By Linda Rex
January 2, 2022, 2nd Sunday in Christmas—It’s hard to believe that we are beginning a new year again. It seems like just yesterday I was giving thought to what another year might hold, and was pondering what God might have in mind for all of us. Looking back, I am amazed at all that has been written on these pages we call life. So many joys. So many sorrows. So much loss, and yet, so many gifts of grace. So much faith, hope, and love expressed in our world, in ways which have yet to provide full results. And now, looking forward, there is a new blank journal waiting to be written in. What will this new year bring?
I imagine the wonder that Mary felt holding her baby Jesus for the first time. She had no idea what the future held for her, Joseph and the baby. She had no idea that soon she would be visited by dignitaries from the east bringing her magnificent gifts for her son. It never occurred to her that she would end up in Egypt, hiding from King Herod as a result of this visit. Nor did she realize that eventually she would end up in Nazareth, raising a craftsman’s son, who would be rejected by the people he came to save.
What God envisions for us is so often much greater and more involved than what we envision for ourselves. We see a simple path to our dreams or a path full of obstacles, while God sees a bright future with the bumps and bruises we will experience because of the choices we and others will make along the way. It’s possible that we might see a little into our future, but what God sees is what he envisioned for us before any of this was created. He “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world,” the apostle Paul wrote, “that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4–6 NASB).
What God had in mind is evident by how he placed those he created into a watered garden—the garden of Eden. He meant for us to live in this wonderful place of abundance, of joyful relationship with himself, and of meaningful labor and pleasant companionship. How is it that we chose instead a place full of thorns and thistles, of painful labor and heavy toil? Often, what God has in mind for us is so much more than what we choose for ourselves!
But God has always intended our lives to be like watered gardens—a place where we are nourished and blessed by his presence and love. So even before he created us and our world, he committed himself to do everything that would be needed to bring us to that place. First in the garden of Eden, as he walked and talked with Adam and Eve. Then, working with human beings over the millennia, building relationships, working with nations and people to accomplish his divine purpose.
And then he came himself as the Word of God, to take on our human flesh—to go all the way into our human experience, all the way through death to resurrection, in order to bring us into a new place where we could participate with the Son of God in his perfect loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit. The Word of God in human flesh—this was the will of God for you and me, planned and executed—the perfection of the divine life and love to be shared with those God had made. This redemption and ransom of his creation was planned all along—but none of us really came close to understanding it or seeing it until Jesus came and revealed the Father to us and send the Spirit to open our hearts and minds.
As Mary held her baby that holy night, all of this was held in abeyance—God’s plans for the precious infant were beyond those parents’ expectations or comprehension. Letting the infant Jesus wrap his tiny fingers around her own, Mary no doubt felt a deep affection for him, and maybe even an even greater awe at the miracle which had just occurred. God does amazing things when we simply offer ourselves to him in trusting obedience to his will and purposes in this world. But Mary did not grasp the magnitude of what lay in store for this little One.
Over and over, throughout his life here on earth, Mary came face to face with the reality of who her son was—God in human flesh. We read that she would ponder these things in her heart—thinking through what she heard and saw within the context of what she had been told about Jesus before he was born. As Jesus grew up and began to live into his identity as the Son of God and Son of Man, Mary reflected on all that she knew to be true about him. In the end, she came to believe, to put her faith in Christ as her Lord and Savior.
As we face a new year with infinite possibilities, we have the opportunity to pause and give some thought as to what God may have in mind for us as we move forward. Rather than deciding for ourselves what our goals for the next year may be or what our New Year’s resolutions will be, perhaps we could take some time to ask God what he would like to do with our life. What does God have in mind for us in 2022? Does he have a special word for us for this New Year? Is there something new he would like to do in our life this New Year?
In all of our ponderings, we can be encouraged by reflecting on the reality that God has placed us through Jesus in a watered garden. He has given us truth and grace in his Son Jesus, freeing us to live in relationship with God now and forever, as we open ourselves up to the free flow of the water of his Spirit immersing us in his life and love. All of life is lived in Christ now, and can be experienced as constant companionship with the Creator and Sustainer of all. God walks with us and talks with us by his Spirit and his Word, as we turn to Christ in faith. The New Year is full of infinite possibilities and bright hope because we rejoice and dance together in the watered garden of God’s love and life even now through Christ in the Spirit.
Heavenly Father, thank you for planning so much more for us than we could ever plan for ourselves! Thank you for including us in your life and love. Please show us what you have in mind for us this New Year. What would you like to do? How would you have us join in with your divine dance? Do as you will with us in 2022 and beyond, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“ ‘For the LORD has ransomed Jacob and redeemed him from the hand of him who was stronger than he. They will come and shout for joy on the height of Zion, and they will be radiant over the bounty of the LORD—over the grain and the new wine and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; and their life will be like a watered garden, and they will never languish again. Then the virgin will rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old, together, for I will turn their mourning into joy and will comfort them and give them joy for their sorrow. I will fill the soul of the priests with abundance, and My people will be satisfied with My goodness,’ declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 31:(7–14) 11–14 NASB
“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, ‘This was He of whom I said, “He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.”’ For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” John 1:10–18 NASB
By Linda Rex
December 26, 2021, Christmas | Holy Family—I remember years and years ago walking downtown to do some shopping with with my mother and two brothers. At that time, the Los Angeles, California suburb of Monrovia was a picturesque city of about 30,000 residents located at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. We often made the trip downtown to use the library, visit the grocery store or thrift shop, or to visit some of the little shops located on Myrtle Avenue.
On this day I recall that while we were visiting a clothing store, we inadvertently lost my younger brother. He was really little at the time, so we were very concerned about what might have happened to him. During our search, I remember looking under all the clothing racks, hoping he might simply have been playing hide and seek. Eventually, we looked up and down the street in different stores, and I remember us even going to the police station in our effort to find him.
This event of my childhood often comes to mind when I read Luke’s account of how Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus as they returned home from Jerusalem with the other travelers. It was not unusual, apparently, for the parents to travel in different groups rather than as a couple, so it’s possible that Mary simply did not realize that Jesus wasn’t with Joseph, or vice versa. And with the number of people traveling together on pilgrimage, they might have simply assumed he was with relatives or friends. Considering the circumstances, it would have been easy to lose track of him.
Imagine the shock, though, when they discovered Jesus wasn’t anywhere to be found. They had, quite simply, lost the child who was to be the Messiah (as if that was even possible). Their subsequent frantic search for Jesus was, from their point of view, perfectly understandable.
The story takes a profound turn, though. It seems the last place they thought he would be is the very place he had been all along—in the temple, sitting at the feet of the teachers of the law of God. When they found him, Mary said to him, “Why have you treated us like this? We have been anxiously looking for you.” But Jesus replied, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48–49 NASB) Apparently, they had forgotten or not understood who he was. Where else would he have been but in his heavenly Father’s house?
Today, as I reflect on this story, it again occurs to me that we participate in this story in a very special way. In it, Jesus teaches us where we can find him when we feel as though we have lost him. We may long for a relationship with God and in searching for him, cannot seem to find him anywhere. Or there may be times in life when we may feel as though we are fatherless or orphaned, or as if we have been abandoned or forsaken. We may feel as though we are left alone, without anyone to care about what happens to us. Or we may long for deep relational connection, but in all our efforts to connect, we are left shattered and broken, trying to bring back together all the pieces of our life.
Jesus says to you and me, “Why are you looking for me?” It may be worthwhile to take some time in quiet reflection to consider the answer to this question. What are we really searching for? Is it possible that we are needing a compassionate and forgiving Friend who will not criticize or condemn us? Is it possible that what we have been struggling to find is actually our loving Father—the One who deeply cares for us and wants to be a part of our life? Do you and I even realize what we are really searching for and need is the Savior Jesus?
And if it is Jesus we are searching for, then why is it we are needing him? Our hearts and minds can tell us a lot about what it is that is really going on inside if we are willing to slow down and pay attention. Too often we, like Joseph and Mary in this story, are so busy going about our everyday lives that we don’t attend to our connection with the One who cares for us so deeply. We can just assume he’s around somewhere or that someone else is tending to him, not realizing we have gone on ahead without him.
What is it we are truly longing for and needing? Why do we do what we do? What do our patterns of life tell us about our relationship with God and with others? We may be surprised to discover that things are not as we first assumed. We may find that what we have been searching for has been right where it needed to be the whole time we were looking for it!
When we do realize who we are looking for and why we are looking for him, then we are able to attend to Jesus’ reply, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” Where do we search in order to find Jesus? We are meant to find Jesus right now in his Father’s house by the Spirit. In the biblical view, we can experience the presence of our Lord right now by the Spirit in a three-fold location: 1) at work in this world, in all he has made and he sustains, 2) in the house of God—the gathering of the body of Christ, the Church, and 3) in the house of God—our hearts and minds.
We are not meant to search everywhere trying to find God. When we search for God, we are meant to awaken by faith to the reality that Christ has come and is present right now by his Holy Spirit. In Jesus by the Spirit, God has made a home for himself within our human flesh and within the body of Christ, the Church—why search everywhere else seeking to find him?
You may be wondering what happened to my younger brother—did we ever find him? Yes, actually we did. When we went to the police station, we were encouraged to go back home and wait to hear from them. And, surprisingly enough, when we got home—there my brother was, waiting for us. He had made his way home, all by himself—something we had never expected him to do.
I believe that if we were to take some time in silent reflection, asking God where he is and how to find him and then waiting for his response, we might discover that he is where he always has been—very near and very present by his Holy Spirit, at home in our hearts and lives. It is by faith in Christ that we come to the realization that he has come to dwell in us by the Spirit.
In Colossians 3:12–17, the apostle Paul tells us to “put on” the nature of Jesus Christ, to “let” the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and the word of Christ richly dwell within us. These are actions that are a response to what Christ has already done within our humanity by living our life, by dying our death and by rising again, bringing us home to the Father. As we trust in him and in his finished work, we find that in the sending of his Spirit, Jesus Christ is genuinely present in our individual lives and in the Church. We don’t have to look everywhere for Jesus in order to find him. Rather, we do need to respond to his real presence within and in our midst right now by the Holy Spirit, placing our trust in him and gratefully doing everything in his name for the glory of our Father.
Putting our faith in the One who has made himself at home in human hearts and has brought us home to the Father is a life-changing decision. Pondering these things in our hearts as Jesus’ mother Mary pondered the words and actions of the eternal Son of God, her son Jesus, is an important spiritual discipline we can practice each day. Being baptized, studying the written Word of God, speaking with God in prayer, gathering with believers in spiritual fellowship, taking communion—these are all healthy ways to come to terms with the reality of who Jesus is, and what he has done and is doing in us and in our world by his Spirit. And there are so many other spiritual practices by which we are able to actively participate each day in Jesus’ loving relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. For Jesus has made us now and forever at home with himself in the presence of the Father and made himself at home with us and in us by the Holy Spirit.
Heavenly Father, thank you that we have a home with you even now through Christ and in the Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, that we don’t have to look everywhere in order to find you—you’re closer even than the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. You have made your home in us and our home in you. Holy Spirit, awaken us anew to the realization of God’s real presence and abundant love through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“… and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem looking for Him. Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.’ And He said to them, ‘Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?’ …” Luke 2:44b–49 (41–52) NASB
By Linda Rex
December 29, 2019, HOLY FAMILY—In recent years, specifically here in America but in other areas as well, there has been a lot of effort expended in an effort to lift women to a place of dignity and worth not previously experienced in society. Although I have been immensely blessed by the results of this effort and am very grateful for the efforts of those who have gone before me, I have been saddened to see that when we seek to rectify one problem, as is typical with us as humans, we tend to create another.
I’ve noticed that with the rise of the worth and dignity of women has come a demeaning and disrespect of men. Too often we have criticized and condemned as a whole this portion of the human race in our efforts to correct what has failed to be encouraged and supported in the other. I feel we have fallen into the trap of either/or thinking rather than understanding that God did not mean worth and dignity to be given to one in place of the other. He meant it to be given to both. Every human being is made in the image of God, and so is worthy of dignity and respect.
In the light of this, the reading for this Sunday tells us about events which happened after the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is a twelve-day celebration which begins on December 25th, and included in this celebration is the Sunday we celebrate the Holy Family. The role that Joseph and Mary have to play in Jesus’ story is significant, and I believe there is much we can learn about how to be a man of God from the little bit we read in the gospels about Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather.
First, we need to understand that Joseph was living in a very patriarchal society. He was a Jew and he was bound by the requirements of the law as taught by his rabbis in the synagogue and the other Jewish leaders. He was a man of character and sought to live rightly before God. When he was betrothed to Mary and she told him she was expecting a child, his immediate thought was to put her away privately. This would have gone against the traditions of the elders, but he did not want to hurt or shame her unnecessarily. This showed a heart of grace and humility, and compassion.
When an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife and that the child to be born to her was conceived by the Spirit and was to be called Jesus, Joseph had an important decision to make. This decision required an immense amount of faith—was this really a message from God? Did he believe that this is really what he should do? Apparently, he believed, and then acted on that belief.
How many men today take seriously the dreams they have? Would a man I met on the street, or even within the doors of my church, recognize when they had an angel of God speak to them? How many actually listen to and obey the voice of the Spirit? And how would they respond if they were asked to do something which would require this kind of humility, grace, and lifelong commitment? I have gotten to know some men over the years who I believe would, but I have also met and known many who would not.
What about when Joseph had a dream which told him to pick up his family and travel to Egypt on a moment’s notice because the king was searching for his child in order to kill him? If Joseph had not believed and obeyed this dream, they would have stayed at the house, and Jesus would have been killed. The faith and trust of Joseph, his willingness to listen to and be attentive to the voice of God, was critical in the survival of the Christ child.
In the same way today, we need men who are willing to slow down long enough to listen to and hear the voice of God. God’s Spirit speaks all the time, but often we are too busy or preoccupied to hear his voice. We are often too invested in the things of our flesh or in our daily occupations to do what the Spirit asks us to do. Women and children often long for the men in their lives to take the lead spiritually. They yearn to be able to rest in the knowledge that their spouse or parent is listening to God’s voice and following the lead of the Spirit. One of the best gifts a man can give the people in his life is a willingness and effort to listen to and follow the Holy Spirit.
I’m personally grateful for the many men I know who have a passion for the word of God and prayer, who are strong men of faith, who are humble and have servant hearts. They are compassionate and understanding, yet they diligently oppose anything which may harm others or create distress for those who cannot defend themselves. These men radiate a quiet, steady strength, and an ability to lead others merely by following the Spirit themselves.
We must not underestimate the power that a man has to impact the society around him simply by how he listens to and follows the voice of the Spirit. His capacity to humbly listen to and submit himself to the voice of the Spirit and to the needs of his family is critical. The admonition in Ephesians for a man to lay down his life as Jesus laid down his, if it were followed, would transform this society and our families today (Eph. 5:25-29).
Joseph had to care for his family, but uprooting them on a moment’s notice to move to an entirely different nation must have been a very difficult undertaking. And then, after a few years, he heard that voice again, telling him to return to his native land—King Herod, the one who wanted to kill Jesus, had died. Joseph was still concerned about the well-being of his family, so he took them to Nazareth to live. And this was where Jesus grew up.
We don’t read much about Joseph after this. We find him taking his family to Jerusalem for the holy days about the time of Jesus’ bar mitzvah. But after that, not much is said of him. But what we do know is that he fulfilled the calling God gave him, to be the keeper of the Anointed One, watching over him and protecting him as he grew up, and providing for him and his family.
What man today isn’t called to this same role? Maybe it’s not quite the same, since Jesus is not here on earth in his flesh right now. But the Holy Spirit was sent to dwell in human hearts, and we as human beings were meant to be the dwelling place of God himself. Jesus lives in each person as they trust him in faith. Just as he worked through Joseph, God calls men today to be keepers of the Anointed One, leading others in their lives by listening to and following the lead of the Spirit. God means for men to be image-bearers of the Divine One, caring for those in and with whom he has come to dwell.
Thank you, Abba, for giving us men of faith to lead us and watch over us. Continue to call to yourself the men in our lives, giving them a heart and will to listen to and obey your Spirit, to lead us by following you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,’ the angel said. ‘Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. … When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. ‘Get up!’ the angel said. ‘Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.’ So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. … So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’” Matthew 2:13–15a, 19–21, 23 NASB
By Linda Rex
December 22, 2019, 4th Sunday of Advent—I was reading a devotional this morning which used the story in the gospels of a man who was bound by demons and wandering about in the tombs, in the region of the dead. This man broke any chains that held him, but when Jesus spoke to him, he found true freedom.
How often I have felt like this man, wandering about in my own personal chains, unwilling to be shackled by the bonds of love God has for me. How often I have harmed myself rather than submitting myself to the love and grace of God as expressed to me in his will for my life! I know I am not alone in this—I see it often in people around me. It is our human condition apart from God’s merciful intervention.
One of the most basic steps in facing our addictions and being freed from them is coming to understand that apart from the intervention of a “higher power’, we cannot be free. We can try harder and harder, we can work the plan faithfully, but we have to eventually end up at the place where we realize in a deep and significant way that apart from divine intervention, we have no hope of ever being any different than we are right now.
God’s method of intervening in our circumstances did not involve him being a distant, cold and uninvolved deity. Nor did he seek vengeance on us for our pitiful failures at trying to be what we believe we need to be in order for him to accept us. God’s way of turning our hearts back to him, of restoring our relationship with him, was to enter into our very existence as a human being and to personally turn us around back into face to face relationship with himself.
Historically, the nation of Israel was in many ways like you and me. They were brought into relationship with God, but they refused to let him be the center of their life. For a while they would live as his people, but in time they would turn away from him, back into their idolatry and hedonism. They would reap the results of living life on their own terms, come to the end of themselves, and then turn again to him—for a while.
But this was not a surprise to God. None of this is. He knew long before our cosmos existed that we would have this proclivity to turn away from him to other things. He knew it would require his personal involvement to restore us back to our original design so that we could be the image-bearers of God he intended us to be.
We hear the cry in Psalm 80:2b-3, 7, 17-19 of the psalmist Asaph asking three times, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” Prophetically he pointed to a Son who would be the source of our genuine revival, the only means by which any of us will be saved. Our only hope of being people who would never abandon God would be for God to himself turn our hearts back.
So we have in Isaiah 7:14 the promise of a virgin bearing a son who would be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us.’ What a thrilling promise! This Advent season, as we gaze upon the nativity scenes we see around us, as we are reminded of the reason for the season, we are given a hope for something more than our constant failures to love. We are able to have peace of mind and heart because we know God has sent us a Savior—someone who has done and will do what we cannot and will not do. We are able to have joy, because we are celebrating the reality that God has come and stands in our stead, on our behalf, filling us with his real presence in the Holy Spirit.
Advent reminds us that when Israel had absolutely no hope of ever getting anything right with God ever again, God did not forsake her. He came himself, in the womb of a virgin, allowing himself to be carried as a promise to his people of their deliverance. Advent reminds us that we are not left abandoned in our sin and selfishness—there is a Savior who is one of us and yet is God himself—he has come to bind us once and for all to God with unbreakable cords of love and grace.
The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and today we as his people are pregnant with his presence by the Holy Spirit. God is even at this moment working deliverance in this world—preparing for the day when all things will be transformed completely and God will finally dwell forever with humankind. Our failures to love, our sinfulness and the evil which so often enslaves us, do not and will not stand in the way of God accomplishing what he set out to do from before the beginning of this cosmos. He will finish what he has begun—he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Advent teaches us love in a profound way—of God’s desire to be near to us, so near that he actually enters into our human existence himself. The presence of God in our humanity is the greatest gift of love God could ever give. He knew the cost of this gift would be the suffering and death of his Son, but he gave it anyway. He knew the rejection of his Spirit which would occur, but he gave his Spirit anyway. God freely gives—do we receive?
Whatever struggles we may have with our addictions or failures to love God and others, we find in Jesus that God is present and real in the midst of them. He is at work, as we are willing, to heal, restore, and renew. We are given Jesus Christ—he is in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. What is our response?
I’ve often thought that Joseph was an incredible man. He had betrothed himself to a young virgin who turned out to be pregnant with someone else’s child. He could have made a public spectacle of her—but he was so loving in not wanting to do this. And when God told him to marry her anyway, he did it (Matthew 1:18–25). His humility and sacrificial spirit bear witness to the humility and sacrificial Spirit of God himself. Will we in this same Spirit of humility and sacrifice receive the wonderful Gift of God in our humanity? Will we surrender to the reality we are in desperate need of God, and God in Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and will come again one day?
Thank you, Abba, for loving us so well. It was not enough for you to create all things, to set everything in motion, and to walk away. You dove right in, taking our very humanity upon yourself in your Son Jesus, renewing us from the inside out. Thank you for sending us your Spirit, enabling us to be one with you, and to be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“… concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power 1by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God…” Romans 1:3-7a NASB