life

Quit Hiding in the Darkness

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By Linda Rex

January 19, 2020, 2ND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—My daughter and I were waiting at a stoplight yesterday, waiting for the light to change, when it occurred to both of us that we rarely enter that particular intersection from the side we were on. We often enter it from the north or the south or the west, but not from the east. To us, the intersection looked strange—kind of off kilter in some way.

The reality is, though, that the intersection had not changed at all. What changed was the way in which we approached the intersection. We are the ones who changed over time as we experienced the intersection in new ways. In fact, seeing the intersection from all sides eventually made it a more familiar place as we drove through it on our way to other places.

Often our experience of life follows certain patterns, many of which were formed as we grew up. We have certain preferences, expectations, and inhibitions which find their roots in our past and in those significant relationships which impact our formation. We follow familiar paths and often choose those items and activities with which we are most comfortable. Our actions and ways of being may be healthy or unhealthy, depending on how they affect us and those around us. Because they are how we normally respond or are, we call them our normal.

When we come to faith in Jesus Christ, it is as if we encounter life from a new viewpoint. In Jesus, we have a revelation not only of who God is, but who we are as image-bearers of God. Most everything in our life is the same, but we begin seeing it all in new ways, and are faced with new ways of being and living. These are not normal for us, but rather, may at first seem very abnormal and uncomfortable.

Our encounter with the new life in Christ may be a joyful experience, but for many of us, it is also accompanied by the realization that our previous way of living does not mesh well with who God has declared we are in Christ. Seeing life in this new way creates a crisis in our lives—God’s judgment on all which does not clearly reflect the love and grace of God is that it must go. And that’s where we resist the Spirit’s work in our lives.

The truth is that Jesus came as a light in our darkness—he was to be “a light of the nations.” Abba’s purpose was to bring us “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9 NASB), rescuing us “from the domain of darkness, and [transferring] us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13 NASB). As the Light of the world, Jesus illumines the darkness of our wrongs ways of thinking and believing about God and his love for us, and who we are as his beloved children.

Unfortunately, our preference as human beings is to live and walk in the darkness. We don’t want to have to change the way we think, feel, act or treat others—this requires too much of us. When we have to make changes like these in our lives, suddenly we are no longer in control of what is happening in the world. We are no longer able to hide behind what is comfortable, familiar, or convenient.

In fact, the Spirit may ask us to do what is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and inconvenient. God often asks us to love those who are unloveable—who in fact, hate us. Jesus’ way of being is that of turning the other cheek, of praying for those who do not love us, or being kind to those who treat us unkindly. He teaches us to take a stand against evil, while not resisting it. His life and ministry teach us to love and serve freely, even if it means the loss of what we humanly value most.

The culture in which we live, the way we were raised, and the way we feel most comfortable doing things is very often diametrically opposed to Christ’s way of approaching life. Jesus’ way of being was that of a servant, of doing good to others, of caring for the downtrodden, those exiled by community and rejected by society. His life was other-centered, not hedonist and self-centered, and self-indulgent. To follow Christ means participating in his death and resurrection—and this means there are some things in our lives which must die so that the new life we have in Christ may be lived out and enjoyed.

When John the Baptizer encountered Jesus on the shores of the Jordan, he pointed him out to those around him as being the Lamb of God, the One who would take away the sin of the world. John said that Jesus existed long before he did, even though he knew that Jesus was birthed by Mary several months after he had been born of his mother Elizabeth. His point was that Jesus was the divine Son of God, present in their midst, for the purpose of freeing the world from sin. The world, or kosmos, included every human being, and this was a far cry from just freeing the Jewish people from sin.

Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and in the Spirit, immersed all humanity in his baptism. We were all included in what Jesus did that day. Our inclusion in Jesus’ baptism is our inclusion in his life and death—and we express this as we participate in the sacrament of baptism. Our baptism, being buried with Jesus in his death and risen with him in his resurrection, means the old is gone and the new has come. We respond to Christ’s call to Lazarus in the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!” Called out of the darkness, we come into the light and begin to live and walk in the day, leaving the night behind.

This means what is normal is no longer our normal. What is familiar needs to be replaced by what is Christ-like. What we used to value needs to be replaced with what is intrinsically of eternal value and worth. This is the work of the Spirit, who, as we respond to Christ in faith, gradually washes away anything that does not resemble our Savior and infuses us with him in its place. Our participation in this process is faith and, in joyful gratitude, following Jesus wherever he leads us.

This is radical discipleship: laying down our lives as Christ laid down his. Dying to self and living to Christ is living and walking in the light, leaving the darkness behind. We are free—not to do whatever we want, whenever and however we want—but free to love God and love one another the way we were created to. We feed on Christ, drawing upon the Spirit, finding our life in God alone, and soon, after walking a while on the road with Jesus, we will be astonished to find that what was so unfamiliar to us is actually our true home.

Dear Abba, thank you for calling out of darkness into your marvelous light. Thank you, Jesus, for including us in your baptism—in your death and resurrection. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for working in us and in our lives to bring us to greater Christlikeness. Grant us the grace to follow you, Jesus, wherever you go and to obey your call to come out of darkness and to walk in the light with you both now and forever. Amen.

“John testified saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” John 1:32-34 NASB; see also vv. 29–42

“He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant | To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; | I will also make You a light of the nations | So that My salvation may 3reach to the end of the earth.’” Isaiah 49:6 NASB

Keeper of the Anointed One

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By Linda Rex

December 29, 2019, HOLY FAMILY—In recent years, specifically here in America but in other areas as well, there has been a lot of effort expended in an effort to lift women to a place of dignity and worth not previously experienced in society. Although I have been immensely blessed by the results of this effort and am very grateful for the efforts of those who have gone before me, I have been saddened to see that when we seek to rectify one problem, as is typical with us as humans, we tend to create another.

I’ve noticed that with the rise of the worth and dignity of women has come a demeaning and disrespect of men. Too often we have criticized and condemned as a whole this portion of the human race in our efforts to correct what has failed to be encouraged and supported in the other. I feel we have fallen into the trap of either/or thinking rather than understanding that God did not mean worth and dignity to be given to one in place of the other. He meant it to be given to both. Every human being is made in the image of God, and so is worthy of dignity and respect.

In the light of this, the reading for this Sunday tells us about events which happened after the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is a twelve-day celebration which begins on December 25th, and included in this celebration is the Sunday we celebrate the Holy Family. The role that Joseph and Mary have to play in Jesus’ story is significant, and I believe there is much we can learn about how to be a man of God from the little bit we read in the gospels about Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather.

First, we need to understand that Joseph was living in a very patriarchal society. He was a Jew and he was bound by the requirements of the law as taught by his rabbis in the synagogue and the other Jewish leaders. He was a man of character and sought to live rightly before God. When he was betrothed to Mary and she told him she was expecting a child, his immediate thought was to put her away privately. This would have gone against the traditions of the elders, but he did not want to hurt or shame her unnecessarily. This showed a heart of grace and humility, and compassion.

When an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife and that the child to be born to her was conceived by the Spirit and was to be called Jesus, Joseph had an important decision to make. This decision required an immense amount of faith—was this really a message from God? Did he believe that this is really what he should do? Apparently, he believed, and then acted on that belief.

How many men today take seriously the dreams they have? Would a man I met on the street, or even within the doors of my church, recognize when they had an angel of God speak to them? How many actually listen to and obey the voice of the Spirit? And how would they respond if they were asked to do something which would require this kind of humility, grace, and lifelong commitment? I have gotten to know some men over the years who I believe would, but I have also met and known many who would not.

What about when Joseph had a dream which told him to pick up his family and travel to Egypt on a moment’s notice because the king was searching for his child in order to kill him? If Joseph had not believed and obeyed this dream, they would have stayed at the house, and Jesus would have been killed. The faith and trust of Joseph, his willingness to listen to and be attentive to the voice of God, was critical in the survival of the Christ child.

In the same way today, we need men who are willing to slow down long enough to listen to and hear the voice of God. God’s Spirit speaks all the time, but often we are too busy or preoccupied to hear his voice. We are often too invested in the things of our flesh or in our daily occupations to do what the Spirit asks us to do. Women and children often long for the men in their lives to take the lead spiritually. They yearn to be able to rest in the knowledge that their spouse or parent is listening to God’s voice and following the lead of the Spirit. One of the best gifts a man can give the people in his life is a willingness and effort to listen to and follow the Holy Spirit.

I’m personally grateful for the many men I know who have a passion for the word of God and prayer, who are strong men of faith, who are humble and have servant hearts. They are compassionate and understanding, yet they diligently oppose anything which may harm others or create distress for those who cannot defend themselves. These men radiate a quiet, steady strength, and an ability to lead others merely by following the Spirit themselves.

We must not underestimate the power that a man has to impact the society around him simply by how he listens to and follows the voice of the Spirit. His capacity to humbly listen to and submit himself to the voice of the Spirit and to the needs of his family is critical. The admonition in Ephesians for a man to lay down his life as Jesus laid down his, if it were followed, would transform this society and our families today (Eph. 5:25-29).

Joseph had to care for his family, but uprooting them on a moment’s notice to move to an entirely different nation must have been a very difficult undertaking. And then, after a few years, he heard that voice again, telling him to return to his native land—King Herod, the one who wanted to kill Jesus, had died. Joseph was still concerned about the well-being of his family, so he took them to Nazareth to live. And this was where Jesus grew up.

We don’t read much about Joseph after this. We find him taking his family to Jerusalem for the holy days about the time of Jesus’ bar mitzvah. But after that, not much is said of him. But what we do know is that he fulfilled the calling God gave him, to be the keeper of the Anointed One, watching over him and protecting him as he grew up, and providing for him and his family.

What man today isn’t called to this same role? Maybe it’s not quite the same, since Jesus is not here on earth in his flesh right now. But the Holy Spirit was sent to dwell in human hearts, and we as human beings were meant to be the dwelling place of God himself. Jesus lives in each person as they trust him in faith. Just as he worked through Joseph, God calls men today to be keepers of the Anointed One, leading others in their lives by listening to and following the lead of the Spirit. God means for men to be image-bearers of the Divine One, caring for those in and with whom he has come to dwell.

Thank you, Abba, for giving us men of faith to lead us and watch over us. Continue to call to yourself the men in our lives, giving them a heart and will to listen to and obey your Spirit, to lead us by following you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,’ the angel said. ‘Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. … When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. ‘Get up!’ the angel said. ‘Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.’ So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. … So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’” Matthew 2:13–15a, 19–21, 23 NASB

Finding Gladness and Joy

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By Linda Rex

JOY
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?

Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?

We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?

Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.

And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.

A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.

This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?

Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.

Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.

Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.

Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?

So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.

Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?

This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?

It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.

May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.

Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB

“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

Enduring the Flame

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By Linda Rex

November 17, 2019, Proper 28—Many years ago, I was faced with the reality that I was going to be on my own with two children to provide for. It was a hard thing to face because up to that point, it had been my commitment to be at home with my children so I could be fully involved in their lives. Reality is not always pleasant but it must be dealt with, and being a single mom meant I needed to find a job as well as hire a caregiver for my kids.

Life as a single mom was difficult for me, but many of the people around me struggled with even harder situations than what I had to deal with. Many of my co-workers juggled two jobs in order to be able to pay for childcare and their monthly expenses. Jobs in that farming community for the most part didn’t pay enough for single income families to make ends meet.

When life was hardest and the mountains around me seemed to grow taller and taller, I wrestled with fear, despair, and depression. The gracious God taught me during that extensive time of wrestling that all I needed to do was to hold his hand and take the next step and do that next right thing. Every month when the bills came due and I wasn’t sure if I would have enough to cover them, I would end up thanking God—he seemed to always come through for me.

During those years I learned that God was faithful and could be counted on, in spite of what I might be going through at the moment. As a follower of Jesus, I discovered that even if people around me ridiculed me and rejected me for living honestly, chastely, and responsibly, God was still present and at work in my life. Over time, as I intentionally began to build healthier relationships with other believers of many different faiths, he surrounded me with loving people who became our extended family, providing emotional and spiritual support through a very painful and difficult time.

Following Jesus is a life lived in the reality that God is our loving Father and we are his beloved children in his Son. When we follow Jesus, we begin to discover that even though each and every person around us is included in the Father’s love, not everyone knows nor do they believe this is the case. This means that as we live in the truth of being God’s beloved, living in agreement with our identity in Christ as image-bearers of God, we will come up against those who live in opposition to him and to us.

Some of the most painful experiences we have as believers are when our own family members and dear friends ridicule us, shame us, or even reject us because we have begun to follow Christ. We may long for these dear ones to share the joy of transformation we are experiencing, but find instead that they will have nothing to do with the truth of God’s love and grace. Life gets really tough when those we love refuse to participate with us in Christ.

Jesus often tried to help his disciples understand the cost of discipleship, of following him all the way through death and resurrection. They couldn’t quite get their minds around the reality that Jesus was not there to be the conquering king messiah—he was anointed by his Abba to be the Suffering Servant messiah, an entirely different concept. The entrance of his people into the kingdom was not going to come about by him waging war on the Romans, but by offering himself up to humanity as a lamb for the slaughter.

The people of Israel had worked so hard to get their temple rebuilt and adorned as an appropriate dwelling for God. But Jesus told them it would be torn down and destroyed. And that it would be okay, because Abba was creating a new temple, a dwelling place for himself—the body of Christ, the church, where individually and collectively God would dwell by the Holy Spirit. In order for this to happen, Jesus would need to experience suffering and death, followed by resurrection.

In the same way, the process of redemption and sanctification for us individually includes our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion as an expression of our inclusion in the death and resurrection of Christ. But we also participate as we experience the consequences of following Christ, of living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh—by sharing in the sufferings of Christ as we find ourselves opposed, resisted, and even rejected by those for whom Christ is offensive.

Our participation in Christ, following Jesus through every experience of life, is a journey, one in which we may experience both joy and sorrow, blessing and suffering. The key is that we are indwelt by God himself and whatever may be occurring in our lives at the moment, he is present and involved and aware. He upholds us in the midst of our struggles, and celebrates with us when we experience the triumphs of life.

Jesus Christ didn’t promise his followers a pain-free life. But he did promise that he would be with them to the end—that in their endurance, they would find true life. The life Abba has given us through Jesus in the Spirit is an intimate knowing and being known. Our knowledge and understanding of who God is grows as we wrestle with hardship and pain, and the other difficulties of life in relationship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.

We, in Christ, are the beloved children of God—and we are to act like it from now on, no matter how difficult it may be to do so. But, remember, we are not alone as we do this—Christ is present and active, participating with us in everything we are going through, keeping us in the midst of God’s life and love, and enabling us to endure to the end. And when we feel we just can’t hold on any longer, as we turn to him in faith, we will find he’s been there all along, holding on to us.

Father, thank you for being present in every circumstance of life. Thank you, Jesus, that we are privileged to share in your sufferings, your life and your death. And thank you, Holy Spirit, that we never do any of this on our own, but always and ever through you in the loving embrace of the Father and the Son. Enable us this day to face the pain and difficulty one more time. Give us the courage to do the difficult thing we don’t want to do, and the faith to trust you when everything around us tells us not to. Grant us the grace to endure, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. Yet not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Luke 21:16–19 NASB

“For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10–13 NASB

Courage to Share God’s Grace

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By Linda Rex

November 10, 2019, Proper 27—As a pastor of a small church in North America, I have read, heard, and seen many books and conferences on how to grow my church. I have experienced a wide variety of emotions about the state of my congregations and the state of Christian churches as a whole. And so often, I have come away caught between the demand for greater performance and more investment of time and money, and our utter dependence upon a mighty move of the Holy Spirit to transform our society and culture for the better.

Last night some of the members gathered at the church to provide hot chocolate, cookies, and candy for the trick-or-treaters who were walking through the neighborhood. We played some board games, and chatted with the few who came in out of the cold to join us. I was grateful to each person who stopped by, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed more did not come to enjoy a moment with us.

It is easy to feel discouraged when we are trying so hard to reach out to our community members and so often, we seem to have very little response. I was wrestling with this frustration last week when it occurred to me that being aware that things are not changing as I want them to is one thing, but being critical and condemning is another. There has been ample evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work, and I must not imply or infer that he’s not, or that he isn’t doing a good enough job to suit me.

We’ve been able to touch the lives of several people. We’ve had a few baptisms. We’ve had new people join us here and there over the years. Even though our doors aren’t flooded with an overwhelming attendance of new folks, we do have a few here and there who have joined us on the journey. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

I am reminded of the story of Haggai, how the remnant of the people of Israel and Judah had returned to their homeland, but had lost heart in rebuilding the temple. Enough negative resistance and personal distractions occurred that they quit doing what before had been so important to them. They lost sight of a very important truth—the abiding presence of God.

The prophetic word of Haggai to Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the people was for them to “take courage.” They needed the courage to move forward against all obstacles, trusting that God would move away whatever stood in their way and that nothing would prevent them from finishing the task he had given them to do.

The reason they could have this kind of courage was that God was with them. Haggai reassured them that the Spirit of God was abiding in their midst and that they were not to be afraid. We today as the living temple of God’s Spirit individually and collectively need to be courageous and brave about building up God’s spiritual building, and have the same kind of confidence that God is in us, with us, and for us.

He is present and has promised that he would be with us to the end. In Matthew 28:19-20, when commissioning the disciples, Jesus sent them out to make disciples with the understanding that he was with them and would be with them until the end. And that all power and authority in heaven and earth were his, therefore all these resources were theirs to draw upon. There was every reason for them to move courageously out to preach the gospel!

But Jesus also told his disciples to wait on the Holy Spirit—to remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit empowered them for this ministry. There is a two-fold path we take as stewards of the gospel (and we are all stewards of the gospel as God’s children). As we go through our lives, we share with others the miracle of God’s grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. But we also live, work, and share with others the good news of God’s grace and love in full dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance, power, and provision.

I know from personal experience that it is easy to approach the circumstances of my life in such a way that I don’t see my daily encounters with people as an opportunity to share the good news. However, looking at the early church, I find that sharing the good news was an integral part of their individual existence.

In fact, the very reason the early church exploded in numbers was that when persecution happened and people left their homes for new lands, they talked about Jesus wherever they went. They were on fire with the transformation power and love of God in Christ. And this was both the everyday way of being of people who had been touched by the gospel of Jesus Christ and a powerful move of the Holy Spirit.

Coming out of a church paradigm where the denomination headquarters did all the work, where special evangelists were the ones who preached the gospel, I find one of hardest things for me to do is to make everyday encounters with people a venue for the gospel without being preachy or annoying. I want everyday conversations to be opportunities to build meaningful relationship, but find instead that constant inner voice which tells me to put up walls and to self-protect.

Sadly, I do not find within myself as much as I would like that total self-giving which identified so many in the early church who were willing to die for the sake of the gospel. To lay down my life as they did would be considered foolish by many Christians today—unless I was a missionary in a foreign land or in an inner-city ministry. It seems that for many of us as everyday Christians, laying our lives down for the sake of Christ is not what we do—that’s left for certain people to do—pastors, evangelists, preachers, televangelists, for example. But the everyday Christian?

But Jesus didn’t come just for the sake of a few people. He took on our humanity so that every, all, each human being would share in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit—there is a place at the table for each person. If we are believers, then we know this and believe this. So implicit in that knowing is a call on each of us to share that good news with the person in front of us in some way.

So, we pray for open doors, for ways to share this good news. We ask for the words to say and the actions to take. We may only be allowed to help or serve this person in front of us in this moment in some small way. We may not even be able to say anything about Jesus immediately. But we begin in whatever way God puts before us, and we move on from there.

God wants us to be brave and courageous, remembering he is in us, with us, and for us. We can and should share the words of life which have been so life-transforming for us. At the same time, we are to live and share these words in total dependence upon the Spirit’s presence and power, trusting that God will finish what he has begun. May God move in a mighty way, in and through each of us, even today as we yield to and depend upon his Spirit and trust in Jesus.

Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your love and life through Jesus in the Spirit. Show us the open doors you would have us walk through. Fill our mouths with the words to say in each moment we are given. Fill our hearts with courage and faith, a boldness to share the words of life which have so helped and transformed us. We trust you to finish what you begin, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people saying, ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the LORD of hosts. ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” Haggai 2:2-5 NASB

Not So Different After All

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By Linda Rex

October 27, 2019, Proper 25—Standing next to my husband at my mother-in-law’s visitation, I listened as he spoke with a family friend. He had grown up with these people and as part of a small farming community, they were each connected in a variety of ways, most specifically by their common history of family farms. As I listened to him talk, I realized the radical difference between someone who is isolated from and unfamiliar with death, and someone who sees death as the normal outcome of any creature’s existence, whether human or animal.

When someone has cared for animals, as farmers do, he or she has often experienced the life cycle from birth to death and understands that death is the normal end to any creature’s existence. But death is also devastating and destructive, and it is often fought with every weapon available. Because we value life and reject death, we often spend thousands of dollars to attempt to prevent or postpone a death which in the end is going to happen anyway. This can be one of the greatest struggles we face as humans—dealing with the reality of death and dying.

Indeed, it is a tragedy when we lose someone dear to us, when our life is shattered by the loss of someone who gave us great joy, love, and companionship. When we wake up each morning without our spouse or loved one, we are faced anew with the pain of our loss and the deep grief which goes with it. It is especially tragic when death takes away a baby or a child—someone who was just beginning their life—it seems so unfair and unjust. These are great losses, and they pierce us down to the depths of our heart, and they don’t just go away over time.

I believe the reason it hurts so much to lose someone to death is because this was not what we were created for. God intended us to eat of the tree of life and to live forever. He never wanted us to experience death and the separation that goes with it. But we made that choice—and continue to make that choice—as we choose to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, and we continue to believe and live out the lie that God doesn’t love us and doesn’t want what is best for us.

I would not want to think that I choose death, but when I reflect upon my life and the choices I have made about different things, I find that death is often the ultimate outcome of the choices I have made. Perhaps it is healthier, though, to recognize and acknowledge this than it is to believe that I have only chosen life. The gospel passage for this Sunday tells a story which reminds us that we need to see ourselves with clear vision and not to ignore our capacity to choose death over life.

Jesus told this parable, according to Luke, to “some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” He told of the Pharisee, a very righteous man who prided himself on following the law and keeping every rule established by the Jewish leaders. This man stood, as a good Jew would, and praying to himself, told God how grateful he was that he wasn’t like the tax collector who stood at the other end of the room. He named all the things he wasn’t and reminded God of all the things he did right.

He started out his prayer saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” What he failed to see or acknowledge was the simple truth—he was just the same as everyone else on the planet. He was just as much a sinner as the tax collector—he just didn’t see it and certainly didn’t want to admit it. One day he would die just like every other human being—and then what? What good would all his efforts be then, when he would be faced with the reality that he was a sinner just like everyone else?

A companion passage for this Sunday’s message is 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, where Paul has a frank conversation with his protégé Timothy, letting him know he is nearing the end of his life. Paul embraced his death, not fearing it, but rather looking forward to the receiving the “crown of righteousness” he would receive from Jesus in that day. He knew that the source of his righteousness did not lie within himself, but solely in the Lord Jesus. He did not fear death, but bravely walked toward it, trusting in the love and faithfulness of God in the midst of whatever situation he found himself. He knew in his next moment of consciousness he would be with Jesus and would live forever in glory with him.

The transformation of the solely pagan Roman Empire into one which accepted Christianity was partly due to the way in which early believers treated death. Many, when faced with torture or death for not renouncing Christ, chose to happily, with a song or word of praise on their lips, go forward into death. They did not fear it, but chose it over abandoning their faith in Christ. Death was not seen as an enemy but as a conquered foe, and as a passage into real life, life evermore in the presence of Jesus Christ.

They could do this because they were honest with themselves about the reality that they were sinners saved by grace. They knew the source of all life, of all their hope for the world to come, lay in the Lord Jesus who had entered into our suffering and death as God in human flesh, and had risen again, bearing our humanity into the presence of the Father. He brought all of us out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light—from death into life—giving us an eternal hope in the face of death and dying.

But the struggle we have as human beings is coming to the place where we are willing to say, “I’m no different than any other man—I too am a sinner.” We each need to come to the place where we acknowledge our need for what God has done for us in Christ.

We are each in the garden again, and God is inviting us to eat of the tree of life—choose Christ! What we don’t want to do is to continue to choose death by insisting on our own path of self-justification, of deciding for ourselves what is right, what is wrong, and how to get our own selves right before God. Jesus did all that is necessary—he invites us to turn to him in faith, trusting in him for all that we need.

Come to Jesus Christ and allow him to share with you his right relationship with his heavenly Father. In Christ, you are a forgiven, accepted, beloved “sinner”—a child of God. Believe it. Receive it. Embrace it. Live!

Dear Abba, heavenly Father, thank you for giving us life in your Son Jesus Christ and sending us your Spirit so that we may participate in this divine gift. May we humbly confess we are sinners who are in need of all Christ has done, is doing, and will do—free us from our self-justification, our self-righteousness, our stubborn resistance to life and insistence on the ways of death. Thank you for your faithfulness and love, and that you will finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.’” Luke 18:9–14

Approaching the Judge

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By Linda Rex

October 20, 2019, Proper 24—When I read this parable by Jesus about the judge “who did not fear God and did not respect man,” it reminded me of the day I was looking for an official document online, preparing for something I needed to do at the courthouse. I came across some instructions which people were to follow when they entered the courtroom to have their case handled by the judge. It included such things as what they were to wear and how they were to address the judge.

I have no idea if these standards are unique to just this particular courtroom, but it seemed wrong to me that a person’s court defense should be at all dependent upon their ability to obtain a white shirt, a suit and tie, or a belt. I believe a person at any strata of society should be able to come to court and get the justice they need without having to go shopping first. What kind of justice is it if it is dependent upon a person’s ability to show up in appropriate attire?

Jesus’ story about the woman who came to the judge to have her case heard was meant to teach his disciples to pray and to not give up when the prayer was not immediately answered. In his story, the widow persistently sought the judge’s help, not giving up when he at first said no. And because of her persistence, he eventually gave in and helped her only because he wanted her to leave him alone. Jesus reminded his followers they were even more likely to be heard than was this widow woman.

The thing is, a lot of us approach our heavenly Father as though he were this kind of judge. We often assume that God has better things to do than to listen to our needs and to help us. We may believe we have to be dressed in our Sunday best, looking and acting our best when we approach him. We assume, however wrongly, that God is indifferent to our struggles and our suffering, and so we approach prayer—if we do it—as a last-ditch desperate appeal to a God who could really care less about what we are going through.

But Jesus came to show us an Abba who cares for us deeply, who is so concerned about our every need and desire that he came to us himself in the person of his Son, making “Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). The Son of God came to dwell within our humanity and to experience the full spectrum of our human existence, so we might participate in his perfect relationship with his Father both now and for all eternity.

Our heavenly Father wants to hear our prayers. He wants to know what our struggles are, and what we enjoy, and what things are important to us. Just as a mother will take the time to listen to her children tell about their school day, God enjoys hearing us talk about what is going on in our lives. God is greater than any human parent—he cares deeply about what happens to us and wants to rescue us and help us. We need to think of God as judge in terms of him being a loving, gracious parent, not an indifferent, cold magistrate. Our judge joined us in our humanity to experience our human existence so his judgment is always tempered with grace and love.

My daughter had a minor accident a while ago and felt terrible about ruining the car. I tried to encourage her by telling her about my first accident and that I was extremely grateful—a broken mirror and dented fender was nothing in comparison to the damage I did to my parents’ car. It was a late night in southern California, and I was driving from a girlfriend’s house in Pasadena to our home in Monrovia. I accidentally ran my dad’s old Ford Falcon stationwagon up onto the curb of the center meridian. In my efforts to get it off there, I pulled too hard and ran it up against the righthand curb, breaking the front axle.

A kind older couple took me to a nearby gas station. I used a quarter in the slot of the payphone—yes, I am that old—and called the police and then I called my dad. I dreaded telling him what had happened because I knew he couldn’t afford to fix the car. But when he answered his first question was, “Are you aldl right?” My dad taught me some great lessons that night, and in the days following, about love, grace, and forbearance.

Even though I was concerned about my dad’s possible negative reaction to my phone call, I did know one thing—my dad loved me and wanted what was best for me. I also believed he was the only one who could really help me the way I needed to be helped at that moment. I knew that if I called him, he would intervene to make the situation right, helping me through this difficulty.

In the same way, what we believe about our heavenly Father needs to line up with the truth about who he is. What we believe about Abba influences how we deal with the difficulties in our lives and who we turn to when we need to be defended, protected, or provided for. We need to believe our heavenly Father loves us and wants to vindicate, defend, protect, and help us. We are called to trust in his perfect love and grace, believing he wants what is best for us and will do everything he possibly can to make things right.

This is why Jesus ends this story with the comment, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” What we believe about who God is impacts how we pray. Do we believe God wants our best, that he is at work in this world bringing about what is the most loving and caring result to our circumstances? Will we trust in God’s perfect love as demonstrated to us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ, believing his heart toward us is ever and always good? Will we persist in prayer, not giving up on God when the answer doesn’t immediately come, trusting that God has good reasons for the delay? And when God seems to be saying no, will we trust that this is in our best interests and will work in the end for our good?

We are so blessed that through Jesus and in the Spirit we can at any moment approach God with whatever need or concern, or even joy and gratitude, we may have. There is room for all of our human experience in our relationship with God because Jesus was there first, going through it all in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Our divine Judge, Jesus Christ, was also the judged One—he stands in our place, on our behalf. This should give us great confidence as we approach God and seek his defense and protection, his provision and restoration. And it should give us good reason to persist in prayer when the answer isn’t what we at first hoped for.

Divine Judge of all, thank you for having taken our humanity upon yourself, for experiencing all of our human existence, and for intervening on our behalf whenever we ask. Grant us the grace to see you as the God you are—gracious and loving—and to trust you enough to ask and keep on asking when we are in need. May we fully trust you at all times, believing your heart toward us is good, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?’” Luke 18:6-8 NASB