life

The Suffering Servant Shepherd

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by Linda Rex

April 25, 2021, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—There is a movement in this country of making churches and non-profits responsible for the needs of those who are in trouble or difficulty, rather than it being the responsibility of individuals, the community or taxpayers. Indeed, as followers of Christ, we are called at times to help those who are in need. However, simply assuming that people of faith will take care of such needs overlooks one of the things that is an important part of being truly human. And that is that we as human beings were designed as adults to be responsible for certain things ourselves, though we are all dependent upon God and his grace and goodness for anything we do have.

It also ignores the reality that humans are given the freedom to choose. This reality works on two levels: 1) People may choose to not be responsible for themselves or have never learned that they need to be, so need, homelessness and poverty may simply be a consequence of bad choices or it may even be a preference. In such cases, being responsible for what is theirs may not be the best way to help. 2) Giving and helping are not so much a requirement as they are a fruit of God’s grace at work in us—so giving and helping must come from God’s heart in us rather than merely being a response to an external expectation. Even Jesus, when laying down his life, did it voluntarily and freely, out of love, not just because it was his Father’s will.

This brings to mind the passage in 1 John 3:16-18: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” It is obvious from this passage, that we cannot just talk about doing good deeds, but we must also actually help, not closing our hearts to people who are who are unable to help themselves. We want to be sensitive at all times to the move of the Spirit in us when he wants to help someone.

As I was writing this, I was reminded of a passage from Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant, the anointed One:

“All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.” (Isa. 53:6 NASB)

I’m sure that none of us want to think of ourselves as being stray sheep, but in reality, this is a good description of all of us as human beings, individually and collectively. How often we wander from the fold of God’s love and seek our own path! We get ourselves lost, wounded, broken and in need of rescue. And God knew we would do this—so Jesus came.

Let’s look at Jesus for a moment. Jesus said he is the good shepherd. We notice that the good shepherd is not taking care of everyone else’s flock—but assumes responsibility for what is his. Jesus also said that he had other sheep that he was bringing to be a part of his flock, and what he was doing was meant to include them as well (John 10:11-18).

When the shepherd goes in front of his sheep and leads them to water and good pasture, that seems to be simple enough. Even though there are times when it can be difficult to find safe pasture or clean, still water, a good shepherd seems to know where to take the sheep so they can stay healthy and strong. But if the sheep are stubborn and willful, they will not follow the lead of the shepherd or obey his voice, and will end up in dangerous places, or eating or drinking what isn’t good for them. Nothing is more upsetting to a shepherd than to have to lose a sheep because it would not stay with the flock or follow the lead of the shepherd.

Oh, that we would simply remember the shepherd’s psalm is our hope!

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23 NASB)

Did king David when he wrote this have any clue that one day the Messiah would stand up and say, “I am the good shepherd”? When Jesus was saying that he was the good shepherd, he was definitively saying who he was—God in human flesh, a shepherd who knew what it was like to be a sheep, who would one day be offered as a sacrificial lamb on our behalf.

The good shepherd, Jesus said, lays down his life for his sheep. Laying down his life for his sheep means the shepherd puts himself at risk for the benefit of the sheep he is responsible to care for. When the flock is in danger of harm because of wolves or lions, he goes over and beyond just the necessity of watching over them and actually lays down his life, risking himself for the safety and protection of his flock.

Jesus was talking to the leaders of his people who were more concerned about their popularity, their money and influence than they were about the sheep they were responsible for. He explained the difference between a hired hand and a good shepherd. One runs away at the first sign of danger, while the good shepherd stays and lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus saw keenly his calling to shepherd his people Israel through which he would bring together all the nations of the world. He knew that doing this would cost him his life, which he voluntarily gave in obedience to his heavenly Father. Do you see that Jesus was calling these leaders to their responsibility as those who were to be properly shepherding their people?

Looking at Jesus helps us to see the wide spectrum of this topic more clearly. Not only do we understand that we each are responsible for what is ours, we are also responsible to help those who are unable to help themselves. And leaders are to be responsible for those in their care, being willing to sacrifice on their behalf, putting themselves at risk to protect and provide for them, rather than simply using them for their benefit, pleasure and profit. And, finally, in a world in which none of us do these things perfectly and there is much difficulty and suffering, we have the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to guide, protect and provide for us, for he laid down his life for us and rose again so we could have new life in him.

Father, thank you for always looking out for us and providing for us. Thank you for giving us your Son Jesus as our shepherd, to save and care for us, to lay down his life for us. We receive your gift of new life by your Spirit in his name. Amen.

“This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. The one who keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in him. We know by this that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” 1 John 3:16-24 NASB

Entombed with Jesus

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By Linda Rex

April 3, 2021, HOLY SATURDAY—Sometimes life sends us curveballs we don’t expect. It can be very difficult when the unexpected happens and causes life as we know it to be completely disrupted and overthrown. The death of a loved one is one of those things that ensures that our life in this world will never be the same again.

Whether we like it or not, we must accept that death is coming for us one day, and that it wouldn’t hurt for us to be properly prepared for it when it comes—while we have the opportunity. Death shows no favoritism—it happens to those close to us and it will happen to us one day. It is part of the human condition.

It wasn’t always that way. God meant for us to have abundant life, now and forever. It is because we were created to eat of the tree of life, not the tree that brings death, that death causes us such pain and sorrow. Apart from the hope of salvation in Jesus, death brings great fear and dread. It is because God did not want us to go into death apart from his presence that the Word of God, Jesus Christ, entered into death for us and with us.

Death often leaves us with regrets, painful memories, along with memories of joyful companionship, pleasant outings, and family gatherings. Unfortunately, death can also leave horrific memories when it comes through disaster, accident, abuse or violence. We may really struggle with moving beyond death if we are unable to reconcile the circumstances around a death with a loving and compassionate God.

It is for good reason that Jesus intentionally walked the path to the cross and died in our place and on our behalf. He, as God in human flesh, was lovingly placed in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, surrounded with the aroma of herbs provided by Nicodemus. Under the watchful eye of his mother and the other ladies, Jesus was wrapped and placed in the tomb, which was sealed with a large rock. The Messiah lay quiet and still, all life gone from his human body.

What was Jesus up to in that moment? Where did he go? Is this what Job was talking about when he asked God to hide him in Sheol or the grave (Job 14:4)? Jesus entered the gates of death. The nothingness out of which all was created and to which all was returning due to death, lost its hold on us when Jesus died. As God in human flesh, he was triumphant over the grave—it had no power to hold him. Death was defeated in Christ’s death, for this dead human came to life again, rising from the grave on the third day!

But before we leave the tomb, perhaps we need to sit in the darkness a little bit and ponder the significance of Jesus in the grave. If you and I, and every other human, died when Christ died, what does that mean for each of us? Those sins that Jesus died for laid in the tomb with him, just as we did. We died to our sins once and for all when Jesus died—Jesus, who knew no sin, was “made to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21 NASB).

Let’s play a little “what if” game. What if all those things we regret, the shame we feel when we remember past events, are still laying in that tomb? What if the sorrow of all we lost when someone near and dear to us died is still laying in that tomb where Jesus laid? What if the hate, resentment and anger we feel toward those who have hurt us is resting on the slab where Jesus was placed? What if every lustful, selfish, and greedy desire is hidden in Christ, entombed with Jesus?

We can even expand this “what if” game a little farther. What if all of those atrocities committed by violent and twisted people are wrapped up in the cloth bound around Jesus, rubbing up against the wounds inflicted on him in his scourging? What if the loneliness we feel, the sorrow we are bound by, and the rejection we’ve experienced, are all laying there, enclosed within Christ’s heart? What if every hateful word anyone has ever said to us—or we have said to another—is ringing in the ears of the Savior as he rests in death?

There, in death, lies all that we are not—all that God is calling us out of and lifting us up from. Everything that holds us in our brokenness, in our weakness, in our sin—is held in that moment of death in Christ. Now, I invite you to leave it there. What do you need to be freed from? Lay it down in his hands—let it rest in his embrace.

You are going to walk out of that tomb with Jesus when he rises, so you do not want to take any of that baggage with you. Is there something you have been carrying around that has been weighing you down and preventing you from living freely and joyfully? Now is the time to let it remain entombed in Jesus’ death. For you, in Christ, are risen! Realize that here in the death of Christ, you live!

Job, when reflecting on death and his suffering asked, “Who can make the clean out of the unclean?” It was a rhetorical question in his mind, for he did not see how it was possible. But we today, looking back on the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, realize that there is only one way this is possible—in Christ. By participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are able to experience the reality that God makes the unclean clean by joining us in our uncleanness and taking it through death into resurrection.

When what was in the past tries to rise zombie-like out of the grave again, remember that it no longer has any real life. Its existence ceased in Jesus’ death. Your real life now, your zōē life, is in Jesus Christ, in his resurrection. As the apostle Paul said, “Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:16-17a NASB).

We will remember the past and old associations, but we no longer have to be held captive by them. We are now free to move into the new life God has in mind for us—one full of freedom, joyful fellowship, and growing in Christlikeness. Death now is our passage into the life to come, and we are able to face the loss of those near and dear to us with hope, knowing that we are still joined with them in Jesus Christ. They are forever connected with us and we with them in and through Jesus. Our memories can now be filtered through the lens of Christ, enabling us to release the burden of pain, sorrow, and grief and hold on to the blessing of new life in him.

Dear heavenly Father, thank you for not allowing us to dwindle back into nothingness through death, but for sending your Son to join with us in our passage through death’s door. Thank you, Jesus, for suffering on our behalf, going all the way into death and out the other side. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for enabling our participation in all that Christ has done for us in his life, death, and resurrection. We receive all you have given God, and release into your care all that needs to remain entombed with Jesus. In his name we pray. Amen.

“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:1–8 NASB

See also Matthew 27:57–66; John 19:38–42.

Planting Season

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By Linda Rex

March 21, 2021, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—Last fall as some of my flowers went to seed, I decided to spread some of them in the empty spots in our garden. This winter, I gathered more of the seeds and sprinkled them in a pot on the patio. As time went by, I began to see little sprouts rise from the soil. Are they weeds or flowers? I’m not quite sure yet. And I’m not sure how many will survive the freezing temperatures.

But what I do know is that even though the process of planting looks a lot like death and burial, it is the means by which new life happens, new flowers bloom and fruit is borne. What seems to be the end is actually the way in which new possibilities open up—planting season accomplished means harvest season may be looked forward to with anticipation and hope. God is our divine Gardener, and he loves to plant seeds and watch them grow. When we come to situations in life that appear to be an end, we need to remember they may just be a seed God is planting so he can later reap a bountiful harvest.

When Philip and Andrew told Jesus about some Greeks who wanted to see him, he said that his hour had come. The hour Christ was speaking of was that time when his ministry would culminate with his death on the cross. I stand in awe of Jesus’ ability to confidently and courageously walk intentionally toward the crucifixion, while knowing the consequences of that decision. In close relationship with the Father, he did not ask that the hour be removed, but continued to move forward, thinking of all humanity’s need, and joyfully anticipating our freedom from evil, sin, and death.

Jesus said that when he would be lifted up, he would draw all people to himself. In the crucifixion, all humanity finds itself at a new place—dying in Christ’s death and subsequently rising in his resurrection and ascending with him into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. When the disciples saw the crucified and dead Lord planted in the tomb, they believed it was all over—even though Jesus had told them he would rise again. To them, death was the end.

Today we can look back with joy and see that death isn’t the end. The celebratory voice of the apostle Paul comes to mind here—“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (1 Cor. 15:54b-55)? In the gift of the Spirit, we receive by faith all that Jesus forged for us and begin to participate in the divine life and love, sharing in Christ’s perfections.

The psalm passage for this Sunday, Psalm 119:9-16, contains meditations on God’s ways. The psalmist uses the phrase “your word” three times in this pericope. The first, in verse 9, says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word.” When the living Word took on our human flesh, he experienced our human existence, and forged into our flesh the obedience and faithfulness we are unable to practice on our own. In sending the Spirit, Jesus enables each of us to participate by faith in his purity and obedience. Members of the early church were called followers of “the Way,” a good description of what it meant to follow Christ. To keep our way pure, we need “the Way, the truth, and the life”—Jesus—implanted in our hearts. It is Christ in us, the living Word, planted in our hearts by the Spirit, who enables us to bear the fruit of purity and faithful obedience to God’s will.

The second phrase I’d like to mention is in verse 11, which says, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” Here again we see the idea of the implanting of the Word of God in our hearts—and treasuring its presence there. We implant the written Word by reading, listening to, and studying the Scriptures. But the living Word coming to us is a gift of God through Christ in the Spirit. God himself comes to dwell in our hearts by faith, as we trust in Christ and in his finished work. We want to treasure this precious gift, for this is how God writes his law on our hearts and minds, enabling us to have the desire as well as the ability to obey him (Jer. 31:31-34). By faith, we find ourselves in a new relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit—one in which we depend upon Christ’s obedience, not our own, and on his right relationship with the Father in the Spirit, not on our own.

We find the third phrase in verse 16: “I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word.” The reality—if we are honest with ourselves—is that we don’t remember the written Word of God like we should. Maybe we really don’t have an interest in remembering anything about God. And even when we’ve spent time learning the written Word, we find that in critical moments, we seem to completely forget all we have learned or memorized of God’s ways. This is the human condition. Our flesh gets in the way and we begin relying on our human understanding or efforts rather than pausing to remember what we know from the Scriptures.

But when by faith, the Spirit of Christ is planted in our hearts, we begin to discover that we don’t always forget. There are little seeds God has spread about in there that we aren’t even aware of. We are at times surprised by a small snippet of Scripture popping into our mind, offering us encouragement or guidance when we need it. A song we’ve sung or heard on the radio begins to run around in our head, reminding us of our belovedness or the grace of God. A friend calls or stops by and mentions something that brings to mind exactly what it is we need to remember. The reality is that there is divine life at work in us—the living Word implanted in human hearts by the Spirit produces fruit! God is always at work as a good Gardener, doing all that is needed in order to bring forth the fullness of Christ in each of us.

As we can see, the work Jesus accomplished through the crucifixion, as well as in his death, resurrection and ascension, made possible so much more than simply our rising from the grave one day. Jesus looked forward with joy to the cross because he knew that the culmination of all his efforts would mean our healing and transformation, and the renewal of all things. The planting of the Seed, the Word of God, in the grave means in due time there will be an abundant harvest—one we are able to participate in even now by faith in Jesus Christ.

As we approach Holy Week, we have the opportunity to take some time in reflection, allowing ourselves to listen for the living Word at work in our hearts and minds. How is the Spirit affirming in you that you are the Father’s beloved child? What is your relationship with the written Word of God right now—do you need to go deeper with the living Word so that the written Word has greater impact in your life? What are some ways in which you need to participate in Christ’s death so that resurrection and new life can burst forth in your life?

Heavenly Gardener, gracious King, thank you for your grace extended to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thank you for raising us up in Christ, and for sending your Spirit, awakening us to new life. Enable us to trust in your faithfulness and goodness, allowing you to finish what you have begun in us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And Jesus answered them, saying, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, “Father, save Me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour.’ … ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.” John 12:23–27, 32–33 NASB

(All references above, NASB.)

The Emerging Essence of Christ

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By Linda Rex

February 14, 2021, TRANSFIGURATION | EPIPHANY—Have you ever noticed how so often the best things in life only come about after a season of struggle and suffering? One of the drawbacks to living in a world where one can easily obtain the things that we desire is that we forget sometimes the cost involved in creating such things and making them available to us. Remember how something as simple as toilet tissue became such a precious commodity when it suddenly was no longer available in the supermarket?

The complicated story of a simple roll of toilet tissue can be instructive when we consider the concept of cost. What are the cardboard and paper made from? What resources are used in the manufacturing of this item? Are machines used? Who is involved in its production, packaging, and distribution? How many trucks does it travel in before it ends up on the market shelf, ready to be sold? Normally all we see is the package on the shelf, and not the toilet tissue itself. We, unless we do some extensive research, probably have no idea of everything which goes into making possible the presence of a single roll of toilet tissue we can buy, take home, and use.

As human beings, we often view ourselves and others through a similar lens. Unless we have made the effort to acquaint ourselves with more personal details, we often know very little about one another. If we meet someone at the supermarket, we may see that they too have a package of toilet tissue in their cart, along with two boxes of mac and cheese, a head of lettuce, and a box of cinnamon rolls. What does this tell us about them? Not much—just as our own cart, with its bags of lemons and potatoes, bag of potato chips and carton of yogurt really doesn’t say much about us.

What reveals the innermost parts of us is often relationship. And isn’t that what we are created for? We also learn about one another as we spend time with each other, in conversation and in shared activities. This is why we find in the gospels that Jesus intentionally spent time with his disciples and with his heavenly Father in prayer. It was during one of these teaching moments that his inner circle—Peter, James, and John—learned something about Jesus they could never have otherwise known. The power of discipleship groups is the creation of a safe space in which people can be genuine, transparent and vulnerable. When Jesus took his three disciples up on the mountain, he was bringing them to a place where they would see something about him that they were instructed no one else was to know—at least not until after his resurrection. These men were privy to the essence of Jesus’ being, and saw him transfigured—shining with the divine glory which was hidden in Jesus’ humanity as God in human flesh.

In this sacred moment, the transfigured Jesus was seen speaking with two men—Moses and Elijah—about his upcoming departure or exodus. The voice of Jesus’ heavenly Father reminded the human visitors that Jesus was the beloved Son and that they were to listen to and obey him. What an experience! The cloud of God’s presence no doubt brought to mind the stories from the ancients about the Shekinah glory of God being with Israel as she traveled through the wilderness. The implications of this whole mountaintop experience was that all which came through Moses and Elijah was now superseded in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

The reality was that after a while, though, this mountaintop experience would come to an end. The disciples would descend with Jesus as he went all the way down into the valley of his death by crucifixion in the days to follow. Even though they did not understand what lay ahead of them on the road with Jesus, there was a reality they would need to face in the days ahead which went along with the glory they had just seen revealed in Jesus.

The essence of Jesus’ person was hidden beneath his human flesh. As John would write later in his epistle, they experienced Jesus as being fully human while at the same time experiencing overwhelming evidence that he was the Son of God. There was no doubt that in Jesus Christ, the disciples saw something that was not possible by human standards. The reality of what they had experienced in Jesus Christ was transformative in their own lives, bringing John, for example, to the place where he emphasized the love of God expressed to us in Christ which we are to express to one another in love and service.

The process of discipleship necessarily includes spending time with the one we are learning from, Jesus or a mature follower of Christ. Discipleship involves teaching opportunities, shared experiences, and doing activities together. It is in the process of experiencing all these things together with safe people that our true self begins to emerge, and we begin to shine more and more with the glory God has given us in his Son Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

When we are in close relationship with other people, we are challenged to be open and vulnerable when our brokenness may drive us to stay hidden. In a healthy group setting, people will provide one another both grace and truth—speaking the truth in love and calling each other upwards while providing grace and unconditional acceptance at the same time. Keeping secrets does not mean hiding sin or evil, but rather, honoring one another’s privacy and tender spots, not exposing them to open view or the criticism or condemnation or ridicule of unsafe people. In a perfect world, churches would be safe places, but in reality, they are hospitals for sinners, and so there are times when people are wounded rather than cared for in a church setting. For this reason, spiritual development, or growing up in Christ, is more effective in a small covenant group setting.

One of God’s purposes in drawing us together as the body of Christ is to facilitate our spiritual formation—growing us up into the fullness of Jesus Christ. God works to remove those things which restrict the shining forth of the divine glory we are meant to reflect as we become more and more like Christ. When we feel as though we are struggling in our walk with Christ or are stagnant in our growth as a follower of Jesus, it is a good idea to get into relationship with a few others with whom you can covenant to be open, honest and vulnerable. Together as you pray, study the word of God, serve others, and just generally do life together, you begin to expose the broken parts of your being to the healing touch of Jesus through those with whom you are gathered.

This week might be a good time to consider the possibility of doing something new—becoming part of a discipleship group, or creating one. This will require commitment and may even challenge your sense of safety and security—you may need to go way out of your comfort zone to do this. And you may not immediately find someone who will want to do this with you. So ask God for his guidance and provision—it may be that he already has the perfect person or people in mind for you. Open yourself to the possibility of allowing the essence of Jesus to shine more fully through you as you follow Christ up the mountain and down again, through the valley of death and resurrection into eternal life now and forever with him.

Dear Lord Jesus, thank you for bringing us with you through death and resurrection up into intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Show us the people you would have us covenant with, and enable us to make and keep the commitment needed as we gather together. As we grow more Christlike, may we shine more fully with your true essence, as beloved children of the Father. Amen.

“Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them.” Mark 9:2-3 NASB

Seeking Solitude with Jesus

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By Linda Rex

February 7, 2021, 5th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—One of the things I have missed most since moving into metro Nashville has been the ability to walk out my door and simply find solitude where I felt safe to be by myself in nature. Although there are many greenways in the city where we can go walking or cycling, it is not the same as having a few acres of woods where one can wander about and simply experience the relative silence of the outdoors.

Even out in the country where I used to live there would not be genuine silence, since one could still hear the cars passing on a highway half a mile away or on the gravel road where we used to live. But it was possible to walk out our door and into the woods, and there encounter face to face a whitetail buck or doe as they were out on a browsing expedition looking for a meal. I could find wildflowers in the spring, blackberries in the summer, and in the rippling brook, a number of creatures simply being who they were created to be, reminding me of what really matters in life.

When I would walk in the hills or woods out in the country, I would find there a sense of the imminent yet transcendent presence of God. Sitting on a hill watching and hearing the wind blow through the blades of tall grass and wildflowers reminded me of the wind of the Spirit as Jesus described it to Nicodemus—we don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going, but we can see the wind’s affect. Looking up at the dark sky at night, the stars filled the expanse overhead. The Milky Way was quite evident and made even more impressive the psalmist’s praise that the God who set the stars in the heavens calls each one by name (Is. 40:26; Ps. 147:4).

Caught in the daily routine of life in the city, we can lose sight of the magnitude and glory of the creation God made and so simply cease to have a sense of our place in the midst of the universe as his beloved. And we can be so preoccupied with our responsibilities, our activities, and even our entertainments that we never stop to reflect or examine the state of our hearts and minds. Are we so busy that we do not have time in our daily life for solitude and silence—a place where we can receive God’s refreshment and renewal, and be reminded of who he is and who we are as his beloved?

In the gospel reading for this Sunday, we find Jesus going to synagogue with the disciples on the Sabbath and then returning to Peter’s home afterward. There they find Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. Even though the rabbis taught that healing was not to be done on the Sabbath, Jesus went to the woman, took her by the hand, and healed her. Her response was what our response should be to the Messiah’s healing touch—a dedication to the service of God and others. She got up and began to tend to their needs.

One might think that Jesus, as God in human flesh, shouldn’t have had any needs. But in reality, he was fully human, so he grew hungry and weary just like every other person. In this story, as evening after the Sabbath approached, the entire city came to the door of Peter’s home, bringing all their sick and demon-possessed. Mark says that Jesus healed many of them and cast out many demons. He was in his element as the Messiah, but not without a cost to his physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Those doing ministry with Jesus in a wide variety of occupations know how we can grow tired and need moments of refreshment after tending to the spiritual, mental, emotional as well as physical needs of others—it is hard work.

This is why we see Jesus seeking solitude and silence the next day—he sought freedom from the everyday business of the city life of Caperneum. He made the effort to get up long before anyone else was up, even the field workers who rose at dawn, in order to have time along with his heavenly Father. He sought time away in order to regroup, to reflect, to be renewed in the presence of his Abba, so that he might be filled anew with the Spirit’s power and presence, and have the strength to face what he knew would be his next challenge—saying no to the temptation to stay and build a following there in Caperneum.

After a while, the disciples, including Peter, sought him out. They were concerned that perhaps Jesus had left without them. Peter, when he found the Messiah, told him that everyone was looking for him. Jesus’ response was that they would leave Caperneum and travel to the various villages in the region, sharing the gospel or good news of the kingdom of God. His time alone with the Father had renewed his strength and his focus on what really mattered—preaching the gospel to many people in the area—and he was ready to go and do it.

We can grow weary in serving others, in doing good, in sharing the good news, and in living out the gospel in the midst of a world that ignores or rejects the things of the Spirit. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God never grows weary or tired even when we do. When we wait on the Lord, spending time alone with him in solitude and silence, in times of rest and listening, where we aren’t working on something or trying to do something but are simply being present to God, we will find new inner strength and spiritual resources to deal with the difficulties of everyday life (Is. 40: 28–31).

This time of the pandemic and the disruption of our daily rhythms has provided a perfect opportunity to begin to be more intentional about building into our lives times of renewal, refreshment, and reflection. We have the opportunity to begin to practice healthier ways of living and being which include daily times for solitude and silence, or simply for listening to God. We can create space for daily moments of feeding our souls as well as our bodies, by reading inspirational writings or our bibles, and allowing what we read to sink into our beings, renewing and refreshing us.

True spirituality is relationship—an intimate relationship with the God who knows us completely, who calls us by name, and who gives us himself in Jesus Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. It is difficult to build a relationship with someone with whom you do not spend any significant amount of time. Our relationship with God, though, is the source of our inner strength and well-being. We find the capacity to deal with things that are overwhelming, traumatic, or catastrophic by drawing on an infinite Source beyond ourself of strength, courage, faith, and endurance. Intentionally nurturing that relationship only makes sense, and can be the basis for a healthier way of being as we move on into this new decade of 2021.

Dear Abba, Father God, we come to you in gratitude for your love and faithfulness to us. Thank you for the gifts of your Son and your Spirit. Draw us close, renew and refresh us. Remind us again that we are your beloved, accepted and forgiven, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.” Mark 1:35 NASB; see also Mark 1:29–39.

God’s Word to a Sinful People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit’s Sacred Shrine

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By Linda Rex
January 17, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY—Lately I have been appalled at the variety of correspondence, social media postings, and conversations I have been exposed to which have been filled with hate, condemnation and denigration toward other human beings. Some of these have pointedly referred to people of different races or skin color as being subhuman. Some have accused people with opposing opinions as being instruments of Satan.

I can’t help but be reminded of how Jesus was portrayed by those who opposed him. Sadly, it was those who were the most religious who resisted and condemned him, especially since Jesus often included and loved those who were cast aside by the society of his day. Because the leaders of his people could not bring themselves to believe the miracles Jesus did were a work of the Spirit, they attributed them to the work of Satan instead. Jesus told these men that they were in danger, for they were blaspheming the Spirit of God by attributing the power of the Spirit to the devil. I hear echoing in my mind the words of the apostle Paul: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12 NASB). So often we turn against one another, not realizing that this is the way the evil one works. He is an expert at “divide and conquer”, and often uses it to attempt to destroy the good things God is doing in this world by creating division, suspicion, resentment, prejudice, and hatred between people.

And we often participate in Satan’s efforts by focusing on our differences and our flaws, turning against one another and seeking to harm one another. Speaking the truth and resisting evil are important tasks for God’s people. But they must always be done in the humility of recognizing and repenting of our own flaws. They must be done from the sacrificial position of laying down our own lives and preferences. Truth must be spoken and evil resisted only from a heart filled with God’s love, for we are created to live in other-centered love with God and one another. And these things must be done only in an effort to bless, not to curse, for Christ became a curse for all so that all might receive God’s blessings.

This Sunday Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18 is often read, where we learn that God is present everywhere and at all times, knowing exactly what we are doing or are planning to do, what we are going to say before we say it, and what is going on in our minds and hearts. The psalmist reminds us that the God who is over all things is present with us in all things. This means that no part of our lives is lived separately from the God who created all and who sustains it by the word of his power. This is the God who made every human unique, like the snowflakes in the winter—each has his or her own shape and beauty, and is meant to be treasured and treated with dignity.

God went even further than this when he created human beings. He gave us the God-imaging capacity for relationship—intimate relationship or fellowship with God and with one another. God meant for us to live in other-centered love. As the Trinity teaches us, the Father and Son who love one another in the Spirit, are love—to intimately know the Father, Son, and Spirit is to know what it means to truly love and be loved.

God gave humans—Adam and Eve first, and then others to follow—the sexual union to teach us what it means to live in a covenant relationship with one another. Just as God joined himself to human beings in a covenant relationship—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the nation of Israel, and ultimately, the church which is the body of Christ—a couple are joined to one another in covenant marriage. It is within this covenant marriage that God meant the sexual union to take place. Jesus says that any other sexual relation is a violation of this union and communion.

The apostle Paul also pointed out that the body of Christ, the church, was united with Christ individually and collectively. This is why sex outside of the covenant relation of marriage is a sin and a violation against the Spirit. When we are united with Christ, the Triune God takes up residence within us by the Spirit. There is a uniting of what is human with what is divine. Why, Paul asks, would you take what is united with God and unite it with a prostitute or with someone who is not your covenant partner? God is present with us in every moment, in every intimate relationship we may have. We do not want our intimate and sexual relationships to be a violation of our covenant with God or our spouse, do we?

This is what we struggle with as human beings—and Paul holds our face to the mirror in this: our bodies do not belong to us—they belong to God. God has purchased our bodies by offering Christ’s body on the cross for us. He paid the ultimate price for each of us in the loss of his Son. This means that each and every human being is of enormous value, no matter who they are. Each person belongs to God and is to be respected and cared for as we would respect and care for Christ. No human being, no matter their color, gender, background, shape, or size, or even their mental state, belongs to us to be used and abused as we please. No human body, not even our own, belongs to us to be used and abused however we wish. Each person is created in the image of God and is called into relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit, and has been given incredible worth as a dwelling place of the Triune God.

In our gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus tells Nathanael, who had never met him before, that he had seen him under the fig tree. There was something Jesus knew about Nathanael by spiritual insight as God in human flesh that he could not have known otherwise. This is reminiscent of what we talked about in Psalm 139—we cannot escape the perusal and notice of our Maker and Lord. God never meant for human beings to live apart from relationship with him. We were created to be a part of a union and communion which in the new heavens and new earth will include every member of the Bride of Christ.

This Bride is made up of many members, of all people groups around the world. Individually and collectively, she has a worth and dignity that is priceless, for her bridegroom, the Lord Jesus, laid down his life for her. Every human being is meant to be a part of her—our role is to remind each and every person of this and to welcome them in, not to abuse, exclude, condemn, or reject them. As Christ taught us, we are to reach out to those in need, comfort those who mourn, bless those who curse us, and do good to those who abuse us—for each and every person has been given the dignity of being a fit dwelling place of the living God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.

Dear God, thank you for giving each of us such worth and value! Thank you for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Thank you for noticing us—for seeing us when we believe we are invisible. Lord, wash away all of our divisions, our prejudices, our hatred, and our feelings of superiority. Grant us instead the humility of a true understanding of who we are as those who are equals and temples of your presence, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; | You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, | And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.” Psalm 139:1–3 NASB

“You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you. And even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything….In our union with him we are one spirit with the Lord. Flee fornication. Every sexual sin is a violation of the sacredness of the human body and scars the conscience of the individual like no other sin does. Do you not realize that your body by design is the sacred shrine of the spirit of God; he echoes God within you. Your body does not even belong to you in the first place. You are bought and paid for, spirit, soul and body. All of you are his. Live your life conscious of the enormous price with which God has valued you. Your whole being belongs to him and exhibits him. You are his address; you are his real estate.” 1 Corinthians 6:12, 17–20 MB

God’s Gracious Gift of Truth

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By Linda Rex

January 3, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY | CHRISTMAS—We live in a world today, especially those of us hooked into digital media, where we are told on many fronts who we are, what we are to believe, how we are to act, and what is most important in life. It would be easy to go through life and allow others to assume responsibility for much of what is ours—so many people are happy to do it for us! And we are also reminded often that people don’t really want to know the truth about us—they are willing to accept the externals or the great story we tell about ourselves, but they don’t want to know the truth.

One of the reasons many of us avoid building relationships with people is that we don’t want people to know what we are really like. Allowing people to get close enough to us to see our flaws and failures means putting ourselves at risk for rejection or exclusion. Some of us get really good at only letting people see the pleasant façade—we don’t want to experience the shame, guilt or just humiliation of letting people see what we are really like.

There are others of us who love to tell everyone about how bad things are for us. We are caught in this place where the only attention we find we can get is when people feel sorry for us—so we come up with the best stories we can to get people to care. It does not matter to us that we adjust the truth a little to get the response we want. There is a way to manage or manipulate people to get them to respond in the way we want them to. It really has nothing to do with true relationship or truth—it’s just a means for us to get our needs met in that moment.

If we are struggling to figure out who we are and why we are here on earth, or how to have healthy relationships, the best place to begin is with examining the person of Jesus Christ. I say this simply because Jesus is the grace of God to you and me who reveals to us the truth about whom you and I are. One of the things we learn as we grow up in Christ, becoming more like him, is the truth about ourselves as human beings and that we are ultimately responsible for what is ours, and that caring for ourselves and what is ours also involves loving God and those around us. We find in Jesus Christ both the perfect image-bearer of God himself, but also the perfect human in our place, in our stead.

The law was a gracious gift from God to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament days. The law and sacrifices explained what it looked like for that nation to live in covenant relationship with him, and provided a means of gracious restoration when the people broke that covenant. The law pointed out the truth of their disobedience and rebellion, and pointed out the way they were to live. All of these things the people were to obey and practice pointed them to the Messiah who would one day come and make everything right, enabling true obedience by the Holy Spirit.

The law, though, didn’t change or heal anyone. There wasn’t transforming power in the law itself. Even though the Spirit works through the word of God to bring about healing and change, there is no genuine and lasting change apart from the gracious work of the Spirit in human hearts and lives. So Jesus came and forged within our humanity the capacity for the Spirit to indwell us permanently, bringing us into union and communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. By faith we participate in this inner relationship the Son of God has always had with the Father in the Spirit.

Jesus, born under the law, lived out the Old Testament law as God intended. Moses may have been the one who mediated this law, but Jesus was the one who fulfilled it perfectly. The apostle Paul tells us that to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves fulfills the law. Jesus was ever faithful, devoted and obedient to his heavenly Father, doing only what he asked him to do or what he saw his Father doing. Jesus loved each and every person—disobedient or obedient, loving or unloving—as much as, or even more so, than himself, for he laid his life down for each and every one. As the Truth embodied in human flesh, we find reflected in him the truth of our human existence lived out the way it was meant to be lived.

Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the perfect image-bearer of God you and I were created to be. When we look closely at Jesus, examining his life, his words, his way of being, we come up against grace and truth—the truth of who we are in all our brokenness and sin, the truth of who we are meant to be as image-bearers of God, and the truth of what Jesus did for us in coming as God in human flesh to live our life, die our death and rise again—the grace of God for you and me as sinners in need of saving. God enables us to participate in Jesus’ perfected humanity by sending us the Holy Spirit as we trust in Christ and in his finished work.

Grace and truth come together uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ. As we begin to looking into the perfect law of liberty, Jesus Christ, we see the truth about ourselves, but always in the context of grace. We may fall very short of the glory we were created to bear as image-bearers of God, but God still loves us and values us, enough that he put a plan into action before time began so that we would be met in the depths of our depravity, and even on into death itself, and brought back up into eternal life with the Triune God. This is our true freedom—we are known down to the core of our being, all the way into our darkest places, and we are forgiven, accepted, and beloved, and are included in God’s life and love.

God goes even farther than his in his Son Jesus Christ. He not only reconciles all things and all people with himself, he also includes us by faith in the intimate relationship he has with his Son in the Spirit. The heavenly Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are the adopted children of our heavenly Father through Jesus his Son. We hear in our hearts the Spirit calling him “Abba” or Father—because by the Spirit we know we are his beloved children.

What a gift to know who we are! We aren’t just ordinary folks lost in a sea of faces, or a list of friends on a social media site. We are special—uniquely set apart and chosen from the foundation of the cosmos for a relationship with the One who made all things, who includes us in his own loving relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. We have a home with God just as he has a home in us by the Holy Spirit. We are included in his life and love just as we make him welcome in our hearts, our lives, our work, home and family each and every day. Daily companionship with God is our reality now and forever. What a gracious gift from the God of truth!

Dear Heavenly Father, God of truth, thank you for sending your Son as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, to live, die, and rise again for us. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit so we can know the truth about who you are and who we are in Christ. May we ever grow more like you, as your perfected image-bearers, children of you, Holy Father, through Jesus Christ and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:12-14 NASB

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Ephesians 1:3-6 (7-14) NASB

The House That God Built

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is Among Us

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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