kingdom of God

Receiving the Kingdom as a Child

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By Linda Rex

October 3, 2021, PROPER 22— What does it mean for you and me to accept the kingdom of God as little children? As Jesus embraced the little children who were brought to him, placed his hands on them to bless them, they received with humble, innocent trust the blessing placed upon them. Their open, obedient receptivity to the self-offering of Jesus forms a pattern for our own. Are we willing to allow God to be who he is and trust he loves us, seeks our blessing, and desires to do what is best for us?

Next year it will be twenty years since the divorce papers were signed on the dotted line. I have often asked myself what it was that drove me to make this decision I swore before God I would never make. Jesus was so right when he said that these types of situations arise out of our very human hardness of heart—our inability to and/or unwillingness to yield ourselves to the will and purposes of God. I believed I was doing the right and best thing at the time I made that decision, but it was not God’s ideal for us, not by any stretch of the imagination.

It takes two to make a marriage more than just words on a page. Both my husband and I have wrestled with the brokenness that caused us to take that road so many years ago. I believed I was doing the most loving thing possible for both my children and my husband when I filed for divorce. But the consequences of that attempt to be loving was great pain for my children, my family and friends, as well as my husband and I, even though we eventually remarried to one another. I do not wallow in guilt or shame about it today, but I grieve and regret the past and present suffering that resulted from this decision on both our parts to go against what God ordained our ideal marriage relationship to be.

In our passage for this Sunday, when approached by the Pharisees who were seeking to trap Jesus and cause him harm, Jesus avoided the current cultural debate as to a strict interpretation of the divorce law or a more lenient, culturally acceptable one by asking what Moses commanded. When they responded with Moses’ concession to the cultural practice of divorce (rather than a commandment), Jesus took them back to God’s original intent. Jesus, as God present in human flesh, explained God’s ideal of intimate union and communion between two unique yet equal persons who were so closely and permanently joined together that they could and never should be separated.

When taken in the context of the entirety of God’s word, we find that marriage was to image the relationship between God and Israel (which these Pharisees were violating). And since the Spirit was sent after the resurrection, it models the relationship between Jesus, the Bridegroom and the Church, the Bride. It can also be said to image what happened in the very person of Jesus Christ in the incarnation—the joining of God with man, it being God’s intention from before time began to unite himself with humanity through Christ in the Spirit, no matter the cost—even to the cost of his human life.

When we contrast God’s ideal with the reality of life in a world of brokenness, we find ourselves often at difficult crossroads. What does it mean to accept the kingdom of God as a little child when all of the decisions facing us seem to be extremely painful grownup ones that have no obvious answer? How do we wrestle with issues like genetics, gender, abuse, PTSD, and so many factors we have no control over? What do we do in the face of impossible situations when there seems to be no way out?

What about the pain and devastation that is caused when a man abandons his wife? How is she supposed to move on with her life or care for herself and her children? And what about the man whose wife is never faithful, even when she tries? What about the wife who discovers her husband is a dangerous man who might very well kill her someday in a violent rage? The real, everyday life decisions we face because of our broken humanity need answers. And normally, the only way we know how to deal with it is to make adjustments to the law so that we don’t feel guilty about doing what we feel we need to do to survive or to find some peace. The law, so often, is impossible to keep. The Pharisees—and even Moses for that matter—found themselves needing to make concessions.

The reality is that God isn’t the one who gets us in these situations—we as broken human beings are the ones, who through hardness of heart, find ourselves in impossible places, needing to work out some solution, since doing it the ideal way doesn’t seem to work. Pain is pain. Abuse is abuse. Adultery is adultery. Unfaithfulness is unfaithfulness. These things happen because we are broken human beings. We are all sinners. Does God turn away from us when we are in these desolate places? Where did he go when I was facing having to do what I never, ever wanted to do so that I could protect myself and my children?

The comfort is, Jesus became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. He has taken our place. He stands in our stead. In these painful and difficult situations, as we remain open and receptive and trusting, we discover that Jesus is just where he always has been—present by the Holy Spirit. It has more to do with how open and receptive we are to the kingdom of God present in this world by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus Christ in us leads us, directs us, and offers us his love and grace. How willing are we to allow Jesus to guide and direct our decisions, and to heal our broken hearts and broken lives?

I look back now and thank God for the journey he took me on when I felt led to divorce my husband. I see now how much I needed to grow in maturity, dependency upon God, in humility and in so many other ways. My husband needed to grow as well. God used this crucible of pain to grow us both up in ways we did not know we needed to grow up in. Was it the ideal situation? No. But when offered to God, it became a time of growth, reconciliation, renewal, and transformation. As we received and responded to Jesus in the midst of it, it became a participation in the kingdom of God.

God is still healing all the people and places that were broken due to our turning away from his ideal with regards to marriage and family. We are still working out the differences that are a natural part of two unique persons bound together in a permanent union before God. I am still learning to trust Jesus and to allow him to bless me and care for me the way he desires, even in a new and challenging way through this blessed gift of a husband who loves and wants to obey and serve his Lord. This journey with Jesus, and thankfully, my husband, will continue on into eternity. For this is the fundamental purpose of our existence—life in intimate relationship with our God as Father, Son, and Spirit, both now and forever. And life in union and communion with one another.

Where are you in your journey with Jesus? In what ways has your life fallen far short of God’s ideal? Have you offered this up to Jesus and allowed him to use it to refine, heal, and transform you? May you experience great grace for the journey as you walk in the Spirit and trust in Abba’s perfect love, allowing Jesus to hold you in his embrace and speak his blessing over you.

Heavenly Father, how heart-wrenching it must be for you to see us wander away from your ideal into barren wastelands full of pain, suffering, and loss! Thank you for meeting us there in Jesus and for sending us your Spirit so that we are never alone, but are always held in your love and grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.’ And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them.”      Mark 10:(2–12)13–16 NASB

“The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”     Genesis 2:(18–21) 22–24 NASB

Salted Sacrifices

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By Linda Rex

September 26, 2021, PROPER 21—Recently I was reflecting on memories I have of going to the beach with my friends. We would go in the late afternoon, find a spot with a firepit and roast hotdogs and marshmallows as we watched the sun go down over the water. Even today I can almost smell the scent of saltwater and seaweed, feel the rough sand between my toes, and hear the cries of the seagulls as they hover over the water.

At times we would do bodysurfing and ride the waves in to the shore, finding ourselves at times shoved under the water and pounded by the waves. Even though I’d always regret getting sand in my swimsuit, I loved swimming in the ocean and riding the waves. The water that I sometimes inadvertently drank when I got knocked over was very salty, too salty to swallow, and it burned my eyes.

It is amazing to me that there are creatures and plants which can live in an environment like the ocean even though the water is extremely salty. Salt, we have learned over the millennia, works well as a purifier, preservative and in helping wounds heal. Salt has been so valuable at times that it has been used as coinage for trading. Today salt is used in a myriad of ways, being essential in the manufacture of a wide variety of products. And in spite of being villainized as the culprit in high blood pressure and other health issues, people still season their food with salt.

If you want to ruin a batch of biscuits or cookies, though, just add too much salt to the recipe. Salt is meant to be used in limited amounts as a seasoning, to add flavor and zest to otherwise bland foods. When Jesus said that his followers were the salt of the earth, he meant that they added something pleasant and enjoyable to the world. If they became just like everyone else in the world, they would have lost their zest and tastefulness, and become worthless and unbeneficial.

Jesus was incredibly patient with his disciples. They were focused on who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus reminded them that they needed to be like little children—humble and dependent rather than arrogant and prideful. The measure of a person was not determined by their greatness in the human scheme of things, but by their spirit of humility and service, of laying down their lives for the sake of others.

The disciples saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name (which they had recently tried to do and failed) and insisted that the person stop. The man wasn’t part of the twelve Jesus had chosen, so they assumed he wasn’t supposed to be using Jesus’ name, even though God was honoring his efforts. Jesus told them they were wrong. They needed to stop excluding people Jesus was including in his ministry and life. They needed to stop attempting to resist and quench the Spirit at work in the lives of those other than themselves.

In Leviticus 2:13, the priests were instructed to season every grain offering with salt, “so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (NASB). The apostle Paul wrote that we are to present our bodies as living and holy sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), as an expression of true and proper worship. Our lives are not to be spent solely for our own glory and our own pleasure, but in love and service to God and others. This is why Jesus told the disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Jesus told his disciples that everyone would be seasoned with fire. The context of this particular statement is in the midst of several teaching sessions in which Jesus instructed the disciples about what would be soon happening to him—that he would suffer and die on behalf of the world for their salvation. The salt he was seasoning the world with was his own self-offering, and they needed to be willing and prepared to walk that same road with him. They needed to give up their human way of thinking about things and surrender to the spiritual realities of life in the kingdom of God. To truly live, we must be prepared to die—die to self, sin, Satan, and the things of this world.

Jesus used strong hyperbole or metaphorical language to make a point. He said that we must be prepared to eradicate or cut off anything in our lives that keeps us from participating in the kingdom of God. We want to enter into life, eternal life, that life in relationship with God that we were created for. But in order to do so, certain things in us must die with Christ—greed, lust, pride, selfish ambition, jealousy—these must be burned away by the baptism of fire Jesus offers us in the Spirit. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we are given new life—but it is an invitation, one offered to every human, that we receive and act upon.

What price are we willing to pay to receive that new life and begin to live in it? For the kingdom of God is both a present and a future reality. We begin even now, by faith in Christ, to live and walk in the way Christ forged for us. We live and walk daily by the Spirit in close relationship with God, and in warm fellowship with others God has called to himself. God’s purpose for our lives in Christ by the Spirit is not division or exclusivism, but unity, harmony and peace. As we are salted with the heart of Jesus by the Spirit, we will live in peace with one another. This was Jesus’ point.

We may be pounded by the waves and tossed about in the water of life’s experiences, but our certainty is in Christ. He is at work in us and in this world by his Holy Spirit purifying, healing, and preserving. As we respond to him in faith, we participate in his mission and work in this world, and act as a pleasant seasoning in a world devoid of true spiritual flavor. Our service and sacrifice brings a taste or a hint of the glories of the kingdom of God which we will one day experience in its fullness. In the meantime, we turn to Jesus, trusting in his finished work and living day by day as salted sacrifices offered in true worship to God.

Heavenly Father, thank you for washing us in the water of your Word, Jesus Christ, and for sending him to purify, heal, and preserve us. Grant us the grace to let go of everything that may get in the way of us walking freely as your beloved children, allowing ourselves to be living sacrifices, salted with your indwelling presence through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.

“John said to Him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, …. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, …. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’”      Mark 9:38–50 NASB

See also Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29.

Leading as a Child

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By Linda Rex

September 19, 2021, PROPER 20—There is a title I rarely hear anymore and it used to be commonly used for someone who worked in a public leadership role. Even the president of the United States, our congressmen, and local leaders were given this title in years past. It takes a very special leader to be willing to be called this and lead accordingly, even though it is an accurate description of what a person should be doing when fulfilling their responsibilities in the public sector.

Being called a servant or treated like a servant has such a negative connotation, many people would prefer not to be called a public servant. This is understandable. However, to be a true leader in the way in which Jesus walked before us, one must be willing to be servant of all. One must be willing to serve those they are leading and not lord it over them. Using power and authority to force one’s will on others is not the way of Jesus. His path is much different.

During his last days before his crucifixion, Jesus began to teach his disciples what would happen to him. He told his disciples that the Jewish leaders of that day would arrest him, torture and kill him, but in three days he would rise again. Since Peter had been rebuked for contradicting Jesus when he first introduced this topic, the disciples really didn’t want to ask any questions. But what they began to talk about among themselves shortly afterward was significant.

Jesus knew what they were talking about, but he asked, drawing out of them that introspection they needed so they could learn. They were concerned about who was going to be in charge in the kingdom—who would be the greatest. In their culture, this was very important, especially in the public sphere and in the synagogue. Their position in these areas, their prominence, was essential to their worth and value. What they forgot was that this was the very thing Jesus had over and over rebuked the Jewish leaders for, condemning their obsession with being noticed and fawned over by the crowds, and for throwing their weight around and harming people in the process.

Jesus told the disciples that the person who wanted to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven needed to be the servant of all. To lead, in the way of the kingdom of God, is to serve. It is the way of humility, not the way of self-aggrandizement or pride or power. It is the path of being willing to be less than so that others might be more than. What Jesus needed them to see was that his path, and therefore theirs, was the path down the road of self-sacrifice, of laying down one’s life for the sake of others.

To make his point, Jesus took one of the most inconsequential members of their culture, a child, into his arms. A child, at that time, had no rights and really no value, and was totally dependent upon his or her parents for everything they needed. Jesus told them that their reception of a child in his name was the same as receiving him and his heavenly Father as well. The value Jesus placed on that child was his own value and his Abba’s value. Even an inconsequential child was a treasure. How much more each and every person they might meet?

In last week’s sermon we talked about God’s gift of wisdom in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. God’s wisdom at work in our hearts and minds brings about a new way of living and being—a new way of looking at our value and worth and how we interact with the people in our lives. In contrast with the way of the flesh which moves us toward selfish ambition and jealousy which results in “disorder and every evil thing,” the way of Christ by the Spirit, the divine wisdom, is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (James 3:16-17 NASB).

The apostle James points out that the person who makes peace plants the seed of righteousness. The right relationship we have with God and one another, our righteousness, is a result of the planting of God’s heart and mind in human hearts through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and in the sending of his Spirit. By faith, each and every person can participate now in right relationship with God and one another—there is a peace with God and others that only comes by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work in human hearts and minds. Our issues today with some leaders not being public servants are as a result of them not being willing to trust Jesus—to walk in his way, the way of death and resurrection.

What God calls leaders to is a willingness to lay down their life, their preferences, their benefits, for the sake of those they are leading. It is a real struggle to lead in this society by serving. How much easier it is to take advantage of all the benefits and perks of a leadership position than it is to refuse them, to humble oneself to suffer alongside others who are suffering, to serve next to those who society deems are less than and worthless. We have conflict and quarrels, sad divisions between us, James says, because our desire for pleasure or our envy of others and our longing for what they have outweighs our loving concern for them (James 4:1-3). This is why we need Jesus—we need the Spirit to change our hearts and minds, to bring about a new way of thinking and acting within ourselves as well as within those we lead.

Leadership as a position of service also involves those who follow—they must be willing to be led, and they cannot be led by someone they don’t love or trust. Being a leader carries with it a heavy responsibility. The best leaders are those who lead from a position of humble service, especially in the position of submission to the God who allowed them to have that position of leadership in the first place. Leaders who have forgotten they are public servants need to remember to wash their hands in the blood of Jesus Christ, to surrender to the reality that the only true Lord is the one who was willing to lay it all down for the sake of each of us (James 4:7-8). He calls us to be as little children—the adopted children of God we are, in and through him and by his Holy Spirit—and to trust and depend upon the Father in every circumstance, most especially in the area of leadership and public service.

May we pray for our leaders daily, whether within the church or in the public square, that God’s Spirit would fill them with divine wisdom and a heart of service. Pray that they would serve in humility, setting aside personal interest and privilege, and laying down their lives as Jesus did for the sake of those they lead. Pray also that they might have the strength and grace to be true peacemakers in a world that inevitably is led by the evil one into division and disunity.

Heavenly Father, we need you to pour your heavenly Spirit through Jesus into the hearts and minds of our leaders in every sphere of our lives. We need leaders who are submissive to your will and who are willing to serve and to lay down their lives on behalf of those they lead. Thank you, that we can all share in your servant leadership through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“From there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know about it. For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.’ But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him. They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’ Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.’”     Mark 9:30–37 NASB

From Small, Insignificant Beginnings

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By Linda Rex

June 13, 2021, PROPER 6—One of the things I learned years ago while still living on the farm was that although my husband participated in the growing process by preparing the soil, planting the seed, fertilizing and cultivating the soil, and applying pesticides and herbicides, the outcome of planting row crops was ultimately dependent upon forces over which we had no control. We could not predict how much sunshine or rain we would have, nor could we plan for out-of-season freezing temperatures, floods, or hailstorms.

There is something about working the land and caring for livestock that can keep a person humble and dependent upon God. When we are aware of the reality that only God really has control over the outcome, then we are actually in a very good place. In this place of trust and dependency, we can experience rest, trusting that God will make it all right in the end, creating a harvest beyond our expectations. Even if there is no harvest, we are still in a good place, because we are safely in the care of our Creator and Redeemer, who loves us and seeks our best.

Take a moment and contemplate the process of growing things. A small, insignificant brown seed, small enough to be lost in your hand, is placed in soil. This dirt, which rubs on our hands and into our jeans as we kneel on the ground, is full of microorganisms and living creatures. The little seed may simply rot away or die, or one day, when we least expect it, send forth a shoot and a root. Over time, this tiny fledgling plant will grow. We nurture it in whatever way we are able, encouraging it to survive and thrive in the sun, rain, and wind until it is harvest time. The neat thing about growing a plant from seed is, we begin with next to nothing and then, at harvest time, we have a multitude of seeds in return.

Jesus used an illustration of a sower and seed, as well as a mustard seed, in reference to the kingdom of God. The sower planted seed in the ground, and it sprouted and grew without his efforts, until harvest time. The mustard seed Jesus described next was a very tiny seed. But in a very short period of time, this plant sprouted and grew into a shrub up to twelve feet tall, with branches on which little birds could sit.

Jesus Christ, who was God present at that time in human flesh, was like an insignificant and tiny seed planted in the ground—a hidden mystery that would someday bear fruit. And just like the seed in these parables, Jesus was, in time, planted in a tomb, having been crucified in our place and on our behalf. The planting of this Seed, the Son of God in human flesh, is enabling the harvest of many children of God, a reality which will be fully manifest at the coming of Christ in glory.

The kingdom of God, his reign in human hearts, began with Jesus Christ planted in our human flesh, and is at work in this world right now by the Holy Spirit, and will culminate in the renewal of all things at Christ’s return. God has come to dwell in human hearts—our faith response, trusting in Christ and living in him—enables us to participate in this kingdom life right now and ultimately, in the new heavens and earth when all things are made new.

The problem we have as human beings is that we so often attempt to bring about the kingdom of God ourselves and on our own terms. We decide what the kingdom of God looks like and we work to bring it about under our own efforts. This has been true for millennia, with the resulting devastation and destruction of war, genocide, starvation, and slavery which accompany it. God never meant for us to bring about his kingdom under our own power, but for us to surrender to the lordship of the One, Jesus Christ, who brought it about in his person and who is present and active right now by his Spirit, working his kingdom into every part of this world.

We want to see active proof right now that Jesus is at work, whereas Christ said that we cannot see or control what the Spirit is doing—we can only see the ultimate results of it. That God is at work in this world by his Spirit is what we need to trust in—Jesus Christ is still present and is still Lord, even though it may seem to our eyes that God is indifferent to what is happening all around us.

What God is doing involves human hearts and minds—something which is hidden but still very important and real. In our world in which reason is worshipped and human achievements are celebrated and tangible, physical realities are preferred, the things of the Spirit and the human heart are often ignored, ridiculed, and rejected. But this makes them no less real.

We can deny that Jesus Christ ever lived, believe that the stories about him are simply religious myth, but we cannot escape the reality of a changed, transformed life in which Christ is the only redeeming factor. And a changed life does not necessarily mean that person is perfect—we are still humans in need of redemption even though our trajectory may have changed and we are finally turned in the right direction. When Christ by the Spirit goes to work in someone, they are never the same. But they are still free, able to make good or bad choices, and sometimes they are seduced by past passions, desires, or habits that cause them to fall. But they continue, daily, to turn to Jesus, trusting not in their own ability to get it right, but in the finished work of Christ and his intercession on their behalf, and in the power of his Spirit.

The divine Sower has planted Christ in humanity and given the Spirit. All is present for the growth of God’s reign in human hearts. We have a part to play—our response is important. What we trust in and build our life around is important. God invites us to cooperate with the grace God has given us in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul reminds us not to quench, resist, or grieve the Holy Spirit. We can choose to insult the Spirit of grace by continuing to live in the sinful ways God freed us from in Christ, or we can daily turn around and choose to live as the image-bearers of God we were meant to be. And yes, one day we will give an answer for our response to God’s gracious gift of eternal life.

But be encouraged. We “walk by faith, not by sight.” We are not what we once were—in Christ, we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:6–10, 14–17). God is at work, the Seed has been sown, is being watered by the Spirit, and this new life is being nurtured and cared for by the Light of the world. We grow up in Christlikeness as we respond in faith, trusting in Christ’s finished work. And our hope is in the promise that what God has begun in us, he will finish. He is the trustworthy Sower who is working toward an abundant harvest, one in which we can participate by faith in the Seed he sowed.

Father, great Sower of the Seed, we thank you for your love, grace and faithfulness, and for what you are doing right now in and through us by your precious Spirit. It is your love which compels us to no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus, who lived and died on our behalf. May your kingdom come, your will be done, here on earth as in heaven. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

“And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’  And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that ‘the birds of the air’ can ‘nest under its shade.’ With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.”     Mark 4:26–34 NASB

God’s Word to a Sinful People

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By Linda Rex
January 24, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—One of the fun Bible stories put into film by Veggie Tales was that of Jonah the prophet, who was eaten by a large fish and then spit up on the shore near Nineveh three days later. Not many people today have much faith in the miracle of this story, but it is one of the signs which Jesus said pointed toward his death and resurrection. Beyond Jonah being the big fish’s dinner is an element of the story which touches all of us and speaks to much of what we are facing today as a nation, and as a world.

With the number of deaths due to COVID-19 reaching beyond the two million mark, we are faced with the reality of the transience of human life and the fragility of its existence. We are impacted by the limitations of our circumstances and where we live—we may never see the blessing of a vaccine if we do not live in a country where they are provided and paid for. And if we choose the option to not receive this vaccine, what will be the impact on those around us whom we may infect or be infected by? What has been happening lately illustrates powerfully that what we do as individuals has consequences—not just for us, but for everyone else around us.

The story of Jonah speaks to the reality that every nation or people group, no matter its history or military prowess, has to answer to God for its conduct and the way its citizens conduct their lives. God told Jonah that the people of Nineveh were so overcome by evil and depravity that they were facing destruction—but later explained to Jonah that the people simply did not know their right hand from their left. In other words—they didn’t know any better. Jonah, whether he liked it or not, was sent to the Ninevites to help them see they needed to change—to turn away from their evil ways, and to begin living the way they were meant to live.

The church in many ways has failed our nation and the world by not simply helping people know they are loved and accepted, and that there are healthier ways of being in which we can and should live. So often as believers we have been happy to wish upon others God’s flaming judgment of destruction, just as Jonah sat up on the hill waiting to see God pour down flames of fire on Nineveh in response to their sin. We must never forget that God’s heart is not for any person’s destruction, but rather their salvation. It is more important to God that people see they are wrong, turn away from their sin to him in faith, and begin to live in outgoing love and service, than that they pay a painful and destructive consequence for the evil they are doing.

When Jesus arrived on the scene in Galilee following John the Baptizer’s imprisonment, he told the people that the time was fulfilled, the kingdom of God was at hand, and they were to repent and believe the gospel. He called people to believe and live out the good news of God’s love for humanity expressed in Christ—the One who revealed to us the Triune God who lives in other-centered love, unity, and equality as Father, Son, and Spirit. In Christ’s birth and as he lived here on earth, the Son of God inaugurated the kingdom of God. As the king of the kingdom, he called people to turn away from themselves and their sinful ways toward him in faith. Jesus spent time teaching disciples who were called to create new disciples, who would continue to expand this kingdom with more and more disciples or followers of Christ.

God’s word to Jonah as he sat waiting to see Nineveh get what it deserved is his word to the Church today. Are we waiting for Jesus to come and set everything to rights by bringing death and destruction to everything and everyone we believe is evil? Or do we recognize the simple truth that all people, including ourselves, simply do not fully realize what it means to be God’s beloved, those meant to be his adopted children who were created to love God and one another in other-centered love and humble service?

Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward those he believed were unworthy of God’s love initially motivated him to try to avoid going to Nineveh at all. The ship he got on was headed for Tarshish instead. As believers, what ship are we on? Are we seeking the healing, transformation, renewal, and blessing of those who have different ideologies or beliefs than us, or whose background, status, or position in society is different than ours? Do we pray for, encourage, help, support, and speak words of life into those who just can’t seem to get beyond their addictions, poverty, or mental illness? Or do we avoid them, insult them, or even worse, seek their ostracism or destruction?

Jonah told the men on the boat headed for Tarshish as the storm grew stronger and stronger that they should just toss him over the side of the ship. He would rather have died than have done the simple thing God wanted him to do—call a people to repentance so that they would not die. Are we more willing to bury ourselves in our personal interests, agendas, and activities than to help others hear God’s word to them and to know that they are loved, and that God does not want their destruction, but rather, their salvation?

The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 reminds us that the world in its present form is passing away. In time, all that we see around us will be either completely different or entirely gone. We are only passing through—we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom which will last forever, long after everything we see, feel, touch, taste, and hear is gone. Surely, we want to encourage each and every person we know to make a better choice, to choose a better way, than the path to desolation, separation, or isolation they are currently on. There is a way that leads to destruction and death, and then there is a way that leads to life and relationship, healing and renewal.

Jesus says to us, “Follow me.” His call to discipleship, to follow him and his ways, is a call to immediate action. Just as Jonah’s message was emphatic and urgent (within 40 days), Jesus’ message is also emphatic and urgent. Participate in the kingdom life now—don’t wait! This is the heart we are to express toward each and every person in our lives—now is the time of salvation! The kingdom of God has come in Christ and will be established in its fullness when he comes in glory to set up the new heavens and new earth. One precious blessing we will experience then will be life with each and every person with which we have had the privilege of sharing this good news today. What a great reason to get busy sharing the good news right now!

Dear Lord, thank you for your forgiveness of our refusal to share the good news with others. Thank you for resisting and working against our prejudices, our hatred, and our condemnation of others. Grant us the grace to receive your correction, to accept your heart of love and grace toward all people, and to embrace the urgency of sharing the good news of Jesus. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

“Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.” Mark 1:14-20 NASB

See also Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:9–12.

The House That God Built

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By Linda Rex

December 20, 2020, ADVENT | LOVE—One of the things I love about the season of Advent is the beautiful and inspiring music. Playing and singing music which tells the story of God’s love and grace expressed in the coming of Jesus brings joy and comfort to many. One of the songs we often sing during Christmas is “The Twelve Days of Christmas”,(1) which as a cumulative teaching song is often accompanied by laughter and giggles as the singers vainly attempt to remember all twelve gifts.

Another cumulative song which is not Christmas-oriented but was used as a memory game for children’s parties years ago is an old nursery rhyme called “The House That Jack Built.” The last line of the song went something like this: “Here is the farmer who owned the rooster who woke the priest who married the tattered man who kissed the maid so forlorn who milked the cow with the crumpled horn who threw the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the grain which lay in the house Jack built.” As the game went on, each child would add another part of the story while repeating what had gone before, hopefully without mistakes.

The beginning of the rhyme was simply, “This is the house Jack built.”(2) In many ways, this is how everything started in our cosmos. We could simply say, “This is the cosmos, the world God created.” All that we know now and study so diligently with our telescopes and microscopes exists where once there was nothing, not even the building blocks of the universe. At God’s decision, through the Word of God and by the power and presence of the Spirit, all things came into existence. Simply said—what wasn’t became what was by God’s will, word, and power.

On this particular planet, there came a time when God brought forth plants and trees, animals, fish, and birds—abundant life of such variety we are still categorizing and sorting them today. The interwoven nature of the many forms of life on this planet constantly catch us by surprise—what happens to one creature often affects many others, as well as the biome in which they live. Like the animals in our nursery rhyme, no creature stands by itself—they are all interrelated and mutually affected by one another.

As creatures, we as human beings, are also affected by and interwoven with all that exists on this earth. As our understanding of science and technology have grown, many of us as humans have taken for granted our ability to manage and control our environment and planet. It is easy to forget that we are merely another creature dependent upon others and upon the God who made all things. We have come far enough today that God himself has become a forgotten story to many, one in which we see no need to believe. It is as though we have forgotten who built the house in which we live. We have put so many other things in his place, we believe we don’t need him anymore.

In 2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16, we find that King David decided that he wanted to built a house for the ark of God since it was still residing in the tabernacle God had told the Israelites to build for it. The tabernacle was designed to be moved about rather than to remain in one place. During the years of wandering in the wilderness and crossing into the promised land, the tabernacle was the place where Moses’ brother Aaron and the priests appointed by God ministered God’s grace to his people through offerings and sacrifices and the reading of the law. When the cloud of God’s presence lifted off the tabernacle, the people would pack their things and get ready to move, following wherever they were led.

When King David told Nathan he wanted to build a house for God’s presence, the prophet thought it was a great idea and told him to go ahead with it. But this wasn’t God’s preference—he told Nathan to tell King David that he had never lived in a house, but only in a mobile dwelling. He told Nathan to tell the king that one day God would build David a house, a kingdom that would last forever—God didn’t need David to build him a house.

The problem with humans building temples for God is seen in the very statement King David made to Nathan: “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within tent curtains.” Do you catch it? David was worried about the ark, not about the presence of God himself. Too often, we as human beings get caught up in the rites and rituals, the law and sacrifices of our worship instead of focusing on interacting with God himself. When David’s son Solomon finished the work on the temple, it was filled with the Shekinah glory of God. But it wasn’t very long before King Solomon himself began worshiping the idols of his wives rather than growing in his own personal relationship with the God who had crowned him king.

Following his death, the northern half of the nation of Israel split off and created their own place of worship, abandoning the temple and worship of the Creator and Redeemer who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Eventually the northern tribes were taken into exile by the Assyrians, as the southern tribes (known as Judah) began to embrace idolatry and pagan religious practices as well. Eventually the Shekinah glory left the temple, due to the hedonistic practices being observed there. It wasn’t much longer before Judah was taken over by the Babylonians. Soon and for a time, this people who had been brought into covenant relationship with the Creator God himself were no longer residents in the land he had given them.

As you can see, even when we as humans are brought by God into relationship with himself and given all we need for that relationship, we so often trade it in for something tangible we can see, feel, hear, taste and touch. We can control worship to an idol—construct a house, bring offerings, say the right words, sing the right song. We believe that if we do this, the idol will do that, with such appeasement giving an illusion of control over the situation. But in all of this, there is no real relationship. Give us an ark we can put in a building and do nice things for—don’t make us have to interact with an intangible God we cannot predict or control, and who may ask us to change or do things his way!

It’s as though we are at the end of a long line of kids and we’re having to remember the entire nursery rhyme. We’re stuck somewhere between the house that Jack built and the farmer who has a crowing rooster. At this point we may be wondering why Jack even built the house at all. We’re not sure where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, but we’re not about to acknowledge defeat. What we don’t want to admit is, we’ll never be able to get the whole thing right on our own, no matter how hard we try.

The reality is that we cannot build a house for God to dwell in because, as the apostle Paul said: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; …” (Acts 17:24-25 NASB) Rather than us building a temple for God to dwell in, God came into our human flesh in Jesus Christ to create a space for himself within our humanity where he could dwell by the Spirit. In that place, our broken humanity, which we had filled with evil, sin, rebellion and disobedience, God in Christ forged a space for God’s presence by the Spirit, cleansing us and freeing us from evil, sin, and death.

As mobile dwellings of God himself by the Spirit, gathered together into the body of Christ—the spiritual temple of God, the church—we bring God’s kingdom into relation with the broken world around us, touching it with his presence and power by his Spirit. The church and its members are not a perfected temple yet, but are a place where sinners are being healed, transformed, and renewed as they walk in humble relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit. Even though the Spirit is present to all people at all times, not everyone opens themselves up by faith to the living presence of God in Christ—so the church participates with Christ in calling all people to the new life which is theirs in Jesus.

The reading from Luke for this Sunday describes when the angel Gabriel told Mary she was to have a baby who would be the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. Mary was chosen to give birth to the Christ child, not because of her worthiness or goodness, but simply because of God’s grace and favor. She would carry in her womb the One who was both God and man—she would be a mobile temple for the presence of God in human flesh as an unborn infant.

What was Mary’s response to this announcement? It is the same response God longs to hear from each of us as he births Christ in us by his Holy Spirit: “…may it be done to me according to your word.” Humble surrender to the will and wishes of our mighty God as he forms Christ in us—this is our best response. What will we do with the house God has forged for himself in us? Will we echo Mary’s response? Or will we continue the merry-go-round of our nursery rhyme life of godlessness?

Heavenly Father, Creator and Sustainer of all, thank you for not abandoning us when we abandoned you. Thank you for sending your Son into our human flesh to forge a dwelling place for your presence. Forgive our rebellion and disobedience. Grant us a humble surrender to your will and wishes. Dear God, by your Spirit come and dwell in our hearts and lives, forming Christ in us and transforming our hearts by faith. May it be done to us according to your Word by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

“My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.”
Luke 1:46b–49 NASB

See also Luke 1:28–33.
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1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song) (accessed 12/11/2020)
2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Is_the_House_That_Jack_Built (accessed 12/11/2020)

Rending the Heavens

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By Linda Rex

November 29, 2020, ADVENT | HOPE—Last night I was watching a report by Nashville’s mayor in which he was describing the latest spike in COVID-19 cases and an upcoming mandated reduction in the size of gatherings. As you can imagine, my heart turned over. I’m not looking forward to the isolation and health problems this will bring about for so many, nor am I thrilled about the loss of income, business and other difficulties it will create for those already struggling.

In some ways, I can identify with the prophet Isaiah when he wrote:

“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,
That the mountains might quake at Your presence—
As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-9 NASB)

What is interesting about the rest of this passage, though, is how Isaiah didn’t focus on the glorious entry of God into the human sphere to exact his fiery judgment, but rather on God’s deliverance for us from our human proclivity to sin and our futile efforts to do the right thing. This one-of-a-kind God, who Isaiah describes as the potter, is called upon to do the work only he can do for and in us as his clay (Isaiah 64:1–9).

The psalmist in Psalm 80 acknowledges that the only hope for any of us is for him to smile upon us and restore us. This request is repeated three times—emphasizing a passionate desire for God’s grace and good will to be showered upon us. At the end of this psalm, he writes:

“Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
Then we shall not turn back from You;
Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
O LORD God of hosts, restore us;
Cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”
(Psalm 80:(1-7) 17-19 NASB)

Do you see it? Here is a hint of how God is going to save his people—something related to a “son of man” whom God places his hand on and makes strong. Our only hope for God’s grace, restoration and renewal begins with God himself and his desire for and accomplishment of our transformation and healing through the Son of Man.

In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, when the apostle Paul speaks of the final revealing of Jesus Christ, he affirms that we are found blameless not by our own efforts, but because God is faithful. God’s faithfulness is expressed to us in his gift of grace through Jesus Christ which enriched us in speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts, and in the testimony of Christ being confirmed in us. He has called us into and has ensured we can participate in Christ’s fellowship by the Spirit with his Father.

So often we look into passages regarding the coming of Christ in glory and begin to impress upon them our private expectations and opinions rather than seeing them from God’s point of view. We see the world around us as very messy, filled with evil and sin, and right away call for God to rend the heavens and come down in a dramatic deliverance. We can easily diminish the incredible reality of what God has already done for us in the entrance of his Son into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.

We’re entering into the Advent season, and I am reminded of that beautiful night when the shepherds were quietly tending their flocks on the Judean hillsides. Suddenly an angel appeared—“rending the heavens”—with an incredible message that would change the world forever—the Messiah had come in the person of an infant lying in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem. The angels gathered around and celebrated this good news, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).

Later on, this Savior, as he faced his upcoming death on the cross and resurrection, spoke of the transition which would occur between the kingdom of God which he was inaugurating in his passion and that glorious day when he would come in power, ushering in the new heavens and the new earth. He knew there would be a substantial time lapse between his ascension and the day of his final arrival, and he wanted his followers to stay in a state of continual readiness and diligence, especially with regards to sharing the good news of what Christ did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

What Jesus forged for us in our humanity tore open our cosmos and set it upon a new footing—in the all-ready/not-yet of God’s kingdom, he has made all things new. We have an incredible hope that bursts into our gloomy sin-laden world and lays bare all our futile efforts at being good and forces us to a crisis—where will we put our faith? Will we continue to trust in our human efforts to rule ourselves—to count on our 201 ways to solve our own problems and save ourselves? Will we keep to our own agenda or will we submit ourselves to God’s plan for our lives? Is Christ—the way he really is—good enough for us? Or do we need to add something to the simple reality of his grace and truth?

Our attention does not need to be on some particular plan or outline of end-time events, but solely on Jesus. Christ is our life. We participate through baptism in his death and resurrection, renewing this covenant relation as we take the bread and the wine in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith. We live each day in attentiveness to Jesus’ coming and presence—both in his presence here and now by the Spirit at work in this world, but also in anticipation of his coming glorious presence at the renewal of all things. As things grow more difficult for us, as we struggle to stay the course, we can hold ever more tightly to the reality that Christ has come, he is come now by the Spirit, and one day he will come in glory. We have every reason to hope. Maranatha—even so come, Lord Jesus!

Father, thank you for the grace you have given us in your Son, for the work you already accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and are working out in this world even now by your Holy Spirit. Keep us ever diligent, ever faithful, attentive to the end to our precious Lord Jesus by your Spirit. Amen.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 NASB

See also Mark 13:24–37.

And So He Reigns

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By Linda Rex

November 22, 2020, Christ the King or the Reign of Christ— I think we may all agree that the year 2020 has been one of a kind. If it were true that there was no God and that we were merely highly evolved creatures hanging out here in the middle of empty space on a planet that will one day burn up and drop back into the sun, how hopeless and meaningless this whole experience has been!

The blessing of the Christian faith is that it points us beyond all that is occurring, and reminds us of the love and grace of God out of which all of this was birthed and by which all of this was redeemed and is sustained, and gives us great hope in the midst our messes and disasters. Even though evil happens—and it often does—we don’t need to lose hope. We have an anchor which holds us, the very presence of God in the middle of whatever may be going on. It is God’s presence through Christ in the Spirit which carries us through every circumstance, offering wisdom, strength, comfort and guidance when all we see is destruction, despair, and suffering. It is the ascending, triumphant Lord who gives us hope that this isn’t the end—that there is something so much more wonderful and amazing ahead of us!

God knew that when we made the choice to turn away from him to the things of our flesh and this world that the spiral down into death and nothingness would begin. He set our destiny in motion way before then, as God the Word was elected to one day enter our human flesh to rescue us from this fate and to bring us into union and communion with the Triune God so we might live with him forever. Evil, sin and death were destined to be destroyed, conquered on the cross and in the finished work of Christ as he rose from the grave and ascended to the Father carrying our glorified humanity with him into Abba’s presence.

On this Sunday we celebrate the culmination of all the days on the Christian calendar, having begun during Advent with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, moved through Epiphany and Lent to Easter week with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and on into Ascension Sunday and subsequently Pentecost with the sending of the Holy Spirit. We’ve gotten through the ordinary days, during which we have learned about how to live out this faith we have been given by expressing God’s love to those around us and holding fast to the hope we have in Christ. The summation today then, is Christ coming in his glory, sitting as King of Kings and Lord of all.

In the parable of the sheep and goats, we see the King Jesus sitting on his throne, passing judgment on all the nations. In spite of the Jewish expectation that Israel would be the nation of the kingdom of God, Jesus has included in his person those of every nation and people group. The line that our Lord draws between people who are in and those who are out does not have to do as much with our bad or good behavior, but more with our perception of and participation in who Jesus Christ is as our Savior and Lord. We are brought up against our identity as the image-bearers of God who are created to love him and each other. We are reminded of the reality that our brother or sister is made in the same image as ourselves and that the humanity Jesus took upon himself in the incarnation was our very own as he fully identified with us as human beings in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

In this parable we see King Jesus say that the sheep on his right hand are those who perceived in the people who were poor, needy, imprisoned, thirsty and hungry, the person of Christ. To care for another person in a tangible way, especially those who are followers of Christ, is to care for Jesus himself. When we treat others with indifference, oppression, neglect and injustice, we are doing those very things to Jesus. We are pouring out once again all the evil, sin, and violence of the cross onto the innocent, humble and holy Lamb of God. In doing so we deny our need for Christ and his sacrifice, placing ourselves in his stead as lords of our cosmos and our world. It is no wonder that God’s judgment upon such a choice is that we will experience the reality of eternity without the grace of God since we have determined for ourself we have no need or desire for it.

So what is God’s heart toward humanity in the midst of all that is happening right now? It is the same that it has always been—he wants us to enjoy all the benefits and blessings of life in union and communion with our Creator, in joyful fellowship with one another, and in happy harmony with all he has created. This is what we were created for and destined for. In Christ, this is the future God has planned for us.

In Christ, we have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into this kingdom of light. By faith we can begin to participate in this heavenly kingdom even now, living each moment in the presence of the King by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Lord of all means that he sits on the throne of our heart and has the final say in our lives right now. By faith, we participate in Christ’s face to face relationship with the Father in the Spirit, and enjoy moment by moment spiritual fellowship with God himself. We participate with King Jesus in what he is doing in this world, and by the power of the risen Lord, we overcome evil, sin and death in this world as we wait for Christ’s return in glory.

Just as King Jesus reigns even now over all, he will come one day in all his glory to eradicate once and for all the evil, sin, and death he conquered on the cross and will establish his throne forever in the new heavens and new earth. When that day comes, will we still be reigning over our own hearts and lives, thinking we are the supreme lords over creation and all that is in it? Will we be treating one another with indifference, oppression, neglect and injustice, or with the honor and respect and love due our risen Lord and Savior? Will we be trusting in ourselves and our goodness, or humbly acknowledging our desperate need for the grace and love of our Lord and King Jesus Christ, and so offering that same love and grace to our fellow human? These are questions worth wrestling with on this Sunday, as we reflect on the reign of Jesus Christ, soon to be established in glory, but at work even now in us and in this world.

Heavenly God—Holy Father, Son and Spirit—thank you for loving us so much that you did not want to spend eternity without us. Thank you for sending Jesus so we could be with you forever. Holy Spirit, enable us to love one another as you, God, have loved us. We acknowledge our desperate need for your grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. We receive this precious gift with gratitude and praise, through our Lord Jesus Christ, he who is King of all. Amen.

“For thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.” Ezekiel 34:11-16 NASB

“Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth.
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the LORD Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.”
Psalm 100:1-3 NASB

“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.”
Psalm 95:6-7 NASB

See also Matthew 25:31–46 and Ephesians 1:15–23.

In Christ We All Lead

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By Linda Rex

October 25, 2020, Proper 25—What is your sphere of influence? Is it merely your toddler and four-year-old? Is it the annoying neighbor who never cleans up the trash in his backyard? Is it the guy at the next desk who likes to tell funny stories but doesn’t follow through on his assignments? Perhaps it is simply the boss who comes by your desk each morning to wish you a great day.

We may only have a small number of people we affect each day. But there are some people in this world who have been given a much larger sphere of influence—that of leading towns, cities, states, nations and large organizations or companies. The effect their decisions have on large numbers of people shows the great extent of their influence. Sometimes this influence is for the better and others for the worst. There are people from the past whose lives and choices still affect the world today—we remember them with gratitude or anger, depending on how we have been affected by the decisions they made.

Our spheres of influence, great or small, are places where we have the privilege, even the responsibility, to participate with Christ in furthering his work of healing, wholeness and renewal in this cosmos. We can abdicate this task to others, or we can embrace it as part our identity as humans created to reflect the image of God and to follow Jesus Christ. To be an influencer of those around us by living out the gospel is a way we participate in Christ’s leadership in this world.

Christ first came as a suffering servant, laying down his life for each and every person on earth. He calls each of us to the same type of servant leadership—in whatever sphere of influence we may have. As followers of Christ, we share the gospel with those people who are close to us and we share our lives with them as well. It is our participation in Christ—our dying and rising in him—that gives others evidence of the miracle of grace and makes the gospel come alive, drawing them into the triune life.

As we live in face to face relationship with God as Moses did, we receive wisdom and God’s grace for our lives. Our active participation in the triune life is reflected in the way we live, the choices we make, and how these decisions impact the people in our sphere of influence. Do they see the radiance of God’s glory reflected in our faces, in our attitudes, words, and conduct? When all of these reflect God’s holy, loving nature, then the people around us are influenced to do the same, maybe even to seek the source of our Christlikeness.

Our participation in Christ resembles the other-centered perichoretic giving and receiving of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In the triune life, each pours into the other and receives from the other, as participants in the divine dance. Likewise, every human being has been given a place in this dance in and through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the giving of the Spirit, each may personally join in by faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ. As we trust in Jesus, centering our lives and faith in him, we find the faith, hope and love to effectively influence our family, our community, our nation and all of creation for the better.

In an ideal world, as in the kingdom of God, our leaders would be Christ-centered, seeking the heavenly realities rather than the power, authority, wealth, and popularity of this broken world. They would be seeking the benefit and best of those they served rather than their own pleasure and desire. Even though they are faulty and frail, our human leaders today still can choose to lead out of God’s Spirit of wisdom and love rather than the fleshly values of greed, lust, indifference, and selfishness. But will they?

Our effort, as we make decisions regarding electing our leaders, is to seek out and choose those who will most likely exemplify and support that which is good, true, and holy. This is a challenging task, for we must accept that we are dealing with people who are just as broken and faulty as we are. This is why we seek God’s direction and instruction, and take into consideration the issues and complications involved in electing leaders.

And as we think of our own spheres of influence, how we are we doing in providing leadership which reflects the nature of Christ? Are we holy, as God is holy, living in that loving unity of equal yet different persons we were created to reflect? Do we love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves?

Any change in government, in society, and even in our world, has its roots in the finished work of Christ. For us to experience it within our own sphere of influence, we turn to Jesus and receive his gift of the Holy Spirit. Turning our face away from the values and idols of this world and back towards God is an important start. As our Lord did, laying down our life for the sake of those nearest and dearest to us is another. Accepting that choosing the high road of holiness, service, and obedience to God is going to require a cost, even a sacrifice on our part, is another step. And following Christ in spite of all that may distract or afflict us needs to be our constant decision.

There is a price to pay to have the world we wish we could have. Resisting evil requires effort. Choosing a different path is a great challenge. Continuing in persevering effort is tough. But as we do this individually and collectively, we will find that the people in our spheres of influence will be affected and slowly begin to change. There may be resistance, even severe resistance to any effort on our part to be reflections of God’s goodness, love, and grace in this broken world. But if we hold on to Jesus as he holds onto us, walk in the Spirit and trust in his love and grace, we will find that ultimately the world around us will begin to change for the better.

Holy Father, in our world today, it seems we are too often influenced by evil, sin, and death rather than by your love and grace. We are grateful Jesus, that not only did you come and stand in our stead, offering your life for our life, your death for our death, but you also sent your Spirit to enable us to share even now in your divine life and love. Thank you for forgiving us our sins. Thank you for turning our faces back to yours, Abba. Spirit, thank you that you transform our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses. Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Deuteronomy 34:9-12 NASB

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” … you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.’ ” Leviticus 19:1-2, 19b NASB

“…just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. … Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 8 NASB

See also Matthew 22:34-46 NASB.

Don’t Vote in a Vacuum

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By Linda Rex

October 18, 2020, Proper 24—In truth, today’s political scene seems rampant with misinformation, suspicion, and a host of other ills. We are not given truth—we are given biased opinions. We’re not given clear goals and objectives—we’re given nebulous promises that vary depending upon which audience is spoken to. It seems that we are unable to simply elect honest, capable leaders who are seeking the best for their constituents no matter the cost to themselves.

This really isn’t a new situation, though. I recall many election seasons when I felt we spent the entire time ducking all the mud being slung at one another by the candidates. I’ve forgotten all the unkept promises that have been made during my lifetime by different people who had hoped they would say just the right thing that would convince people to elect them.

The real issue in all this is that too often we live as though this physical world is the only reality there is. We make our decisions and form our opinions based on tangible evidence—things we touch, hear, or see. The way in which we determine the future of our children and our country lacks a significant foundation—an understanding that we are not alone in this cosmos—that we do not make our decisions in a vacuum.

We may believe that it is all up to us to determine who ends up being president, senator, or mayor. Yes, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the candidates and the issues, and to make an intelligent, informed decision about whom to vote for. And yes, in this country, we have a responsibility to cast our vote when the election arrives. This is the part we have been given to play in the process of governing ourselves.

But we must never assume that it’s all up to us, because it is not. We want to be fully self-governing—but in reality, there is a form of government which undergirds and supersedes all human government. We can’t see it, but it is very real, and must be taken into account at all times, especially if we are in any position of power, authority, or popular influence.

The prophet Isaiah predicted a ruler named Cyrus would be given power and would be instrumental in rebuilding the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (Isa. 44:28; 45:1-7). This ruler, he said, would not know God or even acknowledge him, but would be anointed by God to accomplish an important task in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. His title, authority, and power were a gift of the divine One, given for the sole purpose of fulfilling the will and purposes of the only One who truly rules on earth, God himself.

In due time, there was a king named Cyrus who came into power in Persia. The priest Ezra records how he made a decree encouraging the exiled Jewish people to go back to Judah and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Later, his decree was honored by King Darius, who ensured that the project was completed in spite of the efforts of those who opposed the rebuilding. Human efforts sought to accomplish two opposing goals, but what God had in mind was what ultimately happened, even when it required working through two rulers who did not know or worship him.

When the nation of Israel was in its time of formation, Moses and his brother Aaron the priest were its leaders. They were the ones criticized when there were problems, accused of neglect or worse when people were hungry or thirsty, and blamed when things didn’t turn out as planned. What the people didn’t seem to grasp was that Moses and Aaron were simply stewards, servants of God who were answerable to him for every decision they made.

Moses seemed to have an understanding of this. He would meet with God, and then bring to the people the word he was given. When Israel created and worshiped a gold calf instead of worshiping the unseen God who had delivered them from Egypt, Moses interceded on their behalf. When the thought of leading Israel to the promised land seemed overwhelming to him, Moses told God that if he didn’t go with them, he wasn’t going at all. God promised to be present with Israel as they traveled. It would be God’s presence with them that distinguished them as God’s people. (Exodus 33:12–23)

We have fallen far as human beings when we cannot and do not recognize that what distinguishes us as God’s people is his living presence in us and among us. When we vote for our leaders, do we consider what party they are a member of or what kind of people they are? Do we consider their personality and popularity, or do we focus on what they value and on what they base their decisions? Today these things may be difficult to discern due to faulty media coverage of their campaigns, but we do have the presence and power of God to give us discernment, wisdom, and understanding when making these decisions.

Jesus was approached by two opposing groups who sought to catch him in a political snare. The Pharisees fiercely opposed the Roman government while the Herodians, who supported King Herod, were content with the status quo. But they both were opposed to want-to-be messiahs coming in to upset their house of power, authority and popularity. They didn’t want to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah because he didn’t agree with their agendas. These two groups came up with a well-considered question by which they thought they could force Jesus to take one side or the other, therefore enabling them to get rid of him once and for all.

They asked Jesus whether or not it was lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar. They failed to recognize their opponent in this discussion—they were talking to the One who was present in the flesh while at the same time sustaining all things by his word. Even though Jesus at that moment held all power and authority in heaven and on earth, he chose to humble himself, limiting himself to our human existence, and allowing himself to be questioned in this way.

His answer, though, speaks volumes for our political arena today. He asked for a denarius, something any pious Jew would not carry, due to its idolatrous portrait of the emperor—he was handed this coin used to pay Roman taxes. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” he asked. They told him it was Caesar’s. He replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” At this, they left amazed.

Jesus touched them at the core of their belief system—their piety was a fraud, their hypocrisy was obvious, and their values were not where they belonged. Jesus acknowledged that human government is to be respected, taxes paid, laws observed. But there will always be a law superior, an authority greater, and a power more supreme. Jesus did not need power, authority, or popularity in order to rule—he needed only to be who he was, God in human flesh, the One who alone is king of kings and lord of lords.

We do have a responsibility, as I mentioned earlier, to our nation and to one another. We need to make informed, wise decisions and vote. But we want to remember to do so prayerfully, humbly, and obediently, understanding that the One who elevates and removes leaders is still in charge. We are encouraged to ask God for leaders who will enable us to continue to follow Christ peacefully, free to share the good news with others in our lives. As believers in Christ, the presence of God is still in us and with us, for we are God’s people. We do not trust in human government—we trust solely in the living Lord. We live as citizens of heaven, ambassadors of the kingdom of God, shining the light of his love and grace in the midst of a very human, dark and broken world.

Heavenly Father, in your majesty and glory, you rule with compassion, mercy, and justice. Thank you, holy Word of God, for taking on our human flesh, living our life, dying, and rising again, so that we might be now and forever in your presence. Holy Spirit, enlighten us with a glimpse of the glory and majesty of our risen Lord. Empower us with wisdom, insight, and discernment as we vote. Abba, you determine who should rule—you guide the election, accomplishing your divine purpose as ever, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Thus says the LORD to Cyrus His anointed, | Whom I have taken by the right hand, | To subdue nations before him | And to loose the loins of kings; | To open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: … | For the sake of Jacob My servant, | And Israel My chosen one, | I have also called you by your name; | I have given you a title of honor | Though you have not known Me. | I am the LORD, and there is no other; | Besides Me there is no God. | I will gird you, though you have not known Me; | That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun | That there is no one besides Me. | I am the LORD, and there is no other, …” Isaiah 45:1, 4-6 NASB

See also Matthew 22:15–22.