joy

Joy in Judgment

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by Linda Rex

December 11, 2022, 3rd Sunday in ADVENT | Joy—At times I wonder what it would have been like to have been a close relative of Jesus Christ while he lived here on earth. What stories would we have been told about the birth of our cousin? Would we have known the story about how John jumped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when his pregnant relative Mary came for a visit?

Some commentators say that John and Jesus probably did not know each other very well while others picture them as close kin. But when Jesus came to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing the people, the prophet knew exactly who Jesus was and why he was there. He pointed Jesus out as being the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the people.

Later on, John spoke out against King Herod Antipas’ recent marriage to the wife of King Herod Philip, Herodias. The result of John’s truth-telling was a stint in prison, without any deliverance in sight. The gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 11:2–11, describes how while John the Baptizer was in prison, he sent his disciples to Jesus to verify that he indeed was the promised Anointed One or Messiah.

It’s possible that John thought Jesus, if he was truly the Messiah, should have been doing something to ensure his release from prison, or perhaps even have been speaking out against Antipas. But Jesus merely pointed out to John’s disciples that as the Messiah, Christ was busy doing what the Coming One was predicted to do—healing the sick, raising the dead (like he had just done for the widow in Nain) and casting out demons. In the midst of his dark and difficult circumstances, John the Baptizer may have needed some reassurance that all of his own efforts were not in vain. Or he may simply have been continuing to do what he did before—point away from himself, and point his disciples toward Christ.

Jesus’ words about John were not critical, but supportive and understanding. In fact, he let his listeners know that John was a great prophet even though he would be surpassed by the least in the kingdom of God which Jesus was inaugurating. Christ challenged the crowd, saying, “blessed is he who does not take offense at Me” (NASB; in the Greek, καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί). I’m not a Greek scholar, but it is interesting to note that σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthí) looks a lot like our English word scandal. As Jesus points out, we find blessing or joy in not being scandalized by Jesus and what he is doing, even though he might be doing things differently than we expect.

How often are we scandalized by the way Jesus is doing something in our lives or in this world? Can you think of a time when you were infuriated with the way something turned out, wondering why God didn’t intervene? Why is it that the Lord allows things to happen a certain way when he could, being God, make things so very different, so very less painful or awful?

It is easy to pass judgment on God—we do it all the time. Just as the people in Jesus’ day judged him as being un-Messiah-like, we expect God to jump certain hoops, and when he doesn’t, we are offended or scandalized. And often we’re just not honest with ourselves in regards to these things, since, as good people, we know we shouldn’t be mad at God, or offended by how he runs the world.

But let’s think for a moment about judgment as it was expressed in the coming of God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. First off, God judged us as human beings of being worthy of his love and attention. He knew we couldn’t get ourselves into right relationship with him on our own, so he planned from the beginning to do what was necessary to bring us home. In Christ, God judged us as being a good creation gone astray, which needed to experience healing, redemption, renewal, and reconciliation.

All of this at work in our world was evident in the ministry and life of Jesus Christ as he cast out demons, healed the sick and broken, preached the gospel to the poor, and even raised the dead. Jesus, as a human being himself, went so far as to allow human beings to reject him, crucify him, and kill him. Even so, his judgment as he hung on the cross was forgiveness, caring for his mother, and welcoming a criminal into paradise. And God’s judgment on all of us as human beings in our imprisonment in the kingdom of darkness, was to bring us all into the kingdom of light as Jesus rose from the grave in the resurrection.

Do you see that God’s method of judgment is so laden with grace that it looks so much different than ours? Jesus says we aren’t to stumble over him or be scandalized by him. Instead, we are to accept Jesus for who he really is—God in human flesh, our redemption and salvation, our heavenly Father’s Word of grace sent to us, birthed of the Spirit. Are we scandalized by the grace God expresses to us as human beings in Christ? Or is this grace the source of our blessedness and our great joy?

During the season of Advent, we rehearse anew our preparation for the coming of the Messiah, specifically as God came in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, a baby which was laid in a manger while angels announced the good news to shepherds on a hill nearby. Are we scandalized by the coming of God in human flesh in this humble way? Or are we grateful at God’s humility and love?

Jesus Christ, as God in human flesh come for our redemption and salvation, took on a particular human body in a specific place and time. The one who made all things and sustains all things by his word and power became our close relation, becoming one of us that we might share eternity with him some day. And Jesus was willing to do this, even though he knew from the beginning what the cost would be. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. With open hands, we share in his joy, as we receive the grace he so generously offers us, rather than being offended by the way he runs his world.

Dear Jesus, thank you for coming to us and being willing to take on our human existence as your very own for a time. Thank you for sharing your joy with us by your Spirit. Father, grant us the grace to not be offended by your Son, but to embrace him fully, allowing Jesus to be who he is for us, our joy and our salvation. Amen.

“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, and the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. … Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’  Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. … the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”     Isaiah 35:1–10 NASB

“Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and report to John what you hear and see: the “blind receive sight” and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the “poor have the gospel preached to them”. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.’ As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “Behold, I sent my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’ ”      Matthew 11:2–11 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/olitjoy-in-judgment.pdf ]

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Finder of All Lost Things

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By Linda Rex

September 11, 2022, PROPER 19—The other day I drove downtown to do something at the Howard Office Building. I used my GPS to remind me of how to get there, but as I was leaving the parking lot to head home, I decided I could find my way home without help. About ten minutes later, I realized I was headed the opposite direction from where I needed to go, and that I was thoroughly lost. Grumbling with frustration, I finally pulled over and got out my phone for directions to get back home.

Being lost means that fundamentally, underneath all of the lostness, lies the reality that one has a home to return to. There are some people today who do not have a home to return to—they long for a home, a place of settled rest where they are beloved and safe. Others have a house, but it’s not much of a home. They may have a place to live, but there is no sense of welcome or peace in that place they go to after work each night. Some of us are simply looking for a spiritual home—a place where all the time, we are accepted, loved, welcome, and included.

In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 15:1–10, we find Jesus feeling right “at home” with tax collectors and sinners—people that the Pharisees and scribes of that day excluded from the community of faith. Jesus included them in his life, fellowshipping with them, and drawing them close into relationship with himself in spite of their failure to live up to the expectations of their religious leaders. These people who had no spiritual home were finding their home in Jesus, and he wanted the leaders to understand that if anyone was really lost in the situation, it was those who believed they were already found.

Receiving criticism for welcoming tax collectors and sinners, Jesus began a series of parables about lostness and foundness. He told a story of a shepherd who had a hundred sheep, one of which had wandered away. This good shepherd knew each of his sheep so well that he was very aware when one of them left the flock. So, he put the others in the care of those who would watch over them, and went to find the lost sheep. His purpose was to bring the lost sheep back home, to be cared for and kept safe with him. He took whatever risks were necessary, took however long it took, and endured whatever deprivations, struggles, and suffering were required so he could bring home the single sheep that was lost.

Significantly, the shepherd’s attitude about the whole process, in spite of the inconvenience to himself, was joy. He didn’t lash out at the sheep when he found it, nor did he reject the sheep for what it did by wandering away. Instead, the shepherd picked up the poor bedraggled sheep, wrapped it around his neck to carry it on his shoulders, and made himself fully responsible for its care. He did the heavy work of bringing the sheep home and making sure it was safely back in the sheepfold.

This is such a profound picture of our Lord and what he has done for us in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. As our Good Shepherd, he was willing to set aside the comforts and privileges of his divine home for a time in order to find us in our humanity in the wilderness of evil, sin, and death, to bring us back home to our Father. As we read in Hebrews 12:2, Jesus willingly and joyfully underwent this self-offering for our sakes, finding us in our lostness, and in spite of the supreme cost to himself, bringing us to safety and rest in his Father’s arms.

What Jesus brought the Pharisees’ and scribes’ attention to was that the shepherd in this story was not focused on the failure of the sheep to stay in the sheepfold. There was no condemnation of the sheep for having wandered off. The concern of the shepherd was for the wellbeing of the sheep, of its need to be brought back home, back into the fold, not to be punished or excluded for how it failed to obey the expectations of the shepherd. He was simply rejoicing that the sheep was once again home, back with the other sheep, where it belonged.

The Lord has been showing me more and more how we as humans love to create divisions between “us” and “them”, especially religious ones. We differentiate between those who are in and those who are out. If someone doesn’t measure up to our expectations of holiness or of the Christian life, we exclude them from our relationships. Instead of this, we need to realize our own lostness and need for a shepherd, and treat them as the brothers and sisters they are. The human race as a whole was included in Christ’s self-offering, and that means that at any moment, we may be and are the lost sheep he is joyfully bringing home on his shoulders.

I love the next story Jesus told, about the woman who lost a coin. She searched all over her house, sweeping the dirt floor and crooks and crannies, trying to find the small piece of metal. Obviously, the woman would not have been so diligent in her search unless that coin was very important to her. Was it a part of her dowry? Was it her only hope for a morsal of food that week? She even used some of her precious lamp oil to try in her dark house to see where the coin had gone.

Today, when we drop a penny, we may not be as diligent in our retrieval of this small coin. But the coin in this story had a place where it belonged—in the care of the woman. This coin was not meant to be lost and all alone in some forgotten space in the house. It was meant to be a part of the collection of ten coins that she was keeping for a specific purpose. Her joy at the finding of the coin reflects the same joy that the shepherd had upon finding his sheep. She was so delighted about finding her lost coin that she shared the good news with everyone around her.

What a different response compared with the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes! Isn’t this what our response ought to be when Jesus goes to work to bring a “lost coin” home? Shouldn’t we be equally delighted to share the good news with others of what Jesus has done for us in his finished work as our Lord and Savior? Instead of the critical and negative response Jesus experienced from the Jewish leaders of that day, he should have received joyful gratitude and celebration for bringing the “lost coin” tax collectors and sinners into relationship with himself, and thereby bringing them home to our Father.

Over the years, as I have had many different experiences with God helping me find what I’ve lost, he’s become for me the Finder of All Lost Things. Indeed, Jesus still is the One who seeks out the lost and brings us all home to his Father. And Jesus includes us in his mission of finding all lost sheep and all lost coins—of finding all who are longing for a spiritual home. He invites us to be a part of the process of helping others see their home is in him. We can get out our lamps and begin looking for the “lost coin” alongside the Finder of All Lost Things by joyfully including family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances in our life with Christ. Together we can celebrate our common return home on the shoulders of our Shepherd, rejoicing with Jesus as he brings us all home to the Father.

Thank you, Good Shepherd, for the extent to which you have gone to bring each of us home to be with you forever. Thank you for searching for us in the wilderness of our humanity, seeking each one of us out and including us in the Triune life and love. O great Finder of All Lost Things, grant us the grace to remember our own lostness and foundness in Jesus as we include each and every person in our own celebration of all you have done to bring us safely home. Amen.

“Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable, saying, ‘What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!” In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ ”     Luke 15:1–10 NASB

See also 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Psalm 51:1–10; Psalm 14.

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/olitfinder-of-all-lost-things.pdf ]

[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, Tennessee area or in a Zoom group, please drop me a line at ourlifeinthetrinity@gmail.com. ]

Shout for Joy!

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is ironic that in the gospel passage for this Sunday we find John the Baptizer contrasting his water baptism with Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire of judgment is something we get very concerned about, not realizing the significance of Jesus’ self-offering in our place and on our behalf. As God in human flesh, Jesus forged into our humanity the love of God and crucified in himself the sin, evil and death to which we had enslaved ourselves. In the resurrection we find that all that chaff that is not part of the fruitfulness of life in Christ was blown away. The apostle Paul wrote that “from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:16–17 NASB).” Humanity has new life in Christ! This is reason to rejoice.

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

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

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

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

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

Reaching Out Rooted in Christ

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By Linda Rex

May 9, 2021, 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER—A friend gave me a gift of Guideposts magazine a while ago, and today I came across a quote in the latest issue from best-selling author Glennon Doyle. The quote goes like this: “I really, really think the secret to being loved is to love. And the secret to being interesting is to be interested. And the secret to having a friend is being a friend.”

I have learned over the years by experience that our ability to form attachments with others often does have to begin with our first reaching out and offering others love and friendship. But I believe our ability to reach out to others in this way is best rooted in the self-offering of God towards us in Jesus Christ. When it is rooted in Christ, we find the attachment has a spiritual rooting that holds it through the storms and changes of life, and often, on into eternity.

In our passage for this Sunday, John 15:9-17, we see that there is no greater love than when a person lays down his or her life for another, as Jesus laid down his life for all humanity. This love has its roots in the perichoretic love of the Father and Son in the Spirit, and is expressed to each and every one of us in Jesus Christ’s self-sacrificial offering of himself in our place and on our behalf.

Jesus said he loved his disciples just as his Father loved him. He told his disciples that he remained in the oneness of the Triune life and love as he did those things his Father asked of him. His experience of joy and love becomes ours as we participate in Christ’s obedience to his Father’s will. Jesus calls us beyond what comes naturally to us into what is more difficult—to love even to the point of laying down one’s life. There is no greater love, he said.

It is in the context of this life of union and communion with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit that Jesus gives us our purpose and mission as his followers. We are individually and collectively chosen by him and appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that will remain. It is in our ongoing abiding or remaining in Christ that we bear fruit that abides or remains. This fruit is an expression of the Father’s will—love for one another, life in spiritual community—now as the body of Christ and ultimately, on into eternity as the Bride of Christ.

This moves obedience from the place of following a list of rules to one of honoring the desires and will of a friend, Jesus, and those of our heavenly Father. Jesus shares his heart with us and we do as he asks—loving as he loved, laying down our lives as he laid down his, loving one another as we are loved by him and he is loved by the Father. As we are centered in the Father’s will in this way, whatever we ask of our Father will be ours—we are participating in a real way in what he is doing in and through his Son, and so his answer is quite naturally, yes!

When we put this in the context of mission, we see that Jesus’ sending of us is immediately rooted in his obedience to his Father’s sending of him. We reach out with God’s love because Jesus loves us as he is loved by the Father. Sharing God’s love then becomes a part of our life in union and communion with the Triune God, and a true participation in what they are doing in this world.

We share the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus because that is the will of the Father. As we do the Father’s will in this way, we pray and ask according to his will that each individual and all people might experience God’s love and grace. We know God will hear and answer this prayer because this is the Father’s will which is expressed to us in the gift of his Son and in the pouring out of his Spirit. This is what God is doing in this world—so our prayers are heard and answered.

As the body of Christ, we are often tempted to isolate or create safe zones where we do not need to deal with a society which is often opposed to what is holy, gracious, and compassionate. It is a real challenge to live a Christ-like life in places that are unsafe and decadent. How do we live out the truth of who we are as God’s adopted children—loving God and loving others—around people who are indifferent to or opposed to these spiritual realities?

We can begin with prayer. Our prayers have power because they are rooted in the will and purposes of God himself. He has sent his Son to reconcile all things to himself in Jesus and is calling each and every person to be reconciled. God wants everybody to participate in the oneness and love of the Father and Son in the Spirit. So, when we pray for a certain person or for particular people to come to faith in Christ, we are sharing in a tangible way in what God is doing in this world. These are prayers God will answer because they are according to his will.

Secondarily, we participate in God’s mission in this world by sharing God’s love. Love, as we are to express it to God and one another, is an action. It involves seeking the best of the other person and having a willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish what is best. Sometimes loving others can be difficult and painful. It may involve telling them no, or not giving them what they want or think they need. It may involve setting up boundaries that prevent them from hurting you or hurting themselves.

Loving people in this way is not something we do on our own or by our own strength. We do this in spiritual community, where we have support, accountability, and a safe place to land. And this is why our life in Christ needs to be just exactly that—a participation in Christ’s life in relationship. God first loved us, sending his Son for our salvation, and Jesus first loved us by laying down his life, so we are able to love God and love one another. God gives us his Spirit, pouring out his love in our hearts (Rom. 5:5), so that we are able to love him and love others in the way we were meant to.

Life change in another person is not something we really have any control over. We are powerless—and we must acknowledge this reality constantly. Only God has the ability to change the human heart and mind. Only God can turn someone around or heal them. Only God can make a person who is broken whole again. We may be able to influence them by expressing God’s love in some tangible way, but we cannot fix them—and God is not asking us to.

In reality, the greatest gift we can give another person is to bring them to Jesus, including them in our own relationship with Christ in the Spirit. We can offer them the grace and truth, the love we have received from God, and a spiritual community where the sick find healing, the broken are mended, and the lonely are offered fellowship. What God includes us in—his life and love—we are called to include others in. How well are we doing this?

Thankfully, it’s not all up to us. Jesus went first, and we get to tag along as his friends as he brings others to himself. Is there someone God has placed on your heart and mind lately who needs to know he or she is loved by God and forgiven? You might make this person a focus point of your prayers each day, and ask God to show you how you can include them in your life in Christ. You might ask Jesus, “What are you doing and how do you want me to join in?” And then, as you begin to participate in what he’s doing, watch to see what he does—it may surprise you!

Thank you, dear God, for including each of us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, that we get to share in your loving relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Show us the person or people you want us to tell about your love expressed to us in Jesus. How do you want us to include them in our life? Keep us centered where you are, Jesus, diligently doing all that you ask to the glory of your Father. Amen.

“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another.” John 15:9–17 NASB

The Poetry of God’s Mercy

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By Linda Rex

March 14, 2021, 4th SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—I may be mistaken, but every generation seems to have its own story of struggle and difficulty. I often hear how the world today is such a mess, so much worse than it ever was before. And yet, I wonder if that is the way the Jewish people of Jesus’ day felt about their experience under the oppressive Roman government.

No doubt, there are a whole lot more people on the earth today, so there is a whole lot more room for evil and sin to abound in and among us. But the cry of the human heart for redemption from oppression is one common to the human experience throughout the centuries. We must be honest about our experience wherever and whenever we live—all people are messy creatures in serious need of healing and transformation!

Jesus explained to Nicodemus that our only hope of salvation was in looking up to a crucified Savior in faith, as the Israelites looked up to the bronze serpent on a stake. The problem is, though, that we as humans often choose hiding away from God rather than living in the light of his love and grace. If only we understood that the Light of God, Jesus Christ, is not a destroying flame, but rather a healing and restoring fire that seeks to make all things new.

In Ephesians 2:1–10 the apostle Paul reminds us that even though we as humans were caught in a way of being that was not what God designed us to be as his image-bearers, Christ came and via the cross, lifted us up into the divine life and love. It was never about us or our ability to earn eternal life, but simply a gift of grace. God was not going to allow his masterpiece to dwindle into nothingness, but determined to restore and renew it. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ forged within our humanity the capacity to participate in the divine life and love—reforming us in himself into the image-bearers of God we were always meant to be.

In the spirit of us as God’s children, being his masterpiece, his poetry, I include this little poetic creation:

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!

We need broken, Lord,
Rebellious children that we are,
But mercy, mercy, mercy!

Burn us up completely,
Consume us in your fire
Of love and grace,
That others too may experience the flame.

Mercy, mercy, mercy!
O, that we could see your face,
Know the power of your love,
Know the power of your grace!

Burn us in your flame
That all people may catch fire with
Your love and grace,
Be ignited, each and every one.

Mercy, mercy, mercy!
O, we are desperate for a change,
To see the power of your love,
To see the power of your grace!

Mercy, mercy, mercy!
Lord of all, fill us with the joy
Of I in you
And you in me.

Ignite us with your eternal flame
Of I in you
And you in me.
Mercy, mercy, mercy!

© Linda A. Rex, 3/5/2021

We can have great joy that God has included us in his life and love—not because we deserve it, but simply out of his love and grace. We look up to Jesus Christ in faith, we receive all he has done for us, and we live into the reality that we are God’s adopted children, included in his life and love now and forever.

God has gone to great effort in Christ to free us from evil, sin, and death—to bring us into his Light. Now we come to the difficult question—what will we do with Jesus Christ? Will we continue to live with our backs to the light, living as though none of this happened—as though God doesn’t love us and doesn’t care? Or will we simply turn to the Light, turn to Jesus, and allow him to illumine every part of our life, our being, our existence? You are worth so much more than you ever thought—you are God’s priceless masterpiece, his treasured poetry! Run into his embrace today!

Dear God, thank you for valuing us so greatly, that you would go to such great lengths to ensure that we are with you now and forever in an intimate relationship of love and unity and peace. Lord, we turn away from all that is evil and sinful, and we turn to you, Jesus, trusting in your love and grace, and opening ourselves up fully to your gracious presence by the Spirit. Amen.

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3:14–21 NASB

He is Among Us

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By Linda Rex

December 13, 2020, ADVENT | JOY—As I was sitting and writing this blog today, I couldn’t help but gaze through the window at the dark, gloomy sky. The cold, damp grayness of this winter day is a good picture of what so many are experiencing right now in the midst of the pandemic and election limbo. Many of us have experienced 2020 as a year which brought us to the brink of disaster, and for some—tipped us on over into a pit of darkness, depression, and even despair.

Even as we wonder how much deeper we will go into this pit before things get better, we find ourselves moving on into Advent. We’ve celebrated hope and peace, and now we come upon a Sunday when we ponder the miracle of joy. How can one possibly feel any joy in the middle of all we are going through? How can God expect us to find joy when everything we are facing gives us anything but joy?

The spiritual gift of joy is something which isn’t based upon our circumstances. That feeling of happiness or gladness which is induced by positive, enjoyable circumstances and experiences is not the same as the joy that is spoken of by the apostle Paul. When he says to us, “Rejoice always,” it’s not because he is insane or unfeeling. It is because joy’s roots go much deeper than the everyday situations of life. It is God’s will that we always rejoice—he wants us to have a deeper inner joy which will carry us through the most difficult times of our lives, enabling us to bear up under unbearable struggles and losses.

One of the scriptures for this Sunday is Psalm 126. In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. | He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, | Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (NASB). Here we have a picture of a farmer who is weeping while he is spreading seed on the ground in the spring; but when the wheat is harvested, he shouts with the joy of it all.

Understand that the road Jesus, the Son of God, took for our salvation took him through death to resurrection. He was the Seed promised to Adam and Eve and then to Abraham as a solution for the evil, sin, and death we brought into this world. He was buried in the grave like a seed, but when he rose, like a fruit-bearing wheat stalk from the ground, he brought all humanity forth into new life. The author of Hebrews said that “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). Notice that Jesus endured all of the suffering of the cross “for the joy set before Him.” In Christ, God is harvesting many souls—something that brings him great joy even though it cost him a great deal in the suffering and death of his Son.

Jesus described his mission as the One anointed by the Holy Spirit using the prophetic word of Isaiah 61:1–2a: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, | Because the LORD has anointed me | To bring good news to the afflicted; | He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, | To proclaim liberty to captives | And freedom to prisoners; | To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD…” (Lk. 4:18-19 NASB) This passage in Isaiah goes on to describe the work of the Messiah in bringing about redemption to his creation. The purpose of the Word, the Son of God, coming into our humanity that we celebrate at Christmastime is to bring humanity out of the deep dark hole of evil, sin, and death in which we placed ourselves. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings all of us as we trust in him into a new place where we find healing, hope, freedom, and transformation.

In verse 10, Isaiah goes on to say, “I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, | My soul will exult in my God; | For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, | He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, | As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, | And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (NASB). What Isaiah was describing was the day when God in Christ would do for us what we could not do—save us, bring us into right relationship with himself and one another.

This is why the apostle Paul so often uses the language of taking of old garments and putting on new clothing when speaking of the new life we have in Christ. God has already done for you and me all that is needed for our healing and renewal in giving us his Son for our salvation and sending his Spirit for our regeneration. Now we simply, by the Spirit, have to put on Christ the way in which a couple gets dressed up in a tux and gown for a wedding. We turn away from ourselves and our own way to doing things and our own ability to save ourselves, and we turn to Jesus Christ in faith.

This is why it is possible to rejoice in the midst of difficult and painful times. There is an underlying assurance that no matter what may happen, we are held. Christ has come, he is present by the Spirit, and he will come again, to do what only he can do in our situation. However bad it may get, we have the assurance that Christ is present with us and is standing in our place willing to do whatever is needed to carry us through to the other side. We simply need to trust him and continue to pray, to give thanks and to rejoice.

There is a story which children are often taught in Sunday school which comes to my mind in regards to this. It is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These three young Jewish men had been chosen to serve the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar while Judah was exiled to his kingdom. One day some of the Chaldeans told the king that these men refused to bow to the new idol the king had set up and they deserved to be thrown into the furnace. Now the king liked these men and he tried to talk them into simply bowing down to the idol so they wouldn’t die. Well, they chose not to, telling the king that God would save them, and even if God didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to another God but the God of Israel.

What captures my attention so often in this story is that God didn’t keep the men from being thrown in the fire. In fact, the king made the fire in the furnace seven times hotter before having them thrown in. And the fire was so hot that the people throwing in the men died. This is when the story becomes supernatural—when the king looked into the flames, he saw four men walking around, the three who had been tied up and thrown in, and another who looked like “a son of the gods.” The king finally called all of them to come out of the furnace. The three men did and there was no evidence on their bodies that they had ever been in the flames.

I hope you are grasping the point I am trying to make. We have to place our faith beyond our own ability to help ourselves and the ability of others or our government to help us, and to simply place our faith in the God who has done everything in Christ by the Spirit which is needed for us to be saved. This is the God who came into the flames of our human existence to walk and talk with us, and to bring us out with him into new life. Our joy in the midst of our struggles, suffering, and loss is based in the reality that God will bring us out of them to the other side, and that even if he doesn’t rescue us, he will be with us as we go through whatever may be required of us. We are not alone—he is Immanuel, “God with us” now and forever.

This is our hope, our peace, and it is also our joy. Whatever may happen, we are not alone. God is with us, working things out for our best and caring for us no matter how intense the flames of trial and struggle we are experiencing may get. God in Christ holds us. We trust in him, allowing his Spirit to dwell richly in our hearts, giving us the assurance that he is near, providing the guidance and direction we need, and reminding us of his promise of life eternal when this life is over.

Our ability to “rejoice always” is found in Christ’s joy, in his personal presence in us and with us by the Spirit, as we go through every circumstance of life. As we keep our eyes on the heavenly realities, on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, walking with us in the flames, we will be filled with an unexplainable joy that is grounded in the presence and person of God himself.

Holy Father, thank you for holding us in the midst of all our struggles and suffering. Thank you, Jesus, for being ever present by your Spirit and for filling our hearts with your joy. Enable us to rejoice always, remain constant in prayer, and be grateful in every circumstance, as we trust in you now and forever. In your name, we pray, amen.

“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 NASB

When Love Casts Out Fear

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By Linda Rex

April 12, 2020, RESURRECTION OF THE LORD, EASTER—During this pandemic season, the one common note I have heard in the news and on social media is that of fear. The fears we have are multiple and include concerns about politics, health, and economic security. We cannot watch or listen to much in the outside world without being confronted with real concern about many things.

As we enter into the end of the season of preparation for Easter, we are confronted with a reality in which, when we embrace it and believe it, is meant to free us once and for all from fear. Our anxiety about so many things is founded in a belief that we are unloved, left alone in this universe, and that the solution to our problems is all up to us. We may even believe in God, but often, we don’t act like it—instead, we act as if he were dead, laying in the grave we have created for him in our fear, unbelief, and rebellion.

What makes us do this? We were created as image-bearers of God, and so it should be so natural for us to reflect that image. Often, we do reflect the image of our God who is love and don’t even realize it. I see this in the parents who care for an autistic child, an adult child caring for both her family and her disabled parents, a person leaving their work to care for their parent with Alzheimer’s—so many examples exist when we begin to look around us. Where is the source of such humble, self-sacrificing love? It can have no source other than in the heart of God.

Fear often arises out of our inability to connect with others, to find a common ground where two people can be of like mind and interests. Our fears about other people often come to the fore when we don’t understand or accept the ways in which we differ or have opposing viewpoints or preferences. Fear is also created when one person or group imposes its will upon another without an appropriate acknowledgement of their God-given personhood and dignity. Fear is a useful tool to those who want to enslave, control, and manipulate others.

We were never meant to fear God in this way, nor were we meant to live in fear of one another. This is not what we were created for. We were created for connection, for unity, for oneness. We were created to be in relationship with God and man that is filled with joy, peace, and respect. A mutual indwelling, a deep sharing of heart and mind borne out of God’s very nature, is what we were created for. Anything less than this is the stomping ground of fear.

So often we project onto God all of our fear, making him out to be a condemning, cruel master rather than the loving, forgiving Father he is. We believe his sole purpose of existence is to find fault with us and execute punishment which we are so sure we deserve. We know we fall short of all we were meant to be, so we deserve to be punished. This is where fear comes in and causes us to be alienated in our minds from the God who is our Abba, our loving Father.

And this is why the Word of God to us was and is the God/man Jesus Christ. We needed to be freed once and for all from our fear—our terror of God and our fear of death. It is significant on resurrection morning that the ladies who came to the tomb were, in Matthew’s account, told by the angels and by Jesus, “Don’t be afraid.” If there is one thing they needed to know beyond all else in that moment, it was that there was nothing left to fear. The ultimate expression of the love of God had once and for all cast out our fear.

What is needed is for us to wrestle with what it means to live life without fear. How is our human existence different now that Jesus is risen from the dead? What does this mean for us as we face the difficulties of life, the pandemic, our job loss, or our business failure? How do we continue to face all these things with patient courage and grace?

If we are not in tune with the spiritual realities, we can resemble the Roman guards who, at the presence of the angels, were so overcome with fear they became like dead men. They had been diligently doing their best to prevent the disciples from stealing the body of Jesus away. But they hadn’t planned on an encounter with angels, nor with the resurrection power of God himself. The insignificance of their careful grave-watching became evident in the presence of the risen Lord. Nothing could keep the stone against the tomb once God decided it needed to be moved so people could see inside and know Jesus was risen.

The angels gave the women instructions—no doubt from the mouth of Jesus himself: Don’t be afraid; come and see—Jesus is risen; go tell the others; meet Jesus in Galilee. The practicality of the instructions left no place for fear or anxiety—they had things to do! Caught between the two emotions of fear and joy, the women headed back to the city. Wait till the others heard! And then they encountered the risen Lord. Can you imagine how overwhelmed they were with the reality of what they were experiencing? They were overcome with a desire to worship him—our best response to encountering Christ.

What Jesus said to them echoed the words of the angels—don’t be afraid, go tell the others, meet me in Galilee. There was in his words a renewal of the connection he had with them, a commitment to their relationship, and hope for more time together in fellowship with one another. All of these expressions of his continuing love for them removed their fear. They could trust that he was still the Jesus they knew before the crucifixion—he was still their friend and brother—only now he was the risen Lord.

The apostle Paul reminds us to keep our mind, not on what’s going on in the world around us or on everything people are doing wrong, or on the bad things which are happening, but on the things above, where Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God in glory. We’re not to have our hearts set on what’s in this transient human society and culture, but on the eternal realities where Jesus is the risen Lord, holding in himself our real life, our true existence. Our zōē life is not in this transient, dying world, but in Christ, held in heaven for us, to one day be revealed in the new heavens and new earth.

This is how we can live each day without fear. Death is not the end, but the passage into our eternal connection with all those who are in Christ. Suffering in this life is not something to fear, but to embrace as participation in Christ’s suffering or resisted as participation in Christ’s efforts to make all things new. Every part of our existence is swept up in Christ where we participate with him in his life, sharing in his love for all humanity as the One who plumbed the depths and brought us up into the divine life and love. We are called to faith, to believe in the reality of what Christ has done in living our life, dying our death, and rising again, bringing us into the presence of Abba.

Fear is a tough taskmaster, and we easily fall prey to it. This time of year, as we celebrate the resurrection, we are reminded of the abundance of God’s love and grace, of the forgiveness which is ours in Jesus Christ. In the sending of the Spirit, God makes possible for us to share in Jesus’ resurrection life. Trusting in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, we are awakened to new life—a life freed from the fear of death and all that comes with it.

Our resurrected Lord comes to you and to me again and again in the presence and power of his Spirit to say, “Don’t be afraid. Tell others the good news. Find your home in and with me.” Live life with a focus on the risen Christ and be busy about his business. There will be no room for fear because there is nothing left in this cosmos which can ever separate us from his love, not even the grave.

Thank you, Abba, for being a God we do not need to fear but can rest in, trusting in your never-ending love. Thank you for your faithfulness, for raising up not only Jesus, but in him our humanity, enabling us to participate in his risen life in and through your Holy Spirit. Grant us the faith to believe, to trust in all that Christ is and has done, that we may share in your divine life and love both now and forever, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” Colossians 3:1–4 NASB

See also Matthew 28:1–10.

Journeying With Jesus

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By Linda Rex

March 8, 2020, 2nd SUNDAY IN EASTER PREPARATION—The longer I am a pastor and the more the Spirit leads me to even more boldly proclaim the good news of Christ, the more I experience the rejection of those opposed to the beauty of God’s love and grace. It may be that I do my best to follow the lead of Christ and his Spirit, but it never fails that my motives are questioned, my heart is maligned, and my efforts ridiculed. In this post-Christian age, it is noteworthy that those most critical of and opposed to the clear message of the love and grace of God are often fellow believers.

This morning during my devotional time I was reminded that when Jesus calls us to follow him, he doesn’t always tell us at the beginning where we are going or how we are going to get there. But he does tell us there will be a cost. There is a cost to following Jesus because the path Jesus trod was straight through death into resurrection.

Jesus doesn’t always tell us at the beginning of our journey where we may end up. What is more urgent on his mind is that we are going with him where he is going. If we knew ahead of time that we would be headed where we were headed, would we even go there? Probably not.

When God told Abram to leave his country, his relatives, and his own family home, he did not tell him specifics about where he would end up. He merely told him to go, to leave where he was and move toward the place where God would show him. And so Abram left (Genesis 12:1–4a).

Part of God’s promise to Abram was that he would bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him. God gave him a promise that he would not travel this road alone, but that God would take seriously everything that happened to Abram, and enable him to be the person God was calling him to be. Abram just needed to trust God and act on what he had been told to do. And he did.

In the writings of Paul (Romans 4:1–5, 13–17) we read that because Abram believed, God counted it as righteousness. Abram saw God as the One who made everything from nothing, who could take something and make it into something new. He trusted God to be who he was in his life—the One who would take him from where he was to where he needed to be. And so he acted accordingly—by faith.

What is it about stepping out into a new place that is so frightening for us? And what if we are trying to do what God is calling us to do and all we meet with is opposition or ridicule? Where is God in these situations? He is where he has always been—with us and in us. This is the key.

Sometimes we get all involved in the journey and we lose sight of the simple fact—it’s not about the journey. It’s about who we are journeying with. It’s about our ongoing relationship with the One who holds us in his hand, who has the capacity to create something new out of something broken—the One who will never abandon us to our fate but will in his perfect time come alongside and lift us up into a new place.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus under cover of darkness, as though hiding from his fellow Jews and not wanting to risk their condemnation or criticism. He came to Jesus and told him that since he could do so many miracles, they knew he was a teacher come from God. But why was he hiding then? What was it about Jesus that was so threatening to the status quo? Could it be that Jesus was eliminating all our human dependencies and insisting on total allegiance to him alone?

Jesus initiated a conversation by telling Nicodemus that the only way someone could be in the kingdom of God was by being born again or born anew. Being in the kingdom of God was not determined by ancestry nor by performance, but solely by relationship—being born of the One who made all things. Nicodemus clearly got that Jesus meant birth, but he thought only in terms of the actual physical act of birth. Jesus was taking him much deeper—our spiritual birth and life in the Spirit must begin in the only begotten Son of God. We are born again in Christ, not by our own human effort.

The inclusion of humanity in Christ’s sonship means that when Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again, all of humanity was reborn in him. It is by the Spirit that we participate in that rebirth. T.F. Torrance, when asked when he was born again, would state that he was born again 2,000 years ago in Christ. In our spiritual rebirth, being born again, we are merely participating in what Jesus did in our place on our behalf as the eternally begotten Son of the Father.

Being born again, being immersed in the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, means we are transported from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. We find ourselves in a new place, with a new reason for living. From now on we do not pursue our own path—rather, we follow Christ. We walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh. We dwell in Abba’s house now, so we live the way he lives, loving God and loving one another.

After the initial baptism, where we participate in Christ’s baptism and anointing in the Spirit, we continue our journey with Jesus by living our lives in dependence upon the daily bread of our Abba’s provision. We come regularly to the table of grace and participate in communion, eating the bread and drinking the wine/juice, and communing with our loving Lord. We read God’s word, converse with God in prayer, and join together with fellow believers in the life of faith. We follow the lead of the Spirit as Jesus draws us deeper into life with him and we move with Jesus into his mission in the world around us.

Eternal life is, Christ said, to know intimately the Father and the One whom he sent, his Son Jesus. This is a relationship we are called into. And following Jesus means we will go through difficulties and struggles. Jesus told his disciples that just as he was ridiculed and criticized, so would his followers be ridiculed and criticized. But that would never diminish the reality that we are Spirit-filled and Spirit-led, and we are born from above, adopted children of our heavenly Father.

The faith walk is not an easy road. But the joy is in the journey with Jesus and with our heavenly Father by the Spirit. The joy is we are never alone, but when we are cursed by others, we can offer them blessing because of what Christ has done and is doing. We can continue on the path, uncertain of the direction, because we know the One who is leading us and he is trustworthy. We walk by faith, not by sight—and he will bring us safely home.

Thank you, Abba, for giving us new life in your Son Jesus by the Spirit. Thank you that we never walk the road of life alone, but you offer us your very self to be in us and with us on this journey. Open our eyes to see you with us. Open our ears to hear your direction and your comfort as we travel. Give us the courage and faith to follow wherever you lead, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” John 3:3 NASB

Receiving Abba’s Words of Love

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By Linda Rex

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2020, TRANSFIGURATION—Today I can walk into any supermarket or department store near me and be met with an effusive display of Valentine’s Day gifts, flowers, and cards. Many people today will be taking their loved ones out for coffee, lunch, or dinner, and some may even decide that today is the perfect day to pop the question, “Will you marry me?”

For the most part, I think that we all love a good love story, especially when it has a “happily ever after” ending. It’s almost as if, written into our very being, is the longing to love and be loved. Without this, our lives become shadows—a constant steady motion forward, but no interweaving of our lives with others around us, except at work or play. The longing for deep connectedness is real, but many of us don’t slow down long enough to ponder its source and to seek its resolution.

One of the ways in which we long to be loved is often a deep inner longing to hear our father, or mother, say, “I love you.” How many people today live their lives in a effort to somehow win the approval and affection of a parent? Many times, we don’t even realize we are doing this, and it is after years of passionate struggle to succeed and gain significance that we finally awaken to the reality that we will never gain either, nor can we ever work hard enough to gain the love and approval of another person. Love is not earned—it is a gift we give one another.

Sometimes our wounds go so deep that even though we are surrounded by loving people, we are unable to receive the love they desire to give us. It is very easy for us to close our hearts to others, to put up walls that are so high that no one can enter in and touch us. We may prefer to live life behind walls—relationships involve risk, especially intimate ones. But we will never truly experience real life, real living, until we are willing and able to let someone else know us deeply, and to love us in the midst of our messes and failures.

Jesus spoke to his disciples about the oneness between him and his heavenly Father, and in his prayers, he expressed their intimate oneness. Jesus goes so far as to say, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3 NASB). We were never meant to live life alone and unconnected, empty of relationship. Deep connectedness is what we were created for. We were meant to share in the oneness which has always existed between the Father and the Son in the Spirit.

At the transfiguration, John, James, and Peter witnessed the Father’s expression of love for Jesus, his Son. Being in the presence of God, they were terrified. Instead of feeling warmed by the presence of a loving, affectionate Father, they were filled with fear. Jesus’ immediately said to them, “Don’t be afraid.” They needed to have a clearer picture of what kind of God they were obeying—not a punitive God to be afraid of, but an affectionate Abba to love.

The reality is that our conception of God is often distorted by our experiences, most especially our own relationship with our parents or other people, even well-meaning Christians. We can allow these distortions to get in the way of encountering God on his own merits, and end up refusing to receive the love and grace God offers us. God has been as loving as possible with us in giving us Jesus and his Spirit, and often surrounds us with loving people, but we can and do resist and refuse his love.

This unfortunate, because God really wants to give us the “happily ever after” ending. He wants us to live in joyful, loving connectedness both now and forever. This is why he went to so much effort to prepare for and orchestrate the coming of the Word into human flesh, to live our life, and die our death, raising us into glory.

There is a hidden glory in every human being. Just as in Jesus the disciples discovered the hidden glory of God’s very being, in each of us is an inherent design, a script which reflects the very being and nature of God himself. We were made in the image of God, after his likeness, to live in the same oneness, interconnectedness of unique equal persons, as do the Father, Son and Spirit. Our inclusion in this holy love is by faith in Jesus. There is no distinction made between any of us as human beings—our common humanity is centered in Christ and we share in his glory, both now and forever.

Why do we as humans so often choose fear of God over receiving this immense, overwhelming love of God? Why don’t we allow ourselves to be loved? Perhaps one reason is that love often calls us up out of our worst into our best—love may ask us to change things we don’t want to change, to give up things we don’t want to give up. And love can hurt at times. Love requires vulnerability, transparency, honesty—requiring us to lay ourselves out at the mercy of others. Sometimes loving in this way means we suffer immeasurably—like the living Lord who became human only to end up crucified.

It is much easier to fear God and to try to be a good person, to earn his love and affection, than it is to lay ourselves fully in his hands and surrender to his love. To earn God’s love, we can follow a list of rules or set up systems in our lives that make us feel like we’re being good people and we’re obeying God. It doesn’t require openness or authenticity—it looks good on the outside, and we’re always in control. But it does not get us any closer to God—in fact, it may actually become a god in itself, separating us from any real relationship with the Lord.

To come, as Jesus teaches us, to the cross and lay ourselves at God’s feet, knowing our only hope is his love and grace, is the perfect place to encounter the living Lord. It is acknowledging our failures to love God and each other that paves the way for God to enter in and be for us what we cannot be. It is in expressing our need for God and our desire to know him better that we find ourselves growing in deep connectedness with him. When we understand our need for the daily bread of his love and grace, his Word to us, and our words in response to him, then we are beginning to understand what it means to receive Abba’s words of love.

Today is a good day to practice the spiritual discipline of silence and solitude. Find a place where you can be undisturbed—preferably somewhere in nature, where you can experience the beauty of what God created for your joy. Give yourself a few moments in silence to still chaotic thoughts, and then tell God you are there to hear his words of love. Ask him to help you to receive them and to believe what he says to you is true, and to guard you from any lies the deceiver may use to confuse you. Then just sit for a time in the silence. If your thoughts wander, just give them to God, and ask him again what he has to say to you. You may only hear silence or you may hear Abba’s words of love in your heart. Either way, you are on the path to deeper connectedness with God—and opening yourself to hear and receive the words of love Abba has for you.

Thank you, Abba, that you meet us wherever we are, and in your love, work to bring us to where you are. As we take the time to listen to your words of love, enable us to hear and to receive them, and to begin to live as though they were true. Thank you that you have already expressed your love to us in the gift of your Son and your Spirit. We are grateful. Amen.

“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.” 2 Peter 1:16 NASB

The Simplicity of Grace and Truth

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By Linda Rex

FEBRUARY 16, 2020, 6th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—Lost in the midst of our current political scene, with its polarizing rhetoric and maneuvering of people into places of influence and power, is the quiet transforming simplicity of grace and truth. As I was reading the gospel reading for this particular Sunday, I was struck by the reality that even though we may have dogmatic opinions, emphatic assertions of right vs. wrong, or clear expectations of how things are or ought to be, we are never at the place where we can, with authority, say we are right and everyone else is wrong.

There is only one person who did this, and was right in doing it, because of who he was. The fundamental groundwork of the gospel message is that this person had the capacity to know exactly what to do and say in every situation, and was able to do and say it, because he was the One who created all things and held them together by his word of power. He could, and did, say to those around him, “It is written…” or “You say…” and overturned what had been said or written by simply affirming, “But I say…”.

When human beings talk in this manner, all our red flags go up. Immediately, we grow concerned, because such language overthrows any authority other than the one who is speaking. For Jesus to say, “What you may have been told or taught has no relevance anymore—what I say is what really matters now,” is to put Christ on a plane above everyone else, even to the point of him being God himself. We would never accept a human being having the arrogance to place themselves in that position of authority….or would we?

The problem we are running into today is the loss of our understanding of who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is—the One who is both fully God and fully human. I was driving in downtown Nashville yesterday, and was amazed at the vast amount of construction and renovation that is going on in this city. As I looked about me, I saw towers of glass and metal rising high into the sky, many of them only partially built. Apartment buildings that were dozens of stories tall gave evidence of the thousands of people moving into Nashville needing places to live.

Years ago, the tallest buildings in the skyscape would have been the cathedrals and churches with towering steeples. Today, such buildings are dwarfed by the immensity of other places where people live, work, and play. In some ways, this is a metaphor for the attention we give today to the spiritual realities, and to the God who sent his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to transform our hearts by faith.

What we have lost is not so much a creed or a certain religion or belief system as it is the simple understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to him. To even assert that there is a God and that we are his creatures, formed to live in relationship with him, is offensive to many people today. We do not want to surrender ourselves to the reality that there is someone to whom we owe our existence and our ability to live and work in this world. And we most certainly do not want anyone other than ourselves to have the ability to tell us what to say or do.

This is not a new problem. In reality, it is one we have been manifesting since the days when Adam and Eve walked in the Garden of Eden. They too wrestled with the choice between life, and deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil. The human tendency to choose for ourselves a way of living and being which ends in death is something fundamental to our humanity—it is our sinful nature at work within us. We just have a natural proclivity to choose death over life, and then to blame God when things don’t turn out the way we want them to.

It is ironic that the nation God called his very own, ancient Israel, whom he joined himself to in covenant love, would take the descriptions of life in his presence and turn them into prescriptions for living. They added many words to the 613 rules in the old covenant, creating an even more difficult path for the average person to follow, should they decide to obey the God of the Jewish people. Over the centuries, as the Jews interacted with God, for many of them, the law and its observation supplanted the covenant relationship it was designed to lead people into and to participate in.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, reminded his listeners that keeping the law in itself was insufficient—no, even impossible. He told them what the law said, and then took them farther, deeper, into the heart of his Father. He showed his hearers that God looks at our intent, our motives, and our reasoning. We can’t just go through the motions—an entire transformation of our being is needed, not just a change in our actions.

That being the case, we as human beings are in an extremely difficult place. There is no way, with our sinful nature abounding, that we can ever have the right motivation in every situation. There is no way we will ever keep our thoughts where they ought to be or our feelings and desires pure and chaste. We are helpless and can never live as we ought to in right relationship with God and others.

So we come to the simplicity of grace and truth. Truth is, we are not God—he is. Truth is, we are broken, sinful people, who will, whether we want to or not, find ourselves choosing death instead of life, and reaping the consequences of it. Truth is, we have no hope of anything being any different—in us, in this world, in our circumstances—apart from the living Lord, the One who made it all, sustains it all, and redeemed it all. So, we need grace.

And we have grace. That is the good thing. God the Word has come into our humanity, lived the life we were created for in Jesus Christ as a Son in perfect relationship with the Father, died the death we so often choose, and has risen, taking us with him into glory. Our humanity is now in a totally different place—we are free to live in right relationship with God and others because of Christ. This grace means that it’s not all up to us—it’s up to him. Whatever we say and do as humans, we say and do it in Christ, and he gives us life.

Truth—God is, and we are his, and apart from him, we have no hope. Grace—in Jesus he has come, included us in his life and death, and has sent the Spirit to make this so as we trust in him. The simplicity of grace and truth—the reception of the gift God has given—the belief that God loves us this much and will never leave or forsake us, would transform our lives, our politics, and our world, if we were willing.

Today, in the stillness of quiet reflection, consider these questions: Are my decisions leading me to a greater, fuller life in joyful relationship with God and others? Or are they leading down the path to death and destruction? What is my response to the words of Jesus to me, “But I say…”? Allow yourself to respond in the simplicity of grace and truth which is ours in Jesus Christ, receiving Abba’s gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit.

Dear God, we so desperately need healed! Thank you, Abba, for your perfect gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us grace and truth, and for leading us into life everlasting. Our life is in you alone. Holy Spirit, may you penetrate the core of our beings with the new life Jesus brought us, transforming our hearts and minds, and thereby healing our churches, our communities, our politics, this world and the earth on which we live. We long for you to finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life,…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20a NLT

See also Matthew 5:21–37.