver. Or…the list could go on. Our best efforts at being an obedient child of God seem insignificant in the face of such loss and grief, suffering and pain.

The point we are missing, unfortunately, is that it isn’t about anyone’s performance or lack thereof. It isn’t about the fact that we have been faithful and obedient all these years and they haven’t. The point is that God is love, and that he loves them and he loves us, and that everyone of us is given, in Christ, an intimate relationship with the God who wants to live in union and communion with each and every person now and for all eternity. He does not want anyone to miss out on all that is truly theirs—life in the midst of the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit—something each and every person was created to participate in.

Notice the father’s response to the son’s tirade: “Son, you’ve always been with me. Everything I have is yours. What we’re celebrating is that your brother was dead, but now he is alive! He was lost, but now he is found! How can we do anything less than celebrate?” In every word, he reminded his son that he was near and dear to his heart and that everything he owned was at his son’s disposal at all times. In order to give the inheritance to the younger son, the father had distributed all he owned between them both. This father had held nothing back, but had given it all up—for both his sons.

We find the older son was a whole lot more concerned about the fatted calf and the party and the welcome given the prodigal child, than he was about his own personal relationship with his father. Isn’t that like many of us? We get more concerned about how someone else is or isn’t living the Christian life (as we define it) than we do about our own right relationship with God in Christ. We want to know why we aren’t being blessed by God the way they are, rather than realizing the extent God went to in Christ so that we, along with everyone else, could spend eternity in his presence. What really matters most to us?

It is so easy for us to be blind to our best blessing—life in relationship with the God who loves us and has offered us everything in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. What in this life is so very important that it is worth giving this up? Yes, there may be a prodigal God wants us to welcome home with gratitude, celebrating he or she who was dead is alive again, for the one who was lost is, in Christ, now found. But possibly, we might be the one who is blind to the true blessing God has given us in Christ, unable to see how marvelously wonderful it is to be included in God’s love and life, to be given his own precious Spirit, to be held close to the Father’s heart, with all of heaven at our disposal, now and forever, as his beloved child.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness through Christ and in the Spirit. Thank you for, in Christ, becoming the prodigal one yourself and bringing us home from the far country to be welcomed now and forever in the Father’s embrace of love and grace in the Spirit. Thank you for removing our blindness and helping us to see how beloved and cherished we really are, now and forever, through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.

“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. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”     2 Corinthians 5:16–21 NASB

[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/blind-to-our-best-blessing.pdf%5D

The Messianic Spirit

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By Linda Rex

January 23, 2022, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany—One common thread that seems to run through life no matter what century we live in is a desire for someone to come and solve the great problems of life. We may face economic woes, political corruption, moral depravity, or natural disasters, and be tempted to embrace just about anyone who will come in and “save the day.” The price we pay for trusting the wrong person to be our messiah can ultimately be pretty steep, but in those times of great stress and struggle, we may think that we can look the other way for a while, and trust them to fix what we want fixed, and hopefully deal with the fallout on the other side without too much loss.

It is significant that when God pulls together by the Spirit members of the body of Christ, he doesn’t choose any particular person to be the savior. Rather, he pulls together all different sorts of people, gifting each one uniquely so that his purposes will be accomplished, but done in the context of community. The Spirit brings together unique persons with distinct gifts and creates a body of people in and through whom he can do ministry in this world. But Christ remains the one unique Messiah, Savior of all, and allows his body, the Church, to participate in what he is doing in the world.

When Jesus described his messianic mission, he began by saying, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus did not function alone in this world while he was on earth. No, he came as God in human flesh on mission with his Father in the Spirit. The Triune God was at work in and through Jesus Christ, and it was God’s kingdom that was present and active in his personal presence and action when Jesus stood that day in the synagogue and began by the Spirit to read from the book of Isaiah.

Jesus went on to read about what he was anointed by the Spirit to do: “… he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the line, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

Then he ended by telling his listeners that this was being fulfilled in that moment as Jesus stood and expounded the Scriptures to them (Luke 4:14–21 NASB).

In a community that had recently experienced Roman wrath poured out against a Jewish messiah, such talk from a Jew who they were familiar with was really hard to handle. What would be the consequences of the wrong person hearing Jesus speak? Perhaps the common people might appreciate the miracles and the preaching, but the leaders would not have wanted another season of Roman oppression and violence.

But Jesus said, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” That’s the real issue. What do we do when the Spirit goes to work and says to us, “I’ve got something new I am doing—join me.” When the Spirit calls us down a new road of ministry that looks different than what we have been doing, then what? Do we dictate to the Spirit or does the Spirit call us to join with him? This is our challenge as the body of Christ. Are we doing what we are doing “in the Spirit?” Or are we doing it in our flesh and asking the Spirit to bless it?

The body of Christ takes many different forms in the world today. The Spirit brings people together to do ministry in this world. The Spirit even moves in ways which many of us would consider secular. But the Spirit is always and ever active, moving to accomplish the purposes of God in this world. We can enthusiastically join in with him in what he is doing, or we can insist on God accomplishing those tasks we think he should be accomplishing. What does the kingdom of God look like when God brings it to fulfillment here on earth as it is in heaven?

Life in the kingdom of God begins now as Christ in us by the Spirit reigns in human hearts. There is an already-not yet aspect to the kingdom of God. In Christ by the Spirit the kingdom of God is already at work in this world, specifically within the body of Christ, in the communion of the saints. But we also realize that the kingdom of God is not realized in its fulness since so many people today do not fully participate in God’s life and love, not knowing that the kingdom of God is present and active in their lives even now through Jesus and in the Spirit.

The Spirit brings people together into a body, a group of people joined together, uniquely framed into a form that will accomplish God’s particular task in that place for his purpose. We find that not everyone is the same. The Spirit gifts people uniquely, and some may seem to be more gifted than others. The point is not whether someone is more gifted than another. The point is that each of these gifts are brought together into the unity of the Spirit to accomplish a particular purpose in that specific place.

It is equally true that the body of Christ takes a form which is always changing. We like to get in our groove and start doing things a certain way, and then assume that it will always stay like that. In reality, the Spirit is living and active. He is always in motion, doing what is new and life-giving at all times.

It may be that that the Spirit is wanting to do something new while we have our boots stuck in the mud and don’t want to move forward. This is why Jesus faced such opposition from the Jewish leaders in his day. They believed the Spirit only worked in one particular way—their way. They did not see that the Lord of all, who was filled with the Spirit, was the one directing them into a new path. The king of the kingdom of God was present and calling them to a new direction, but they did not want to hear it, much less participate in it.

The apostle Paul, in our reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a, ends this section about spiritual gifts with an invitation to see a new and better way rather than focusing on spiritual giftedness. This transition invites us to discover the beauty and wonder of God’s way of being—love. This is an other-centered way of being that both gives and receives in a mutuality of love and respect. This harmony and unity among unique and equal persons is the image we are to reflect as the body of Christ, for this is the way of being of the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Ultimately, we don’t need a messiah just to deliver us—we need the Messiah to transform and heal us. What happens in this world would be so much different if we each were living “filled with the Spirit” in the unity and oneness Christ brought us into through his messiahship. Jesus described life in the kingdom of God in this world today as discipleship, and said that people would know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another. What if, instead of counting on a human messiah, we began to trust in our true Messiah, Jesus Christ, and began living and walking in the Messianic Spirit he has poured out on all flesh?

Thank you, Father, for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to remain open to your leading and obedient to your Spirit at all times. Keep us surrendered to your will and purposes, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. …  God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. … Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. … But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.”     1 Corinthians 12:12–31a NASB

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

In Search of Christ

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By Linda Rex

December 26, 2021, Christmas | Holy Family—I remember years and years ago walking downtown to do some shopping with with my mother and two brothers. At that time, the Los Angeles, California suburb of Monrovia was a picturesque city of about 30,000 residents located at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. We often made the trip downtown to use the library, visit the grocery store or thrift shop, or to visit some of the little shops located on Myrtle Avenue.

On this day I recall that while we were visiting a clothing store, we inadvertently lost my younger brother. He was really little at the time, so we were very concerned about what might have happened to him. During our search, I remember looking under all the clothing racks, hoping he might simply have been playing hide and seek. Eventually, we looked up and down the street in different stores, and I remember us even going to the police station in our effort to find him.

This event of my childhood often comes to mind when I read Luke’s account of how Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus as they returned home from Jerusalem with the other travelers. It was not unusual, apparently, for the parents to travel in different groups rather than as a couple, so it’s possible that Mary simply did not realize that Jesus wasn’t with Joseph, or vice versa. And with the number of people traveling together on pilgrimage, they might have simply assumed he was with relatives or friends. Considering the circumstances, it would have been easy to lose track of him.

Imagine the shock, though, when they discovered Jesus wasn’t anywhere to be found. They had, quite simply, lost the child who was to be the Messiah (as if that was even possible). Their subsequent frantic search for Jesus was, from their point of view, perfectly understandable.

The story takes a profound turn, though. It seems the last place they thought he would be is the very place he had been all along—in the temple, sitting at the feet of the teachers of the law of God. When they found him, Mary said to him, “Why have you treated us like this? We have been anxiously looking for you.” But Jesus replied, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48–49 NASB) Apparently, they had forgotten or not understood who he was. Where else would he have been but in his heavenly Father’s house?

Today, as I reflect on this story, it again occurs to me that we participate in this story in a very special way. In it, Jesus teaches us where we can find him when we feel as though we have lost him. We may long for a relationship with God and in searching for him, cannot seem to find him anywhere. Or there may be times in life when we may feel as though we are fatherless or orphaned, or as if we have been abandoned or forsaken. We may feel as though we are left alone, without anyone to care about what happens to us. Or we may long for deep relational connection, but in all our efforts to connect, we are left shattered and broken, trying to bring back together all the pieces of our life.

Jesus says to you and me, “Why are you looking for me?” It may be worthwhile to take some time in quiet reflection to consider the answer to this question. What are we really searching for? Is it possible that we are needing a compassionate and forgiving Friend who will not criticize or condemn us? Is it possible that what we have been struggling to find is actually our loving Father—the One who deeply cares for us and wants to be a part of our life? Do you and I even realize what we are really searching for and need is the Savior Jesus?

And if it is Jesus we are searching for, then why is it we are needing him? Our hearts and minds can tell us a lot about what it is that is really going on inside if we are willing to slow down and pay attention. Too often we, like Joseph and Mary in this story, are so busy going about our everyday lives that we don’t attend to our connection with the One who cares for us so deeply. We can just assume he’s around somewhere or that someone else is tending to him, not realizing we have gone on ahead without him.

What is it we are truly longing for and needing? Why do we do what we do? What do our patterns of life tell us about our relationship with God and with others? We may be surprised to discover that things are not as we first assumed. We may find that what we have been searching for has been right where it needed to be the whole time we were looking for it!

When we do realize who we are looking for and why we are looking for him, then we are able to attend to Jesus’ reply, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” Where do we search in order to find Jesus? We are meant to find Jesus right now in his Father’s house by the Spirit. In the biblical view, we can experience the presence of our Lord right now by the Spirit in a three-fold location: 1) at work in this world, in all he has made and he sustains, 2) in the house of God—the gathering of the body of Christ, the Church, and 3) in the house of God—our hearts and minds.

We are not meant to search everywhere trying to find God. When we search for God, we are meant to awaken by faith to the reality that Christ has come and is present right now by his Holy Spirit. In Jesus by the Spirit, God has made a home for himself within our human flesh and within the body of Christ, the Church—why search everywhere else seeking to find him?

You may be wondering what happened to my younger brother—did we ever find him? Yes, actually we did. When we went to the police station, we were encouraged to go back home and wait to hear from them. And, surprisingly enough, when we got home—there my brother was, waiting for us. He had made his way home, all by himself—something we had never expected him to do.

I believe that if we were to take some time in silent reflection, asking God where he is and how to find him and then waiting for his response, we might discover that he is where he always has been—very near and very present by his Holy Spirit, at home in our hearts and lives. It is by faith in Christ that we come to the realization that he has come to dwell in us by the Spirit.

In Colossians 3:12–17, the apostle Paul tells us to “put on” the nature of Jesus Christ, to “let” the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and the word of Christ richly dwell within us. These are actions that are a response to what Christ has already done within our humanity by living our life, by dying our death and by rising again, bringing us home to the Father. As we trust in him and in his finished work, we find that in the sending of his Spirit, Jesus Christ is genuinely present in our individual lives and in the Church. We don’t have to look everywhere for Jesus in order to find him. Rather, we do need to respond to his real presence within and in our midst right now by the Holy Spirit, placing our trust in him and gratefully doing everything in his name for the glory of our Father.

Putting our faith in the One who has made himself at home in human hearts and has brought us home to the Father is a life-changing decision. Pondering these things in our hearts as Jesus’ mother Mary pondered the words and actions of the eternal Son of God, her son Jesus, is an important spiritual discipline we can practice each day. Being baptized, studying the written Word of God, speaking with God in prayer, gathering with believers in spiritual fellowship, taking communion—these are all healthy ways to come to terms with the reality of who Jesus is, and what he has done and is doing in us and in our world by his Spirit. And there are so many other spiritual practices by which we are able to actively participate each day in Jesus’ loving relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. For Jesus has made us now and forever at home with himself in the presence of the Father and made himself at home with us and in us by the Holy Spirit.

Heavenly Father, thank you that we have a home with you even now through Christ and in the Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, that we don’t have to look everywhere in order to find you—you’re closer even than the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. You have made your home in us and our home in you. Holy Spirit, awaken us anew to the realization of God’s real presence and abundant love through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“… and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem looking for Him. Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.’ And He said to them, ‘Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?’ …”      Luke 2:44b–49 (41–52) 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

Shout for Joy!

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By Linda Rex

December 12, 2021, ADVENT | Joy—During my recent retreat, I spent some time on a pleasant property out in the country, where the rolling hayfields were dotted with limestone and the trees were covered with autumn-colored leaves. On my walks outside, I would pass by a small fountain of water pouring down over a pile of rocks and into a lovely outdoor pool surrounded by cattails and aquatic plants. The steady rush of water from fountain to pool gave the area a feeling of restfulness and inspired a sense of renewal.

As I was looking over the passages for this Sunday, I was reminded of the many ways in which the replenishing properties of water were used in Scripture as a way to describe the Holy Spirit—the living presence of God himself. We are reminded that there is only one cure for the unending thirst in our soul, and that our efforts to fill that emptiness on our own will inevitably end up fruitless.

Indeed, we were created for joy, but we often find our human experience falls way short of joy. If anything, we experience everything but joy in this broken and hurting world. But the apostle Paul told us to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Phil. 4:4 NASB)!” How in the world do we rejoice in the midst of our everyday struggles, difficulties and hardships? How do we find true joy when all we are given are ways to experience temporary pleasures and fleeting happiness instead?

There’s a story in the Old Testament about when Israel was traipsing around the wilderness and began to complain because they were thirsty. The place where they had been led to by God did not have any water sources. As they focused on their lack of water, they began to believe that God was not with them. They kept their eyes on what they didn’t have, and forgot what they did have—the presence and power of God in their midst (Ex. 17:1–7).

So often, this is our own issue. We can get so focused on our circumstances, or on the immediate situation—the politics, the environment, the people down the street, whatever we are concerned about—and lose sight of the spiritual realities. This is the problem. We forget that we have in our midst the Source of living water—God himself in Christ by the Spirit, living and active in our lives and circumstances.

This is God’s word to us: “Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; … The LORD your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will [renew you in his love], He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zeph. 3:14–17 NASB). God calls us to joy because he is living, present and active as the One who victoriously conquered over evil, sin and death.

During Advent we are reminded to watch attentively for the coming of the Righteous One, the coming of God into this world to deliver, restore, and renew. As we draw near the celebration of Christmas, the coming of God into human flesh becomes the focus of our worship and praise. God has not left us alone in the midst of our darkness. No, he has come to us. The Word of God, the eternal Son who has always lived in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, has come, taken on our flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again. He is that baby, born to Mary on that blessed night, for the sake of every human being. He is the fountain of living water in the midst of our arid desert. He is the spring of renewal and refreshment in a dying world.

We are called to be attentive to the reality that God in Christ by the Spirit is our salvation. “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation,” Isaiah wrote. “Cry aloud and shout for joy…for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 12:2, 6 NASB).” Shout for joy! God has come to dwell with man! Rejoice in triumph! Jesus is a victorious warrior, who is exulting over us with joy and renewing us in his love. Christ has come, and freed us from evil, sin, and death! He has brought us hope, peace, joy and love!

We need to grab hold of the spiritual reality that God in Christ has come and by his Spirit is present and real right now in us and with us. He knows we need spiritual water and is more than ever ready to provide it—are we receptive and open? Are we awakened to our need, and rather than complaining, are we humbly asking for God’s supply?

Jesus calls to us and says: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:37–39 NASB).” “… whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:13–14 NASB).” Jesus, in his self-offering, is the endless supply of spiritual refreshment and renewal we need in every part of life. By the Spirit, he is present and available, and will fill us as we repent and turn to him in faith.

It is ironic that in the gospel passage for this Sunday we find John the Baptizer contrasting his water baptism with Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire of judgment is something we get very concerned about, not realizing the significance of Jesus’ self-offering in our place and on our behalf. As God in human flesh, Jesus forged into our humanity the love of God and crucified in himself the sin, evil and death to which we had enslaved ourselves. In the resurrection we find that all that chaff that is not part of the fruitfulness of life in Christ was blown away. The apostle Paul wrote that “from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh…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).” Humanity has new life in Christ! This is reason to rejoice.

So, what will you do with Jesus Christ? What will you do with the reality that God is now in the midst of us by the Holy Spirit, offering to each of us the living water of life in relationship with God through Jesus? Will you gaze anew with wonder and joy on the Christ child this year, gratefully receiving the life in the Trinity he has brought you in his life, death, resurrection and ascension? Will you receive from him the living water he has given—the blessed Spirit of life in Christ Jesus?

We have every reason to rejoice. We are not left alone, abandoned to this crazy world and all its darkness and despair. God has cracked open the rock and poured out abundantly his living waters of salvation, and calls us to drink deeply, to satiate our souls in his real presence in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. Jump in the river! Dance in the shallows! Soak it all up! Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!

Thank you so much, dear Father, for not leaving us hungry and thirsty for your love and grace. Thank you for planting us by your streams of living water and offering us reconciliation, refreshment, and renewal—life in Christ by the Spirit. Fill us anew with the joy of salvation. Enable us to celebrate this year with a real sense of your presence in us and with us by your Holy Spirit, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.”     Luke 3:16–18 (7–18) NASB

See also Philippians 4:4–7; Zephaniah 3:14–20; Isaiah 12:2–6.

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 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

The Price We Won’t Pay

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By Linda Rex

October 10, 2021, PROPER 23—One of the things I’ve noticed more than ever recently is how many people contact me in an effort to buy my home—which isn’t for sale. Today someone called me to help me remove the mortgage interest from my home—which I have no interest in doing. And this week I received a note from an auto dealer, wanting to purchase my car—which at the moment, I’m not planning to replace.

There’s a common thread through all of these phone calls, texts, emails, and letters—someone somewhere wants to make a buck, at my expense. I would like to believe these good people are truly seeking to help me in some way, but unfortunately, experience has taught me that this is far from the case. It is a rare individual or business that is genuinely seeking my best interests rather than seeking to line their own pockets.

While reading Amos 5:6–7, 10–15 this morning, I was struck by the way the prophet’s words resonate with our experience in this country today:

“Come back to the Lord and live. … You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed. You treat the righteous like dirt. … How you hate honest judges! How you despise people who tell the truth! You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses, you will never live in them. Though you plant lush vineyards, you will never drink wine from them. For I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions. You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. So those who are smart keep their mouths shut, for it is an evil time. Do what is good and run from evil so that you may live! Then the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will be your helper, just as you have claimed. Hate evil and love what is good; turn your courts into true halls of justice. Perhaps even yet the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will have mercy on the remnant of his people” (NLT).

It’s rather rough reading, isn’t it? But so many of the things Amos enumerates are part of our experience today! And in the midst of this truth-telling, there is a call from the heart of God to turn away from evil and to turn to good, to be just and gracious rather than continuing to oppress or deceive others.

What price are you or I willing to pay to live in the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God? What price are we willing to pay to hate evil and love good? If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that many times the bottom line drives our decisions regarding these things. I find myself preferring comfort, ease, convenience, being pain and stress-free, rather than doing the hard and painful work of taking a stand against evil and for good. I bow to my natural proclivity to mediate rather than to weather the hurricane blast of someone’s resistance to my honesty and declaration of truth. My preferences too often guide my decisions rather than the quiet inner voice of the Spirit telling me to do the hard and difficult thing.

When the rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, I doubt he realized the innate contradiction which existed in his words. In his world, the more he did what was considered good, the more he had value and worth, and the greater his significance in society and in the kingdom to come. But Jesus held him up to an entirely different standard—God himself. If only God is truly good, and Jesus is the good teacher, where did that leave this young ruler? He had always kept the commandments as he understood them—and Jesus loved him for this. But it wasn’t enough.

Jesus looked the young man in the eye—looked at him with a heart filled with the love of the Father—and saw the root of the problem. He understood why this young ruler would always feel like he was never quite good enough for eternal life. His value, his worth, and his identity were based in what he had and what he did, not in who he was in relationship with his heavenly Father. Jesus told him what he lacked. The keys to the kingdom lay solely in a faith-walk with Jesus, trusting in the Father’s love, and living in obedience to the Spirit. This was a price the young man would not pay—and he walked away heartsick.

This is tough. Are we willing to have Jesus’ loving, yet perceptive view go all the way down into our own souls? Where is our worth, our value, our identity really placed? If it is anywhere but in God himself—centered in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—in his gift of the Spirit—we are off-center. If we are trusting in anything or anyone else in this life, we will eventually find ourselves in a place where we have no hope whatsoever. Whether we like it or not, the things of this life—money, belongings, homes, and even people—are only temporary and cannot be depended on in every circumstance. Sooner or later, they will fly away like chaff in the wind.

Jesus told the disciples that it is very hard for people of wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Simply put, when you have everything you need or want, and what you don’t have you can easily get, and what gets broken you can easily replace or fix, what do you else do you need? And if you are so busy taking care of every need yourself, you may find that you have no time to consider the spiritual realities or to encounter Jesus in your everyday life. And apart from a relationship with Jesus, how can you begin to experience the eternal life which is available to each of us right now by the Holy Spirit?

The disciples were aghast at the point Jesus was making. He was telling them that it is an impossible task to enter the kingdom of God. Our best efforts will not earn us a place at the Lord’s banquet table. Eternal life is something we inherit, but we cannot make ourselves children of God. This is a task Jesus did in our place, on our behalf. Jesus, in his finished work and in his life in us by the Holy Spirit, is the one who has made us right with God, bringing us by faith into right relationship with God as his adopted children. We have eternal life in Jesus Christ alone, as we trust in him and in his ministry of adoption.

In Jesus Christ, God has made the impossible possible. We have, in Jesus, all that we need to be included in God’s love and life as his adopted children. By faith in Christ we receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus invites you and me to follow him—but there is a price that goes with that gift of eternal life. It is not the price we might expect. We need to tear up our list of good deeds, and get rid of our dependency upon our piety, and simply follow Christ. This walk of faith or walk in the Spirit requires a commitment on our part, and a willingness to pay the ultimate price.

My heart goes out today to those followers of Christ who experience a very hefty price in this life for their commitment to faith in Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in many areas of the world cannot simply say the name of Jesus out loud in a public place without endangering their lives, their families or income. They are in my thoughts and prayers. I pray God will meet their every need as he is present with them right now by the Spirit in their suffering. As for those of us who live much more freely in this nation, what price are we willing to pay for the privilege of knowing Jesus and having the gift of eternal life? What are we willing to lay down or give away for the sake of following Christ?

Heavenly Father, forgive us for setting our hearts on so many valueless and worthless things that have no lasting benefit. Grant us the grace to lay down everything that we trust in and simply place our faith in your Son Jesus and all he has done in our place on our behalf. Thank you for your love and grace, for providing for our every need, and for your gift of eternal life, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness,” Do not defraud, “Honor your father and mother.”’ And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were even more astonished and said to Him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Looking at them, Jesus said, ‘With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.’ Peter began to say to Him, ‘Behold, we have left everything and followed You.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.’”      Mark 10:17–31 NASB