in Christ

Go and Do the Same

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By Linda Rex

July 10, 2022, PROPER 10—This blazing hot summer weather here in Tennessee has driven a colony of tiny black ants into my kitchen looking for water and food. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how busy and diligent they are in their daily business, but on the other rather irritating that I can’t seem to get them to change their mind about being in my house.

So often we find ourselves like the ants, diligently going about our daily business of life, while we don’t seem to realize the difficulties we are creating for others in our lives. We, as humans made to reflect the image of God, are meant to love God with all our being and to love others as we love ourselves. When we don’t do this and it is brought to our attention, our first instinct is to self-justify—to make excuses for or rationalize away our behavior.

It is amazing to what extent I can go in my own effort to justify things I’ve said or done that have caused harm to others. What is especially amazing is how we can even use our efforts to do good or to serve God as an excuse for unacceptable behavior or neglect. Sometimes our efforts at self-justification are so effective, we don’t even see this is what we are doing. What we need is a mirror to show us the truth about ourselves. But would we even accept the truth if we saw it?

The question that the lawyer asks in the gospel story for this Sunday, Luke 10:25–37, is a very good one. But it most certainly exposed the truth as to the lawyer’s stubborn resistance to loving all others, no matter whom they might be. “Who is my neighbor?” is a question that when honestly asked of ourselves, exposes our prejudices and our preferences, and opens us up to the possibility that we may need to repent or turn away from our own self-centeredness.

What about the man in Jesus’ story, who laid beaten, rejected, left for dead by the side of the road? Isn’t that the way Jesus ended up at the hands of those he came to save? Do we understand first of all that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Word of God, who came into our sphere of existence to live as one of us? Indeed, Jesus became a brother to every one of us, making himself our kinsman-redeemer, willing to suffer and die at the hands of those he created and made so that we might be welcomed home to the Father in the Spirit.

Taking this a bit farther, we find in this story that the Samaritan—the one who is considered an outcast and a heathen—is the only one who stops to join with the fallen traveler who laid dying by the side of the road. Our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection necessitates us accepting our own reality—that we are the outcasts, and that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, the only place where we find redemption, restoration and renewal.

When we find ourselves exposed as being unloving and inhumane, self-justifying may seem the easiest and most convenient response. It sure seems to come naturally to us. But its consequences are often bitter, eternal, and not easily remedied. A much more difficult and often painful, but significantly more appropriate and redeeming response, is to speak the truth in love, to confess what we actually did say, think or do, and to receive the grace we need, and to accept the challenge to make amends as is appropriate.

Why is it so difficult for us to be honest about our failures to love? Perhaps it is because we forget that confession and truth-telling are things that we do “in Christ”. It’s all of grace. It’s all an inclusion in what Christ did in sharing in our human flesh and bringing us through his death into resurrection and ascension. It is his confession and truth-telling as to the truth of who we are as God’s beloved children, forgiven and accepted, that we participate in—allowing ourselves to be exposed fully and yet at the same time being held in the midst of Christ’s love and grace.

When Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three men in his story proved to be a neighbor to the wounded traveler, it is interesting that the lawyer could not bring himself to even say the name Samaritan. He bypassed this name and said instead, “the one who showed him mercy.” It must have burned his heart and mind to have to admit that someone so despised and rejected might possibly have done what he knew in his spirit he might not have done had he been in the same circumstance.

Christ was willing to pay the ultimate price for our healing, health, and wholeness so that we, through him, could live in intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Like the Samaritan who told the innkeeper to do whatever was needed and to charge it to his account, Jesus has done all that was needed for each of us to find healing and wholeness, and continues to stand in our place, interceding for us in each moment in our relationship with the Father in the Spirit.

How beautiful is Jesus’ simple command, “Go and do the same”! If showing mercy is God’s way of being, and he has expressed that to us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and gives us his Spirit so Christ’s life may find its full expression in and through us, then we are to be people of mercy just as God is merciful. Our acts of mercy come out of God’s heart poured into ours by the Spirit, and are not limited by any of the distinctions we tend to put upon our interactions with others. As the apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NASB).

This is a challenge for us as followers of Christ. Do we make room for those who don’t know Christ to come to know him and to grow in their relationship with God? Do we make room for people to be who they are, while inviting them to become all God created them to be? This is where love becomes a decision, a choice—an action of our will by the power of the Holy Spirit. To “go and do the same” is to walk in the path Jesus forged for us and gives us by his Spirit. May we bravely and courageously love as he first loved us.

Dear Father, thank you for loving us in spite of all our ugliness and willfulness, and our petty grievances against one another. Thank you for your forgiveness—we desperately need it and receive it humbly and gratefully. Grant us the grace to love others as you have first loved us, for Christ’s sake and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; “Do this and you will live.”’ But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied and said, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.” Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?’ And he said, ‘The one who showed mercy toward him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do the same.’”     Luke 10:25–37 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/07/go-and-do-the-same.pdf ]

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

Overshadowed by God’s Presence

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By Linda Rex

February 27, 2022, TRANSFIGURATION—One of the interesting things I have found to be true for me about life transitions is that it motivates me to go deeper in my relationship with God. I begin to be more intentional about spending time both talking to God but also listening to what he has to say to me.

Recently I was told that I have high-risk melanoma which is spreading, and I am going through the tedious and complicated process of discovering how bad the cancer is and what my treatment will be. This process, along with the recent changes in my church and job status, have been reminding me how important it is to stay connected with God, both by speaking with him and listening to him. How do I deal with all that is on my plate right now? I can only do it “in Christ.” Otherwise, it is more than I can bear.

What I am going through really is no different than what many humans go through and have gone through throughout the centuries. God often meets us in the midst of our difficulties and draws us even closer to himself. He does not mean any of these things for our harm, but seeks to work them for our good, as we trust in him. The struggle is the trusting in the midst of the not knowing and the intense challenges we face, especially when we are facing great loss or death.

This Sunday we celebrate the transfiguration of Jesus, a time when for a few moments Peter, James, and John saw beneath the humanity of Jesus into the glorious divinity of his Person. In that divine moment, they saw a glimpse of the kingdom of God in glorious splendor in the face and clothing of Jesus. They saw him speaking with the dead men, Moses and Elijah, and were overcome by the significance of the moment. As Peter was suggesting the building of three tabernacles, a cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice saying to them, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”

This is the struggle these men had. So often they found themselves telling Jesus what he should and should not do. They could not simply allow Jesus to be the Savior he was—the Suffering Servant Messiah who would take away the sins of the world by his suffering sacrifice on the cross. Remember what happened when Peter said he knew Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, and then when Jesus told them about his upcoming betrayal and crucifixion? Peter tried to convince Jesus he didn’t know what he was talking about—that it wouldn’t happen. And Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan. You care more for the things of men than the things of God.”

This is really our struggle as human beings. We want God to guide us and direct us. But we certainly don’t appreciate it when God asks of us things we don’t want to do. And we don’t like it when God takes us down the road he took his Son Jesus down—the path to death and resurrection. That’s when life gets difficult and uncomfortable, and we don’t have control over the outcome. The path of the crucifixion of our flesh is hard, but a necessary task that Jesus took on in our place and on our behalf. When we go through difficulties and struggles in this life, we participate in his suffering and death. But ultimately, the purpose is to enable us to participate in the new life which is ours in him.

This brings me back to the importance of what the men experienced upon the mountain when they saw a glimpse of Jesus’ glory. The overshadowing presence of God was real, and they were frightened by it. Jesus was living in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, so to him it was a welcome experience. How joyfully he must have appreciated the encouragement of the Father in that moment! But for the disciples, it was frightening.

If the disciples had understood more fully the love and grace of God present right there in that moment in Jesus Christ, perhaps the overshadowing presence of God would not have been as frightening to them. What if they themselves had had a relationship with God that was close and affectionate? Wouldn’t their response have been different?

And the voice they heard told them to listen to Jesus. Here was the Prophet foretold by Moses that they were to listen to and heed. What these disciples needed to do was take seriously the command from God to listen to and obey Jesus—to follow where he was leading them, to death and resurrection. His “exodus” from this life was essential to their salvation and ours. More important than the building of tabernacles was the building of their faith in Jesus Christ. They needed to place their trust in him and in what he was intending to do on behalf of all humanity in his upcoming sacrificial death and resurrection.

In the same way, today we need to take seriously the reality of what Christ did for us in his sacrificial offering and in the giving of the Spirit by which God comes to dwell in human hearts. We need to embrace the reality that God’s presence is near to each of us, overshadowing us by the Spirit and drawing us near. And we do not need to be afraid or anxious as God draws near to us and draws us to himself.

God is present and real by the Spirit, and is calling us into intimate relationship with himself through Jesus. He wants us to catch a glimpse of the glory that is ours, which he forged within our humanity in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. He wants us to embrace the gift he has given us of life in him by the Spirit—sharing in the union and communion with the Father he dwells and invites us into. He wants us to be filled with the Spirit, not with the things of this life. He wants us to be led by the Spirit, to walk in the Spirit—to live life moment by moment in the Spirit, aware of his presence and joyfully experiencing a tangible relationship with God that involves both speaking and listening to the One who calls us his beloved child.

We were created to love God and love one another, to live life in healthy, holy relationship. We were created to reflect the glory of God as image-bearers of the divine One. What better way to grow up in being Christlike than by growing in our intimate relationship with God through listening to and speaking with the One who made us and redeemed us. What is God saying to you and to me today? Are we listening to and actually acting on the things he is saying to us?

Thank you, Father, for including us in your relationship with your Son in the Spirit. Thank you for loving us so completely that you want to share your life with us now and forever. Grant us the grace to hear what you say and to obey, and to simply trust in your love and grace expressed to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming. And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him. And as these were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not realizing what he was saying. While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!’ And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen.”     Luke 9:28–36 NASB

[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/02/rexlinda2022feb27-overshadowed-by-gods-presence.pdf ]

Consequences of Grace

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By Linda Rex

February 13, 2022, 6th Sunday of EPIPHANY—I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I realize how many consequences there are to the little choices or simple decisions I make on a day-by-day basis. Things that I have in the past given little thought to, now I see as having a tremendous impact on my life and the lives of others now and in the life to come. As I go through the day, what I think, say and do, or don’t think, don’t say and don’t do, has a profound effect upon my own being as well as touching the lives and souls of those around me.

Isn’t it amazing how God enables every human being to share in his ability to make choices and decisions—to affect the universe in which we live by our freedom to choose? The danger is that we begin at times to believe that it is all up to us, rather than realizing that in every case, it is all up to God. He often submits to our decisions, allowing us to experience the consequences of our choices, not to harm us, but to enable us to grow up in Christlikeness. He wants us to learn that every choice and decision needs to be made “in Christ” and not as though we live independently from God, under our own power and by our own authority.

Many times, our approach to our spiritual life in Christ is from the point of view that it is all up to us. We believe that if we don’t say the sinner’s prayer or live a sin-free life, we can’t be saved or given eternal life. We forget that our ability to come to the place of even wanting to pray a prayer or wanting to be saved comes from God through Jesus by the Spirit. It is God who initiates our relationship with himself, Jesus who has included us in his relationship with the Father, and is working this into our human existence by the Spirit. Our decisions are a gracious participation in God’s life—though we often live and make decisions as though this is not the case.

We live in a world today which bears the consequences of thousands of years of human decision-making done in a misguided belief that it is all up to us, and that we can and do live independently of the God who made us and who sustains our existence. Indeed, over the millennia, we have experienced wars, rumors of wars, famine, disease, societal collapse and many other consequences of our stubborn willfulness and refusal to submit to the reality of who we are as creatures who are meant to be image-bearers of God. As creatures, we are dependent upon a higher power, and were created to love God with all our being and to love each other as ourselves, and when we don’t live in that way, we pay a hefty price both individually and collectively.

As human beings, we also are tempted to live as though this life is all there is. I saw a billboard recently here in Nashville that declares in great big letters this very thing, that we need to experience all we can in this life because there is nothing after death. My thought is—how sad. To live, believing that if you don’t experience it now, you never will experience it; or that one day your life will end so you might as well live self-indulgently and selfishly because there really is no purpose to life—this, to me, is tragic.

What if there is so much more to life than just today? What if God meant for us as his image-bearers to live in joy, peace, harmony, unity, and warm fellowship with one another? And what if, by our participation in a personal relationship with him, we might actually begin to experience those things right now, in this life, and have a strong assurance and hope that this will continue on into eternity?

In Luke 6:17–26, Jesus met with a large crowd of people and enabled many of them to be healed and cured from demonic harassment. The Spirit was flowing through Jesus from the Father and many people experienced the result of God’s power at work. It was in the middle of this dramatic circumstance that Jesus began to teach the people the difference between living in the kingdom of God and living as though it is all up to us, believing this life is all there is. Addressing his followers, “He began to say, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way’” (Luke 6:20–26 NASB).

In this short sermon, an abbreviated form of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus draws upon the Deuteronomy 28 motif of blessings and cursings to talk about the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. The realization we each need to come to is that the kingdom of God was inaugurated in Jesus Christ and it is the reign of God in human hearts through Jesus in the Spirit. The kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, but it affects every part of life because all of our existence as human beings is dependent upon and is to be directed toward the Creator and Sustainer of our existence.

God validated our human experience in Jesus Christ, who as God in human flesh, took this existence we experience day by day upon himself and brought it into a new place in his life, death, and resurrection. The apostle Paul says we don’t see ourselves, each other, or Christ through the lens of this broken human existence any longer—we now see them through the lens of the resurrection. Our human existence has been taken to a new level—into the place it was always meant to be a part of—a participation in Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. This is the kingdom of God at work in us and in our world through Jesus in the Spirit.

We can make great decisions from a human point of view and experience the benefits in this life—being well-fed, wealthy, and famous. But our blessings and abundance will quickly fade away in the presence of death and the transience of the things of this life. What may at first be experienced as a blessing will instead reap us tragic eternal consequences.

On the other hand, we may find ourselves in the midst of difficulty, sickness, suffering, and even being persecuted for Christ’s sake. And as we struggle, we will grow deeper in our relationship with God in Christ and discover that we are actively participating day by day, right now, in the kingdom of God. In the middle of our hardship, pain, and grief, we are actually experiencing joy, peace, and all the spiritual blessings of life in Christ Jesus. We may also experience many of the blessings of this life, but as we surrender to the will and purposes of God through Christ in the Spirit, we discover that our blessings have an eternal shape, as the image of Christ is being forged into our spirit, and our lives are beginning to reflect the nature and being of the Son of God, who came to do for us and in us what we could not do on our own.

Christ came to write God’s law on our minds and hearts. He sent the Spirit so we could participate right now in that life in relationship with God that he forged into our humanity. He has done all that is needed for our full participation right now and on into eternity in the kingdom of God, and invites us to actively participate through our decisions and choices in all he has done. We are given an invitation—will we toss it in the trashcan and go on our way, or will we excitedly don the robes of righteousness he has sent and join him at the party?

Thank you, Father, for sending us your Son to do what we would not and could not do. Thank you for giving us your Spirit so we could share in your life and love even now. Grant us the grace to say yes to all that is ours in Christ, and to turn a deaf ear to all in this world that would seduce us away, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

“How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but they are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”       Psalm 1 NASB

“Thus says the LORD, ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the LORD. … Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose trust is the LORD. … I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.’”      Jeremiah 17:5–10 NASB

Immersed in Christ

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By Linda Rex

January 9, 2022, Baptism of the Lord | EPIPHANY—When I was a girl, my mother and I would often play in the kitchen, trying out new recipes. One of the projects we tried one summer was making pull taffy. This involved cooking sugar and butter at high temperatures on the stove, and when the taffy was made, pulling it into long strips, folding it, and pulling it again and again. It was fun to do, and the final product was extremely sweet and chewy.

In order for the sugar and butter to be transformed into candy though, it had to be cooked at very high temperatures for a precise amount of time. One time, a tiny bit of this extremely hot syrup splashed onto my hand and burnt it badly. This was a painful experience which taught me to be very careful around boiling sugar and butter.

The process of candy-making was necessary and dangerous, but the result was a delightful treat for us to share with others. I suppose I might have decided to never again attempt to make any kind of candy on the stove. That would have protected me from ever getting burnt again, that is true. But at the same time, I would never have had the joy of making and sharing with others the delightful treat of homemade candy. There is often a cost and a challenge involved in making something meaningful and valuable.

This Sunday is the first one in the season of Epiphany, a time when we focus on the revelation of Christ as our Messiah—the Son of God, come in human flesh. We find that even though God knew beforehand the cost that would be involved in sending his Son on this mission to bring all humanity home to the Father, he did not resist, avoid, or fail to do what was necessary to accomplish his purpose. Indeed, we find that Jesus embraced his calling, going forward into the flames of God’s cleansing work in the Spirit, beginning with his baptism.

We hear the words of his heavenly Father as he rose from the water, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” and realize the pleasure and joy the Father had in the self-offering of his Son on our behalf. Throughout his life, Jesus did not withdraw from the flames of God’s loving judgment on evil, sin, and death. No, he walked steadily toward that end when all would be consumed in the fire of the crucifixion. Jesus forged his life of obedience into our humanity, putting to death all that did not belong, and in dying our death, burned up all the chaff of human wickedness and sin, cleansing us in his perfect sacrifice on the cross.

When we see Jesus risen from the grave, we find ourselves included in his resurrection life. We live forever in the presence of the Father in Christ—as humanity is included even now in that perfect relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. What was finished in Christ is offered to us individually in the Spirit—we by faith participate in Christ’s life in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit. What a gift and blessing this is!

Often, if and when we are honest with ourselves, we can clearly see that our lives and our way of living does not match the truth of who God has declared we are in Christ his Son. Many times, we don’t even care that we are not living in the truth of our existence as image-bearers of God. We are indifferent to our calling to love God and love others—at times, we barely even love ourselves. We may even live in ways that deserve a harsh judgment, so we look for ways to cope with guilt, shame and self-condemnation.

But this was never God’s desire for us. His heart is filled with love for us and a desire for us to be all that he meant for us to be. He longs for us to embrace the fire of his transforming love, to find healing and wholeness in intimate relationship with him and healthy relationships with others. What we refuse to do, often, is walk bravely into that fire of God’s love and allow him to do what he needs to do to transform, heal, and renew us.

We tend to prefer that God doesn’t mess around in our innards—we prefer that he mind his own business, and let us go on about ours, doing what we want to do with our lives. What we run from or resist is being immersed in Christ. Are we willing to go all the way down into the water of Christ’s death and resurrection? Are we willing to walk on into the flame of God’s love and allow him to burn away all the chaff of what we were not meant to carry around with us? This takes courage and faith, and a willingness to allow God to do whatever he wills in our hearts and lives. It requires a willingness to surrender—to give all of ourselves, and to hold nothing back.

But we do not face God’s judgment alone. And we need not fear it. When we turn to Christ in faith, we discover he has been through the fire already, cleansing and healing our humanity. Now he wants us to take his hand and allow him to do what is needed to make that cleansing and healing real for us right now in our life today. He wants us to live immersed in him, in his right relationship with the Father, in his life and love.

He’s offering to you and to me, all that he has done for us—so that judgment is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced. The process may be painful for a while as we grow up in him, but Jesus walks us through it by his Spirit, and brings us through to a new place of healing and wholeness, as well as giving us a promise and a hope for everlasting life with God in the new heavens and earth. Turning to Christ in faith is our participation in God’s judgment on evil, sin, and death. We turn away from ourselves and this broken world and turn to Jesus—his life for our life. We begin to live in the truth of who God has declared us to be.

One day, God will bring all that is not included in Christ to an end. We see in the final end that even death and evil will be cast into the lake of fire. This will be the culmination of God’s judgment on all that entered our human existence to bring about sin and death. With gratitude, we will rejoice in that day, joyfully dancing in celebration at what God has done.

Thank you, Father, for the new life you offer us in your Son Jesus. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit through whom we participate in Christ’s life even now. We offer ourselves anew to your transformation and restoration, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; …”     Isaiah 43:1–3a NASB

“Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, 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.’ … Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’”      Luke 3:15–17, 21–22 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

Bold Faith

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By Linda Rex

September 5, 2021, PROPER 18—Wouldn’t it be nice if we could simply ask God to heal someone and he would? What if we could just ask God to fix a situation—get rid of that political leader, close that company, get those people working—and it would just happen? We kind of like the idea of a vending machine God.

Or, when we think of having the faith to receive God’s “yes” to our requests, we often put the burden solely upon ourselves. We catch ourselves starting to move to the place of asking God for something, only to back away and say, “If only I had the faith to….” I wonder if often the issue isn’t with our faith or lack thereof, but rather with our inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of who God is. We don’t know what our Father’s heart and mind toward us really is and we don’t trust him to have our best interests at heart in every situation.

I suppose that if we knew God well and were walking day by day in intimate relationship with him, we might come a little closer to knowing how he perceives a certain situation and what it is he would do in that situation. Over time, by experiencing his answers to our prayers and his faithfulness to us in difficult circumstances, we might be able to ask with greater assurance for his intervention and receive what we request. But God doesn’t always say “yes.” The reality is sometimes he says “later,” or “no.” And we need to be okay with this.

In the gospel passage for this Sunday (Mark 7:24–37) we read that Jesus was trying to find a place where he could teach and minister to his disciples. He went to the region of Tyre, and entered a house, seeking privacy and quiet—time away from the crowds and their demands on his time and energy. In spite of Jesus’ efforts to remain anonymous and isolated, a Syrophoenician woman came to him in great humility and asked him to heal her daughter of an unclean spirit.

Jesus’ reply seems at first glance to be rather rude and disrespectful. He told her it was not fitting to take food away from the children and to feed it to the dogs. She as a Gentile may have experienced often the use of the term “dogs” by the Jews in reference to herself. But in reality, Jesus used a diminutive term when talking about the dogs, which showed he was referring to puppies or the family pets. He was not insulting her, but rather was explaining that his first responsibility in that moment was to his disciples, those he was training and teaching at that particular time.

The woman was not put off by Jesus’ initial refusal to help. It was quite common for her people and his, like ours today, to have family pets around the dinner table. Her reply to him was witty, saucy, and genuine—she quickly pointed out that the pet dogs could eat at the same time as the children, since they picked up the crumbs which fell off the table or ate those tidbits handed to them by the children. There was a picture of pleasant domestic tranquility in her words, a thing she may have been missing due to her daughter’s current illness. She boldly made her request, no matter the cost to herself or the inherent risk of refusal. She trusted in his ability, and willingness, to do what was needed to heal her daughter—which in the end, he did.

There are many stories in the Old Testament of people who had the boldness to ask a big thing of God, believing they would have his “yes” in response to their request. Jacob, who wrestled all night with God, would not let go until God gave him his blessing—and received it. Elijah asked God to make a visible sign of his power and glory in front of the worshipers of Baal—and he did. Elisha asked for a double portion of the Spirit which was on Elijah—and it was his when Elijah was taken. A woman who lost her son came in great grief to Elisha—and her son lived again. Nothing was too large for these people to ask for—and God happily said “yes” to each of their requests.

What if they had never asked? What if they had believed that God was not interested in what was important to them?

The thought came to me—what if Peter and John had met that man at the temple who had been lame from birth and had said to him, “We don’t have any silver or gold” and then simply walked away? Thankfully, for his sake, they did not just walk away. They offered what they did have, and that was healing in the name of Jesus Christ.

Peter and John had experienced God and his love for them in a profound and deep way. They had walked and talked with the Son of God who had taken on human flesh and lived alongside them for three years. They had sat around the campfire with Jesus and had heard his teaching and preaching. They had watched him be betrayed, be crucified and die, and then had walked and talked with him after the resurrection. The consequence of that ongoing relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ was a confident assurance and trust that enabled them to boldly ask for whatever was needed in the moment, even when it was a huge request like making a lame man walk.

If Peter had come across this lame man that night when the rooster crowed three times marking his denial of Christ, would he have responded in the same way? What would have been God’s answer to his request at that time? Peter’s faith experienced a time of testing through which he learned the heart of Jesus and his Father. He came to know Jesus in a way he had never known him before. He discovered God was not only trustworthy, but he was also gracious and compassionate—a faithful God who knew him intimately, and loved him completely and fully anyway. Filled with the Spirit following Pentecost, Peter, and his co-laborer John, had a sense of certainty about what the risen Lord would do in the situation with the man who was lame, and so they told him to walk in Jesus’ name—and he did.

Have you ever had that kind of conversation with God in which you were frankly honest with him, where you boldly asked for what was needed for yourself and others? In the midst of an ongoing conversation with God, a growing relationship with Jesus through the tests and trials of life, there is certainly room for truth-telling—for being genuine in your expression of your anger, your fear, your frustration or your need. Whatever it is, understand that God meets us where we are, not just where we ought to be or wish we could be or believe we should be.

How well do we know God? I find that way too often I make God much, much smaller than he really is. Too often I make him in my image instead of remembering I am made to reflect him. I may understand intellectually that he is greater than my problems or concerns, but my actions demonstrate that I don’t truly believe he is. I may believe that he has the capacity to fix whatever my situation is, but I simply don’t act on that capacity by boldly requesting his intervention in my situation and trusting him to do what is best. When the apostle James said that faith without works is dead, he was pointing out that too often what we say we believe about God isn’t demonstrated by the way we behave in our relationship with him and others (James 2:1–10, 14–17).

It is critical that our fragile human faith be replaced with Jesus’ implicit faith in the Father. The Spirit is working this transformation in our hearts and lives as we turn to Christ and walk in him. We spend time growing our relationship with God through the study of his word, prayer, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We make room for God to work on our hearts and minds, allowing him to draw us through difficult times and painful situations into closer relationship with him. Our trust in God and in his faithfulness grows as we follow Christ and walk in the Spirit through all of life.

And remarkably, we find that even when we do ask, we are not alarmed when God does not give us an immediate “yes”. Our relationship with God becomes more important than having our way in a given situation. We are willing to trust in God, rest in Christ, allowing the Lord to do what only he can do in the situation, believing he will do what is in our best interests because he loves us and is faithful. We know who he is, that he is trustworthy and faithful—and so we can, in Christ, trust him. We discover that the faith we are needing has been given to us as a gift from God through Jesus in the Spirit. This blessed gift of faith means God’s “yes” is already at work in our situation—we need only rest in Christ and trust in God’s love and faithfulness, for he is trustworthy.

Dear God, thank you for your faithfulness, for being trustworthy, the One we can rely upon in every situation to carry us through and to bring us in the end to where we need to be. Fill us with the faith of Christ by your Holy Spirit, giving us the grace to come boldly to your throne to receive what we need in every situation, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He was saying to her, ‘Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered and said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.’ And He said to her, ‘Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.’ And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.”     Mark 7:25–30 (24–37) NASB

“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?… Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”     James 2:14, 17 (1–10, 14–17) NASB

Mirror of the Human Heart

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Our Home in God

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By Linda Rex

August 22, 2021, PROPER 16—This morning I was reading an article about the consequences Christian churches in North America are beginning to face due to past mistreatment and genocide of first peoples. These are issues which cut deeply into the heart of our psyche as believers. Too often we have been influenced by our culture, by our generational prejudices, and undoubtedly, the evil which lurks in human hearts and is often manifested under the guise of Christian beliefs and practices.

Every generation, within the Church and without, faces the reality that it must deal with the consequences of the choices of their forebearers. And it must choose whether or not to continue on that same path, or to choose a new one, more in line with what is holy, just, and good. Will our children, and their children and their children’s children, make better choices? Or will they continue the systemic dehumanizing of their brothers and sisters? How can better choices be made within the current structures and systems at work in this world today—or do they need removed, or changed?

As I read the Old Testament passage for this Sunday (Joshua 24:1–2a, 14–18), I felt conflicted. Joshua was near the end of his life, having after many years of battle brought his people into their promised land and gotten them settled. They were finally experiencing peace so he wanted them to recommit themselves to God. He was committed to leaving behind the idols of the past and worshiping God alone, and he invited his people to do the same. What is left unsaid in this account is how his people would deal with the consequences of all they had done in conquering that land. How many people were killed or displaced so that God’s people could move in and settle? And isn’t that what many of our forbearers did right here in America centuries ago, believing it was God’s will?

Bringing this forward to today, I’m watching something similar happen here in Nashville right now. Someone owns a rental property with many apartments or trailers or homes. They decide to sell the property to a developer because they receive an offer they can’t refuse. All of the people renting there are summarily evicted. They cannot afford to rent a place similar to the one they had in that neighborhood, prices being too high, so they end up on the street, in sub-value housing or moving far away from their work. The developer puts in a new facility with even more apartments or condos, or homes, but none of them are affordable for all these people who got evicted. Over and over, people are being displaced, others are moving in where they used to live—the dynamics of human civilization at work for better or for worse.

Where is God in the midst of all this? We put such a great value on what we own, where we live, our homes and properties. We like to keep what is familiar and comfortable. When life becomes difficult—and for many it is constantly difficult—we can lose faith, lose hope, and even lose our love for one another. We can wonder where God went, because it may certainly seem as though he has left us. But we still have a choice: we can focus on the physical or we can raise the level of our view to heavenly heights to see that God is still present and active, redeeming, restoring, healing, and working through all of these things to bring about a greater purpose and plan.

The Spirit reminds us that God’s where he’s always been—present in and by his Spirit, at work in all these circumstances and situations to bring about his kingdom life. The apostle John liked to use the word abide to describe our intimate connection with God in Christ by the Spirit. To abide is to dwell, remain, stay in a place. Jesus left the benefits of heaven to join us in our darkness by taking on our human flesh. His purpose in joining us at our worst was to bring us up through death and resurrection into his best. What he calls us to do is to find our true residence and dwelling not on this earth but solely in him alone.

In John 6, Jesus had extensive conversations with the crowd about how he was the bread of life, the only source of true zōe life, eternal life, which he received from the Father. He said that “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” We can be so obsessed with the life of our flesh, our human existence, that we miss the spiritual realities which are right in front of us. Or, like the people of Jesus day, we are so scandalized by the possibility that God has made room for each and every human being to have a place in the presence of God now and forever as his very own child that we want nothing to do with Jesus or the Christian faith.

It seems that for generations, for millennia, people have set claim upon spaces on this earth—owning a spot of land or living in the same place as their ancestors, or they have traveled, moved from one place to another. Some have always lived in the same place. Some have never known a stable home. Some have been welcomed to new lands, some haven’t. But God’s heart has always been that each and every person have a home to return to—that home in the Father’s arms which is solely their very own. Our heavenly Abba longs to embrace each one of us and is constantly looking expectantly down the road watching for every one of his prodigals to come home.

To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is figurative language. Eating and drinking cause what we are consuming to, in a sense, become a very part of us. To take in Christ, is to participate in a real and personal way, in his very existence by the Holy Spirit. When we, by faith, realize that Christ is in us and we are in him, that he died our death and lived our life, and lives in us—we are connected with God in a way that is unbreakable, a union and communion that is very real and very eternal. We are intimately known by him and we come to know Abba’s heart and mind as he reveals himself to us through Christ by the Spirit.

Our spiritual house can be shaken though. These experiences of life which are so destructive and unsettling can so disrupt our peace that we lose sight of what is real and true and holy. But the apostle Paul says “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.” He calls us three times to “stand firm”—taking a position against such spiritual opposition that we cannot be moved away from our foundation in Christ. He tells us to put on the spiritual armor of God, all elements of Christ himself—the helmet of salvation, breastplate of righteousness, belt of truth, shield of faith, and so on. We put on Christ, and we give attention to the Word of God and prayer in the Spirit as valuable weapons in this spiritual struggle (Eph. 6:10–20 NASB).

Our assurance is not in our ability to fight well, but in the reality that Jesus has already fought and won the battle. We rest in his finished work, for he has already defeated the evil one, death, and sin in his death and resurrection. We are in the process of moving from our own feeble strength to finding our strength in him alone (Ps. 84:5-7).  We abide in Jesus, resting in him, living in complete dependence upon him, turning to him in faith.

As we face the reality of our broken humanity, and dealing even with the painful reality of whatever history lies behind us, we can have the comfort and assurance that we are at home in the love and grace of God himself. This God, who was present in every century, who knew every decision and its motive and result, is the God who joined us in our humanity, experienced the depths of the depravity of the human heart, and brought us up into new life. Nothing is so horrible or astonishing that he cannot and will not redeem it when it is brought to him. Will we allow him to be our true home, the place where we find true rest and healing, where grace and truth joined together in Christ is ours now and forever?

Heavenly Father, thank you for defending us from our enemies of evil, sin and death, and for rescuing us, bringing us home to be with you forever. We love you and rejoice in your gift of zōe life, being held in your eternal embrace through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.

“My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the LORD; | My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. … For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God | Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”     Psalm 84:2, 10 NASB

“‘He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.’ … ‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ … no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’ As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?’ Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.’”     John 6:56–69 NASB