By Linda Rex
April 2, 2021, GOOD FRIDAY—It is easy for us to get swept up into feeling frustrated or sorry for ourselves because life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We can look at others and wonder why their lives are going so well when ours isn’t. This is especially true when we look at social media, and all we see are everyone else’s efforts to paint the best picture possible of their life.
Nicodemus was a Jewish leader who came to Jesus at night to ask him some questions. When Jesus began explaining to Nicodemus about the kingdom of God, he used an illustration from the history of his people. As the ancient Israelites traversed the wilderness, he explained, being carefully led by the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and sustained by bread from heaven (manna) they struggled to deal with the difficulties they faced.
Like all of us, when faced with things not going the way they thought they should go, they began to complain. From there on it went downhill, for soon the people were dying from snakebite as their camp became infested with venomous vipers. Finally, they begged Moses to intercede for them with God, and he did. God’s response was rather interesting, considering the covenant he had made with them.
In spite of the fact that God had told them not to make graven images, he told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to place it on a pole. When a person who had been bitten by a snake looked up at the bronze serpent in faith, they would not die—they would get well. Those who refused to look up at the serpent, of course, would die of snakebite. As Moses and the people followed God’s instruction, the Israelites’ camp was soon free from death.
In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus used this example to illustrate the importance of his ministry and why he had come. He pointed out that his purpose was to be lifted up in the same way as the serpent was lifted up, thereby drawing all humanity to himself. What would be meant for evil, for his destruction, would be turned to good, to the deliverance of all from evil, sin, and death.
To create a bronze serpent, the craftsman would place metal into a crucible, bring it to an intense heat to melt it. He would purify the metal by increasing or maintaining this intense heat, and working to bring all the impurities to the top to be scooped off until the surface was fully reflective. At the height of its purity, the craftsman would see his own face reflected in the molten metal. Then the metal would be poured into a mold or fashioned over the heat by hammering, twisting, and so on, into the desired form. Over and over the craftsman would work to forge the piece, until he was satisfied that it was exactly right, smoothing and polishing the surface, and finally, adding the details that were desired.
To say that he would be lifted up like the bronze serpent shows how Jesus used powerful but simple imagery to explain something with great depth and meaning. God as a craftsman began the process of the redemption of his creation by forging for himself a people from which his Messiah would come. This people, Israel, was taken on a wilderness journey, then across the Jordan River, and on into the promised land. They journeyed with God, struggling against and within their covenant relationship with the Creator, not realizing the magnitude and wonder of what God intended to do through them. God even took them into the crucible of the exile where they began to understand that their relationship with their Adonai was not solely dependent upon the temple and its sacrifices.
In the dark years of prophetic silence following the exile, when their descendants wrestled with their various overlords, we find the remnant of the people of ancient Israel, the Jews, yearning for their Messiah to come and deliver them. They sought a deliverer to set them free to be their own kingdom again, to be able to worship their Adonai, God, freely and to enjoy the prosperity and security of the age of the Spirit.
It is at this time that the Word of God, Son of our heavenly Father, took on our human flesh in the incarnation. This was an unexpected event, for this Messiah was not intent on a political, military redemption, but a redemption of our humanity from its slavery to evil, sin, and death. He fulfilled the prophetic testimony of Isaiah, who predicted that he would suffer on behalf of his people, redeeming and restoring them (Isaiah 52:13–53:12). This Messiah, Jesus Christ, throughout his life on this earth, forged into our humanity the capacity to be truly human, to be the proper image-bearers God meant each of us to be. The crucible in which God in Christ took our humanity—his flesh, was placed into the flame of the crucifixion, taking our human flesh into death itself, and in three days, Jesus rose again, bringing all humanity into a new existence as refined by the fire.
Jesus’ people played a significant role in the redemption of all humanity and even all creation, albeit an unpleasant one. God knew from the beginning what it would take to forge within our humanity the capacity to live eternally in union and communion with the divine. He created a womb, Israel, in which the Savior would be formed and an instrument by which he would be crucified, all for the sake of every human being sharing in the life and love of God in Christ by the Spirit. The disciples and Jesus were clear in their day about the sins of God’s people, but recognized that the Jews are still, as they are today, God’s covenant people and the Savior’s human family.
It is instructive for us that when God, the divine craftsman, goes to work in our lives, he doesn’t always bring us to pleasant, happy places. There are times when he allows us to wander through difficulties—not to harm us or do us evil, but to forge within us a new way of being which more deeply reflects his image.
We turn to Christ in these moments, for he was lifted up in the crucifixion and entered into death itself for our sake. He stands eternally as our high priest even now, interceding for us as Moses did but also standing in our place on our behalf, having taken upon himself all that is ours and reforming it into what God always meant it to be. As the eternal Son of the Father, he brings humanity by faith into God’s intimate union and communion in the Spirit, enabling us to participate in the divine life and love now and forever.
On this Good Friday, as we reflect upon the sobering experience Jesus went through on the cross, let us be reminded of the faithfulness and goodness of our God. May we sit silently in the shadow of the cross, weeping for the price that was paid but being filled with the joy for which Jesus did it, for he saw beyond the crucifixion into the redemption of all humanity and the restoration of all things. As refined in the fire, he was lifted up, to draw all to himself, so all may truly live. Praise Adonai!
Our heavenly Father, thank you. Thank you for the gift of your one unique Son, Jesus the Messiah. Thank you, Jesus, for setting aside the privileges of divinity for a time, so that we might be freed from the snakebite of evil, sin, and death, and be brought up into life eternal in the presence of the Father by the Spirit. We praise you for your faithfulness and goodness, one holy God in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.
“Pilate came out again and said to them, ‘Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.’ Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold, the Man!’ So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out saying, ‘Crucify, crucify!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.’ Therefore when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid; and he entered into the Praetorium again and said to Jesus, ‘Where are You from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to Him, ‘You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.’ As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, ‘If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.’… “And he said to the Jews, ‘Behold, your King!’ So they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified. They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, ‘JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’” John 19:4-12, 14b-19 NASB
By Linda Rex
March 28, 2021, PALM SUNDAY—LENT (EASTER PREP)—Etched into my memory from my childhood in southern California are avenues of palm trees of all different shapes and sizes. There is something about the tall, stately trees, bending slightly in the ocean breezes that speaks to me of salt water and sand, hot summer sun, and tropical flowers.
On this special Sunday in some churches, small palm fronds are handed out in memory of the branches laid on the road as Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem. The songs of “Hosanna” we sing today echo the shouts of the pilgrims as they entered the city in celebration of the Messiah’s arrival. In many ways we also anticipate with glad rejoicing the coming of King Jesus into our world to restore all things.
In John’s version of this story, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt and the people threw down branches of palm trees. They shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” “Hosanna” is a phrase which in essence means “O, save!” This greeting resonates with the Hillel psalms often sung or recited by the pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem. Psalm 118:25, which we read on this Sunday, says “O Lord, do save, we beseech You; O Lord, we beseech You, do send prosperity!”
When looking forward with the travelers entering Jerusalem, excited about the possibilities present in the Messiah they thought Jesus was, it is understandable that they would lay out palm branches as though a victorious king were entering the city. It makes perfect sense that they would be praising and celebrating such a momentous event. How wonderful it would be to finally be free of their oppressors!
The problem was that they were mistaken in Jesus’ intention and purpose for being there. They neglected to attend to the other parts of the scripture which included predictions about his suffering and death. For example, in Psalm 118:27 we read, “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” There was to be a sacrifice made, but it wasn’t going to be an animal offered on the altar, but the humble king who was at that moment entering the city on a lowly colt of a donkey. Jesus had no illusions about what faced him as he entered the city. They might glorify him as a conquering king now, but in a few short days, he would be hung on a cross.
As I recently read the passages for Good Friday, I was struck by the interrogation Pilate did right before Jesus was sent out to be crucified. Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of the Jews. As they spoke to one another, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, otherwise his servants would be fighting. Pilate asked him again if he was a king and Jesus affirmed it, saying that it was the reason he had come into the world. At the end of the interrogation, Pilate went out and told the people he found no guilt in Jesus, and offered to exchange him for a robber named Barabbas.
Jesus was scourged and again placed before the crowd with Pilate’s pronouncement that he was not guilty. But the people cried out for him to be crucified, as Jesus stood there with a crown of thorns on his head and a purple robe draped around his shoulders. The Jewish leaders affirmed that he had to die because he claimed to be the Son of God. This alarmed Pilate, who, no doubt remembering his wife’s strange warning, asked Jesus where he was from. But he would not answer. When Pilate warned him that he had the authority to have him killed, Jesus merely replied that Pilate had no authority but what was given him from above. At this, Pilate attempted again to free Jesus, but the Jews threatened to report him to Caesar for treason. In the end Jesus was led away, carrying his cross beam to be crucified on Golgotha.
What a contrast between the two pictures of Jesus. First, he is praised joyfully with loud hosannas as a celebrated deliverer. The second, he is led away, dripping with blood, bruised and torn, to the abuse and ridicule of the crowd. How can he even be the same person? But this is Israel’s king, the King of the Jews, as Pilate so aptly wrote on the nameplate which hung over Christ on the cross.
Historically, if we were to look at the King of the Jews, we would see that Jesus on the cross is a fitting description of the way the true ruler of Israel, Adonai, had often been treated by his covenant people. His covenant love for them had weathered their long history together when at one moment God would be their beloved deliverer and in the next was traded in for the gods and kings of the nations, and the people’s preference to follow their own ways. Even the efforts of the leaders to be more faithful in their obedience ended in rigid restrictions and rules that isolated and excluded people rather than bringing all people deeper into relationship with God.
Lest you think I am speaking merely of the ancient Israelites, I would like to point out that it is a human proclivity to love God when he is good to us and to drop him with disinterest when something more enticing shows up on the horizon. We are all just as vulnerable to missing the truth that there is, and should only be, one king in our life and it’s not us, and it’s not any other human being even though we may live under the authority of human government.
Jesus Christ invites us to go with him through the gates of grace into death and resurrection because this is where we were created to go. We were meant to enter into the gates of righteousness in participation with Jesus in his perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit. There really is no other directive in our life which can and will give us true peace and freedom than that of surrendering to the lordship of Jesus Christ, allowing him by the Spirit to reign supreme in our lives.
Celebrate Palm Sunday in gratitude and praise for the King, our Messiah, who has come as God in human flesh to die and rise again, is coming right now by his Holy Spirit, and will one day come in glory to establish the new heavens and new earth. Choose to walk with him all the way into death and resurrection. What is he asking you today to lay down in honor of him, in humble submission to his reign in your heart and mind? How might you enter with him now into the gates of grace so that you may experience new life?
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending us your Son to save and deliver us from evil, sin, and death. Thank you for sending us your Spirit so we might participate in your divine life and love, through Jesus Christ our Lord and eternal King now and forever. Amen.
“On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, ‘Hosanna! “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, even the King of Israel.’ Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, ‘“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him.” John 12:12–16 NASB
“Open to me the gates of righteousness;
I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
The righteous will enter through it.” Psalm 118:19–20 (21–29) NASB
By Linda Rex
January 31, 2021, 4th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—There is a fascination nowadays with the spiritual. Stories, information, and related materials can be found in movies, books, anime and television shows. It seems as though, even in our information age, we are seeking for something beyond the physical, as though we sense there is more going on than what our reason tells us. We seek out the occult, the mystical, the mythological. But when I speak of spiritual things truly existing and that God or Jesus are real, people immediately take offense or ridicule the idea.
Sometimes I am told that Jesus is just some historical, mythical figure and he has no existence beyond this one. Even many Christians today believe that healing and other miracles no longer occur in the world. In all practicality, they are atheists, living as though God doesn’t really exist and if he does, that he doesn’t care. Indeed, how would one explain an encounter with the living Jesus when there are so many practical reasons not to believe it occurred? It is difficult to explain the way in which the things of the Spirit invade our human existence and genuinely alter it, and it is equally difficult to explain to someone else what it is like to encounter the living Lord. We each have to experience this for ourself.
The gospel of Mark describes how Christ during his ministry would follow the common Jewish practice of attending synagogue on the Sabbath. There the scrolls would be opened and read, and the scribes would expound as best as they could what the meaning was. Their interpretations were drawn from the many writings of the scribes and rabbis before them. They spoke of only that which they understood, and focused on the details of the law and all the meticulous rules these forebearers had established in an effort to keep these laws properly.
On this particular Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue at Capernaum and began to teach. He amazed the listeners because he spoke, not upon the authority of the those prior to him, but upon his own authority. It was as though inherent within himself was the authority to declare the meaning of the scriptures. He didn’t need someone else’s exposition of the Old Testament scriptures to inform him—he simply knew what the intent was and so he presented it. The implication here was that he knew the intent of the scriptures because he was the One who had given them to his people in the first place.
Jesus’ teaching that day was interrupted by a man who was under the control of a presence other than himself. This spirit, Mark explained, was “unclean” or “impure” or “evil”—it is translated in different ways. But the unclean spirit obviously did not have the man’s well-being in mind, but had completely supplanted the man’s will with its own evil will. The spirit in the man called out to Jesus, seeking to silence him by exposing who he was—the “Holy One of God.” He challenged the Lord, asking whether Jesus had come to destroy him and those like him.
It was significant that Jesus immediately silenced the evil spirit and told it to leave the man. Jesus was indeed beginning his warfare against the kingdom of evil, but not in the way which was expected of him. He did not want people to get in mind a wrong idea of what kind of Messiah had come to them. Nor did he need evil spirits to affirm who he was as the Son of God in human flesh. He was Lord over all these spirits, the evil and the good, for they were created by him and had to bow to his will and wishes at all times.
The obedience of the spirit to Jesus’ command astonished the crowd. Here was another way in which Jesus’ authority was made evident. He didn’t need fancy incantations and magical spells. He didn’t use the formulas the Jewish leaders used for exorcism. No, he had the power over the spiritual world as well as the physical world, so he simply commanded and it was done. This was an epiphany—a clear revelation of who Christ was as God in human flesh, the Lord over all his creation, of both the physical and spiritual realms. From this event in the synagogue the news spread out all over the area about Jesus and what he had done.
One of the hardest things for us as humans to accept is the reality that there are some things we just don’t have control over. Some may seek out the things of the spirit as a cry to be able to know something which can’t otherwise be known, to do what could not otherwise be done, or to control others or situations which are out of their control. They do not realize that when we seek the things of the spirit world apart from God that we will often end up enslaved, controlled by forces and spirits beyond ourselves which steal from us our ability to make our own decisions and choices, and in the end, drive us to self-destruction.
We also tend to give ourselves over to attitudes and behaviors which in many ways take control in the same way as the spirit described in this story. Sometimes we allow anger to dig deep roots in our soul, creating a bitterness that begins to affect everyone around us. Resentment and bitterness, and a desire for revenge, can so consume us that we in time we may lose all desire or ability to choose another option apart from God’s intervention on our behalf. There are many other desires that we have as human beings which when properly used within God’s limits are healthy and build us up, but when we give ourselves over to them, they in the end begin to consume us and to control every aspect of our lives, even removing from us our own ability to choose another way.
God does not deprive us of our will nor control it—even though he could—because he loves us and respects our personhood. Any other spirit than that of God will not treat us with this type of respect. This includes some humans, who seek to control our will and keep a tight reign on our every decision, forcing us to do what we do not wish to do. This is not God’s way of being, nor what he created us for. He does not force himself on us. He created us and redeemed us to be his dwelling place through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, to worship and serve him joyfully out of gratitude and love—voluntarily, simply because we desire to.
God through Jesus invites us into relationship with himself and offers himself to us in the Holy Spirit, allowing us to resist, reject, or silence him. He asks us to open ourselves up to him, to make ourselves available to him, to participate with him in what he is doing in the world, but he always leaves us free to say no. When a follower of Jesus speaks of surrender to God, or being filled with the Holy Spirit, they do not mean that they intend to lose their own ability to make decisions or to lose control of their own mind or body. Rather, they are saying that they are agreeing to God’s invitation to voluntarily give space for him to live within them and form them into what all of us were originally created to be—places where God dwells through Jesus in the Spirit so that we might be true image-bearers of Jesus Christ who both love God and love others as we love ourselves.
Mark tells us this story about Jesus so we can discover for ourselves who this teacher is. It is the Holy Spirit in us who enables us to see with spiritual eyes—to see beyond the words on the page and the historical figure of Jesus into the reality of who he is today as our living Lord. This is the beginning of Mark’s testimony that this person Jesus Christ was God in human flesh—the One who lived, died, and rose again, and who comes to us as the living Word in the Spirit. This living Lord Jesus Christ is not just a prophet or teacher, but One at whose word evil spirits are silenced, teachers are amazed, and people are healed. Invite Jesus to make himself real to you—to enable you to see him for who he really is. Seek him out, and he will, in time, enable you to find him. Then you will know, in that moment, that all I have said is true—there is a world beyond this world, and Jesus is Lord of both, and is just as alive today as he ever was, and best of all—he loves you.
Heavenly Father, thank you for the precious gift of your Spirit through your Son Jesus. May your Spirit open the eyes of our minds and hearts so that we may perceive the spiritual realities and come to know Jesus personally as he really is—the living Savior and Lord of all. May we freely give ourselves to you, God, that we may receive ourselves whole and complete through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in return. Amen.
“Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, ‘What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!’” Mark 1:23–25 NASB
See also Mark 1:21–22, 26–28; 1 Corinthians 8:1–13.
By Linda Rex
January 10, 2021, BAPTISM OF THE LORD | EPIPHANY—Recently my son and I visited the new location of the Tennessee State Museum here in Nashville. The time tunnel, which I clearly had issues trying to follow the timeline on, began with the origins of earth. Over the years, I have read many different versions of the creation story, so I was not surprised by the approach used by those who wrote the inscription for the display.
Often, we as human beings are intrigued by beginnings. As my family had a celebratory meal at a local restaurant recently, we noticed a pictorial history of the restaurant was posted on the wall and was being played on a television screen high over a window. Beginnings do matter, for often they explain how and why we end up the way we are today. What happens along the way also matters, because the circumstances in our lives affect where we are and who we are. The choices we and others make also play a big role in where and how we end up—examples of such consequences filled the walls of the history time tunnel I visited.
In the book of Genesis when it says “In the beginning…” we find the Spirit of God brooding over the nothingness and God’s voice speaking life into it. The apostle John began his gospel with the words, “In the beginning…” The Word of God through whom all things were made out of nothing had come into our humanity, the apostle John wrote. It was as though he was rewriting the human story beginning with the coming of the Son of Man into our humanity in the incarnation.
There is something significant here we should attend to, I believe. This God by whom all things came into being from nothing sent his Word through whom all things were made by the Spirit to be embodied in human flesh in the womb of Mary. This Son of God and Son of man, Jesus, was born like a human baby is born and grew up as every human child does. Christ brought his divine life into the darkness of our broken humanity and into this world which we have filled with our human depravity, evil, and sin.
Once again God created something out of nothing. As God in human flesh, Jesus Christ forged into our humanity the capacity for God to dwell in man. When Jesus rose from the grave after his crucifixion, he sent the Holy Spirit so that each human being could participate in his life with the Father in the Spirit. The Spirit he sent awakens us to our new birth in Christ—we are new creatures. What we lost in the fall, Jesus redeemed, restored and renewed and offered back to us in the Spirit.
When the apostle Mark described John the Baptizer, he showed us a man who acted and looked like Elijah the prophet, ate locusts and wild honey, and baptized people for the remission of sins, telling them to repent and turn to the Messiah who was coming. The other writers of the gospels say the Baptizer pointed out the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders at that time, told soldiers not to practice extortion but to be content with their pay, and instructed others of their need to repent and change the way they lived.
John was doing a powerful ministry, calling his people to repent of their sins and to be baptized even though they thought they didn’t need to be baptized—after all, they were God’s special people. But then John did a very special baptism. John the Baptizer was so humble that he did not even feel worthy to loosen the strap of Jesus’ sandal—but here Christ was, wanting to be baptized. The Baptizer knew then that Jesus would baptize in a way John never could baptize. John could only baptize people in water—Jesus would baptize people with the Holy Spirit.
How did John know this was the case? God had told him that the person on whom the Spirit would descend like a dove was the Messiah, the One who would baptize with the Spirit. So, one day Jesus came to be baptized. He didn’t have any reason to be baptized—he was the sinless Son of God. Why be baptized? Perhaps this was his initiation into his official ministry. Perhaps he was showing us what we are supposed to do as an entry into the congregation of the people of God. Certainly, it can be seen in this act of baptism that he identified with each and every sinner in the world and as the representative sinner was baptized in our place and on our behalf.
When Christ rose out of the waters of the Jordan River, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him as a gentle dove. He heard his Father’s voice, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” We see present in this moment the oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit—the unity of their purpose, love, and blessing. We heard the voice of God speaking to Jesus and today it resonates within our own hearts as we picture ourselves within the Holy Son, rising out of the waters of baptism to receive our own blessing by the Father.
We can take comfort that no matter how we were baptized, when we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, we were baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we share in his inheritance as the Son of the Father. While we share in Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism, we share in his receiving of the Spirit as well. The Holy Spirit comes to live within, gives us new life, allows us to participate in Christ’s life with the Father in the Spirit and to share in Christ’s mission in this world of spreading the good news.
In Jesus Christ, we find both God and man in one being. In Jesus we find that God has made something new—a restored humanity in which God dwells by the Spirit now and forever, enabling humanity to dwell with God today in the Spirit and tomorrow in the new heavens and new earth in our glorified humanity. In Jesus we find a capacity to be the human beings God created us to be—image-bearers of the divine being—to love God and one another as we were meant to, beginning now as little children, and growing up into Christlikeness as we mature spiritually.
Whatever state we may find ourselves in today, we can be assured of this—no one is so far gone or so insignificant that God cannot redeem, restore, or renew. We are free to say no to God, as we so often do, and to reap the consequences that go with having done so. So, just know—God is as equally passionate today about removing evil, sin, and death from us and our world as he was when he hung on the cross to get rid of it within our humanity. In Christ, God has done everything we need for our redemption and restoration and has sent his Spirit to awaken us to this new life. Perhaps others may not receive this gift and trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior. But what really matters right now is, what about you?
Do you believe that Jesus is God come into our human flesh to live our life, die our death, and to rise again, freeing us from evil, sin and death? Are you committed to turning away from your self and your way to Jesus Christ, surrendering to him as your Lord and Savior? Will you receive and welcome his gift of the person and presence of the Holy Spirit? Do you believe he will come again one day to deliver us once and for all from evil, sin, and death, and to usher in the new heavens and new earth?
If you wholeheartedly say yes to all these things, then I encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit as a public affirmation and celebration of this commitment and be joined together in Christ with his body, the church through baptism. All of us at Grace Communion Nashville would love to join with you on your journey with Christ—it takes a lifetime, even an eternity, and a village to come to fully know and be known by the One who saved us. Let’s do it together!
Abba, Heavenly Father, I receive your gift of life in Christ Jesus–may your Spirit fill me to overflowing, and may my life from this day forward fully reflect your glory, life and love. Finish what you have begun in me this day–I am yours and you are mine, one in Jesus my Lord by your heavenly Spirit. Amen.
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’ ” Mark 1:9–11 NASB
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Genesis 1:1–3 NASB
By Linda Rex
December 27, 2020, HOLY FAMILY | CHRISTMAS—A lot of times we include the visiting of the magi from the East in the Christmas story. The wise men followed a star, or angel, to Jerusalem, asked King Herod about the Messiah, and found he was to be born in Bethlehem. Having heard this, they left to find the child in this place. And this is where we encounter the dark side of the Christmas story.
It was significant that these wise men from other nations were seeking out the Messiah, while apparently, the chief priests and elders of the Jews only looked into it when King Herod asked them to. It was tragic that King Herod used the information he was given to have the infants of Bethlehem slaughtered. He didn’t want to risk losing his throne to a messianic upstart. Having been warned ahead of time by an angel, Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaped to Egypt, while the infants in Bethlehem were being killed by Herod’s soldiers. There was horrible loss and suffering that was experienced by so many because of Herod’s evil actions. He had no idea that his violent attack upon Jesus in this way predicted what would happen to Jesus as an adult when he died on behalf of all people, young and old.
But let me go back before this event. We often miss an important part of the story when we focus solely on the magi and the genocide in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem with baby Jesus about forty days after he was born. They, as pious Jews, wanted to be obedient to the law of Moses as they understood it. So, they came to Jerusalem to do three things: 1) They offered the sacrifice necessary for Mary’s cleansing after having given birth to a son—forty days after the birth they offered the sacrifice of poor people of two turtledoves or two young pigeons. 2) They paid the redemption price for Mary’s firstborn son, Jesus, of five shekels. 3) And following the example of Hannah in the Old Testament, they presented their son to God for his service. The parents of Jesus, who was born under the law, fulfilled the requirements of the law as they understood them.
What would King Herod have thought if he had known the real Messiah was present in Jerusalem without his knowledge? It wasn’t like Mary and Joseph snuck in and out without anyone noticing. Luke tells about two elderly Jews who took special note of Jesus, acknowledging and proclaiming that he was the expected Messiah. Simeon and Anna were guided by the Spirit to affirm the special anointing which was on the Christ child. Anna celebrated loudly the redemption of Israel through this child. Simeon said that Jesus would be a light to the nations, but would face great opposition and one day Mary would experience the sharp pain of the loss of her son—there would be a dark side to Jesus’ life and ministry. I imagine the prophetic words of these two elders must have created a lot of talk among the people at the temple.
Somehow Mary and Joseph took care of what they felt was needed at the temple and returned to Bethlehem without raising the attention of the authorities or King Herod. We don’t know what they were doing during those first two years in Bethlehem before their flight to Egypt. Perhaps Joseph was doing work as a carpenter and was able to eventually provide them with a house to live in, for that is where the magi found them. In Christ’s story, we find Jesus identifying with a variety of people—working poor, pious Jews, humble shepherds, and in time, endangered refugees hiding in another land. If we look closely, we can see that as an infant and as a child, Jesus experienced the human condition—what people everywhere, in every nation, go through at some time and in some way.
Sometimes people project onto Jesus some fantasy childhood, where nothing ever went wrong and where his circumstances were always ideal. It could not have been easy for Joseph and Mary to drop everything to go to Bethlehem just because the Roman government was doing a census. What did they face due to Mary’s unexplained pregnancy? When they did arrive in Bethlehem, did they endure criticism or rejection from extended family members? When the baby came, did anyone help Mary out or was she left all alone with Joseph? What was it like for Joseph to be the guardian of his adopted son, knowing Jesus would never be fully his own? When Jesus’ parents knew that they had to flee Bethlehem, did their hearts ache for their friends and neighbors who were facing the loss of their children at the hands of the soldiers?
These are human experiences which can be found in nations all over the world among people of a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities. When Jesus came as a light to the nations, he did not do so externally to all we are as human beings, but as one of us within our humanity. He entered our human existence, to forge within us a new humanity able to share in his close relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. He did not bring a political redemption, but a spiritual renewal and an ushering in of the age of the Spirit—a time when every human being could participate by faith in Jesus’ life of union and communion with the Father in the Spirit.
The prophet Isaiah celebrated this prophetically, saying:
“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” (61:10 NASB).
He spoke of our salvation as something God clothes us with—”garments of salvation” and “a robe of righteousness.” These are not things we create for ourselves—our best efforts never gain us a right relationship with God, nor do they save us from the consequences of our sin and rebellion against God. Nor do they free us from evil, sin, or death. Only God could and did do what was needed in and through his Son. He even went so far as to adopt us into his family—to make us his very own children rather than just merely his servants.
But there was a cost to God’s Son coming into our humanity to bind us in himself to the oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit. What those children and families in Bethlehem experienced was the dark side of the coming of God into our humanity—when evil resisted the goodness of God once again, turning the beauty of what God had done for each of us in the Christ child into something horrific and tragic. What Jesus experienced in the wilderness and later on the cross, what he resisted each time he healed someone or delivered them from an evil spirit, was that darkness which from the beginning has resisted and sought to overcome the light of God’s love and life. The reality is that Jesus came and did what only God could do—delivered us from Satan’s hands, freed us from sin and death, and rising from the grave, brought our humanity into a new place in the presence of his Father now and forever.
In our western world today, we often are so comfortable that sometimes we forget what it is like to struggle, suffer, or go without. When a tragedy, violence, or natural disaster occurs, we are faced once again with the reality that we live in a broken world in which evil is still at work. We, in the already/not-yet of God’s kingdom, experience both the blessings of God’s presence and power at work in this world, but also the opposition, oppression, and assaults of the evil one as he opposes every good thing God is trying to do. There is evil at work in this world—but evil is always a parasite on what is good—it has no power that is not derivative. God always and ever has the final word—and this is why we pray, resist Satan and evil, and seek what is good, even when doing so may cost us our life, our financial well-being, or our good standing in the community.
There is a cost to following Jesus. Jesus said anyone who wanted to be his disciple needed to “lay down his life, pick up his cross, and follow” him. The price of doing this is what we may struggle with. But realizing that Jesus went first, and that he includes us in his perfect life of obedience with the Father, can enable us to do the difficult thing. Christ went first—and whatever we do, we do as a participation in his perfect and finished work. This can give us hope and courage when life gets hard, no matter who we are. We are not alone—he is present now and forever by his Spirit—and includes us as adopted children of a loving Father who by his Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are his very own, no matter the circumstances of our lives or the difficulties we face.
Dear Abba, thank you for making us your very own. We look forward to that day when evil, sin, and death are cast into the lake of fire and once and for all removed from our world. In the meantime, hold us close, Abba, and deliver us anew from evil people and the evil one, from the sin which so easily seduces us—we are helpless and hopeless without you. Thank you, Jesus, for sharing in our human existence so fully, and for coming to be with us and in us by your Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.
“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:4-7 NASB
See also Luke 2:22–40 and Isaiah 61:10–62:3.
By Linda Rex
November 29, 2020, ADVENT | HOPE—Last night I was watching a report by Nashville’s mayor in which he was describing the latest spike in COVID-19 cases and an upcoming mandated reduction in the size of gatherings. As you can imagine, my heart turned over. I’m not looking forward to the isolation and health problems this will bring about for so many, nor am I thrilled about the loss of income, business and other difficulties it will create for those already struggling.
In some ways, I can identify with the prophet Isaiah when he wrote:
“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,
That the mountains might quake at Your presence—
As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-9 NASB)
What is interesting about the rest of this passage, though, is how Isaiah didn’t focus on the glorious entry of God into the human sphere to exact his fiery judgment, but rather on God’s deliverance for us from our human proclivity to sin and our futile efforts to do the right thing. This one-of-a-kind God, who Isaiah describes as the potter, is called upon to do the work only he can do for and in us as his clay (Isaiah 64:1–9).
The psalmist in Psalm 80 acknowledges that the only hope for any of us is for him to smile upon us and restore us. This request is repeated three times—emphasizing a passionate desire for God’s grace and good will to be showered upon us. At the end of this psalm, he writes:
“Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
Then we shall not turn back from You;
Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
O LORD God of hosts, restore us;
Cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”
(Psalm 80:(1-7) 17-19 NASB)
Do you see it? Here is a hint of how God is going to save his people—something related to a “son of man” whom God places his hand on and makes strong. Our only hope for God’s grace, restoration and renewal begins with God himself and his desire for and accomplishment of our transformation and healing through the Son of Man.
In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, when the apostle Paul speaks of the final revealing of Jesus Christ, he affirms that we are found blameless not by our own efforts, but because God is faithful. God’s faithfulness is expressed to us in his gift of grace through Jesus Christ which enriched us in speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts, and in the testimony of Christ being confirmed in us. He has called us into and has ensured we can participate in Christ’s fellowship by the Spirit with his Father.
So often we look into passages regarding the coming of Christ in glory and begin to impress upon them our private expectations and opinions rather than seeing them from God’s point of view. We see the world around us as very messy, filled with evil and sin, and right away call for God to rend the heavens and come down in a dramatic deliverance. We can easily diminish the incredible reality of what God has already done for us in the entrance of his Son into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.
We’re entering into the Advent season, and I am reminded of that beautiful night when the shepherds were quietly tending their flocks on the Judean hillsides. Suddenly an angel appeared—“rending the heavens”—with an incredible message that would change the world forever—the Messiah had come in the person of an infant lying in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem. The angels gathered around and celebrated this good news, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).
Later on, this Savior, as he faced his upcoming death on the cross and resurrection, spoke of the transition which would occur between the kingdom of God which he was inaugurating in his passion and that glorious day when he would come in power, ushering in the new heavens and the new earth. He knew there would be a substantial time lapse between his ascension and the day of his final arrival, and he wanted his followers to stay in a state of continual readiness and diligence, especially with regards to sharing the good news of what Christ did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
What Jesus forged for us in our humanity tore open our cosmos and set it upon a new footing—in the all-ready/not-yet of God’s kingdom, he has made all things new. We have an incredible hope that bursts into our gloomy sin-laden world and lays bare all our futile efforts at being good and forces us to a crisis—where will we put our faith? Will we continue to trust in our human efforts to rule ourselves—to count on our 201 ways to solve our own problems and save ourselves? Will we keep to our own agenda or will we submit ourselves to God’s plan for our lives? Is Christ—the way he really is—good enough for us? Or do we need to add something to the simple reality of his grace and truth?
Our attention does not need to be on some particular plan or outline of end-time events, but solely on Jesus. Christ is our life. We participate through baptism in his death and resurrection, renewing this covenant relation as we take the bread and the wine in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith. We live each day in attentiveness to Jesus’ coming and presence—both in his presence here and now by the Spirit at work in this world, but also in anticipation of his coming glorious presence at the renewal of all things. As things grow more difficult for us, as we struggle to stay the course, we can hold ever more tightly to the reality that Christ has come, he is come now by the Spirit, and one day he will come in glory. We have every reason to hope. Maranatha—even so come, Lord Jesus!
Father, thank you for the grace you have given us in your Son, for the work you already accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and are working out in this world even now by your Holy Spirit. Keep us ever diligent, ever faithful, attentive to the end to our precious Lord Jesus by your Spirit. Amen.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 NASB
See also Mark 13:24–37.
By Linda Rex
August 30, 2020, Proper 17—The pandemic and its associated quarantine have complicated our lives in so many ways. We are bombarded with new distractions, frustrations, and limitations. Some of us are way out of our comfort zone as we attempt new tasks or abandon comfortable routines. It may seem as though we are caught in the midst of a cyclone of mini-crises with no visible means of escape.
Perhaps it would be helpful to see ourselves on a journey where suddenly we are faced with a desolate mountainside to climb—struggling to carry ourselves forward, navigating dangerous outcroppings and unforeseen chasms in our effort to reach the other side. This journey is never made alone, but with the One who has made himself our companion—Jesus Christ. He says to you and to me, “Follow me.” He already knows the way and intends to take us safely to the other side, no matter what may we may face on the way.
The reality is that when Jesus calls us to follow him he knows that life is going to be a struggle for us. To leave behind our comfortable, cozy mattress to find rest in a sleeping bag on a rocky mountainside is not an easy decision. Along the journey, we may decide we’re done with traveling and start looking for a cushy oasis to settle down into. And our adversary loves to supply us with one if it means we will stop following our Lord and Savior and return to our life of sin.
We need to be like Moses, who when the Lord spoke to him from the burning bush said simply, “Here I am.” To simply offer ourselves to God one more time in this particular moment is to follow Jesus. In the offering of ourselves to God, though, we must remember that God will come to us, reveal himself to us, and call us to join with him on a difficult task. Moses told God, “I’m here” and God told him to go lead the Israelites out of Egypt—a breathtaking task for a self-effacing shepherd on a mountainside.
Jesus had just blessed Peter for recognizing him as Messiah, the Son of God, when he began to tell his disciples what the Sanhedrin was going to do to him when he got to Jerusalem. Peter emphatically refused to believe that Jesus would be crucified and die at the hands of the Jewish leaders. Without realizing it, Peter gave in to the adversary’s effort to distract Jesus from the path he knew he had to follow for the sake of all humanity. What seemed to be loving, brotherly compassion and care in Peter’s mind turned out to be a not too subtle temptation for Jesus in complete opposition to the will and purposes of God.
Strong-willed, impulsive Peter seemed to be struggling with the idea that God calls the shots in this world and that sometimes those decisions God makes are not what we think should happen. What is most important to us is not always what is most important to God. He lives in the realm of eternity—we live in the everyday of the temporary.
It seems that if we were to design the Christian life on our terms, it might look like this: A person comes to faith, says the right words, gets baptized, goes to church, everything in their life begins to start working out properly now, they never get sick, and they start making all kinds of money since now they are giving God his portion. Do you see the issue? Throughout this whole life experience—nothing goes wrong, no one gets hurt, and there is no suffering. But it’s not reality.
Jesus knew the human experience. He knew that the minute any of us stepped foot in one of his footprints, the adversary would be on top of them immediately. He knew how easy it would be for us to return to our old ways of thinking and acting instead of embracing our new life in him. He knew that the only path to true transformation of our humanity would be the one through death into resurrection.
So Jesus says to us that we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. There is a cost to following Jesus and it involves dying to our old ways of living and being, and embracing the reality that there will be suffering and struggle in the process. We need to realize that just as the crowds ridiculed and taunted Jesus, there will be those who oppose our choosing to follow him down the path to the cross. There will be tough decisions to make and difficult struggles to end unhealthy relationships and begin new Christ-centered ones.
And there will be circumstances which come up in our lives where we struggle to make sense of what God has done or is doing. Why does God allow some people to die when others who do so much evil continue to live and cause such destruction in this world? There are so many difficult questions for which we have no answers.
We must come back to that place where we simply recognize the holy ground of God’s presence, take off our shoes, and humbly say to him, “Here I am.” We are but creatures and he is the loving Creator, and he has joined us on our journey, shared our pain and suffering, died our death, and sent his Spirit to be present with us in every moment. We are not alone on this journey—and he will bring us safely to the other side. And that is enough.
When the apostle Paul describes the Christian life, he gives some examples of what it looks like. In Romans 12:9–21, he tells the followers of Jesus to love without hypocrisy, to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good. He encourages them to be diligent and fervent in their service to the Lord. He reminds them to persevere in the midst of life’s trials and to devote themselves to prayer and providing for the needs of their spiritual brothers and sisters. Then he gets to the really difficult things—blessing those who persecute them, associating with the poverty-stricken and needy, and never exacting revenge on those who do evil or harm them.
The life of a follower of Jesus is never intended to always be convenient, simple, and comfortable. If anything, it is an arduous struggle. But it’s never done alone. We have the companionship of our spiritual brothers and sisters to lift us up, encourage, and strengthen us. And we have the intimate companionship of our Lord and Savior who indwells us by the Spirit. On our journey, he is present in every moment as we listen, heed, and yield ourselves to him, to give us direction, encouragement, inspiration, and correction.
The life of faith in Jesus is full of moments of joy, peace, hope, and fellowship. We do not walk alone, but have fellow travelers with us on our journey. Yes, there will be difficulties, struggles, and disappointments. But in the midst of whatever may be occurring, we can know that we need only say, “Here I am” and we will find ourselves encountering the living Lord. He is as near as his name on our lips— “Jesus.” He is as close as the breath we breathe—the Spirit who dwells in us. Take a moment right now to feel his presence in you and with you—and commit once again to following him wherever he leads.
Heavenly Father, you are the source of all things—our life and our existence are in you. Jesus, you went before us, living our life and dying our death so that we might rise with you into new life. Spirit, remind us again that we are not alone on this journey, but we have God’s real presence in us and with us as we follow Jesus wherever he leads. We are here, Lord—bring us to where us want us to be. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’” Matthew 16:21–26 NASB
By Linda Rex
August 23, 2020, Proper 16—Recently, one of the hardest things for me as a pastor was to have to stay at home on Sunday mornings when I would much rather have been at church among the dear people of my congregation, talking with them face to face. I missed the laughter, singing worship songs together, and praying with people carrying heavy burdens needing lifted. We were so blessed to be able to still gather online, but there were so many faces I was not able to see and voices I was not able to hear since the quarantine began.
It is hard to watch the church in exile in this way, and I’m glad so many congregations like our own are beginning to be able to gather again. It is good to remember, though, that it is in times like these that the seeds of God’s greatest work are often planted. It is when the church is resisted or pressed against that it expands and grows in exponential ways.
This brings to mind the Old Testament reading for August 23rd (Exodus 1:8–2:10). Here we find the fledgling people of Israel have been in the land of Egypt for over three hundred years. Over the centuries, the rulers of the land have forgotten the history of this people and how Joseph helped to save Egypt from starvation. Now they only see the people of Israel as a threat to the present regime, so they are enslaved, forced to help the building of Egypt’s great cities.
As the numbers of the Israelites grew, the ruler of Egypt made an edict that every one of their boy babies was to be killed at birth. He increased the toil in their slavery and pressed harder and harder upon them. But no matter how hard he tried to restrict, reduce, or diminish Israel, the more they grew in numbers. In time, God even sent a deliverer, a baby boy placed in a rush basket in the Nile river who was adopted by the king’s daughter. He would, in God’s good time, deliver his people from slavery in Egypt.
This story is a good reminder that no matter how hard any of us try, we cannot resist the purposes and plans of our mighty God. He had made a covenant with Abraham, renewed it with his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob (whom he named Israel). He had told Israel that his people would be in Egypt for four hundred thirty years, and sure enough, when that time was up, God ensured that they were brought out of Egypt and into the new life he had in mind for them in the promised land.
The redemption of the nation of Israel began, in this sense, with the revelation to Moses of who God was—the I Am. He was their deliverer, their redeemer, and he was faithful to them in all their ups and downs, even when they turned from him and fell back into their idolatry and rebellion. The I Am was faithful to them, and even when they ended up in exile because of their turning away from him, he ultimately brought them back to their homeland in Judea.
But the nation of Israel Jesus came to had been through so much. The scribes, Pharisees, and leaders of the nation had made significant changes to how they worshiped God while they were in exile. They had put so many traditions and rituals into effect to ensure their purity that they had actually placed the Jewish people into a new form a slavery. Instead of a joyful relationship with their redeemer, they often found they could not do everything that was required of them. And when it came to temple worship, there were levels of exclusion, with women and proselytes being relegated to the outer courts, and Gentiles of any nation being excluded from table fellowship with the Jews.
This obviously was not God’s intent. We find Jesus near the end of his ministry asking his disciples who people were saying he was (Matthew 16:13–20). The common person believed Jesus was some type of prophet. There hadn’t been prophets for centuries up until the time of John the Baptizer and there weren’t supposed to be any more until the end of the age. This was a significant assumption on their part—the messianic deliverance of their people must be near since now Jesus was present and doing healings, miracles, and feeding the multitudes.
Jesus’ then asked his disciples who they thought he was. This is a good question even for you and me to ask ourselves. Do we imagine that Jesus is just a prophet—a good man who did a lot of nice, miraculous things and taught people how to live? If this is the case, we are missing out on the whole point of Israel’s story. We are missing the message of scripture—in the fullness of time, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Deliverer, not just of his people but of all people everywhere. Jesus, the I Am in human flesh, the Messiah who lived our life, died our death, and rose, ascending into glory, is so much more than just a prophet!
Jesus is the one who establishes in his person our identity as human beings. When Jesus said, “But you, who do you say I am?” he was asking them to accurately ascertain what it meant that he was their Messiah. It did not mean he was a political leader set to take over by powerful, military means. What it meant was that he would allow circumstances to take their course, submitting himself to the evil plans of the leaders of his own people, knowing it would result in his crucifixion. He knew this was the path that was going to be necessary to reconstitute the people of God, Israel.
Peter’s response, given to him by our heavenly Father, acknowledged who Jesus was as the Son of the living God, the Messiah. He may not have understood the distinction between who the Messiah Jesus was and that kind of messiah which the people hoped he was. But his answer pointed to a new reality.
Jesus, in response, took the Jewish rabbis’ authority to ratify what was bound and loosed in heaven and gave it to the apostles, with Peter as their representative. He gave Peter, and the apostles, the keys to the kingdom—and we see in the book of Acts how Peter and the apostles first opened the doors to the kingdom through their proclamation of the word on Pentecost after the resurrection, and subsequently when the gospel was received by the Samaritans, and later the Gentiles at Cornelius’ home. The doors of the church were opened wide to receive all nations and peoples, with all worship and obedience centered in Jesus Christ alone.
Jesus told the disciples that not even death could stop the expansion of the kingdom of God. Death would not prevail against the church, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ was assured and it happened just as Jesus said it would. Yes, he did have to die on the cross and enter the gates of death, but death could not hold him! And neither can it hold us any longer.
Whatever effort the evil one may make to silence or kill the church will fail. We know this because love never fails. Our God, who is love, has come, given himself to us and for us, and has risen from the grave. He has bound all humanity to himself in an unbreakable bond and sent the Spirit to draw us together into a community of faith, a body of believers, the church. By the Spirit we are given special gifts for each member to participate in the edification of the church and the proclamation of the gospel.
Our calling today is to cease giving ourselves over to the ungodly ways of this broken world and to embrace who we are as the called-out ones—the children of God. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds—informing ourselves of the will and purposes of God and living accordingly, participating fully in the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit (Romans 12:1-8). And we can rely fully on Jesus’ assurance that what he has begun in his church, he will finish, even to the end of this cosmos.
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you are Lord of your church, and that death did not, cannot, and will not prevail against it, for its existence is bound up in your very self. Thank you, Spirit, for your giftings and blessing—grant us the grace to edify your church and proclaim the good news with boldness, courage, and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Look to Abraham your father | And to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; | When he was but one I called him, | Then I blessed him and multiplied him.” Isaiah 51:2 NASB
“’Had it not been the LORD who was on our side,’ | Let Israel now say, ‘Had it not been the LORD who was on our side | When men rose up against us, | Then they would have swallowed us alive, | When their anger was kindled against us; | Then the waters would have engulfed us, | The stream would have swept over our soul; Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.’ … Our help is in the name of the LORD, | Who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 124:1-5, 8 NASB
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; | You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, | And Your right hand will save me. | The LORD will accomplish what concerns me; | Your lovingkindness, O LORD, is everlasting; | Do not forsake the works of Your hands.” Psalm 138:7-8 NASB
By Linda Rex
August 16, 2020, Proper 15—If there is one thing we are good at as human beings, it is finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other people. We seem to find ways to elevate ourselves while demeaning others, or including ourselves while excluding others. One of the worst things we as Christians do so often is to use the Word of God and our religious faith to create unhealthy boundaries between ourselves and other people.
The one place where we as followers of Christ should find common ground is at the table of thanksgiving—communion. Here we each acknowledge anew with gratitude that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we find our true life in him. Here every person who trusts in him is bound to the community of faith, no matter his or her race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social status, or any other type of differentiation we might come up with.
The gospel passage for August 16th tells the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. Unfortunately for her, orthodox Jewish people of that day believed they had to separate themselves from the Gentiles. This meant she was excluded from any connection with the Jewish rabbis or synagogues. The fact that she sought help from Jesus showed an understanding and appreciation for who Jesus was that the Jewish authorities had denied. They ridiculed any possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Messiah.
Previous to his encounter with this woman, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees. They had criticized Jesus’ disciples for not observing careful ceremonial washing before they ate. Jesus pointed out their nitpicking observation of their traditions actually prevented people from obeying God and loving others as they were supposed to. For example, they said if a person gave to the temple coffers the support which was meant for the care of their dependent parents, that it was acceptable. But Jesus said that doing so broke God’s command that parents be honored and cared for by their children.
Later Jesus explained to his disciples when they were alone that it wasn’t what a person put into their bodies that made them unclean, but what came out of their hearts. Whatever we eat eventually gets used or discarded by our bodies. But what comes out of us in what we say and do is often what defiles us. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”
Matthew, in his gospel, says that after this conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and made his way into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Was he trying to avoid more of these provocative conversations so he could focus on teaching his disciples? Perhaps. But what is interesting is that their next experience was meeting this Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on my daughter, Son of David!”
Here we have someone who is excluded from the Jewish fellowship who is calling Jesus “Son of David”, a title only appropriate for the Messiah. Why did she call him this? Was she a Gentile proselyte? In any case, she seemed to be much more in agreement with who Jesus was than the Pharisees were.
The disciples, though, seemed not to have learned much from their previous experience with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish scriptures spoke of the day God’s salvation would be known among all nations. A foreigner coming to Jesus and asking for mercy was welcome—it said so in the writings they read in the synagogue. But it was their traditions regarding the Gentiles which created the barrier between them and caused them to resist including this woman in what they were doing.
Yes, Jesus was sent first to his people, Israel or the Jews, but not to the total exclusion of others. Jesus came to his people first so that when all was said and done, every human being would have a place at his table—all could come to him in faith and be received.
Jesus’ comment to the woman about taking the table food and feeding the dogs could have been an insult. But she knew that in a family, even the pet dogs had a place at the table, picking up the scraps off the floor. Even today, we often consider our pets to be part of our family, included in our life and worthy of at least a few choice leftovers after the meal. Speaking in this way, the woman touched Jesus’ heart, and so, in compassion, he healed her daughter.
Jesus remarked on her faith. While the disciples were busy trying to avoid having her bother the Messiah, the Messiah was busy being who he was—the bringer of salvation to all people, both Jew and Gentile. She trusted him to be compassionate and gracious, and so he was. She asked for mercy and she received it, because she trusted him to provide it.
What joy there must have been as this woman’s daughter was finally free from what had brought such chaos, pain, and suffering in her family! What Satan had meant to steal, kill, and destroy was replaced by the love, healing, and mercy of God—the renewal of the family bonds. This was but a small reflection of Jesus’ eternal intimate bond of love with his heavenly Father in the Spirit.
Perhaps it would be helpful to take a few moments to reflect on what barriers we may have at work in our lives which need to be replaced by love, compassion, and mercy. Who do we know who needs the tender touch of our Savior? Perhaps instead of criticism, condemnation, or isolation, today we may offer prayer, understanding, and a kind word or smile. What barrier can we replace today with God’s love and grace?
Holy Spirit, grant us the heart of Jesus towards each and every person we encounter in our lives. Enable us to see them as you do—one whom you came for, Jesus—one whom you love, Abba. Grant us the grace to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us ill, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is only possible through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. In your Name we ask this. Amen.
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, | To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, | To be His servants, ‘every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath | And holds fast My covenant; | Even those I will bring to My holy mountain | And make them joyful in My house of prayer. | Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; | For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ | The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB
“That Your way may be known on the earth, | Your salvation among all nations. | Let the peoples praise You, O God; | Let all the peoples praise You. | 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; | For You will judge the peoples with uprightness | And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.” Psalm 67:2-4 NASB
See also Matthew 15:21–28.
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