By Linda Rex
March 7, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—While taking a walk with my son this week he surprised me by showing me a colony of herons who were nesting high in a tree over the Cumberland River. On our walk we also saw a couple of deer next to the path, squirrels hunting nuts, and many other types of birds flitting here and there. The frogs in the water-covered ground were singing their hearts out. It almost felt like springtime.
I love being out in creation, and am truly grateful God gave us so many marvelous gifts when he made everything. One of the books I’ve been reading lately is called “Care of Creation” and is a collection of articles centered on the topic of the stewardship of God’s creation. In recent years, I have been learning about stewardship in a lot of different aspects of life—finances, health, creation, and personal belongings are some of these areas. Stewardship recognizes that we are not the owners of what we are caring for, but are merely stewards or caretakers of what we have been given by God.
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, we find Jesus entered into the area of the temple where there were moneychangers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. He drove the animals out, overturning the tables and telling the people to stop making his Father’s house a place of business. Mark, the author of the gospel, wrote that this fulfilled an Old Testament scripture which said, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus’ actions in the temple were on behalf of his heavenly Father.
As stewards of the temple, the place of worship, the Jewish leaders had allowed people in to do what they believed were necessary transactions to accommodate the worshippers. But what happened was that making money at the expense of the people became more important than facilitating worship of Israel’s God. Jesus’ indignation was well-founded, as his Father was not being honored, since worship of God was being supplanted by greed and extortion.
We do not want to be like these Jewish leaders of that day who were more concerned about what authority Jesus had to do these actions than they were about the “whitewashed tombs” they had become (Mt. 23:27). They did not seem to realize they were needing to have the greed and other sins in their hearts driven out—and this is why Jesus was there among them. Temple sacrifices did not remove sin from the human heart, and our proclivity to return to sin even when we have forgiveness offered us shows that we need something deeper and more permanent. Jesus removed sin by one sacrifice for all time for all. His death on the cross permanently removed all sin, therefore all need for sacrifices (Heb. 7:27).
The leaders asked Jesus by what authority he drove out the money changers and he simply told them, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days.” It wasn’t until after the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection that the disciples understood that the temple Jesus was talking about wasn’t Herod’s temple, but Jesus’ own body. When Christ told the Samaritan woman that the day was coming when true worshipers of God would worship him in spirit and in truth, he was meaning this very thing. The place where we go to worship God would not be a building, but a person—Jesus Christ.
Jesus forged within our humanity a space for true worship, where the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in human hearts, transforming us from the inside out. Jesus lived our life, died our death and rose again, sending us the Spirit so we could participate in his own intimate relationship with the Father. When we turn to Christ, trusting in his finished work, we are joined with Jesus and begin to experience the reality of God dwelling in us by the Spirit. When we worship God, Jesus stands as the high priest, mediating between us and the Father in the Spirit, so that all our worship is received and accepted by God.
The temple of the Spirit today is not only each of us individually, but more specifically the body of Christ, the church. God indwells the community of believers—those who follow Christ, leading and directing them by his Spirit. As believers gather for worship and to serve others, they are brought together by the ministry of the Spirit. What is the focus of our attention as we gather together? Specifically, worship is to be Christ-centered and Trinitarian in focus. And our discipleship is also designed to draw us in relationship with others more deeply into the life and love of the Trinity.
What Jesus forged for us is a place in human hearts for God to dwell in by the Spirit. At this time of year, we can ask the Spirit to show us those things we have introduced into our lives and hearts that have supplanted the place meant only for God himself. We can invite Jesus to chase the usurpers out of our hearts, making more room for the Spirit to work in our hearts and lives.
If we do this, though, we need to realize that it will require us participating in the process Jesus described to the Jewish leaders—destroying the temple and rebuilding it. There may be things Jesus asks of us—denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following him. We trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection—symbolically participating ourselves once through baptism, and then in an ongoing way through taking the bread and wine in communion. We receive what God has done for us in Jesus, allowing the Spirit to form Christ in us. Stewarding the new life God has given us in Christ involves our full participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, living and walking in the Spirit, trusting in the finished work of Jesus and allowing him to do as he wishes with us and our lives.
A good question to contemplate as we move toward remembering the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus is, what consumes us? Is it zeal for the presence of God in us and in our lives? Or is it something a whole lot more self-centered and temporal? Perhaps it is time to reconsider how well we are stewarding the gift of eternal life God has given us in Jesus Christ his Son.
Heavenly Father, thank you for demonstrating your great grace and love by giving us your Son and your Spirit. Enable us to faithfully steward these gifts. We offer ourselves to your transforming touch, Jesus—drive out anything that does not belong here. Fill every corner of our hearts with your very presence, precious Spirit, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18(–25) NASB
“His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” John 2:17 (13–22) NASB
By Linda Rex
February 28, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—One of the things brought to my attention recently in a new way was how subtle the temptation is to take difficult situations into our own hands and work them out under our own power. Some of us feel an urgent need to fix things that are broken or not working the way we think they should and often jump in with both feet, not realizing that doing so may not be what God intends in the situation.
Granted, we do need to invest our best efforts in doing what we believe is the right and holy thing for us to do in each instance as we follow Christ. But when we slide into that belief that it’s all up to us, then we are spiritually on dangerous ground. I wonder if sometimes we believe we are caught in a place where we feel we have been abandoned or forgotten by God. Circumstances in our life may be such that we feel as though we are managing just fine on our own, or the opposite, we don’t see any path by which a solution could come to us for our extreme difficulties. Either way, there is a temptation to trust in our own ability to move ourselves forward rather than simply trusting in God’s promises and provision.
As members of my congregation at Grace Communion Nashville know, we are facing some difficult decisions about the future of our congregation. Over the past eight years since I have pastored this congregation, and long before that, our members have diligently worked to serve and love the people of East Nashville. They have provided free meals, prayed for people, and given what they could to help those in need, whether food, clothing, money, or just heartfelt compassion and understanding. We have done our best to provide upbeat, contemporary Christ-centered Trinitarian worship with an emphasis on communion and sharing the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have joined in with our church neighbors in community service opportunities and events, and have participated with our neighborhood association as they served the neighbors, and have cared for those God has brought to our attention who needed extra help.
To be sure, we have hoped that our little congregation might grow some in the process, but I hope that we did not make this an expectation that had to be realized, or believe that to not have done so means we have failed in some way. I believe we need to see things much differently than that. Whatever may happen to us in the future, we do know this—we were faithful, obedient, and loving, and blameless before God in our love and service to him and others. We have trusted him to do what was needed to keep us going, and he has. We have done our best to implement best practices for church renewal so we are relevant to our community. We have asked Jesus for opportunities to serve and he has given them. We have prayed for people and baptized some, and many have experienced healing, renewal, and transformed lives, or are still in process. In my view, our little congregation has God’s handprint of masterpiece creation written all over it.
As I read Romans 4:13–25, the New Testament passage for this Sunday, I was struck by the significance of what Paul was saying there in relation to this whole topic. God gave Abraham the promise of a son and many descendants, the fulfillment of which was not based on his ability to keep the law correctly or to do all the right things, but solely on God’s goodness and grace. Abraham was honest about the reality of his and his wife Sarah’s inability to bear children at their advanced age. Abraham came to the place where he surrendered to the truth that none of this could be realized by his or Sarah’s effort or ability. Even though he and Sarah had moments of uncertainty—we see this in the circumstances around the birth of Ishmael—Abraham was brought to the place where he simply trusted in God’s faithfulness rather than in his own ability to ensure that he would have what God promised. And God counted this as righteousness.
In their book “Transformational Churches”, Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer remind the readers that one of the most critical steps in church renewal is the congregation’s ability to see and accept the reality that apart from God’s intervention, their church will not be transformed, and that God’s ability to bring about renewal and transformation is far more powerful than any obstacle which may stand against them. God’s whole mission is the transformation of our cosmos, our world, into the truth of what he means for it to be—a reflection of his glory and majesty. Why would he not do what was necessary to bring that to pass? The authors remind us that it is “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6b NASB). When real transformation happens to a person, or to a church, it will be obvious who did it—God did, and he will get all the glory and praise.
Every person and every church comes to a point where the reality of what they are experiencing doesn’t measure up with what they know about God and his purposes for them. In this “cathartic moment” they realize they have come to a place where there is no movement forward. Abraham and Sarah experienced this at one point, and took matters into their own hands, thinking the solution was to have a child by Hagar, a concubine. But this wasn’t God’s solution—it was theirs, and created a whole host of unnecessary difficulties which God hadn’t meant for them or Hagar or even Ishmael to have to experience. Abraham and Sarah may have erred temporarily, but in the long run their faith in God’s faithfulness won the day.
We can be honest about our weakness and our limitations without in any way preventing God from bringing transformation and renewal to pass. We can own the reality that without God’s intervention nothing will be any different than it is right now. And we can embrace the crisis in front of us in faith, trusting in God’s faithfulness and provision, allow him to show us what our next steps need to be, and then, however falteringly, take those steps. Yes, as a church, we can continue to provide leadership that is alive and open to what God is doing, express dependency upon God through prayer, and offer wholehearted, inspired worship to God. And we can embrace new relationships and circumstances God places before us where we can share the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. But anything beyond that—let’s be real. That’s all up to God. And he works in his own time and in his own way.
We stand today at a crossroads where we are reminded by the story of Abraham and Sarah that our covenant God is faithful and keeps his word. Their simple decision to trust in God for the promised child was merely a stepping stone on the journey of the Word of God coming into human flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again, bringing all of humanity into a new place where each and every person may by faith participate in the divine union of Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. This childless couple, if they were standing with us, would be overwhelmed seeing the millions who today by faith are their spiritual descendants. What will we see when we look back at our participation in Christ’s mission as we trust God to finish what he began in us? I believe our faith in God’s faithfulness will be abundantly rewarded, far beyond our ability to ask or imagine, both now and in the world to come. Let’s walk by faith, not by sight.
O Faithful One, you who have ever worked to bring us near you, to share in your life and love, thank you for your faithfulness. Keep us ever faithful, trusting that you will finish what you have begun in us and believing we will see you do a new thing—a thing so great, only you could possibly have done it. Even now, in faith, we offer all the glory, honor, and praise to you. In your Name—Father, Son, and Spirit—we pray. Amen.
“Faith is our source, and that makes Abraham our father. When God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he made a public statement that he would be the father of all nations. Here we see Abraham faced with God’s faith; the kind of faith that resurrects the dead and calls things which are not as though they were. Faith gave substance to hope when everything seemed hopeless; the words, ‘so shall your seed be’ conceived in him the faith of fatherhood. Abraham’s faith would have been nullified if he were to take his own age and the deadness of Sarah’s womb into account. His hundred-year-old body and Sarah’s barren womb did not distract him in the least! He finally knew that no contribution from their side could possibly assist God in fulfilling his promise!” Romans 4:16b-19 Mirror Bible
By Linda Rex
February 21, 2021, 1st SUNDAY IN LENT [Easter Prep]—There is one thing which has become clear in my mind recently and that is that we as the body of Christ are in a time of wilderness wandering. In many ways we are being brought face to face with our fragility as humans in the face of powerful temptations such as those Jesus faced when he was led into the wilderness following his baptism. During this Lenten season as we move toward celebrating the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection, we have the opportunity to reflect on our need and weakness in the midst of Jesus’ sufficiency and provision.
In the book of Mark we find the condensed version of Jesus’ early ministry. First he was baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptizer, and as he came up out of the Jordan, his heavenly Father affirmed him as his beloved Son and the Spirit descended upon him in the tangible form of a dove. Mark tells us next that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan.
As Jesus was in a place in the wilderness which was filled with wild animals, so he was vulnerable and in danger, open to harm. During his wilderness experience, he went without food, causing him physical weakness. In the midst of this preliminary walk through death’s dark valley, he stood in opposition to God’s adversary, faithfully keeping his focus on his heavenly Father, and on his identification with all of humanity as God in human flesh, and on his purpose in laying down his life on behalf of all people.
We all, in ways similar to Jesus, experience the temptation to resolve our problems under our own power by taking matters into our own hands or manipulating people and circumstances to accomplish what we believe needs to happen. Jesus, being extremely hungry from fasting for several days, was challenged to prove he was Son of God by turning stones into bread—something he could have easily done simply with a word, since he was the Word of God in human flesh. But to do so would have caused him to cease to identify with you and me in our weakness and need, our human frailty and weakness. Jesus instead drew upon the written word of God to combat this temptation, saying that we as humans are not to live only by bread we put in our mouths, but by every word of the living God.
We all love magical solutions to our problems, a simple app to resolve our difficulties. But we often miss out on a deeper solution which goes down into the very core of our being. The real difficulty often lies in our refusal to believe that we can’t work it out somehow—we keep believing we can solve it, if we just try a little harder, or change things up a little, or maybe find a better way of doing what we’ve been doing. However, we often need to come to the simple realization that we are powerless—we do not have within us the capacity to heal ourselves, to fix things, to make things the way they need to be.
We need to embrace the truth that we need a power greater than ourselves—we need a savior or rescuer to deliver us. Jesus expressed this truth on our behalf when he chose to honor his own humanity by depending upon his heavenly Father to care for him, rather than solving his temporary need for food by using his hidden divine capacity to turn stones into bread. Following the confrontation in this story, we find that Jesus had angels tending to his needs, providing for him as he recovered from his conflict with the evil one—which proved the point that he did not need to do this himself under his own power—his Father faithfully provided.
In the midst of these challenging times, as we struggle with the pandemic and accompanying financial and political stress, are we questioning God’s goodness and faithfulness? Are we testing God with poor decisions and irresponsibility, attempting to make him prove to us that he loves us and wants what is best for us? Jesus himself was tempted by the evil one to prove he was the beloved Son of God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that the angels would catch him. The adversary even used scripture in an effort to prove to Jesus that he should do this. To jump in this way would have tested his Father’s goodness and faithfulness—something Jesus refused to do. Like Jesus, we need to refuse to test God, choosing instead simply to trust and obey him, and walk each moment in loving obedience to him in spite of how difficult or dangerous our experiences may be at the moment.
Again, the Son of God did not need to prove his Father’s love and faithfulness—he was confident of it, having experienced it since before time began. But as a human being, the temptation was there and was real. We may have walked with God for many years, and have experienced his love and faithfulness through many circumstances and situations. But in this time of crisis, have we lost our confidence in God’s goodness and love? Will we simply trust that he has our best interests in mind and is still watching out for us and providing for us even though the evidence seems to show otherwise? Or will we take matters into our own hands and try to work it out ourselves?
Finally, Jesus faced the third temptation—that of being offered the all kingdoms of the world if he would just bow and worship the evil one. This temptation is not unique to him, but is one we each face as children of the Father. Surely we all have had opportunities where we were promised the world, if we just did that one thing which was unjust, unholy, inhumane, or unloving. How often have we traded in our eternal glory for the transient glories of this world? We are not alone as we face this temptation—we turn to Jesus who knew and gave the perfect response which silenced the enemy.
Jesus was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness. And we can see that while he was there, he faced the reality of what it meant to be truly human and to face the evil one’s temptations, while he was at his weakest and most vulnerable. In identifying with us in the wilderness, Jesus joins with us as we wander through our own wilderness times.
Experience this Lenten season or preparation for Easter as a wilderness journey, similar to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness with God, and Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness battling the evil one. During this time, we may choose to fast or practice other spiritual disciplines as a participation with Christ in his own wilderness experience. We may want to spend extra time in reflection and humble repentance, acknowledging our need and weakness, and our dependency upon God. We may want to surrender ourselves anew to the purposes and will of our heavenly Father, trusting in him for provision, healing, renewal, and restoration, through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. As we wander through these forty days of Lent or Easter preparation, let’s draw near to God as he draws near to us, resist the evil one as Christ resisted him, and rest in God’s faithfulness, grace and loving care.
Dear Father, thank you for always being with us in every circumstance, caring for us and strengthening us even when we are at our weakest. Thank you, Jesus, for being with us in the middle of our temptations and struggles, enabling us to resist the evil one and endure whatever may come our way. Spirit, grant us renewal, refreshment, and transformation, as we turn to Christ in faith, praying in his holy name. Amen.
“Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’ Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Mark 1:10-13 NASB
See also 1 Peter 3:18–22.
By Linda Rex
February 17, 2021, ASH WEDNESDAY—As a congregation, we have been seeking God’s face, participating as a group in prayer and fasting. Ash Wednesday inaugurates the Lenten season, a season of preparation for Holy Week when we celebrate the last supper, Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection. During this season, many of us will choose to fast in some way, whether by ceasing to eat certain foods, or stopping the use of certain items, or restricting our participation in certain activities.
It is good to participate in spiritual disciplines such as fasting and prayer. But the question we need to attend to is, why are we doing it? How are we doing it? And what do we hope to gain from such an activity?
When we practice the spiritual disciplines—and there are a wide variety of disciplines we can choose to practice—we must remember that we do not do them to try to get God’s attention or earn his love. Praying more, studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, and going to worship services do not earn us brownie points with God—he gladly receives our devotion to him, but it is not necessary to his happiness. Neither does practicing spiritual disciplines alter his love for us. God loves us apart from our actively seeking his face—he sent us Jesus long before we ever thought to say a single prayer.
However, there are times when we acutely feel the distance between us and God. Aren’t spiritual disciplines helpful to bring us closer to God? Absolutely, but not in the way we often seem to think they do. They do not change God’s mind or heart toward us but rather, they bring about a change in us toward God and others. What spiritual disciplines do is open us up to the work God wants to do in us by his Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, meditation, service, humility, and even self-care and care of creation, are ways of placing ourselves in God’s presence and inviting him to do whatever he wants to do in us and in our lives.
There is a distinction we must observe between simply being pious and devout for the sake of trying to move or control God and others, and sincerely laying ourselves out before God in open submission and surrender to his will. Doing the first means performing actions which merely give people the impression of our being good and holy while doing very little to bring about healing and wholeness in us or in our relationships with others. The second is profoundly different, for it is a deep personal interaction with God that can be life-changing, and can move us to begin to live in new ways, offering ourselves to God in whole-hearted love and obedience that is demonstrated by loving our neighbors and ourselves as we ought.
Through the prophet Isaiah God took his people to task for doing their humble fasting to be noticed by God. The reason was because in the midst of their religious practices, they were still mistreating people, neglecting the poor and needy, and not caring for their own families. Jesus himself took the religious leaders, who were so pious, to task for doing these things as well. What good is all our religious ritual and practices if we are unwilling to actually love those people who are already in our lives?
Sadly, it is often we as followers of Jesus who are the worst at being critical and condemning of one another. We are most often the ones who are guilty of deceit, denial, sexual promiscuity, greed and gluttony. We cannot get along with one another, it seems—there are so many things we disagree on. And so often we refuse to allow others the freedom of being guided by the Spirit in some direction that is different than the way he is guiding us.
As a congregation, we have had many opportunities to serve and help those who are poor, needy, and homeless, along with those who were simply struggling to get by. Let us not lose heart in our service to those God places in our lives—we have a calling and a gift, a grace to share with each one. In our seeking after God, our following Jesus, let us allow the Spirit to move in our hearts and minds, giving us Abba’s heart for each of his children. Let us continue to open up our hearts to receive his love and grace that we might share the good news of Jesus with others.
The Word of God took on our humanity, to share in our struggles, so that through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, he might bring us up to share life with him now and forever. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul enumerated a great number of ways in which he and those in ministry with him suffered and struggled as they shared the good news with others (2 Cor. 5:20b–6:10) In Christ and in Paul, we see the willingness to simply go to whatever ends were necessary to share the good news of God’s love.
Paul tells his readers, “Don’t receive the grace of God in vain.” There is a cost to the good news of Jesus Christ—he gave up the glories of heaven to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What a precious gift of grace! With this gift in mind, our participation in spiritual disciplines arises, not from a sense of neediness or desperation, but from a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, an appreciation for the gracious gift of eternal life we have been given in Jesus. And our lives will reflect our understanding and appreciation for the gift God gave to us in Christ.
Drawing close to God, then, by practicing spiritual disciplines becomes an expression of thanksgiving, and an opening up of ourself in grateful worship and praise to do whatever God’s will may be in our lives. God has given us so much—so our fasting and prayer, our worship and service, and other disciplines become a laying down of ourselves, a response of love and appreciation to the God who has loved us so thoroughly and so well. The result of genuine spiritual disciplines then will be an even greater desire to share with others what has so freely been given to us and a life which is a fuller expression of Christlikeness, in which pouring ourselves out in service to others is our daily practice.
Dear Abba, thank you for your gift of your Son Jesus Christ and your Spirit. Open us up more fully to you and renew in us a passion for your will and your ways. Give us your mind and heart so that our lives more fully reflect your goodness and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. …
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday.” Isaiah 58:(1–12) 3–4, 9–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
February 7, 2021, 5th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—One of the things I have missed most since moving into metro Nashville has been the ability to walk out my door and simply find solitude where I felt safe to be by myself in nature. Although there are many greenways in the city where we can go walking or cycling, it is not the same as having a few acres of woods where one can wander about and simply experience the relative silence of the outdoors.
Even out in the country where I used to live there would not be genuine silence, since one could still hear the cars passing on a highway half a mile away or on the gravel road where we used to live. But it was possible to walk out our door and into the woods, and there encounter face to face a whitetail buck or doe as they were out on a browsing expedition looking for a meal. I could find wildflowers in the spring, blackberries in the summer, and in the rippling brook, a number of creatures simply being who they were created to be, reminding me of what really matters in life.
When I would walk in the hills or woods out in the country, I would find there a sense of the imminent yet transcendent presence of God. Sitting on a hill watching and hearing the wind blow through the blades of tall grass and wildflowers reminded me of the wind of the Spirit as Jesus described it to Nicodemus—we don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going, but we can see the wind’s affect. Looking up at the dark sky at night, the stars filled the expanse overhead. The Milky Way was quite evident and made even more impressive the psalmist’s praise that the God who set the stars in the heavens calls each one by name (Is. 40:26; Ps. 147:4).
Caught in the daily routine of life in the city, we can lose sight of the magnitude and glory of the creation God made and so simply cease to have a sense of our place in the midst of the universe as his beloved. And we can be so preoccupied with our responsibilities, our activities, and even our entertainments that we never stop to reflect or examine the state of our hearts and minds. Are we so busy that we do not have time in our daily life for solitude and silence—a place where we can receive God’s refreshment and renewal, and be reminded of who he is and who we are as his beloved?
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, we find Jesus going to synagogue with the disciples on the Sabbath and then returning to Peter’s home afterward. There they find Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. Even though the rabbis taught that healing was not to be done on the Sabbath, Jesus went to the woman, took her by the hand, and healed her. Her response was what our response should be to the Messiah’s healing touch—a dedication to the service of God and others. She got up and began to tend to their needs.
One might think that Jesus, as God in human flesh, shouldn’t have had any needs. But in reality, he was fully human, so he grew hungry and weary just like every other person. In this story, as evening after the Sabbath approached, the entire city came to the door of Peter’s home, bringing all their sick and demon-possessed. Mark says that Jesus healed many of them and cast out many demons. He was in his element as the Messiah, but not without a cost to his physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Those doing ministry with Jesus in a wide variety of occupations know how we can grow tired and need moments of refreshment after tending to the spiritual, mental, emotional as well as physical needs of others—it is hard work.
This is why we see Jesus seeking solitude and silence the next day—he sought freedom from the everyday business of the city life of Caperneum. He made the effort to get up long before anyone else was up, even the field workers who rose at dawn, in order to have time along with his heavenly Father. He sought time away in order to regroup, to reflect, to be renewed in the presence of his Abba, so that he might be filled anew with the Spirit’s power and presence, and have the strength to face what he knew would be his next challenge—saying no to the temptation to stay and build a following there in Caperneum.
After a while, the disciples, including Peter, sought him out. They were concerned that perhaps Jesus had left without them. Peter, when he found the Messiah, told him that everyone was looking for him. Jesus’ response was that they would leave Caperneum and travel to the various villages in the region, sharing the gospel or good news of the kingdom of God. His time alone with the Father had renewed his strength and his focus on what really mattered—preaching the gospel to many people in the area—and he was ready to go and do it.
We can grow weary in serving others, in doing good, in sharing the good news, and in living out the gospel in the midst of a world that ignores or rejects the things of the Spirit. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God never grows weary or tired even when we do. When we wait on the Lord, spending time alone with him in solitude and silence, in times of rest and listening, where we aren’t working on something or trying to do something but are simply being present to God, we will find new inner strength and spiritual resources to deal with the difficulties of everyday life (Is. 40: 28–31).
This time of the pandemic and the disruption of our daily rhythms has provided a perfect opportunity to begin to be more intentional about building into our lives times of renewal, refreshment, and reflection. We have the opportunity to begin to practice healthier ways of living and being which include daily times for solitude and silence, or simply for listening to God. We can create space for daily moments of feeding our souls as well as our bodies, by reading inspirational writings or our bibles, and allowing what we read to sink into our beings, renewing and refreshing us.
True spirituality is relationship—an intimate relationship with the God who knows us completely, who calls us by name, and who gives us himself in Jesus Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. It is difficult to build a relationship with someone with whom you do not spend any significant amount of time. Our relationship with God, though, is the source of our inner strength and well-being. We find the capacity to deal with things that are overwhelming, traumatic, or catastrophic by drawing on an infinite Source beyond ourself of strength, courage, faith, and endurance. Intentionally nurturing that relationship only makes sense, and can be the basis for a healthier way of being as we move on into this new decade of 2021.
Dear Abba, Father God, we come to you in gratitude for your love and faithfulness to us. Thank you for the gifts of your Son and your Spirit. Draw us close, renew and refresh us. Remind us again that we are your beloved, accepted and forgiven, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.” Mark 1:35 NASB; see also Mark 1:29–39.
By Linda Rex
January 31, 2021, 4th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—There is a fascination nowadays with the spiritual. Stories, information, and related materials can be found in movies, books, anime and television shows. It seems as though, even in our information age, we are seeking for something beyond the physical, as though we sense there is more going on than what our reason tells us. We seek out the occult, the mystical, the mythological. But when I speak of spiritual things truly existing and that God or Jesus are real, people immediately take offense or ridicule the idea.
Sometimes I am told that Jesus is just some historical, mythical figure and he has no existence beyond this one. Even many Christians today believe that healing and other miracles no longer occur in the world. In all practicality, they are atheists, living as though God doesn’t really exist and if he does, that he doesn’t care. Indeed, how would one explain an encounter with the living Jesus when there are so many practical reasons not to believe it occurred? It is difficult to explain the way in which the things of the Spirit invade our human existence and genuinely alter it, and it is equally difficult to explain to someone else what it is like to encounter the living Lord. We each have to experience this for ourself.
The gospel of Mark describes how Christ during his ministry would follow the common Jewish practice of attending synagogue on the Sabbath. There the scrolls would be opened and read, and the scribes would expound as best as they could what the meaning was. Their interpretations were drawn from the many writings of the scribes and rabbis before them. They spoke of only that which they understood, and focused on the details of the law and all the meticulous rules these forebearers had established in an effort to keep these laws properly.
On this particular Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue at Capernaum and began to teach. He amazed the listeners because he spoke, not upon the authority of the those prior to him, but upon his own authority. It was as though inherent within himself was the authority to declare the meaning of the scriptures. He didn’t need someone else’s exposition of the Old Testament scriptures to inform him—he simply knew what the intent was and so he presented it. The implication here was that he knew the intent of the scriptures because he was the One who had given them to his people in the first place.
Jesus’ teaching that day was interrupted by a man who was under the control of a presence other than himself. This spirit, Mark explained, was “unclean” or “impure” or “evil”—it is translated in different ways. But the unclean spirit obviously did not have the man’s well-being in mind, but had completely supplanted the man’s will with its own evil will. The spirit in the man called out to Jesus, seeking to silence him by exposing who he was—the “Holy One of God.” He challenged the Lord, asking whether Jesus had come to destroy him and those like him.
It was significant that Jesus immediately silenced the evil spirit and told it to leave the man. Jesus was indeed beginning his warfare against the kingdom of evil, but not in the way which was expected of him. He did not want people to get in mind a wrong idea of what kind of Messiah had come to them. Nor did he need evil spirits to affirm who he was as the Son of God in human flesh. He was Lord over all these spirits, the evil and the good, for they were created by him and had to bow to his will and wishes at all times.
The obedience of the spirit to Jesus’ command astonished the crowd. Here was another way in which Jesus’ authority was made evident. He didn’t need fancy incantations and magical spells. He didn’t use the formulas the Jewish leaders used for exorcism. No, he had the power over the spiritual world as well as the physical world, so he simply commanded and it was done. This was an epiphany—a clear revelation of who Christ was as God in human flesh, the Lord over all his creation, of both the physical and spiritual realms. From this event in the synagogue the news spread out all over the area about Jesus and what he had done.
One of the hardest things for us as humans to accept is the reality that there are some things we just don’t have control over. Some may seek out the things of the spirit as a cry to be able to know something which can’t otherwise be known, to do what could not otherwise be done, or to control others or situations which are out of their control. They do not realize that when we seek the things of the spirit world apart from God that we will often end up enslaved, controlled by forces and spirits beyond ourselves which steal from us our ability to make our own decisions and choices, and in the end, drive us to self-destruction.
We also tend to give ourselves over to attitudes and behaviors which in many ways take control in the same way as the spirit described in this story. Sometimes we allow anger to dig deep roots in our soul, creating a bitterness that begins to affect everyone around us. Resentment and bitterness, and a desire for revenge, can so consume us that we in time we may lose all desire or ability to choose another option apart from God’s intervention on our behalf. There are many other desires that we have as human beings which when properly used within God’s limits are healthy and build us up, but when we give ourselves over to them, they in the end begin to consume us and to control every aspect of our lives, even removing from us our own ability to choose another way.
God does not deprive us of our will nor control it—even though he could—because he loves us and respects our personhood. Any other spirit than that of God will not treat us with this type of respect. This includes some humans, who seek to control our will and keep a tight reign on our every decision, forcing us to do what we do not wish to do. This is not God’s way of being, nor what he created us for. He does not force himself on us. He created us and redeemed us to be his dwelling place through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, to worship and serve him joyfully out of gratitude and love—voluntarily, simply because we desire to.
God through Jesus invites us into relationship with himself and offers himself to us in the Holy Spirit, allowing us to resist, reject, or silence him. He asks us to open ourselves up to him, to make ourselves available to him, to participate with him in what he is doing in the world, but he always leaves us free to say no. When a follower of Jesus speaks of surrender to God, or being filled with the Holy Spirit, they do not mean that they intend to lose their own ability to make decisions or to lose control of their own mind or body. Rather, they are saying that they are agreeing to God’s invitation to voluntarily give space for him to live within them and form them into what all of us were originally created to be—places where God dwells through Jesus in the Spirit so that we might be true image-bearers of Jesus Christ who both love God and love others as we love ourselves.
Mark tells us this story about Jesus so we can discover for ourselves who this teacher is. It is the Holy Spirit in us who enables us to see with spiritual eyes—to see beyond the words on the page and the historical figure of Jesus into the reality of who he is today as our living Lord. This is the beginning of Mark’s testimony that this person Jesus Christ was God in human flesh—the One who lived, died, and rose again, and who comes to us as the living Word in the Spirit. This living Lord Jesus Christ is not just a prophet or teacher, but One at whose word evil spirits are silenced, teachers are amazed, and people are healed. Invite Jesus to make himself real to you—to enable you to see him for who he really is. Seek him out, and he will, in time, enable you to find him. Then you will know, in that moment, that all I have said is true—there is a world beyond this world, and Jesus is Lord of both, and is just as alive today as he ever was, and best of all—he loves you.
Heavenly Father, thank you for the precious gift of your Spirit through your Son Jesus. May your Spirit open the eyes of our minds and hearts so that we may perceive the spiritual realities and come to know Jesus personally as he really is—the living Savior and Lord of all. May we freely give ourselves to you, God, that we may receive ourselves whole and complete through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in return. Amen.
“Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, ‘What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!’” Mark 1:23–25 NASB
See also Mark 1:21–22, 26–28; 1 Corinthians 8:1–13.
By Linda Rex
January 17, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY—Lately I have been appalled at the variety of correspondence, social media postings, and conversations I have been exposed to which have been filled with hate, condemnation and denigration toward other human beings. Some of these have pointedly referred to people of different races or skin color as being subhuman. Some have accused people with opposing opinions as being instruments of Satan.
I can’t help but be reminded of how Jesus was portrayed by those who opposed him. Sadly, it was those who were the most religious who resisted and condemned him, especially since Jesus often included and loved those who were cast aside by the society of his day. Because the leaders of his people could not bring themselves to believe the miracles Jesus did were a work of the Spirit, they attributed them to the work of Satan instead. Jesus told these men that they were in danger, for they were blaspheming the Spirit of God by attributing the power of the Spirit to the devil. I hear echoing in my mind the words of the apostle Paul: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12 NASB). So often we turn against one another, not realizing that this is the way the evil one works. He is an expert at “divide and conquer”, and often uses it to attempt to destroy the good things God is doing in this world by creating division, suspicion, resentment, prejudice, and hatred between people.
And we often participate in Satan’s efforts by focusing on our differences and our flaws, turning against one another and seeking to harm one another. Speaking the truth and resisting evil are important tasks for God’s people. But they must always be done in the humility of recognizing and repenting of our own flaws. They must be done from the sacrificial position of laying down our own lives and preferences. Truth must be spoken and evil resisted only from a heart filled with God’s love, for we are created to live in other-centered love with God and one another. And these things must be done only in an effort to bless, not to curse, for Christ became a curse for all so that all might receive God’s blessings.
This Sunday Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18 is often read, where we learn that God is present everywhere and at all times, knowing exactly what we are doing or are planning to do, what we are going to say before we say it, and what is going on in our minds and hearts. The psalmist reminds us that the God who is over all things is present with us in all things. This means that no part of our lives is lived separately from the God who created all and who sustains it by the word of his power. This is the God who made every human unique, like the snowflakes in the winter—each has his or her own shape and beauty, and is meant to be treasured and treated with dignity.
God went even further than this when he created human beings. He gave us the God-imaging capacity for relationship—intimate relationship or fellowship with God and with one another. God meant for us to live in other-centered love. As the Trinity teaches us, the Father and Son who love one another in the Spirit, are love—to intimately know the Father, Son, and Spirit is to know what it means to truly love and be loved.
God gave humans—Adam and Eve first, and then others to follow—the sexual union to teach us what it means to live in a covenant relationship with one another. Just as God joined himself to human beings in a covenant relationship—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the nation of Israel, and ultimately, the church which is the body of Christ—a couple are joined to one another in covenant marriage. It is within this covenant marriage that God meant the sexual union to take place. Jesus says that any other sexual relation is a violation of this union and communion.
The apostle Paul also pointed out that the body of Christ, the church, was united with Christ individually and collectively. This is why sex outside of the covenant relation of marriage is a sin and a violation against the Spirit. When we are united with Christ, the Triune God takes up residence within us by the Spirit. There is a uniting of what is human with what is divine. Why, Paul asks, would you take what is united with God and unite it with a prostitute or with someone who is not your covenant partner? God is present with us in every moment, in every intimate relationship we may have. We do not want our intimate and sexual relationships to be a violation of our covenant with God or our spouse, do we?
This is what we struggle with as human beings—and Paul holds our face to the mirror in this: our bodies do not belong to us—they belong to God. God has purchased our bodies by offering Christ’s body on the cross for us. He paid the ultimate price for each of us in the loss of his Son. This means that each and every human being is of enormous value, no matter who they are. Each person belongs to God and is to be respected and cared for as we would respect and care for Christ. No human being, no matter their color, gender, background, shape, or size, or even their mental state, belongs to us to be used and abused as we please. No human body, not even our own, belongs to us to be used and abused however we wish. Each person is created in the image of God and is called into relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit, and has been given incredible worth as a dwelling place of the Triune God.
In our gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus tells Nathanael, who had never met him before, that he had seen him under the fig tree. There was something Jesus knew about Nathanael by spiritual insight as God in human flesh that he could not have known otherwise. This is reminiscent of what we talked about in Psalm 139—we cannot escape the perusal and notice of our Maker and Lord. God never meant for human beings to live apart from relationship with him. We were created to be a part of a union and communion which in the new heavens and new earth will include every member of the Bride of Christ.
This Bride is made up of many members, of all people groups around the world. Individually and collectively, she has a worth and dignity that is priceless, for her bridegroom, the Lord Jesus, laid down his life for her. Every human being is meant to be a part of her—our role is to remind each and every person of this and to welcome them in, not to abuse, exclude, condemn, or reject them. As Christ taught us, we are to reach out to those in need, comfort those who mourn, bless those who curse us, and do good to those who abuse us—for each and every person has been given the dignity of being a fit dwelling place of the living God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
Dear God, thank you for giving each of us such worth and value! Thank you for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Thank you for noticing us—for seeing us when we believe we are invisible. Lord, wash away all of our divisions, our prejudices, our hatred, and our feelings of superiority. Grant us instead the humility of a true understanding of who we are as those who are equals and temples of your presence, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; | You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, | And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.” Psalm 139:1–3 NASB
“You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you. And even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything….In our union with him we are one spirit with the Lord. Flee fornication. Every sexual sin is a violation of the sacredness of the human body and scars the conscience of the individual like no other sin does. Do you not realize that your body by design is the sacred shrine of the spirit of God; he echoes God within you. Your body does not even belong to you in the first place. You are bought and paid for, spirit, soul and body. All of you are his. Live your life conscious of the enormous price with which God has valued you. Your whole being belongs to him and exhibits him. You are his address; you are his real estate.” 1 Corinthians 6:12, 17–20 MB
By Linda Rex
January 3, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY | CHRISTMAS—We live in a world today, especially those of us hooked into digital media, where we are told on many fronts who we are, what we are to believe, how we are to act, and what is most important in life. It would be easy to go through life and allow others to assume responsibility for much of what is ours—so many people are happy to do it for us! And we are also reminded often that people don’t really want to know the truth about us—they are willing to accept the externals or the great story we tell about ourselves, but they don’t want to know the truth.
One of the reasons many of us avoid building relationships with people is that we don’t want people to know what we are really like. Allowing people to get close enough to us to see our flaws and failures means putting ourselves at risk for rejection or exclusion. Some of us get really good at only letting people see the pleasant façade—we don’t want to experience the shame, guilt or just humiliation of letting people see what we are really like.
There are others of us who love to tell everyone about how bad things are for us. We are caught in this place where the only attention we find we can get is when people feel sorry for us—so we come up with the best stories we can to get people to care. It does not matter to us that we adjust the truth a little to get the response we want. There is a way to manage or manipulate people to get them to respond in the way we want them to. It really has nothing to do with true relationship or truth—it’s just a means for us to get our needs met in that moment.
If we are struggling to figure out who we are and why we are here on earth, or how to have healthy relationships, the best place to begin is with examining the person of Jesus Christ. I say this simply because Jesus is the grace of God to you and me who reveals to us the truth about whom you and I are. One of the things we learn as we grow up in Christ, becoming more like him, is the truth about ourselves as human beings and that we are ultimately responsible for what is ours, and that caring for ourselves and what is ours also involves loving God and those around us. We find in Jesus Christ both the perfect image-bearer of God himself, but also the perfect human in our place, in our stead.
The law was a gracious gift from God to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament days. The law and sacrifices explained what it looked like for that nation to live in covenant relationship with him, and provided a means of gracious restoration when the people broke that covenant. The law pointed out the truth of their disobedience and rebellion, and pointed out the way they were to live. All of these things the people were to obey and practice pointed them to the Messiah who would one day come and make everything right, enabling true obedience by the Holy Spirit.
The law, though, didn’t change or heal anyone. There wasn’t transforming power in the law itself. Even though the Spirit works through the word of God to bring about healing and change, there is no genuine and lasting change apart from the gracious work of the Spirit in human hearts and lives. So Jesus came and forged within our humanity the capacity for the Spirit to indwell us permanently, bringing us into union and communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. By faith we participate in this inner relationship the Son of God has always had with the Father in the Spirit.
Jesus, born under the law, lived out the Old Testament law as God intended. Moses may have been the one who mediated this law, but Jesus was the one who fulfilled it perfectly. The apostle Paul tells us that to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves fulfills the law. Jesus was ever faithful, devoted and obedient to his heavenly Father, doing only what he asked him to do or what he saw his Father doing. Jesus loved each and every person—disobedient or obedient, loving or unloving—as much as, or even more so, than himself, for he laid his life down for each and every one. As the Truth embodied in human flesh, we find reflected in him the truth of our human existence lived out the way it was meant to be lived.
Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the perfect image-bearer of God you and I were created to be. When we look closely at Jesus, examining his life, his words, his way of being, we come up against grace and truth—the truth of who we are in all our brokenness and sin, the truth of who we are meant to be as image-bearers of God, and the truth of what Jesus did for us in coming as God in human flesh to live our life, die our death and rise again—the grace of God for you and me as sinners in need of saving. God enables us to participate in Jesus’ perfected humanity by sending us the Holy Spirit as we trust in Christ and in his finished work.
Grace and truth come together uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ. As we begin to looking into the perfect law of liberty, Jesus Christ, we see the truth about ourselves, but always in the context of grace. We may fall very short of the glory we were created to bear as image-bearers of God, but God still loves us and values us, enough that he put a plan into action before time began so that we would be met in the depths of our depravity, and even on into death itself, and brought back up into eternal life with the Triune God. This is our true freedom—we are known down to the core of our being, all the way into our darkest places, and we are forgiven, accepted, and beloved, and are included in God’s life and love.
God goes even farther than his in his Son Jesus Christ. He not only reconciles all things and all people with himself, he also includes us by faith in the intimate relationship he has with his Son in the Spirit. The heavenly Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are the adopted children of our heavenly Father through Jesus his Son. We hear in our hearts the Spirit calling him “Abba” or Father—because by the Spirit we know we are his beloved children.
What a gift to know who we are! We aren’t just ordinary folks lost in a sea of faces, or a list of friends on a social media site. We are special—uniquely set apart and chosen from the foundation of the cosmos for a relationship with the One who made all things, who includes us in his own loving relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. We have a home with God just as he has a home in us by the Holy Spirit. We are included in his life and love just as we make him welcome in our hearts, our lives, our work, home and family each and every day. Daily companionship with God is our reality now and forever. What a gracious gift from the God of truth!
Dear Heavenly Father, God of truth, thank you for sending your Son as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, to live, die, and rise again for us. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit so we can know the truth about who you are and who we are in Christ. May we ever grow more like you, as your perfected image-bearers, children of you, Holy Father, through Jesus Christ and by your Spirit. Amen.
“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 1:12-14 NASB
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, 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.” Ephesians 1:3-6 (7-14) NASB
By Linda Rex
December 27, 2020, HOLY FAMILY | CHRISTMAS—A lot of times we include the visiting of the magi from the East in the Christmas story. The wise men followed a star, or angel, to Jerusalem, asked King Herod about the Messiah, and found he was to be born in Bethlehem. Having heard this, they left to find the child in this place. And this is where we encounter the dark side of the Christmas story.
It was significant that these wise men from other nations were seeking out the Messiah, while apparently, the chief priests and elders of the Jews only looked into it when King Herod asked them to. It was tragic that King Herod used the information he was given to have the infants of Bethlehem slaughtered. He didn’t want to risk losing his throne to a messianic upstart. Having been warned ahead of time by an angel, Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaped to Egypt, while the infants in Bethlehem were being killed by Herod’s soldiers. There was horrible loss and suffering that was experienced by so many because of Herod’s evil actions. He had no idea that his violent attack upon Jesus in this way predicted what would happen to Jesus as an adult when he died on behalf of all people, young and old.
But let me go back before this event. We often miss an important part of the story when we focus solely on the magi and the genocide in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem with baby Jesus about forty days after he was born. They, as pious Jews, wanted to be obedient to the law of Moses as they understood it. So, they came to Jerusalem to do three things: 1) They offered the sacrifice necessary for Mary’s cleansing after having given birth to a son—forty days after the birth they offered the sacrifice of poor people of two turtledoves or two young pigeons. 2) They paid the redemption price for Mary’s firstborn son, Jesus, of five shekels. 3) And following the example of Hannah in the Old Testament, they presented their son to God for his service. The parents of Jesus, who was born under the law, fulfilled the requirements of the law as they understood them.
What would King Herod have thought if he had known the real Messiah was present in Jerusalem without his knowledge? It wasn’t like Mary and Joseph snuck in and out without anyone noticing. Luke tells about two elderly Jews who took special note of Jesus, acknowledging and proclaiming that he was the expected Messiah. Simeon and Anna were guided by the Spirit to affirm the special anointing which was on the Christ child. Anna celebrated loudly the redemption of Israel through this child. Simeon said that Jesus would be a light to the nations, but would face great opposition and one day Mary would experience the sharp pain of the loss of her son—there would be a dark side to Jesus’ life and ministry. I imagine the prophetic words of these two elders must have created a lot of talk among the people at the temple.
Somehow Mary and Joseph took care of what they felt was needed at the temple and returned to Bethlehem without raising the attention of the authorities or King Herod. We don’t know what they were doing during those first two years in Bethlehem before their flight to Egypt. Perhaps Joseph was doing work as a carpenter and was able to eventually provide them with a house to live in, for that is where the magi found them. In Christ’s story, we find Jesus identifying with a variety of people—working poor, pious Jews, humble shepherds, and in time, endangered refugees hiding in another land. If we look closely, we can see that as an infant and as a child, Jesus experienced the human condition—what people everywhere, in every nation, go through at some time and in some way.
Sometimes people project onto Jesus some fantasy childhood, where nothing ever went wrong and where his circumstances were always ideal. It could not have been easy for Joseph and Mary to drop everything to go to Bethlehem just because the Roman government was doing a census. What did they face due to Mary’s unexplained pregnancy? When they did arrive in Bethlehem, did they endure criticism or rejection from extended family members? When the baby came, did anyone help Mary out or was she left all alone with Joseph? What was it like for Joseph to be the guardian of his adopted son, knowing Jesus would never be fully his own? When Jesus’ parents knew that they had to flee Bethlehem, did their hearts ache for their friends and neighbors who were facing the loss of their children at the hands of the soldiers?
These are human experiences which can be found in nations all over the world among people of a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities. When Jesus came as a light to the nations, he did not do so externally to all we are as human beings, but as one of us within our humanity. He entered our human existence, to forge within us a new humanity able to share in his close relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. He did not bring a political redemption, but a spiritual renewal and an ushering in of the age of the Spirit—a time when every human being could participate by faith in Jesus’ life of union and communion with the Father in the Spirit.
The prophet Isaiah celebrated this prophetically, saying:
“I will rejoice greatly in the LORD,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (61:10 NASB).
He spoke of our salvation as something God clothes us with—”garments of salvation” and “a robe of righteousness.” These are not things we create for ourselves—our best efforts never gain us a right relationship with God, nor do they save us from the consequences of our sin and rebellion against God. Nor do they free us from evil, sin, or death. Only God could and did do what was needed in and through his Son. He even went so far as to adopt us into his family—to make us his very own children rather than just merely his servants.
But there was a cost to God’s Son coming into our humanity to bind us in himself to the oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit. What those children and families in Bethlehem experienced was the dark side of the coming of God into our humanity—when evil resisted the goodness of God once again, turning the beauty of what God had done for each of us in the Christ child into something horrific and tragic. What Jesus experienced in the wilderness and later on the cross, what he resisted each time he healed someone or delivered them from an evil spirit, was that darkness which from the beginning has resisted and sought to overcome the light of God’s love and life. The reality is that Jesus came and did what only God could do—delivered us from Satan’s hands, freed us from sin and death, and rising from the grave, brought our humanity into a new place in the presence of his Father now and forever.
In our western world today, we often are so comfortable that sometimes we forget what it is like to struggle, suffer, or go without. When a tragedy, violence, or natural disaster occurs, we are faced once again with the reality that we live in a broken world in which evil is still at work. We, in the already/not-yet of God’s kingdom, experience both the blessings of God’s presence and power at work in this world, but also the opposition, oppression, and assaults of the evil one as he opposes every good thing God is trying to do. There is evil at work in this world—but evil is always a parasite on what is good—it has no power that is not derivative. God always and ever has the final word—and this is why we pray, resist Satan and evil, and seek what is good, even when doing so may cost us our life, our financial well-being, or our good standing in the community.
There is a cost to following Jesus. Jesus said anyone who wanted to be his disciple needed to “lay down his life, pick up his cross, and follow” him. The price of doing this is what we may struggle with. But realizing that Jesus went first, and that he includes us in his perfect life of obedience with the Father, can enable us to do the difficult thing. Christ went first—and whatever we do, we do as a participation in his perfect and finished work. This can give us hope and courage when life gets hard, no matter who we are. We are not alone—he is present now and forever by his Spirit—and includes us as adopted children of a loving Father who by his Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are his very own, no matter the circumstances of our lives or the difficulties we face.
Dear Abba, thank you for making us your very own. We look forward to that day when evil, sin, and death are cast into the lake of fire and once and for all removed from our world. In the meantime, hold us close, Abba, and deliver us anew from evil people and the evil one, from the sin which so easily seduces us—we are helpless and hopeless without you. Thank you, Jesus, for sharing in our human existence so fully, and for coming to be with us and in us by your Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.
“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:4-7 NASB
See also Luke 2:22–40 and Isaiah 61:10–62:3.
By Linda Rex
December 20, 2020, ADVENT | LOVE—One of the things I love about the season of Advent is the beautiful and inspiring music. Playing and singing music which tells the story of God’s love and grace expressed in the coming of Jesus brings joy and comfort to many. One of the songs we often sing during Christmas is “The Twelve Days of Christmas”,(1) which as a cumulative teaching song is often accompanied by laughter and giggles as the singers vainly attempt to remember all twelve gifts.
Another cumulative song which is not Christmas-oriented but was used as a memory game for children’s parties years ago is an old nursery rhyme called “The House That Jack Built.” The last line of the song went something like this: “Here is the farmer who owned the rooster who woke the priest who married the tattered man who kissed the maid so forlorn who milked the cow with the crumpled horn who threw the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the grain which lay in the house Jack built.” As the game went on, each child would add another part of the story while repeating what had gone before, hopefully without mistakes.
The beginning of the rhyme was simply, “This is the house Jack built.”(2) In many ways, this is how everything started in our cosmos. We could simply say, “This is the cosmos, the world God created.” All that we know now and study so diligently with our telescopes and microscopes exists where once there was nothing, not even the building blocks of the universe. At God’s decision, through the Word of God and by the power and presence of the Spirit, all things came into existence. Simply said—what wasn’t became what was by God’s will, word, and power.
On this particular planet, there came a time when God brought forth plants and trees, animals, fish, and birds—abundant life of such variety we are still categorizing and sorting them today. The interwoven nature of the many forms of life on this planet constantly catch us by surprise—what happens to one creature often affects many others, as well as the biome in which they live. Like the animals in our nursery rhyme, no creature stands by itself—they are all interrelated and mutually affected by one another.
As creatures, we as human beings, are also affected by and interwoven with all that exists on this earth. As our understanding of science and technology have grown, many of us as humans have taken for granted our ability to manage and control our environment and planet. It is easy to forget that we are merely another creature dependent upon others and upon the God who made all things. We have come far enough today that God himself has become a forgotten story to many, one in which we see no need to believe. It is as though we have forgotten who built the house in which we live. We have put so many other things in his place, we believe we don’t need him anymore.
In 2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16, we find that King David decided that he wanted to built a house for the ark of God since it was still residing in the tabernacle God had told the Israelites to build for it. The tabernacle was designed to be moved about rather than to remain in one place. During the years of wandering in the wilderness and crossing into the promised land, the tabernacle was the place where Moses’ brother Aaron and the priests appointed by God ministered God’s grace to his people through offerings and sacrifices and the reading of the law. When the cloud of God’s presence lifted off the tabernacle, the people would pack their things and get ready to move, following wherever they were led.
When King David told Nathan he wanted to build a house for God’s presence, the prophet thought it was a great idea and told him to go ahead with it. But this wasn’t God’s preference—he told Nathan to tell King David that he had never lived in a house, but only in a mobile dwelling. He told Nathan to tell the king that one day God would build David a house, a kingdom that would last forever—God didn’t need David to build him a house.
The problem with humans building temples for God is seen in the very statement King David made to Nathan: “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within tent curtains.” Do you catch it? David was worried about the ark, not about the presence of God himself. Too often, we as human beings get caught up in the rites and rituals, the law and sacrifices of our worship instead of focusing on interacting with God himself. When David’s son Solomon finished the work on the temple, it was filled with the Shekinah glory of God. But it wasn’t very long before King Solomon himself began worshiping the idols of his wives rather than growing in his own personal relationship with the God who had crowned him king.
Following his death, the northern half of the nation of Israel split off and created their own place of worship, abandoning the temple and worship of the Creator and Redeemer who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Eventually the northern tribes were taken into exile by the Assyrians, as the southern tribes (known as Judah) began to embrace idolatry and pagan religious practices as well. Eventually the Shekinah glory left the temple, due to the hedonistic practices being observed there. It wasn’t much longer before Judah was taken over by the Babylonians. Soon and for a time, this people who had been brought into covenant relationship with the Creator God himself were no longer residents in the land he had given them.
As you can see, even when we as humans are brought by God into relationship with himself and given all we need for that relationship, we so often trade it in for something tangible we can see, feel, hear, taste and touch. We can control worship to an idol—construct a house, bring offerings, say the right words, sing the right song. We believe that if we do this, the idol will do that, with such appeasement giving an illusion of control over the situation. But in all of this, there is no real relationship. Give us an ark we can put in a building and do nice things for—don’t make us have to interact with an intangible God we cannot predict or control, and who may ask us to change or do things his way!
It’s as though we are at the end of a long line of kids and we’re having to remember the entire nursery rhyme. We’re stuck somewhere between the house that Jack built and the farmer who has a crowing rooster. At this point we may be wondering why Jack even built the house at all. We’re not sure where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, but we’re not about to acknowledge defeat. What we don’t want to admit is, we’ll never be able to get the whole thing right on our own, no matter how hard we try.
The reality is that we cannot build a house for God to dwell in because, as the apostle Paul said: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; …” (Acts 17:24-25 NASB) Rather than us building a temple for God to dwell in, God came into our human flesh in Jesus Christ to create a space for himself within our humanity where he could dwell by the Spirit. In that place, our broken humanity, which we had filled with evil, sin, rebellion and disobedience, God in Christ forged a space for God’s presence by the Spirit, cleansing us and freeing us from evil, sin, and death.
As mobile dwellings of God himself by the Spirit, gathered together into the body of Christ—the spiritual temple of God, the church—we bring God’s kingdom into relation with the broken world around us, touching it with his presence and power by his Spirit. The church and its members are not a perfected temple yet, but are a place where sinners are being healed, transformed, and renewed as they walk in humble relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit. Even though the Spirit is present to all people at all times, not everyone opens themselves up by faith to the living presence of God in Christ—so the church participates with Christ in calling all people to the new life which is theirs in Jesus.
The reading from Luke for this Sunday describes when the angel Gabriel told Mary she was to have a baby who would be the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. Mary was chosen to give birth to the Christ child, not because of her worthiness or goodness, but simply because of God’s grace and favor. She would carry in her womb the One who was both God and man—she would be a mobile temple for the presence of God in human flesh as an unborn infant.
What was Mary’s response to this announcement? It is the same response God longs to hear from each of us as he births Christ in us by his Holy Spirit: “…may it be done to me according to your word.” Humble surrender to the will and wishes of our mighty God as he forms Christ in us—this is our best response. What will we do with the house God has forged for himself in us? Will we echo Mary’s response? Or will we continue the merry-go-round of our nursery rhyme life of godlessness?
Heavenly Father, Creator and Sustainer of all, thank you for not abandoning us when we abandoned you. Thank you for sending your Son into our human flesh to forge a dwelling place for your presence. Forgive our rebellion and disobedience. Grant us a humble surrender to your will and wishes. Dear God, by your Spirit come and dwell in our hearts and lives, forming Christ in us and transforming our hearts by faith. May it be done to us according to your Word by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b–49 NASB
See also Luke 1:28–33.
1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song) (accessed 12/11/2020)
2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Is_the_House_That_Jack_Built (accessed 12/11/2020)