kingdom of God

Why Look at the Sky?

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By Linda Rex

May 29, 2022, ASCENSION Sunday—The past few years I have been slowly working toward a divinity degree. Last week I started a new course with Grace Communion Seminary called Church Planting and Development. As I was writing a reflection paper last night, it occurred to me that the timing of this class fits right in with where we are on the Christian calendar.

Indeed, this Sunday we are celebrating Jesus Christ’s ascension, a significant event in God’s story. Here we focus on the spiritual reality of the fulfillment of an essential part of Jesus’ mission here on earth, him having been sent by the Father to bring all humanity home to eternal fellowship with the Triune God. It was necessary for Jesus to live, die and rise again as God in human flesh in order for all of us to be included in his own intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. It is in Jesus’ ascension that the mission of God to restore our relationship moves into the realm of the Spirit, who is sent so that each of us individually can participate by faith in what Christ has done.

Luke’s gospel version of the ascension event, Luke 24:44–53, gives the impression that it all happened on the same day as the resurrection. However, when he describes the event in Acts 1:1–11, we see that all these things happened over a period of forty days following the resurrection. The disciples and others were given many opportunities to experience firsthand the risen Lord, to talk and eat with him, and to hear him expound the Old Testament scriptures which spoke of his coming and his mission. At the end of this time, he blessed his followers and ascended to his Father’s side.

In Acts 1, Christ’s followers stood there for a while after being blessed, looking up into the sky. This makes me ask: I wonder how long they stood there before the angels spoke to them, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?” I can imagine Jesus, having already made the transition into glory, saw them standing there still trying to see him and he finally said to the angels nearby, “I think you’re going to have to tell them to quit looking for me and get busy.”

But this does speak to what we as the body of Christ have often done when it comes to the whole idea of the ascension. It’s as though we believe Jesus is done with his project, has gone home, and we just have to wait until he comes back. Faith in Christ and salvation become all about us being good people who live good lives until Jesus returns in glory. And we miss the point of it all—God bringing all of humanity back into relationship with himself through Christ in the Spirit.

What had Jesus told the disciples to do? He had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received the promised Holy Spirit. Then they were to go and make disciples, baptize them, teach them, and include them in Christ’s mission to the world. Jesus came as God in human flesh to draw all of humanity up into right relationship with God in the Spirit. He’s still on that mission. Having been sent by the Father, he has returned home and sent the Spirit to continue his efforts. We, as the body of Christ, are set apart to participate in that mission of reaching out to all the world, sharing the good news and making disciples or new followers of Christ. Our unity and our love in the body of Christ, the church, are meant to testify to the presence of the kingdom of God here on earth by the Spirit, a kingdom in which all people are welcome to participate.

Even at the end of John’s apocalypse, he points out the reality of the body of Christ, his bride, being on mission with Jesus. He writes, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who hears this say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life (Rev. 22:17 NASB).” Our role is to join with Jesus in the Spirit to say to the world around us, “Come.” Anyone who is thirsty is welcome to come. The water of life is available to everyone now in Christ, so every is able to drink if they so wish. And the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the church, is called by God in participation with Jesus by the Spirit to freely offer that water of life to all.

And, if this seems to be an intimidating prospect, consider the indicatives which went with Jesus’ command to preach the good news and to make disciples. First of all, as we read in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus has ascended to his Father’s side and has received all authority and power and glory in his exaltation as the risen Lamb of God (Ephesians 1:15–23). Secondly, he has promised to be with us until the end. And thirdly, he has sent the Spirit, the One who empowers us to do the ministry and mission Jesus has called us to. God is doing the heavy lifting—we just get to join in with what he is doing through Jesus in the Spirit.

As Luke explains, our mission to the world begins where we are, and moves in ever-widening spheres of influence as we respond in faith to the voice of the Spirit and move out, sharing the good news of God’s love expressed to all of us in Jesus Christ. What is your current sphere of influence? Are there people God has placed in your life that you have conversations with and do everyday activities with? These are opportunities for the gospel. And sharing the good news is what Jesus has called us to participate with him in doing.

When I think about how far God has brought me in this journey of faith, I see that we have traveled a longways together. But I also see that I have only begun to really understand what it means to live on mission with Jesus, and to be a genuine follower of Christ. It is so easy to be distracted with the concerns of everyday life. And so easy, too, to place my focus on how well I am doing in my own relationship with God, rather than on remembering that others need to hear the good news too, and need to experience the joy, unity, and love of the body of Christ for themselves. Oh, for the heart of Jesus for others!

May we remember today, and every day, to pray for the people in our lives, to ask Jesus for opportunities to share the good news, and for the courage and faith to do so. May we quit looking up at the sky and be busy doing what Jesus has called us to do—to move out on mission with him, sharing the good news of all God has done for us in sending his Son and his Spirit for our salvation.

Heavenly Father, thank you for all you have done in sending your Son and your Spirit for our salvation, for drawing us up into life with you now and forever. Grant us the grace to move outside of ourselves into genuine relationship with the people around us, and give us the inspiration, courage, and wisdom to share with them all you have given to us through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.

“The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.’ ”     Acts 1:1–11 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/why-look-at-the-sky.pdf ]

Consequences of Grace

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Messianic Spirit

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By Linda Rex

January 23, 2022, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany—One common thread that seems to run through life no matter what century we live in is a desire for someone to come and solve the great problems of life. We may face economic woes, political corruption, moral depravity, or natural disasters, and be tempted to embrace just about anyone who will come in and “save the day.” The price we pay for trusting the wrong person to be our messiah can ultimately be pretty steep, but in those times of great stress and struggle, we may think that we can look the other way for a while, and trust them to fix what we want fixed, and hopefully deal with the fallout on the other side without too much loss.

It is significant that when God pulls together by the Spirit members of the body of Christ, he doesn’t choose any particular person to be the savior. Rather, he pulls together all different sorts of people, gifting each one uniquely so that his purposes will be accomplished, but done in the context of community. The Spirit brings together unique persons with distinct gifts and creates a body of people in and through whom he can do ministry in this world. But Christ remains the one unique Messiah, Savior of all, and allows his body, the Church, to participate in what he is doing in the world.

When Jesus described his messianic mission, he began by saying, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus did not function alone in this world while he was on earth. No, he came as God in human flesh on mission with his Father in the Spirit. The Triune God was at work in and through Jesus Christ, and it was God’s kingdom that was present and active in his personal presence and action when Jesus stood that day in the synagogue and began by the Spirit to read from the book of Isaiah.

Jesus went on to read about what he was anointed by the Spirit to do: “… he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the line, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

Then he ended by telling his listeners that this was being fulfilled in that moment as Jesus stood and expounded the Scriptures to them (Luke 4:14–21 NASB).

In a community that had recently experienced Roman wrath poured out against a Jewish messiah, such talk from a Jew who they were familiar with was really hard to handle. What would be the consequences of the wrong person hearing Jesus speak? Perhaps the common people might appreciate the miracles and the preaching, but the leaders would not have wanted another season of Roman oppression and violence.

But Jesus said, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” That’s the real issue. What do we do when the Spirit goes to work and says to us, “I’ve got something new I am doing—join me.” When the Spirit calls us down a new road of ministry that looks different than what we have been doing, then what? Do we dictate to the Spirit or does the Spirit call us to join with him? This is our challenge as the body of Christ. Are we doing what we are doing “in the Spirit?” Or are we doing it in our flesh and asking the Spirit to bless it?

The body of Christ takes many different forms in the world today. The Spirit brings people together to do ministry in this world. The Spirit even moves in ways which many of us would consider secular. But the Spirit is always and ever active, moving to accomplish the purposes of God in this world. We can enthusiastically join in with him in what he is doing, or we can insist on God accomplishing those tasks we think he should be accomplishing. What does the kingdom of God look like when God brings it to fulfillment here on earth as it is in heaven?

Life in the kingdom of God begins now as Christ in us by the Spirit reigns in human hearts. There is an already-not yet aspect to the kingdom of God. In Christ by the Spirit the kingdom of God is already at work in this world, specifically within the body of Christ, in the communion of the saints. But we also realize that the kingdom of God is not realized in its fulness since so many people today do not fully participate in God’s life and love, not knowing that the kingdom of God is present and active in their lives even now through Jesus and in the Spirit.

The Spirit brings people together into a body, a group of people joined together, uniquely framed into a form that will accomplish God’s particular task in that place for his purpose. We find that not everyone is the same. The Spirit gifts people uniquely, and some may seem to be more gifted than others. The point is not whether someone is more gifted than another. The point is that each of these gifts are brought together into the unity of the Spirit to accomplish a particular purpose in that specific place.

It is equally true that the body of Christ takes a form which is always changing. We like to get in our groove and start doing things a certain way, and then assume that it will always stay like that. In reality, the Spirit is living and active. He is always in motion, doing what is new and life-giving at all times.

It may be that that the Spirit is wanting to do something new while we have our boots stuck in the mud and don’t want to move forward. This is why Jesus faced such opposition from the Jewish leaders in his day. They believed the Spirit only worked in one particular way—their way. They did not see that the Lord of all, who was filled with the Spirit, was the one directing them into a new path. The king of the kingdom of God was present and calling them to a new direction, but they did not want to hear it, much less participate in it.

The apostle Paul, in our reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a, ends this section about spiritual gifts with an invitation to see a new and better way rather than focusing on spiritual giftedness. This transition invites us to discover the beauty and wonder of God’s way of being—love. This is an other-centered way of being that both gives and receives in a mutuality of love and respect. This harmony and unity among unique and equal persons is the image we are to reflect as the body of Christ, for this is the way of being of the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Ultimately, we don’t need a messiah just to deliver us—we need the Messiah to transform and heal us. What happens in this world would be so much different if we each were living “filled with the Spirit” in the unity and oneness Christ brought us into through his messiahship. Jesus described life in the kingdom of God in this world today as discipleship, and said that people would know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another. What if, instead of counting on a human messiah, we began to trust in our true Messiah, Jesus Christ, and began living and walking in the Messianic Spirit he has poured out on all flesh?

Thank you, Father, for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to remain open to your leading and obedient to your Spirit at all times. Keep us surrendered to your will and purposes, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. …  God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. … Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. … But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.”     1 Corinthians 12:12–31a NASB

The Lord Our Righteousness

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By Linda Rex

November 28, 2021, ADVENT | Hope—The other day, my husband was telling me how during his myriad travels he came across a radio station in Florida playing Christmas music. Christmas music in October? Apparently, the station owners believed that all the negative press and bad news needed to be overcome with the good news found within the Christmas message, which brings hope, peace, joy and God’s love.

Indeed, we do well to attend to the spiritual realities which lie behind all the negative noise going on right now in the world around us. We can be overcome with sorrow, anger, and frustration due to the appearance of success that evil seems to be having. Or we can focus on the leaves bursting forth on the fig tree—there is new growth which will one day result in an abundant harvest of righteousness and goodness, to be celebrated forever in God’s loving presence.

The Old Testament is replete with warning to God’s people about what will happen should they wander away from their covenant relationship with God. Indeed, the apocalyptic language of such events strikes terror into us. None of us wish to personally experience the power of a tsunami or the destruction accompanying the alteration of the orbit of the heavenly bodies like the moon or sun.

What catastrophes might we personally dread? Have we ever thought about the consequences of how we live our lives day by day? Jesus says that no earthly catastrophe compares with the consequences of rejecting our one hope of salvation in him. So, he wants us to pay attention—to not take our relationship with God for granted, but to be actively involved in a life in sync with who we are as the beloved, forgiven, redeemed children of God.

I remember how for many years I agonized over whether or not I would qualify for the kingdom of God. Would I ever be good enough? Saints over the centuries have agonized over this question. How many of us have lived in this internal torment, longing for a mere morsel of hope that we will be included in the new life to come?

God gave his people a promise in Jeremiah 33:14-16 that one day a righteous son of David would come forth to execute justice and righteousness on the earth. When that day came Judah would be saved and Jerusalem would dwell in safety. God’s people would be known by this name, “the Lord our righteousness” (NKJV). The NIRT puts it this way, “The Lord Who Makes Us Right With Himself.”

The spiritual reality we need to grab hold of and rest in is that Jesus Christ is our right relationship with God, now and forever. Whatever we may do, whatever effort we put into it, is merely a participation in what Jesus has already done, is doing even now by his Spirit, and will do when he returns in glory. This is why, when the world begins to fill with catastrophes, we have no reason to fear or be afraid—we are already saved, are being saved, and will be saved—in Christ. By faith, we can lift our heads and look with hope and joy at the coming of our Lord in glory.

Truly, Jesus did warn us that it is easy to get distracted by the cares of this life and the pulls of our human flesh. We can learn a lot from those early Christian anchorites, who obeyed Jesus’ command to deny themselves, lay down their lives and follow Christ. They were willing to go to great lengths to forbid themselves the everyday blessings of life because they wanted more of Jesus. They were willing to humble themselves and receive the rejection of their peers and the world around them for the sake of doing what they believed Christ wanted them to do—seek him and him alone. Their eyes and minds and hearts were fixed on heaven, not on this earth and its pleasures and cares. There is much we can learn from them about self-denial and simple obedience to the Spirit.

Jesus and the early apostles called us to prayer—to acknowledging and acting on our dependency upon God in every situation of life. We pray for one another as well, offering up our support and encouragement as we face the difficulties and struggles of walking as believers in a world which opposes and rejects the person and way of Jesus. In prayer we call forth God’s presence and power in and through us—praying for God to increase his love in our hearts and lives, his holiness in our actions and motivations, and enabling us to experience by the Spirit the right relationship with God and man Jesus forged for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

God calls us to alertness—to readiness—a focus on him and his work in us and in this world. We often make prayer about telling God what he needs to be doing. In reality, prayer needs to become a way in which we become present to what God is already doing, attentive to what he wants to do in us and in the world around us, and how we can be a part of that. Prayer, by necessity, needs to become listening to the heart of the Father, and an openness to doing his will in this world, whatever that may be.

Prayer in the Spirit actually begins with God, who shares his thoughts and desires with us by the Spirit, and moves us to pray about the things which are important to him, about those things that he is at work in this world doing right now. As we offer up our prayers in tune with the heart of the Father, Jesus takes them, perfects them, and offers them in the Spirit back to the Father, completing the circle of relationship in which we are included. It is a beautiful thing to pray in the Spirit—sharing in the inner life of the Trinity!

Our attentiveness to God, our posture of listening and receptivity, of participation in the divine life and love, is how we prepare for the cataclysmic end of the world Jesus warned us would be coming. There is no need to fear or be anxious in the midst of difficult or dangerous times, for we are, even now, included in the inner life of the Triune God of love. We are already sharing in that blessed hope which will be fully realized when Jesus returns in glory. By faith, we trust in the finished work of Christ, so there is nothing for us to fear when we see Jesus return again—we’re already active in what he is doing in this world, participating in God’s mission, communing with God, and knowing he is present in every moment. His return in glory is merely the next step in what we are doing with him as the ones for whom the Lord is our righteousness.

Thank you, dear Abba, for including us in your life and love through Jesus your Son and in the Spirit. Remind us constantly to turn our hearts and minds toward you, so that all of life is lived aware of you and your real and active presence. Prepare our hearts to receive you, Jesus, now and forever, by your grace. Amen.

“Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.”     1 Thessalonians 3:(9–10) 11–13 NASB

“But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. … Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”     Luke 21:28, 34–36 (25–36) NASB

The Price We Won’t Pay

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By Linda Rex

October 10, 2021, PROPER 23—One of the things I’ve noticed more than ever recently is how many people contact me in an effort to buy my home—which isn’t for sale. Today someone called me to help me remove the mortgage interest from my home—which I have no interest in doing. And this week I received a note from an auto dealer, wanting to purchase my car—which at the moment, I’m not planning to replace.

There’s a common thread through all of these phone calls, texts, emails, and letters—someone somewhere wants to make a buck, at my expense. I would like to believe these good people are truly seeking to help me in some way, but unfortunately, experience has taught me that this is far from the case. It is a rare individual or business that is genuinely seeking my best interests rather than seeking to line their own pockets.

While reading Amos 5:6–7, 10–15 this morning, I was struck by the way the prophet’s words resonate with our experience in this country today:

“Come back to the Lord and live. … You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed. You treat the righteous like dirt. … How you hate honest judges! How you despise people who tell the truth! You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses, you will never live in them. Though you plant lush vineyards, you will never drink wine from them. For I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions. You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. So those who are smart keep their mouths shut, for it is an evil time. Do what is good and run from evil so that you may live! Then the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will be your helper, just as you have claimed. Hate evil and love what is good; turn your courts into true halls of justice. Perhaps even yet the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will have mercy on the remnant of his people” (NLT).

It’s rather rough reading, isn’t it? But so many of the things Amos enumerates are part of our experience today! And in the midst of this truth-telling, there is a call from the heart of God to turn away from evil and to turn to good, to be just and gracious rather than continuing to oppress or deceive others.

What price are you or I willing to pay to live in the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God? What price are we willing to pay to hate evil and love good? If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that many times the bottom line drives our decisions regarding these things. I find myself preferring comfort, ease, convenience, being pain and stress-free, rather than doing the hard and painful work of taking a stand against evil and for good. I bow to my natural proclivity to mediate rather than to weather the hurricane blast of someone’s resistance to my honesty and declaration of truth. My preferences too often guide my decisions rather than the quiet inner voice of the Spirit telling me to do the hard and difficult thing.

When the rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, I doubt he realized the innate contradiction which existed in his words. In his world, the more he did what was considered good, the more he had value and worth, and the greater his significance in society and in the kingdom to come. But Jesus held him up to an entirely different standard—God himself. If only God is truly good, and Jesus is the good teacher, where did that leave this young ruler? He had always kept the commandments as he understood them—and Jesus loved him for this. But it wasn’t enough.

Jesus looked the young man in the eye—looked at him with a heart filled with the love of the Father—and saw the root of the problem. He understood why this young ruler would always feel like he was never quite good enough for eternal life. His value, his worth, and his identity were based in what he had and what he did, not in who he was in relationship with his heavenly Father. Jesus told him what he lacked. The keys to the kingdom lay solely in a faith-walk with Jesus, trusting in the Father’s love, and living in obedience to the Spirit. This was a price the young man would not pay—and he walked away heartsick.

This is tough. Are we willing to have Jesus’ loving, yet perceptive view go all the way down into our own souls? Where is our worth, our value, our identity really placed? If it is anywhere but in God himself—centered in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—in his gift of the Spirit—we are off-center. If we are trusting in anything or anyone else in this life, we will eventually find ourselves in a place where we have no hope whatsoever. Whether we like it or not, the things of this life—money, belongings, homes, and even people—are only temporary and cannot be depended on in every circumstance. Sooner or later, they will fly away like chaff in the wind.

Jesus told the disciples that it is very hard for people of wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Simply put, when you have everything you need or want, and what you don’t have you can easily get, and what gets broken you can easily replace or fix, what do you else do you need? And if you are so busy taking care of every need yourself, you may find that you have no time to consider the spiritual realities or to encounter Jesus in your everyday life. And apart from a relationship with Jesus, how can you begin to experience the eternal life which is available to each of us right now by the Holy Spirit?

The disciples were aghast at the point Jesus was making. He was telling them that it is an impossible task to enter the kingdom of God. Our best efforts will not earn us a place at the Lord’s banquet table. Eternal life is something we inherit, but we cannot make ourselves children of God. This is a task Jesus did in our place, on our behalf. Jesus, in his finished work and in his life in us by the Holy Spirit, is the one who has made us right with God, bringing us by faith into right relationship with God as his adopted children. We have eternal life in Jesus Christ alone, as we trust in him and in his ministry of adoption.

In Jesus Christ, God has made the impossible possible. We have, in Jesus, all that we need to be included in God’s love and life as his adopted children. By faith in Christ we receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus invites you and me to follow him—but there is a price that goes with that gift of eternal life. It is not the price we might expect. We need to tear up our list of good deeds, and get rid of our dependency upon our piety, and simply follow Christ. This walk of faith or walk in the Spirit requires a commitment on our part, and a willingness to pay the ultimate price.

My heart goes out today to those followers of Christ who experience a very hefty price in this life for their commitment to faith in Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in many areas of the world cannot simply say the name of Jesus out loud in a public place without endangering their lives, their families or income. They are in my thoughts and prayers. I pray God will meet their every need as he is present with them right now by the Spirit in their suffering. As for those of us who live much more freely in this nation, what price are we willing to pay for the privilege of knowing Jesus and having the gift of eternal life? What are we willing to lay down or give away for the sake of following Christ?

Heavenly Father, forgive us for setting our hearts on so many valueless and worthless things that have no lasting benefit. Grant us the grace to lay down everything that we trust in and simply place our faith in your Son Jesus and all he has done in our place on our behalf. Thank you for your love and grace, for providing for our every need, and for your gift of eternal life, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness,” Do not defraud, “Honor your father and mother.”’ And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were even more astonished and said to Him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Looking at them, Jesus said, ‘With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.’ Peter began to say to Him, ‘Behold, we have left everything and followed You.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.’”      Mark 10:17–31 NASB

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.