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
By Linda Rex
September 1, 2019, Proper 17—A while back my ministry team and I were invited to attend the 150th anniversary banquet of the Stones River Missionary Baptist Association from whom we rent our church building. My outreach ministry leader, Pat Brazier, and I attended this event as a gesture of gratitude and goodwill toward the association and its members.
As we entered the building, I was hoping we could find a table at the back which would not be conspicuous. I tend to be shy at large gatherings like this, especially if I don’t know anyone—I describe myself as an extroverted introvert. I prefer to hide rather than open myself up when there are a lot of people around me in a room whom I don’t know.
On this occasion, though, I could not have my wish of anonymity. Even though we were the only people there of white skin, the harmony of God’s Spirit made us one with these brothers and sisters in Christ. Pat and I were escorted to the front of the room to a special table reserved for guest pastors. We ended up seated across from Tennessee Senator Brenda Gilmore and two other pastors and their wives. It was a wonderful, inspiring experience for Pat and me.
During the event, I learned a lot of things I did not know about this group of fellow believers and their journey with Jesus. And I learned some things about myself as well. I experienced what it meant to be faced with challenges to my beliefs, preferences, and opinions. Whatever hidden prejudices I have, they were also brought a little closer to the light, as such encounters often expose those things we try, consciously or unconsciously, to keep in the dark.
Our interactions with other human beings are the place where the Holy Spirit does its greatest work, bringing us face to face with others and by doing so bringing us face to face with ourselves and Jesus. It is in relationship with others that the Spirit works to transform hearts and minds, specifically in teaching us about the Father’s love for us in Christ expressed in our love for one another. We are broken human beings, often due to significant relationships which have demonstrated to us and taught us everything but God’s love. Our way of doing things is often the exact opposite to the way God does things, and our broken world with its broken people clearly shows the result of trying to do it our way instead of his.
One of the greatest struggles as human beings sometimes is this whole question of self-exaltation and humility. We live in metropolitan Nashville, a place where musicians and singers come when they want to make their mark in the music world. Often I talk with people who tell me they moved to Nashville from somewhere else in America and when I ask why they moved here, they tell me they wanted to get a job in the music industry and maybe even to be a star. Almost every one of these people is not working in the music industry today but in some other job entirely unrelated to it.
Were they wrong in coming to Nashville and seeking to make their mark? I doubt very much that any of these people were seeking self-exaltation. I’m more inclined to believe most of them were seeking self-expression, to obtain some personal significance, worth, and value through their music. I imagine they wanted to do what they loved and make a living at it. The real world often stands in the way of people being able to achieve their dreams in this way.
The issue, I believe, is not in the desire to take one’s talent, abilities, and gifts and use them to their fullest expression. In God’s kingdom life, we receive all of these things as gifts from God and pour them back out to him in gratitude and in the service of others. We are meant to shine with the glory God has given us as his adopted children and if that includes our musical gift, then it is meant to be fully expressed as God guides and provides us with the opportunities.
The problem seems to be more in what our motive is and why we do what we do. Christian musicians and pastors can very easily care more about their popularity, prosperity, and getting noticed than how they go about being a follower of Jesus Christ. Even while they are up in front of the audience talking about Jesus and his ways, they may be drawing their worth and value from the applause and approval of others rather than resting confidently in the grace and love of their Abba. We are broken human beings—we do these things, whether we are willing to admit it or not.
In Jesus Christ we see exemplified the epitome of humility. The One who was the Word, who had all power, glory, and honor, set the privileges of his divinity temporarily aside to take on our humanity. He who lived in inapproachable light joined us in our darkness, in the tiniest cells in Mary’s womb, so that we could be lifted up from our abasement and drawn up into the Triune life and love.
Jesus told his followers that when they were invited to a banquet, they were not to take the prominent seats, but to sit in the lower places and to allow themselves to be moved up by the host. Jesus did not seek his own exaltation, but sought the exaltation of humanity. When challenged in the wilderness by Satan, he rejected his offer to give him ultimate human power and rule. He refused to stop identifying with us as broken human beings and serving us by offering his life for us in our place and on our behalf.
There is no place low enough that Jesus was not willing to enter. Even though the most shameful death for someone in Christ’s day was to be crucified, Jesus intentionally walked toward the cross throughout his ministry. It was not beneath him to enter the realm of the dead nor to become sin for us. His whole purpose was in lifting us up, not in promoting himself.
The kingdom value of true humility as exemplified in Jesus is countercultural. It opposes everything our culture and society work toward. It stands in stark opposition to any leader who promotes himself as being a messiah or savior to his people or someone to be revered. It resists the human pull to self-promotion, arrogance, and pride which often afflicts those in the public eye.
To follow this value of humility is to open up oneself to crucifixion, to being negated, harmed or destroyed. And yet, when we seek the way of true humility, we find that our relationships begin to be healed, our life moves away from darkness into greater and greater light. Leaders who are truly humble and seek to serve those under them rather than manipulate, control, or manage them create a healthier community which more closely resembles God’s kingdom life.
But being humble exacts a price. The price we must pay to be truly humble is to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his sufferings. In this life we may never experience our exaltation, but we can trust in the exaltation of Jesus. We will be exalted in his presence as the adopted children of Abba, fully glorified and reigning with him forever—this is our hope and expectation as we walk in humility before him. In the meantime, our challenge is to live counterculturally in in a world which venerates self-exaltation, self-promotion, and self-interest, by participating with Jesus in his true humility.
Thank you, Jesus, for demonstrating so wonderfully the grace of true humility. Abba, please grow this in us by your Spirit, enabling us to participate fully in your humble nature. Give our human leaders hearts and minds which are truly humble. If they are stubbornly resistant to your humility, may you take them through the consuming fire of your love and grace that they may learn humble servants. We are grateful that you are the true Lord of all and have included us in your life and love in and through Jesus. Amen.
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11 NASB
By Linda Rex
3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER—As the years go by, I find myself reflecting on the journey I have been on with Jesus. The person I am today is profoundly different from the person I was as a young adult. I had lots of dreams back then, and I voiced many strong convictions about what I believed to be true about God, myself, and others, much of which I have since renounced as wrong or inaccurate.
Life seemed to be a lot less complicated back then. I believed that if I just did everything the way it should be done, my life would be blessed, I would be happy, and things would go along quite well without any difficulties or suffering. Whatever difficulty or suffering that might come would be because I sinned or because I was being persecuted for doing what was right. It seemed as though I was on God’s side so he had to be on mine, making sure everything went as it should.
I’m a little embarrassed to think about how naïve and unschooled I was, but it was merely the outgrowth of unhealthy theology and a protected yet legalistic childhood. I have, through the conditioning of God and everyday human existence, come to have a more rounded and mature view of things. There is indeed evil at work in this world, and evil affects anyone and everyone at some point. No matter who we are, we won’t escape failures, difficulties, struggles, and challenges.
A fundamental change in my life began when my view of who I believed God to be was challenged. I believed God was Father and Son, and the Spirit was their power or essence. As I grew in my understanding of who the Holy Spirit really is as the third Person of the Trinity—reading in the scriptures and believing all the examples of his personhood illustrated there and growing in my personal relationship with the Spirit through prayer and listening—my understanding of who Jesus and the Father are began to change as well.
Knowing the Father as our loving Abba and Jesus Christ as his Son the Messiah, the Word who came and took on our human flesh, dying our death, rising again, to bear our glorified humanity in the presence of the Father forever, is life-transforming. As the Spirit brought me nearer and deeper into the life of the Trinity, what I believed kept moving beyond just a religious creed into the realm of personal experience. The reality of Jesus Christ in me, with me, for me, began to take a clearer shape. Jesus was no longer some story character—he had revealed himself to me personally by the Holy Spirit. I began to hear God’s still small voice in my heart and mind, and I began to know and believe I am loved, forgiven, and accepted. The more I believed the truth about who Jesus was and why he came and the more I knew I belonged and was included in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Abba in the Spirit, the more my behavior began to change.
I was more than happy to do my part in obeying God—I had constantly been bombarded by the shoulds, oughts, and have-tos of the belief system I held and all it did was make me worse. The harder I tried, the more I found myself shackled by unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. I struggled often with depression and self-loathing. This obviously wasn’t God’s way of doing things. Eventually, the change I noticed within myself did not come about because I tried harder, but rather because I admitted I couldn’t do it and I needed Christ to do it in me and through me by his Holy Spirit. It happened when I was honest with others about my struggles and failures, and sought help. It happened when I was transparent about my failures, became fully known and yet loved, accepted and forgiven within a healthy spiritual community.
The worst thing about toxic or legalistic religious environments is that they do not allow people to be authentic and real and so find genuine healing and renewal. It seems that when people come together to form a church, they bring with them their masquerade gear and spend copious amounts of energy hiding from one another. In this type of environment, addictions and co-dependencies thrive. Healing and renewal are often limited or are complicated by unhealthy boundaries and toxic relationships.
It is much better to be in a safe spiritual community where each person is able to be genuine and transparent, and is allowed to grow up in Christ. Growing up in healthy ways requires the freedom to make mistakes without condemnation and with the support and encouragement of those who have previously traveled those same difficult paths. A healthy spiritual community allows for falling short without condemnation, but challenges brothers and sisters to grow up into the fullness of who they are in Christ.
Saul was not a bad person. He was a zealous God-fearing Jew. He meant to do the right thing, and he was trying to live life the way he believed God wanted him to. I don’t know why he was so adamant about imprisoning and executing the believers in Christ, but perhaps his zeal for God was also inspired by a need for the approval of his Jewish peers and a need to accomplish what no one else was doing quite as well. Whatever his reasoning, it seemed to be borne out of a heart seeking to please God.
Imagine how horrifying it must have been to realize that the One Saul had been trying to impress was actually the One he had been persecuting. His efforts to earn God’s love and approval, and the adulation and approval of his peers, was actually an action in opposition to God and in persecution of Jesus. Saul needed to know who Jesus Christ really was. He needed to have his image of God reformed into something which more perfectly apprehended the Triune God of love. As Saul sat in the darkness of blindness for a few days, he must have thought at least once—now what do I do? How can I possibly make amends for this?
What if Ananias had refused to listen to Jesus when the Lord told him to go lay hands on Saul so he could see again? What if he had stood in judgment of Saul and had condemned him, insisting he pay for his crimes against Ananias’ friends and fellow believers? But he didn’t. He humbly obeyed Jesus’ command and met Saul right where he was, offering him grace and love, and entrance into the body of Christ, the church.
Saul, whom we know today as the apostle Paul, never minced words when he spoke about his past and his failures in life. He was transparent and honest about the people he had harmed and the suffering he had incurred. Instead of being a reason for shame and guilt, God made his failures an essential part of his witness to the resurrection power of the risen Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was effective often because people saw the profound reversal which had occurred in his life when he met Jesus Christ.
A church should be a spiritual community where people can be authentic and transparent, and safely transverse the changes necessary between spiritual infancy and the spiritual maturity of Christlikeness. This is a journey that takes time, and we all have ups and downs as we travel. We are bound together in Christ to offer one another both grace and truth—to enable one another to be challenged as well as upheld when things don’t go as we planned or hoped they should, or when we fall short of Christ.
The Spirit creates such a community as we respond to his work in our hearts and minds, and live and walk in him, tossing aside the old as unneeded scraps of clothing ready to be burned, and putting on Jesus Christ who is our life and the truth of our being. As we live out the truth of our real reversal in Jesus, the Spirit enables us to participate in bringing others to experience this transformation as well, creating a fellowship of care which reflects the inner life of the Triune God. Our spiritual community isn’t meant to be a closed group but rather a welcoming place where others may find healing and renewal as well.
Dear Abba, thank you that by your Spirit you bring together people to form spiritual communities where they can find healing and renewal, and share that gift with others who are broken and suffering. As believers, change our hearts and minds so that we begin to live together in ways which are transparent and authentic, and are safe for others to participate in and to come to know and grow up in Christ in a healthy way. We thank you for never ceasing to bring us to yourself through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ … and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ ” Acts 9:5-6, 20-21 NASB
By Linda Rex
It’s been quite a few years since I have had babies and toddlers traveling everywhere with me. Now they are full grown, and it’s getting harder to imagine carrying them on my hip and holding their little hand as we walk down the sidewalk. I had such joy watching them explore their world, seeing new things and learning new tasks. It was and is a privilege to be their mom.
In the early days, I recall that every trip to the store and to church involved stuffing a diaper bag full of necessities “just in case”: diapers, wipes, extra clothes, toys, a bottle—the list went on. I didn’t want to be caught without something which might be needed. But no matter how prepared I was, it seemed like there was almost always something I forgot to bring.
And going places was not simple. When the children were really little, it seemed like everything took so much longer and required so much more effort. Most of the time it took at least half an hour to an hour just to get the kids ready to go out the door. And then we would only succeed in leaving on time if we were lucky enough to avoid a last-minute disaster such as a dirty diaper.
But going to all that effort was worth it. The point of packing all the necessities was so that we could all be together as a family, doing something important together. We were sharing life together and that meant going through whatever was necessary so that we could be together doing the things which mattered.
At one point while Jesus was instructing his disciples, he sent them out in pairs to share in his work of ministry. Now, I can imagine Peter and James sitting there listening to Jesus say that he was sending them out on this journey. In his head, James began to form a list of what would be necessary—a couple of fishing rods, the stuff he needed for fixing the fishing nets—just in case he would need to catch a few fish when they were hungry. Peter began reviewing which of his favorite tunics he would have his wife mend so he could have an extra one on the road.
But right away Jesus tells them they were to “take nothing for their journey.” They were not to carry any extra baggage, “no bread, no bag, no money in their belt.” They were to just take a staff and wear a tunic and a pair of sandals, and they were good to go.
In their mind, no doubt, the disciples were thinking, surely, we could take a few things “just in case”. And that’s what speaks to the reason for Jesus’ instructions. The “just in case” concern is the one in which we as humans feel as though we must do everything necessary to hold things together so nothing will go wrong. So, we need this, that, and the other thing “just in case”.
Previous to Jesus sending out his disciples in this passage, Mark describes how Jesus in his own hometown, because of the unbelief of the people there, was unable to do any miracles except a few healings. They did not believe Jesus was the person he said he was. No, he was the carpenter who fixed their door, and built them a stable, and roofed their house. He was no messiah.
But here, Jesus is calling on his disciples to believe—to literally walk by faith—to move forward into the ministry of the gospel trusting that Jesus is their Messiah and has indeed empowered them to heal the sick and cast out demons. They were not to depend upon their own ability to provide for themselves, but to completely depend upon Abba and allow other people to provide for their needs. No doubt, this would have been difficult for these independent, self-reliant men who in the past had always provided for themselves.
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when God expects ministers of the gospel to pay their own way. But this was a special missionary journey Christ was sending his disciples on, and he did not want them distracted by the cares and concerns of daily life. And they also needed to learn to trust in Abba for their daily needs and to not depend solely upon themselves. There were lessons Jesus was trying to teach his disciples and they were best learned by doing the work of preaching the gospel, healing, and casting out demons without being distracted with the mundane cares of life.
Too, having to depend upon the people they were ministering to was a way in which these men were placed in a position of needing people to help them. This created space for relationship. If they wanted something to eat or drink, they would need to ask for it or receive it from someone if it was offered to them. If they wanted a place to stay, they would need someone to offer it to them. They would need to be humble and receptive to whatever came their way. Their life became fully a life of service, of giving. They would be laying down their self-sufficiency and be fully dependent upon Abba and others.
No doubt Jesus, and Abba, took great joy in watching these men undertake this mission and learn to share the gospel in everyday life with new people in new places. They were spiritual toddlers who were just learning to walk in the ways of Jesus, growing in their faith and in their service to God.
And Jesus had every intention of seeing them through this experience—he gave them the authority to do what was needed in their situation, and he was with them in Spirit as they went about preaching the gospel. And he was thrilled they were moving forward into their calling as his apostles—the ones set aside to bear witness to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
In the same way Abba and Jesus enjoy watching us grow in our spiritual walk and service to God. Each of us is called to share the gospel in word and deed and we are given all we need to take on our journey. We don’t really need anything else “just in case” because, in Christ, we have been given all we need for life and godliness.
We are to walk by faith, not by sight. We are to trust in God, not in our own ability to save ourselves. Our hope isn’t in having everything under our control and fully provided for, but fully in Jesus Christ who stands in our place and on our behalf. We can drop the diaper bag or the suitcase of our human efforts to save ourselves and travel lightly, fully dependent upon God’s grace. Jesus Christ is sufficient for us. We don’t need anything else.
Thank you, Abba, that you provide for our every need and often even the true desires of our hearts. Thank you for empowering us to share your words of life with others and to help them find healing and wholeness in your Son Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to trust in you and your great love and faithfulness, and to lay down our futile efforts to save and provide for ourselves apart from you. Thank you that because of your love and faithfulness, we don’t need to take anything along our journey “just in case” but can trust fully and solely in you. In Jesus’ Name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.
“And He summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits; and He instructed them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belt—but to wear sandals; and He added, ‘Do not put on two tunics.’” Mark 6:7-9 NASB
By Linda Rex
Creative people such as writers, songwriters, and artists will most likely at some point experience the painful reality of rejection or dismissal of their creative efforts. Sadly, many a gifted person has walked away from pursuing a career in a particular field because a significant person or instructor has rejected or harshly criticized what they have offered.
I remember as a youth I had loved to write little stories and poetry. I thought maybe I might like to be an author someday, but my writing always seemed inadequate and trite. When I first went to college I turned in a paper for an American literature course. The teacher gave me a C, which was a new experience for an A student. I finally got up the courage to ask her why she gave me such a low grade on what I thought was a good paper. She proceeded to annihilate all my efforts at writing. If I had been emotionally healthier, I believe I might have handled her criticism better, but as it was, it took me a long time before I allowed someone else to read or critique my creative writing.
I realize today rejection is a part of our human experience. None of us like it, especially when we have become hypersensitive due to attachment wounds. Rejection can feel very much like a death, because it penetrates down to the core of who we believe we are. We can allow fear of rejection to hamper us and tie us down, even to the place we are immobilized by it in the very areas we are the most gifted.
Rejection is not something we are alone in experiencing, though. Throughout the centuries, our loving God has experienced the rejection of his chosen people, and the rejection of the creatures he created in his own image after his likeness.
I would say in many ways our experience of rejection, whatever it may be, is a sharing in the rejection God has experienced since the first rejection of Adam and Eve. They chose to turn away from him and trust in their own ability to determine what is right and wrong rather than embracing his gift of the tree of life in relationship with him.
If we were to accept our common experience of rejection, we might find ourselves better able to handle rejection when it happens to us. We can be compassionate when it happens to another person, and more thoughtful before rejecting someone else. And if anything, it ought to at least make us sympathetic enough to reconsider our own personal response to God’s personal offer of love and grace to us.
Truly, we are each put in the place of having to make a decision when we encounter Jesus Christ. When we come face to face with the living Lord, we must embrace him or reject him—he does not give us any middle ground.
The story in the Christian calendar which is normally told on December 28th involves the encounter of the wise men from the east with the newly born Messiah. In this story, we see two completely different responses to Jesus Christ’s arrival. The correct response is illustrated by the wise men following the lead of the Spirit and the light of a star, seeking out the Christ child, and upon finding him, worshiping him and offering him gifts. This is the best response any of us can give when we come face to face with the truth of God’s love and presence in the person of Jesus Christ.
The other hell-bent response is illustrated by King Herod. Yes, he sought to know where the Christ child was, ostensibly to worship him, but in reality, for the sole purpose of destroying him and preventing him from fulfilling his purpose for coming into the world. King Herod wasn’t satisfied with ignorance of Jesus’ location, No, his rejection of the Messiah went so far as to include massacring all the boy babies in Bethlehem.
The rejection of the Messiah by King Herod is only the beginning of the many ways in which Jesus was rejected during his lifetime on earth. Though he “grew up healthy and strong” and “he was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him” as a human boy (Luke 2:40), we find out later by some of his people he was considered an illegitimate child only worthy of contempt (John 8:41).
Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus either embraced or rejected by the people he encountered. Indeed, the ones we expect to see him welcomed by are the ones who actually opposed him. Sitting at his feet were the lost, the least, and those rejected by the religious leaders. Those same leaders rejected Jesus’ person and ministry, even though he demonstrated by miracle and acts of love he was the Messiah, the Son of God in person.
Toward the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus began to push the buttons of these leaders. He brought them face to face with the sinfulness of their hearts, and exposed the evil motives which drove them. He brought them to judgment, to krisis, to a place where they would have to choose. He sought to bring them to repentance and faith—but he knew they would not make that choice. He knew the Jewish leaders would reject him, and he warned his disciples this would happen.
We are reminded on Palm Sunday how the crowds welcomed Jesus with joy, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem. And then on Good Friday we are reminded anew of the real extent of all of humanity’s rejection of the Savior of the world as Jesus died at our hands in the crucifixion. It is not enough that Judas Iscariot betrayed him, but then Peter his close companion denied him. You and I stand there in each moment of rejection, betrayal, and denial, and we find ourselves betraying, denying, and crucifying Christ Jesus ourselves.
This should not create an oppressive sorrow, but rather the deep sorrow of repentance which is overwhelmed by the joy of renewal and forgiveness in the resurrection. This rejected One took your place and mine and in our stead gave us new life—the acceptance and embrace of our heavenly Abba.
Jesus Christ, the rejected One, does not reject us—he saves us! Abba, the Father we turned our backs on and rejected, receives us in his Son Jesus Christ—we are accepted in the Beloved. The Spirit is sent to us so we can participate fully in the divine perichoretic relationship of love and grace.
We find in Christ, the rejected One, a unity with God and with one another which would not otherwise exist. In Jesus Christ by the Spirit we find the capacity to forgive those who reject us, and the ability to embrace those we would normally reject.
The beauty of the Triune life in each Person’s unique relationship, equality, and unity begins to be expressed in our relationships with God and one another as we turn to Christ and receive the gift of the Spirit he gives us. This time of year, as we ponder the loss of so many innocent lives both then and now, we are comforted by the gift God gave us in his Son Jesus Christ. As we receive this precious gift and open ourselves up to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, we will find we are not rejected, but beloved and held forever in the Triune embrace of love and grace, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Dearest Abba, thank you for your infinite patience, compassion, and grace toward us in spite of our rejection of you and our refusal to humble ourselves to accept your love as obedient children. Grant us repentance and faith—a simple trust in your perfect love and grace—a turning away from ourselves and a turning toward your Son Jesus, and an opening up of all of ourselves to you and the work of your Spirit of truth. May we walk in love and grace towards one another in Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11 NLT
By Linda Rex
One of the prophecies in the Old Testament which I find to be most interesting is in the book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah wrote about Cyrus years before he became the conquering king written about in the history books.
Ironically, even though he played a type of messianic role for the Jewish people, he was not a Jew. It speaks volumes that God would work through and with a non-Jewish king to rescue his people. In Isaiah’s prophecy, God says through Isaiah that even though Cyrus didn’t even know God, God still singled him out, called him by name, and gave him a special job to do. And it wasn’t for Cyrus’ sake God did this, but for the sake of God’s relationship with his covenant people, the Israelites.
Even though Cyrus was not acquainted with the God of Israel and worshiped gods who were not real gods, he was still equipped by God for this special mission and blessed by God as he performed it.
Cyrus was indeed responsible for conquering and killing a lot of people as he took power and invaded nations. I’m sure such bloodshed was not in God’s heart—it was something in Cyrus’ heart and was his way of doing things. Yet God chose to work in and through Cyrus in the midst of all this so that he, the God of Israel, would be made known as the one and only true God, who creates and sustains all there is in heaven and on earth, and his people would be returned to their promised land to prepare the way for the real messiah.
A lot of times we differentiate between good people and bad people, assuming God only works with, in, and through good people. We figure if God is going to do something significant in this world, he’s going to do it through people who are moral, righteous people or who are people who share a particular faith or belief system.
God is a Being who can and will work out his plans to love and care for his covenant people and to accomplish his purposes in the world by whatever means he feels are necessary. He can do and sometimes does do this all on his own. But it seems more often than not he includes human beings in the process. He likes to have us participate with him in what he’s doing in the world.
Our participation in what God is doing in the world often looks much different than what we assume it should look like. Sometimes humans do evil and horrible things. But God takes these things and in spite of them, or by transforming and redeeming them, he draws us all deeper into real relationship in and with him, into life eternal within the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.
And those of us who participate with him in his work in this world are not always aware of the significance of how we are participating with God while he works out what he is trying to do. Many times, we go through life like little children, believing it is all about us, about what we are trying to accomplish, and what we are wanting to do or what we believe is important. We can be quite narcissistic in how we approach life and living. But that doesn’t keep God from finding ways to include us in what he is doing.
I don’t know how many times in my life I have realized after the fact something I said or did turned out to be a significant event in another person’s life. It may have been to me a simple, unimportant thing I did. It may have actually been a thoughtless word or deed. It could have just been an offhand comment. But in some way, it impacted another person or impacted some situation in such a way it completely altered the direction it was headed. And really, I was unaware of it at the time—I was just doing what I was doing, being me, and this amazing thing happened in spite of me.
For those of us who are trying to live good Christian lives it may be a challenge to take our focus off our efforts to do good and be good. It is easy to get caught up in whether or not we are being good people, and whether or not we are pleasing God. We can get so focused on how well we are living our lives we miss the real point of it all—that God knows us and loves us completely and thoroughly, and calls us into relationship with himself in and through Jesus Christ. God wants us to know him and love him, and to come to the place we really know and love one another as well. There is a relational focus to life in Christ which is a far cry above just being good, moral people.
Instead of being focused on how well we are performing, or whether or not we are achieving success in some enterprise or conquering some country, maybe we need to be focused on getting to know the real God—the One who made all things and sustains all things by the Word of his power. Maybe this has more to do with growing in our relationships of love and grace with God and our fellow human beings than about exactly what we are doing in a specific moment. Maybe what is really significant is living each moment of our lives in the presence of and in real relationship with our God, and acknowledging the truth of who he is and who we are in Christ.
I don’t think any of us truly understand the significance of Jesus sharing in our humanity. There is something about him as God being here in human flesh which is important to our day to day existence. He shares in our particular profession or human activity, and we can participate in some way in what God is doing in the world while we are doing it.
Yes, we need to consider whether or not it is a real participation in what God is doing in the world. Is Jesus in the midst of it and does it reflect his nature and way of being? Is it life-giving and life-sustaining? What does it mean to have real life in and with the Father, Son, and Spirit—and how is doing this particular thing a sharing in God’s life?
But we also need to remember it’s always more about our relationship with God and with those around us than it is a matter of perfect behavior, abundant production, and material success. It’s learning to walk through life knowing and believing God is in you and with you in the midst of whatever you are doing in every moment.
We live in and with our God, and he is always at work in us and in our world, and he invites us to come along and participate in what he’s doing. We may not know him fully yet, but he knows us thoroughly and completely, and loves us, and calls us to live in and with him both now and forever, and we can do this in and through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit.
Dear Abba, thank you for inviting us to share life with you in and through your Son Jesus Christ and by the gift of your Holy Spirit. Enable us to focus less on our material success and physical accomplishments and more on living in loving, gracious relationships with you and all those we encounter day to day. Enable us to do all things in a way which is a real participation in your love and life through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“God’s Message to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he took by the hand to give the task of taming the nations, of terrifying their kings—He gave him free rein, no restrictions: “I’ll go ahead of you, clearing and paving the road. I’ll break down bronze city gates, smash padlocks, kick down barred entrances. I’ll lead you to buried treasures, secret caches of valuables—confirmations that it is, in fact, I, God, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. It’s because of my dear servant Jacob, Israel my chosen, that I’ve singled you out, called you by name, and given you this privileged work. And you don’t even know me! I am God, the only God there is. Besides me there are no real gods. I’m the one who armed you for this work, though you don’t even know me, so that everyone, from east to west, will know that I have no god-rivals. I am God, the only God there is. I form light and create darkness, I make harmonies and create discords. I, God, do all these things. Open up, heavens, and rain. Clouds, pour out buckets of my goodness! Loosen up, earth, and bloom salvation; sprout right living. I, God, generate all this.” Isaiah 45:1-8 MSG
by Linda Rex
This season of year has its ups and downs. It can be so heartwarming and inspiring, while at the same time full of stress and anxious care about shopping and decorating and family complications. I have a special fondness for this time of year since God has awakened me to the wonder of its deep meaning. Understanding the mystery of the incarnation (can one truly understand a mystery?) carries me through all the hassle and frustration which can come from the external efforts to celebrate Christmas.
At this time of year I’m especially mindful of the time in my life when I distained Christmas as being a pagan holiday we should not celebrate if we are true Christians. While I’m still trying to determine exactly what a “true Christian” is (as compared to a “false Christian”), now I see a whole lot more clearly how we can get so caught up in a religious paradigm we cannot see what is right in front of us. We can be so focused on the “truth” that we miss seeing the living Truth who has entered our world and has begun to transform it from the inside out.
Today is Epiphany, and the gospel reading from the lectionary for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Here we read about the magi from the east who traveled many miles seeking to find a newly born king of the Jews. They followed a star and ended up in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was quite unnerving for King Herod to have these men asking about a king he knew nothing about. And no doubt it made him feel quite insecure about his throne.
So Herod called all together the chief priests and scribes—the ones who were supposed to know the Hebrew scriptures and history—and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. The high priests and scribes were the ones who probably would know the answer to the magi’s question, so Herod addressed the question to them.
They told the magi to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem. Now, it seems to me, if they had a real interest in knowing about the Messiah or in seeking him out, they would have been alert to what was really going on. They would have joined the search party, or would have maybe even led it. But King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and told them to look for the child and to tell him if or when they found him. And the magi left all by themselves, with no Jewish people in their party.
These people who were trusting in astrology to guide them, who were in essence, pagan Gentiles, were seeking to find a child who was Jewish. Now there were some Jews who were pagan enough that they believed the stars ordained certain events. But the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles, and because of this they missed something very important which was happening in their world. Their religious paradigm did not allow them to believe that someone other than a Jew might know something about the Messiah they had been expecting for centuries.
Is it possible to have the light of God available to you and still wander around in darkness? Apparently so.
The gospel story we read in the Bible shows us that these Jewish leaders were a whole lot more interested in retaining their positions of power and influence and in restoring the Jewish nation to prominence than they were interested in finding out if the messiah had arrived and had something important to say to them as his people. Their paradigm assured them the messiah would appear in a certain way, he would do certain things, and he most certainly would not look, talk or behave anything like Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, I was told a lot of things about the Christmas holiday and what it meant and why it shouldn’t be observed, but no one ever told me the truth. I was told a lot of superstition, a lot of hearsay, and a lot of heated explanations of why observing Christmas was a sin, but none of those things turned out to be based on facts or on a mature, well-examined explanation of Christian history.
I remember one afternoon sitting in the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium listening to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. It stirred something deep within me. I knew the event of Jesus Christ coming to us and dying on the cross was significant, but I still missed the crucial point—God came into human flesh to live and die and to rise again, and now he bears our perfected humanity for all eternity in the presence of the Father. Forever, we are with God, in Christ by the Spirit. We are embraced, held, in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by God’s infinite grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
We can focus on whether or not something is pagan, and miss the light of God in the midst of the darkness. Whatever we observe as human is bound to be pagan in some way because we are all broken people. All our righteousness ends up being filthy rags to God—we must never forget God reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus.
Whatever we offer to God is broken and flawed—our efforts to get it right are feeble at best. This is why we follow the lead of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We count on God’s grace to carry us. We need to be alert to the living Truth in the midst of all our darkness and brokenness. The Light has come—we need to pay attention, turn to the Light and allow him to show us what is really going on, and to follow where he leads us rather than stay in our misguided paradigms.
Who we listen to is crucial. The magi listened to God when he spoke to them in a dream (would we ever consider doing that)? These people who the Jews distained listened to God and obeyed him, and went home a different way, and in the process, they were kept safe from King Herod’s evil plot. They had followed the light of a star, had worshiped the Light who had come and offered him gifts, and by the light of the revelation of God in a dream, found their way safely home.
When Jesus grew older, the scribes, the high priests—this group of people who should have known, recognized and received him as the Light of God—were the very ones who rejected him and crucified him. As John wrote in his gospel: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:9–11 NASB) Their preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be, and their preoccupation which the things of this life—money, power, prestige—blinded them to the true Light which was in their midst.
On this day of Epiphany, it would be good to pause for a moment and to consider this Light of God who has entered our world and brought to us a whole new way of being—the life of God in human flesh. It would be good to ponder the ways in which we close our eyes to the light he wishes to bring into our world: What paradigms do we need to set aside? What old ways of thinking and believing do we need to suspend in order to embrace the possibility we could be wrong or might need to change? What things are we trusting in which have nothing to do with God’s values and God’s desires and what he wants to accomplish in this world?
God’s Light has come, and he is renewing our broken world and existence from the inside out. We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace this New Year in a new frame of mind and heart—one in which Christ is the center rather than us. May your 2017 be full of an abundance of all God’s blessings in Christ!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the gift of a new year ahead of us. You are always working at creating new beginnings. Grant us the grace to keep our life and our being centered in your Light, in Christ your Son, and to stay in tune with and obedient to your Spirit of Life, through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.” Isaiah 60:1–3, 19 NASB