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
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
By Linda Rex
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
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
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