by Linda Rex
December 4, 2022, ADVENT | Peace—We’ve made it through another election season here in America. We have yet to see the full ramifications of our choices. Some prognosticators are predicting worst case scenarios, while others are optimistic and hopeful. We can make lots of predictions, but the ultimate reality is we do not know what the future holds for us as a nation or as individuals.
It appears conflict is one way we exist as human beings. Even though we were designed with differences in mind for the sake of the greater good, we have yet to learn how to bring those differences together as a means of creating unity rather than division. What is meant to bring joy and variety to our lives so often ends up creating stress and heartache. How hard it is for us to learn to live together as unique, equal persons in oneness, peace and harmony!
On this second Sunday in Advent, we read Matthew 3:1–12 and are reminded of how John the Baptizer prepared the way for Jesus, baptizing people in the Jordan River. If we had lived in Jericho in that day, we would have heard the stories told in the marketplace about this strange man who lived in the uninhabited regions near the Jordan, who ate wild locusts and honey, and who baptized Jews—God’s own people who didn’t need to be baptized. We would have heard how he criticized the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and greed, and how he called all people to repent, for the kingdom of God was near.
But John didn’t come just for himself or simply to do an oddball, aesthetic ministry in the wilderness of Judea. No, John the Baptizer was certain he was meant to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah. He was given instructions to point out God’s gift to Israel, which John did when he saw the Lamb of God and baptized him. John knew in the larger scheme of things his own ministry would end, but that of the Messiah would expand to fill the whole universe.
John was not intimidated by people in authority. He told the religious leaders they could not count on their birthright as God’s chosen people to ensure they were in right relationship with God. Just because someone was born into the right family or had a position which they purchased from the Romans, this did not mean that they were right with God. How they lived their everyday lives and how they treated others around them spoke volumes about who they were and what their relationship with God really was. And for that reason, they needed to repent—to turn away from themselves and turn to Jesus, the One who was the king of the kingdom of God, which was being set up in their midst.
The psalmist in Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19 speaks of a king and of his son. Even though it was probably speaking of a human king, the Messianic implications of the psalmist’s poetry are clear:
“Give the king Your judgments, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s son. May he judge Your people with righteousness and Your afflicted with justice. Let the mountains bring peace to the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he vindicate the afflicted of the people, save the children of the needy and crush the oppressor. Let them fear You awhile the sun endures, And as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may the righteous flourish, and abundance of peace till the moon is no more. Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who alone works wonders. And blessed be His glorious name forever; And may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen” (NASB).
What the “king’s son” in this psalm would do is what Jesus did. As the Son of the divine King of Israel, Jesus’ purpose was to fill the earth with his Father’s glory and peace. Jesus, as God in human flesh, ensured that we as the image-bearers of the Triune God would in the end actually reflect God’s glory in the way he intended.
Think about the leaders to whom John the Baptizer was speaking. There must have been some who were really trying hard to do the right thing. But from what John was saying, too many of them were more concerned about the opinion of the people and keeping their positions of authority and prominence than they were about vindicating the afflicted, saving the children of the needy, and crushing the oppressor. And John said that there was someone in their midst, who he wasn’t even worthy to loosen the sandals of, who would do all these things.
The reality is, though, that often we are more like the religious leaders in this story than we are like the Messiah John the Baptizer was speaking of. We wrestle within ourselves, knowing that apart from the grace of God, we are the ones who are too concerned about other people’s opinions and keeping things in our lives how we want them to be. We are the ones who so often are indifferent to the needs and suffering of others. We are the ones seeking glory for ourselves at the expense of others. And this is why we have no peace, either within ourselves nor within our relationship with others and with God.
John’s message is simple, though. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” That message was one that Jesus also carried and passed on to his disciples. As the king of the kingdom, as the Son of the King over all, Jesus has come, is present now by his Spirit, and will return in glory to set up the new heavens and earth where God will dwell with man.
In the end, when Jesus finally returns to finish what he began centuries ago, we will see the culmination of all that began when the Triune God decided to share his loving relationship with those he had created. John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” echoes even today in this world where we still have not learned what it means to live at peace with one another or to be at peace with ourselves and with God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand because Christ has come, has lived our life, died our death and risen, bringing all of us home to his Father to share in that close, loving relationship he has always had in the Spirit.
Do we hear the echo in our own souls of John’s message and of Christ’s answering response? What is it we need to turn away from so that our sole focus is on Christ and what he is doing in our lives and in this world? How is it Jesus is wanting us to join with him in caring for others the same way he has cared for us? Today, in this moment, how will you and I heed the call by the Spirit, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?
Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. We realize that apart from you we have no peace, no hope, or joy. It is your love shed abroad in our hearts by your Spirit which changes us and changes our world. In this moment, Lord Jesus, we again turn away from ourselves and from this world and turn to you. Grant us anew the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.
“Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight!” ’ Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ ” Matthew 3:1–12 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/olitwaking-up-to-peace.pdf ]
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By Linda Rex
May 15, 2022, 5th Sunday in Easter—Many years ago, while sitting on the banks of the Des Moines River, I chatted with a Vietnam veteran who was helping with a display of the traveling wall of honor. My memories of the war in Vietnam were very vague since I was very young when it occurred. This man, seasoned by conflict and suffering, was frank and relentless in his descriptions of the event, as he sought to acquaint me with a little of his experiences during the war.
I’m more and more convinced that the struggles our veterans face when returning from conflict are often rooted in the reality that God never meant for us to have to experience the horror and atrocities of war. Nor did he intend for us to experience betrayal, subterfuge, corruption, or destruction. The consequences of war are so great—and yet we still use war as the means by which we solve our disagreements with one another.
The war occurring currently in Ukraine is a good example of humans continuing to use unhealthy and unholy ways of resolving their differences. And what is really tragic about this conflict is what is being said with regards to the Christian beliefs of those involved. Is war ever an appropriate solution to differences between followers of Christ?
The struggle many have with following Christ is that his response to conflict and differences of opinion is often the opposite of what ours is as his followers. In the gospel reading for this Sunday, John 13:31–35, we hear Jesus telling us that the way others see God’s love is by the way followers of Christ love one another. If we resolve conflict by accelerating it and using weapons and warfare, we are not reflecting the nature of the God who is love nor are we being Christ-like, for our Lord allowed himself to be crucified by his enemies rather than sending his legions of angels to fight on his behalf.
The first reading for this Sunday, Acts 11:1–18 (NASB), describes when Peter went to Jerusalem to meet with the other believers and was accused of defiling himself by having fellowship with Gentiles, the people excluded from Jewish worship. Peter explained how the Spirit had given him a vision of unclean animals, telling him three times to kill and eat. Peter had never eaten anything unclean before, and said so. But the Spirit told him, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” Peter then discovered that what was more important than his religious rules was his relationship with God and those with whom God was calling himself into relationship.
The Jewish rules at that time regarding what a person could eat or not eat and do or not do, created a rigid wall that kept out anyone who was not of their own background and beliefs. God had called the people of ancient Israel to be witnesses to the world of who God was, but they had been isolating themselves from the world instead. For Peter to walk into the home of a Gentile required a commitment to Christ and to his Spirit that superseded his religious background and belief system. Was he willing to meet these Gentiles on the common ground of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Was he willing to be obedient to the Spirit rather than following his rigid list of rules?
As he stood before his Jewish accusers, Peter explained his reasoning for having obeyed the Spirit’s instruction to go to this Gentile’s home and preach the gospel. As soon as he spoke the words of life—the gospel of Jesus Christ—to them, the Spirit descended upon his listeners just as the Spirit descended upon the disciples on Pentecost. Peter remembered that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and said, “who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” We don’t choose our siblings in Christ—God does. And we need to learn how to live in right relationship with them, just as Jesus brought us into right relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
This is why Jesus so often stressed that we are to love one another. In his conversation with his disciples before he died, Jesus emphasized that his disciples need to love one other. Our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ is a tangible sign of God’s love expressed to all humanity in Jesus’ self-offering.
Jesus laid down his life for us, setting aside for a time the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity so that he might draw us into the circle of love between the Father, Son, and Spirit. What God has done for us in Christ, we are compelled by the love of Christ to do for one another, and to do for those who are not followers of Christ as well. To not love God and to not love one another is to be inhumane—to be not truly human as we were intended by God to be. Every one of us was created to live in loving, other-centered relationship with God and one another, no matter who we are. To not live in that way is to not truly be ourselves.
This leaves us in a difficult position as followers of Christ. Jesus tells us that the evidence of our being his followers is our love for one another. When a brother or sister is not walking in love, they are walking in darkness rather than in the light. As people of light, how do we respond in the most loving, light-bearing way possible to the deeds of darkness? What does it mean to be a peace-maker in a circumstance of war?
The evil one always seeks to divide, disrupt, kill, destroy and steal. His kingdom is not the one we are members of, so his ways must not be our ways. We must, as followers of Christ, follow the lead of the Spirit as he draws people together rather than ripping them apart. God loves us and gives us air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat even when we reject and ignore him. Can we do any less for our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are? What is the Spirit saying to you and to me today about the people in our lives? Are we building walls to keep others out, or are we welcoming them with open arms into the fellowship of Christ?
Heavenly Father, forgive us our petty squabbles and disagreements, our refusal to live with one another in peace. Forgive us for looking down on others and for refusing to make room for them in our lives. Grant us the grace to love others in the same way you have loved us, by laying down your life in your Son Jesus. Move in us by your Spirit to truly love one another, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
“Therefore when he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately. Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’ ” John 13:31–35 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/as-he-loves-us.pdf%5D
By Linda Rex
September 26, 2021, PROPER 21—Recently I was reflecting on memories I have of going to the beach with my friends. We would go in the late afternoon, find a spot with a firepit and roast hotdogs and marshmallows as we watched the sun go down over the water. Even today I can almost smell the scent of saltwater and seaweed, feel the rough sand between my toes, and hear the cries of the seagulls as they hover over the water.
At times we would do bodysurfing and ride the waves in to the shore, finding ourselves at times shoved under the water and pounded by the waves. Even though I’d always regret getting sand in my swimsuit, I loved swimming in the ocean and riding the waves. The water that I sometimes inadvertently drank when I got knocked over was very salty, too salty to swallow, and it burned my eyes.
It is amazing to me that there are creatures and plants which can live in an environment like the ocean even though the water is extremely salty. Salt, we have learned over the millennia, works well as a purifier, preservative and in helping wounds heal. Salt has been so valuable at times that it has been used as coinage for trading. Today salt is used in a myriad of ways, being essential in the manufacture of a wide variety of products. And in spite of being villainized as the culprit in high blood pressure and other health issues, people still season their food with salt.
If you want to ruin a batch of biscuits or cookies, though, just add too much salt to the recipe. Salt is meant to be used in limited amounts as a seasoning, to add flavor and zest to otherwise bland foods. When Jesus said that his followers were the salt of the earth, he meant that they added something pleasant and enjoyable to the world. If they became just like everyone else in the world, they would have lost their zest and tastefulness, and become worthless and unbeneficial.
Jesus was incredibly patient with his disciples. They were focused on who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus reminded them that they needed to be like little children—humble and dependent rather than arrogant and prideful. The measure of a person was not determined by their greatness in the human scheme of things, but by their spirit of humility and service, of laying down their lives for the sake of others.
The disciples saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name (which they had recently tried to do and failed) and insisted that the person stop. The man wasn’t part of the twelve Jesus had chosen, so they assumed he wasn’t supposed to be using Jesus’ name, even though God was honoring his efforts. Jesus told them they were wrong. They needed to stop excluding people Jesus was including in his ministry and life. They needed to stop attempting to resist and quench the Spirit at work in the lives of those other than themselves.
In Leviticus 2:13, the priests were instructed to season every grain offering with salt, “so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (NASB). The apostle Paul wrote that we are to present our bodies as living and holy sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), as an expression of true and proper worship. Our lives are not to be spent solely for our own glory and our own pleasure, but in love and service to God and others. This is why Jesus told the disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Jesus told his disciples that everyone would be seasoned with fire. The context of this particular statement is in the midst of several teaching sessions in which Jesus instructed the disciples about what would be soon happening to him—that he would suffer and die on behalf of the world for their salvation. The salt he was seasoning the world with was his own self-offering, and they needed to be willing and prepared to walk that same road with him. They needed to give up their human way of thinking about things and surrender to the spiritual realities of life in the kingdom of God. To truly live, we must be prepared to die—die to self, sin, Satan, and the things of this world.
Jesus used strong hyperbole or metaphorical language to make a point. He said that we must be prepared to eradicate or cut off anything in our lives that keeps us from participating in the kingdom of God. We want to enter into life, eternal life, that life in relationship with God that we were created for. But in order to do so, certain things in us must die with Christ—greed, lust, pride, selfish ambition, jealousy—these must be burned away by the baptism of fire Jesus offers us in the Spirit. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we are given new life—but it is an invitation, one offered to every human, that we receive and act upon.
What price are we willing to pay to receive that new life and begin to live in it? For the kingdom of God is both a present and a future reality. We begin even now, by faith in Christ, to live and walk in the way Christ forged for us. We live and walk daily by the Spirit in close relationship with God, and in warm fellowship with others God has called to himself. God’s purpose for our lives in Christ by the Spirit is not division or exclusivism, but unity, harmony and peace. As we are salted with the heart of Jesus by the Spirit, we will live in peace with one another. This was Jesus’ point.
We may be pounded by the waves and tossed about in the water of life’s experiences, but our certainty is in Christ. He is at work in us and in this world by his Holy Spirit purifying, healing, and preserving. As we respond to him in faith, we participate in his mission and work in this world, and act as a pleasant seasoning in a world devoid of true spiritual flavor. Our service and sacrifice brings a taste or a hint of the glories of the kingdom of God which we will one day experience in its fullness. In the meantime, we turn to Jesus, trusting in his finished work and living day by day as salted sacrifices offered in true worship to God.
Heavenly Father, thank you for washing us in the water of your Word, Jesus Christ, and for sending him to purify, heal, and preserve us. Grant us the grace to let go of everything that may get in the way of us walking freely as your beloved children, allowing ourselves to be living sacrifices, salted with your indwelling presence through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.
“John said to Him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, …. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, …. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’” Mark 9:38–50 NASB
See also Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29.
By Linda Rex
December 13, 2020, ADVENT | JOY—As I was sitting and writing this blog today, I couldn’t help but gaze through the window at the dark, gloomy sky. The cold, damp grayness of this winter day is a good picture of what so many are experiencing right now in the midst of the pandemic and election limbo. Many of us have experienced 2020 as a year which brought us to the brink of disaster, and for some—tipped us on over into a pit of darkness, depression, and even despair.
Even as we wonder how much deeper we will go into this pit before things get better, we find ourselves moving on into Advent. We’ve celebrated hope and peace, and now we come upon a Sunday when we ponder the miracle of joy. How can one possibly feel any joy in the middle of all we are going through? How can God expect us to find joy when everything we are facing gives us anything but joy?
The spiritual gift of joy is something which isn’t based upon our circumstances. That feeling of happiness or gladness which is induced by positive, enjoyable circumstances and experiences is not the same as the joy that is spoken of by the apostle Paul. When he says to us, “Rejoice always,” it’s not because he is insane or unfeeling. It is because joy’s roots go much deeper than the everyday situations of life. It is God’s will that we always rejoice—he wants us to have a deeper inner joy which will carry us through the most difficult times of our lives, enabling us to bear up under unbearable struggles and losses.
One of the scriptures for this Sunday is Psalm 126. In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. | He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, | Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (NASB). Here we have a picture of a farmer who is weeping while he is spreading seed on the ground in the spring; but when the wheat is harvested, he shouts with the joy of it all.
Understand that the road Jesus, the Son of God, took for our salvation took him through death to resurrection. He was the Seed promised to Adam and Eve and then to Abraham as a solution for the evil, sin, and death we brought into this world. He was buried in the grave like a seed, but when he rose, like a fruit-bearing wheat stalk from the ground, he brought all humanity forth into new life. The author of Hebrews said that “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). Notice that Jesus endured all of the suffering of the cross “for the joy set before Him.” In Christ, God is harvesting many souls—something that brings him great joy even though it cost him a great deal in the suffering and death of his Son.
Jesus described his mission as the One anointed by the Holy Spirit using the prophetic word of Isaiah 61:1–2a: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, | Because the LORD has anointed me | To bring good news to the afflicted; | He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, | To proclaim liberty to captives | And freedom to prisoners; | To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD…” (Lk. 4:18-19 NASB) This passage in Isaiah goes on to describe the work of the Messiah in bringing about redemption to his creation. The purpose of the Word, the Son of God, coming into our humanity that we celebrate at Christmastime is to bring humanity out of the deep dark hole of evil, sin, and death in which we placed ourselves. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings all of us as we trust in him into a new place where we find healing, hope, freedom, and transformation.
In verse 10, Isaiah goes on to say, “I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, | My soul will exult in my God; | For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, | He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, | As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, | And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (NASB). What Isaiah was describing was the day when God in Christ would do for us what we could not do—save us, bring us into right relationship with himself and one another.
This is why the apostle Paul so often uses the language of taking of old garments and putting on new clothing when speaking of the new life we have in Christ. God has already done for you and me all that is needed for our healing and renewal in giving us his Son for our salvation and sending his Spirit for our regeneration. Now we simply, by the Spirit, have to put on Christ the way in which a couple gets dressed up in a tux and gown for a wedding. We turn away from ourselves and our own way to doing things and our own ability to save ourselves, and we turn to Jesus Christ in faith.
This is why it is possible to rejoice in the midst of difficult and painful times. There is an underlying assurance that no matter what may happen, we are held. Christ has come, he is present by the Spirit, and he will come again, to do what only he can do in our situation. However bad it may get, we have the assurance that Christ is present with us and is standing in our place willing to do whatever is needed to carry us through to the other side. We simply need to trust him and continue to pray, to give thanks and to rejoice.
There is a story which children are often taught in Sunday school which comes to my mind in regards to this. It is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These three young Jewish men had been chosen to serve the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar while Judah was exiled to his kingdom. One day some of the Chaldeans told the king that these men refused to bow to the new idol the king had set up and they deserved to be thrown into the furnace. Now the king liked these men and he tried to talk them into simply bowing down to the idol so they wouldn’t die. Well, they chose not to, telling the king that God would save them, and even if God didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to another God but the God of Israel.
What captures my attention so often in this story is that God didn’t keep the men from being thrown in the fire. In fact, the king made the fire in the furnace seven times hotter before having them thrown in. And the fire was so hot that the people throwing in the men died. This is when the story becomes supernatural—when the king looked into the flames, he saw four men walking around, the three who had been tied up and thrown in, and another who looked like “a son of the gods.” The king finally called all of them to come out of the furnace. The three men did and there was no evidence on their bodies that they had ever been in the flames.
I hope you are grasping the point I am trying to make. We have to place our faith beyond our own ability to help ourselves and the ability of others or our government to help us, and to simply place our faith in the God who has done everything in Christ by the Spirit which is needed for us to be saved. This is the God who came into the flames of our human existence to walk and talk with us, and to bring us out with him into new life. Our joy in the midst of our struggles, suffering, and loss is based in the reality that God will bring us out of them to the other side, and that even if he doesn’t rescue us, he will be with us as we go through whatever may be required of us. We are not alone—he is Immanuel, “God with us” now and forever.
This is our hope, our peace, and it is also our joy. Whatever may happen, we are not alone. God is with us, working things out for our best and caring for us no matter how intense the flames of trial and struggle we are experiencing may get. God in Christ holds us. We trust in him, allowing his Spirit to dwell richly in our hearts, giving us the assurance that he is near, providing the guidance and direction we need, and reminding us of his promise of life eternal when this life is over.
Our ability to “rejoice always” is found in Christ’s joy, in his personal presence in us and with us by the Spirit, as we go through every circumstance of life. As we keep our eyes on the heavenly realities, on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, walking with us in the flames, we will be filled with an unexplainable joy that is grounded in the presence and person of God himself.
Holy Father, thank you for holding us in the midst of all our struggles and suffering. Thank you, Jesus, for being ever present by your Spirit and for filling our hearts with your joy. Enable us to rejoice always, remain constant in prayer, and be grateful in every circumstance, as we trust in you now and forever. In your name, we pray, amen.
“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 NASB
By Linda Rex
August 9, 2020, PROPER 14—When the disciples finished feeding the five thousand and walked about gathering up what was leftover of the bread and fish, they must have felt a sense of elation and maybe even triumph. The miracle Jesus had just done was so much like the manna that came through Moses—surely he was the Prophet spoken of! But there was a significant problem with the thoughts going through everyone’s mind right then.
Jesus never meant to establish a powerful political human government at that time. His purpose was not to become solely the provider of physical bread and physical healing. His life and ministry had a much deeper purpose—to be, as he already was, the Savior of all humankind.
As Jesus practically pushed his disciples into a boat to cross the lake, he sought to stop the momentum of the crowd’s passionate appeal to make him king. As the disciples left, he disbursed the crowd and made his way up the mountain to have time alone with his heavenly Father.
Jesus was in grave need of his Abba’s strength, power, and wisdom in the face of this human temptation to take matters into his own hands and rule under his own power. During his wilderness wandering the evil one had tempted him with this very thing. And he knew, after what had happened to John his cousin, what the most likely outcome of his ministry would be if he continued on this path of humility, compassion and service. He needed to keep himself in tune with his Father, in the oneness of the Spirit so he could finish what God had set out to do.
The communion of the Father and the Son was apparent as Jesus spent hours up on the mountain with his Abba. Meanwhile the disciples were making their way across the lake. A powerful storm blew up and the disciples were afraid for their lives. Great waves rose and fell, filling the boat with water. The wind blew harshly, tossing the boat about and making forward progress impossible.
Somewhere between three and six o’clock in the morning while it was pitch black out on the choppy water, they saw a figure walking across the lake. All of their superstitious fears arose—they thought they were seeing a ghost. People at that time believed that unembodied spirits haunted the deep waters late at night, and here one had found them. They were terrified.
Jesus must have sensed their terror for he called out, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” In the other gospels we learn that Jesus intended to pass by them and go on to the other side of the lake by himself. But when he saw their distress, he had compassion on them and came to them in the midst of the battering waves.
Many times, when life gets complicated, when we feel like we are in danger of drowning in debt, in relational quicksand, in depression, or other struggles in life, we feel as though there is no hope to continue on. What efforts we make might be like those of these disciples in the boat, fruitless, powerless against the force of the storm. In the darkness it may be difficult to see where we are going or how we ever are going to get safely home. We may be endlessly going in circles, finding ourselves right back where we started from—or worse.
What we must remember at times like these is that what we may believe is a ghost or phantom, someone who has forsaken us, is actually our Lord coming to us in the midst of the battering waves. There is a genuine, real Savior who is master of the storm, who can still the wind and waves simply with a word.
Impulsive Peter wanted Jesus to prove who he was by inviting him out to walk on the water too. And he did. Peter and Jesus were the only humans to ever do this—but there was a difference between them. The minute Peter took his eyes off Jesus and began to focus on the wind and the waves, he began to sink into the water. He was completely dependent upon Jesus saving him. He had no power over the storm. It was when Jesus entered the boat with Peter that the storm ceased—and this drove the disciples to their knees in worship.
The reality we must come to terms with is that our existence is dependent upon God. We are at the mercy of our creation in ways we don’t want to admit to. For millennia we have worked to master this world and all its intricacies. But there are still things we don’t have control over—earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes—other natural occurrences. We have made great progress in dealing with COVID-19, but we have at no point come up with the power to stop the disease simply with a word. Only one human has ever had that power—and he was God in human flesh, Jesus Christ.
Nor do we have the power of redemption that Jesus has. There is a way where God can, and does, take the horrific experiences of our lives and redeem them—turn them into good, in spite of the harm they have done. The storm created havoc in the lives of the disciples, but Jesus turned it into an opportunity for them to grow in faith and in their knowledge of him as Lord and Savior. The storms in our lives, if we are willing, are opportunities for us to grow in our ability and desire to trust in Christ and to come to a deeper appreciation of our need for him and his love and provision. As we turn to Christ in faith, he can take these storms and use them as opportunities to refine us, to transform and heal us.
Coming to a realistic affirmation of who we are as God’s children is a great place to be, for there we find comfort, peace, assurance and hope. Today, are you feeling battered by the waves in your life? Do you feel tossed about, forsaken, hopeless? Perhaps you need to look up, to hear Jesus’ words to you, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” Ask Jesus to awaken you to his presence in you and with you in the midst of the battering waves. Fasten your eyes on him, walk with him, and ignore the storm—he’ll take care of it in his good time. Thank him for his faithful love and grace as master of the storm. Worship him in gratitude and praise.
Dear Jesus, this world’s storms toss us about, blow us around in circles, and steal our hope. We know you are the Lord of all, our Savior and Deliverer. Grant us the faith to keep our eyes on you, no matter how bad the storms get. Speak your word of life and hope—carry us through these storms and silence them all in your good time. May your Spirit breathe life, peace, and hope to calm the battering waves in our lives and in this world. Keep us in our Abba’s hand and bring us safely to shore. Amen.
“Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” Matthew 14:22–33 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 10, 2020, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—One of the many difficulties people express their concern about during this time of pandemic is the inability to know who to believe. So much information comes our way nowadays and through so many sources which seem legitimate, that it is difficult to wade our way through them all to ascertain who we should believe and who we should ignore.
Often, I hear from people who have become incensed because of something they read, heard, or saw on social media or in the news. Not everyone considers the source of such news, nor do they remember that often what drives news isn’t the effort to clearly present the facts, but rather to provide readers sensational stories that will grab their attention and move them to pay. There are others who espouse and emphatically proclaim a political or religious position that polarizes people and moves them to respond in the way they desire, even though there is hard evidence to the contrary. Having to be aware of all of this, to not be seduced by false news, is a stressful challenge for everyone.
So, how do we weather all this? How do we find out what is really going on? What if we never get to the bottom of it all and so find ourselves at the mercy of whatever may be happening at the moment? How do we deal with so many unknowns in our lives?
Undergirding so much of our response to what we hear or see is often anxiety, concern, and fear, because most of us are not deeply grounded in a sense that we are loved and are held safely in that love. We tend to gravitate to fear or anger as our natural response to the world around us—this is the self-protect mechanism we rely on to keep us safe in a dangerous world. Any one of us may be influenced by what we see, hear, or read, and find ourselves responding with concern, anxiety, fear, or anger.
This has historically also been our human response to any encounter with the divine. And people today often associate discussion about Jesus with being religious, but do not approach the person of Jesus as though he is anything more than a historical person, a prophet who claimed to be God and who did many great works. We celebrate Christmas for the traditions and the joy, but often not understanding the importance of the baby in the manger.
In many ways we find ourselves blind to the spiritual realities. Are there spiritual realities? If you have not encountered the divine for yourself, you will believe that there are not. But when and if you meet for yourself the Lord Jesus Christ who is very much still alive, you will be unable to escape the reality that the divine and this human existence have intersected and forever are linked in his person.
When faced with his human death, Jesus was concerned for his disciples. He didn’t want them to be fearful or anxious. “Do not let your heart be troubled,” he said. But then he provided the solution to that fear: “…believe in God, believe also in Me.” What we believe about the divine impacts our response to the fear and anxiety we experience in this world. When we are faced with death, with danger, with conflicting stories about what’s really going on, or with differing positions on critical matters, we need to be grounded deeply—and that grounding needs to be in something solid and immoveable.
But all the conflicting stories and transient positions, false and true news meshed together into a collage that is sometimes impossible to decipher, causes us to doubt even the spiritual realities. We need something to believe in—something worth believing in—to hold us fast in the middle of all this. We may simply reject the spiritual realities just because they are not tangible to us—but in doing this, we may miss out on what we need to provide us grounding in the midst of all we are experiencing in the world today.
Jesus comes to us and says to us—believe in God, believe also in me. Why? Because he has something to offer us that no one else can offer us—he is the One who made all things and who joined himself to his creatures, uniting his divine life with our human existence in such a way that we are grounded forever in the Being who is the Creator and Sustainer of all.
When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he isn’t trying to create conflict between nation groups or to demean any other culture or ethnicity. His purpose is to say that our humanness is intricately bound up with God’s glory because of who Jesus is as God in human flesh. He is the way we interact with God because we now share in his intimate relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit—we are centered forever in sacrificial, outflowing love.
This provides a solid base for us to stand on when we are surrounded by and harassed by lies, deceit, confusion, anxiety, and fear. We are everlastingly held in the intimate relation Jesus has with his Father in the Spirit—and so we can know that whatever may happen, we are held. In fearful times, we have no reason to fear, because we are loved and we are held in that love. Not even death will ultimately separate us from God or those we love.
All Jesus asks us for is a response of faith—to believe. Believe what you cannot see, touch, feel, taste or hear. Believe that there is Someone at work behind all this who has your best interests at heart and who is at work in this world bringing about healing, renewal, restoration, and redemption. His purpose isn’t to make us all feel good all the time, but to enable us to participate fully in the oneness and unity of the divine life and love, sharing in it with God and with one another both now and forever.
When we come to see and believe that Jesus is the center of our existence, the life which undergirds us and sustains us, and that we have a Father who holds us safely in the midst of even suffering, evil, and death, we may begin to face life more courageously and at peace. Even though things around us are unsettling or unsure, we may begin to recognize the Spirit’s voice speaking in our hearts, giving us guidance, direction, and a sense of what is true and what is not true. We may begin to have an assurance, by the Spirit, that we are going to be okay, that no matter what happens—good or bad—and no matter whether we figure it all out or not, we will be okay.
We may, the next time we feel fear, anger, anxiety or distress rising in our soul, stop for a moment and reflect on what we believe about God and Jesus his Son. Who are we putting our faith in? Is our faith grounded in what is eternal, loving, and good? Pause and invite Jesus to help you to believe in Abba and in him, no matter what your senses or reason may be telling you at the moment. Ask him to give you the heart and will to trust him. Deeply feel and embrace the peace and sense of the divine presence the Spirit pours into you in response.
Thank you, Father, that we can rest in your fatherly love which holds us safely in the midst of this rapidly changing, confusing world. Thank you, Jesus, for joining us in our broken humanity that we might find healing, wholeness, and renewal in you. Thank you, Spirit of truth, for being the source of all our peace, comfort, and hope, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“‘Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.’ … Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.’ … ‘Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.’” John 14, 1, 6-7, 11 NASB
By Linda Rex
FEBRUARY 2, 2020, 4TH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—This morning as I was contemplating the passages for this upcoming Sunday, it occurred to me that I live in a country where people value the pursuit of happiness but do not seem to understand what it takes to be truly happy. If I were to turn on the radio or television today, it would not take long for me to hear someone telling me those things I need in order to be happy.
They may tell me I need a relationship with the perfect lover, a properly aged bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, or an all-expense paid week at a resort in Hawaii. Maybe I need a long-sought-after promotion at work, a brand-new SUV or a time-share in Myrtle Beach. None of these are bad things, and I’m pretty sure I would enjoy some time at the seashore and driving such a nice car. The problem I see is, that apparently, according to what I read and see around me, I can only be happy if I am following my heart’s desire and enjoying the pleasure of those things I love to have or experience.
It is no wonder that we struggle so much in this modern world with depression and pain-management issues. Many of us are willing to work ourselves practically to death for the sake of having the things we want or need. But then we attempt to escape the stress, relational pain, and other ills that come with having worked so hard while having so little to show for it by doing things which may be unhealthy, risky, or even dangerous. Our concept of what it means to be happy distorts our ability to balance work, play, and our significant relationships.
We may be one of those people who find themselves due to disability, age, illness, or even a refusal to be responsible for what is ours, in the position of having other people do all the work to provide for and care for us. We may struggle with low self-esteem, guilt and shame as a result. Or we may get frustrated by people in our lives telling us what to do and how to do it because we don’t have the control we prefer to have over our circumstances. Struggling with all these things may cause us to give up on hope of ever being happy because we always seem to end up back in the place we were before, without any hope of things getting any better.
Our expectations of what it means to be happy affects how we respond to what is going on in our lives. I’m a firm believer that we were created to live happily within all that God has made and given us for life and godliness. But so often our struggle is not with all the great things around us—it is with our definition of what it means to be happy and blessed. Is it possible for us to be truly happy, to be truly blessed?
In 1 Tim. 1:11, the apostle Paul calls the Lord “the blessed God.” The word “blessed” in the Greek is “happy” (μακαριοι [makarioi]), and it is where we get the word “beatitudes,” the word often used to describe these “blessed” verses in Matthew 5. Since we were created in the image of God after his likeness, it is important that we consider first what it means that our God is the happy God, or blessed God. When we know what this means, we will have a better idea of how to go about being blessed or happy ourselves.
In Hebrews 1:3 we learn that Jesus Christ is “exact representation” of God’s nature or being. If we want to know what it means that our God is the blessed God, then let’s look at Jesus Christ. Jesus, in sharing what it means to be blessed or happy, took it to a new level, one which was in agreement with his nature as the Son of God in human flesh. To be happy, or blessed, is to have the qualities which God values, to have kingdom of God characteristics—to be radiating with the very nature of God himself—something which only Jesus Christ himself can do.
For example, in the Beatitudes Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” First off, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of the God who is three Persons in one Being. The Son of God, who has always lived in oneness with his Father in the Spirit, lived here on earth in humble dependence upon his heavenly Father, not doing anything he did not see his Father doing and not trusting in his own abilities or preferences. Jesus exemplified what it meant to be poor in spirit because he was God in human flesh, living as a Son trusting implicitly in his Father, just as each of us is meant to do.
Access to God’s kingdom is not by following the rigid rules and requirements established by the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but by being poor in spirit—by recognizing our need for God to give us access to his presence. Jesus said it is a recognition of our spiritual lack, our honest self-assessment that we do not have what it takes and that we need God to intervene on our behalf which really matters. It is our desire for and a dependence upon God’s covenant relationship with us, which gives us a free ticket into the blessed presence of God forever.
Jesus also said the “gentle” or “meek” would inherit the earth. This stood in stark contrast with the Jewish hope for a messiah who would oust the reigning Roman government using force and violence so that the Jewish people would once and for all control the earth on which they lived. The gentleness or meekness of Jesus reflected that of our blessed God, who instead of exacting retribution for our failings as human beings, sent us his own Son, allowing him to suffer and die on humanity’s behalf so that we could be freed from our captivity to evil, sin, and death. This type of gentleness in the face of all that we as humans conspire to do to harm, kill, or injure one another is a characteristic of the blessed God himself. Apart from God’s nature at work within us, we are not capable of true gentleness or meekness.
Those who make peace, Jesus said as well, would be called sons of God. There is only one Son who was able to make genuine, lasting peace between God and man, and between each of us as human beings. Jesus’ way of making peace, of being a peacemaker, was not by giving people what they wanted in order to get them to stop causing problems. He didn’t create peace by allowing evil, sin, and death to continue. No, he took evil, sin, and death upon himself, living our life, dying our death, and rising again, so we could be freed completely from any of their claims upon us.
As we read the Beatitudes, we can see that Jesus is the embodiment of all of these attributes. He is truly the blessed and happy God present in our humanity. Our ability to shine with these same attributes comes through his presence in us by the Holy Spirit. To be truly happy or blessed comes through living in the truth of who we are as the beloved adopted children of our happy God, who sent his Son, the blessed Savior, and through him the blessed Holy Spirit. It is as we respond to God in faith that the Spirit unites us with him, enabling us to participate in his way of being—the way which is blessed, or happy.
Being truly happy, then, is not something exterior to us nor is it created by things we do or experience. To be truly blessed, or happy, begins in the very nature of God himself which he places within us through Jesus by the Spirit. It is God at work within us, creating a nature which is poor in spirit, which grieves our spiritual losses or sins, and hungers and thirsts for a right relationship with him. It is the indwelling Spirit who is gentle, merciful, and pure in heart, placing within us this nature Jesus forged for us as he lived on earth.
This type of blessedness or happiness is not transient because it is not based within our circumstances or experiences, nor is it based within our flesh. It has its true foundation in Jesus Christ himself, who dwells in us by the Holy Spirit as we trust in him. As we follow Christ, or pursue the happy, blessed One, we will begin to experience genuine happiness—a deep inner joy and sense of blessedness which will hold us and carry us through difficulties, struggles, and all the changing experiences of our transient human existence, even when we are persecuted for the sake of our faith in Jesus. It is our blessed God’s heart that all of us share forever with him in his glory and blessedness. In what way will you choose today to live blessed, pursuing genuine happiness by pursuing the blessed Lord himself?
Dear God of glory, our blessed Creator and Sustainer, forgive us for pursuing everything and everyone but you. Turn our hearts back to you—cause us to follow you alone, Jesus, our blessed and only Savior. Fill us anew with your blessed Presence by your Spirit of love and grace that we may be truly happy and blessed, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 NASB
By Linda Rex
December 22, 2019, 4th Sunday of Advent—I was reading a devotional this morning which used the story in the gospels of a man who was bound by demons and wandering about in the tombs, in the region of the dead. This man broke any chains that held him, but when Jesus spoke to him, he found true freedom.
How often I have felt like this man, wandering about in my own personal chains, unwilling to be shackled by the bonds of love God has for me. How often I have harmed myself rather than submitting myself to the love and grace of God as expressed to me in his will for my life! I know I am not alone in this—I see it often in people around me. It is our human condition apart from God’s merciful intervention.
One of the most basic steps in facing our addictions and being freed from them is coming to understand that apart from the intervention of a “higher power’, we cannot be free. We can try harder and harder, we can work the plan faithfully, but we have to eventually end up at the place where we realize in a deep and significant way that apart from divine intervention, we have no hope of ever being any different than we are right now.
God’s method of intervening in our circumstances did not involve him being a distant, cold and uninvolved deity. Nor did he seek vengeance on us for our pitiful failures at trying to be what we believe we need to be in order for him to accept us. God’s way of turning our hearts back to him, of restoring our relationship with him, was to enter into our very existence as a human being and to personally turn us around back into face to face relationship with himself.
Historically, the nation of Israel was in many ways like you and me. They were brought into relationship with God, but they refused to let him be the center of their life. For a while they would live as his people, but in time they would turn away from him, back into their idolatry and hedonism. They would reap the results of living life on their own terms, come to the end of themselves, and then turn again to him—for a while.
But this was not a surprise to God. None of this is. He knew long before our cosmos existed that we would have this proclivity to turn away from him to other things. He knew it would require his personal involvement to restore us back to our original design so that we could be the image-bearers of God he intended us to be.
We hear the cry in Psalm 80:2b-3, 7, 17-19 of the psalmist Asaph asking three times, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” Prophetically he pointed to a Son who would be the source of our genuine revival, the only means by which any of us will be saved. Our only hope of being people who would never abandon God would be for God to himself turn our hearts back.
So we have in Isaiah 7:14 the promise of a virgin bearing a son who would be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us.’ What a thrilling promise! This Advent season, as we gaze upon the nativity scenes we see around us, as we are reminded of the reason for the season, we are given a hope for something more than our constant failures to love. We are able to have peace of mind and heart because we know God has sent us a Savior—someone who has done and will do what we cannot and will not do. We are able to have joy, because we are celebrating the reality that God has come and stands in our stead, on our behalf, filling us with his real presence in the Holy Spirit.
Advent reminds us that when Israel had absolutely no hope of ever getting anything right with God ever again, God did not forsake her. He came himself, in the womb of a virgin, allowing himself to be carried as a promise to his people of their deliverance. Advent reminds us that we are not left abandoned in our sin and selfishness—there is a Savior who is one of us and yet is God himself—he has come to bind us once and for all to God with unbreakable cords of love and grace.
The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and today we as his people are pregnant with his presence by the Holy Spirit. God is even at this moment working deliverance in this world—preparing for the day when all things will be transformed completely and God will finally dwell forever with humankind. Our failures to love, our sinfulness and the evil which so often enslaves us, do not and will not stand in the way of God accomplishing what he set out to do from before the beginning of this cosmos. He will finish what he has begun—he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Advent teaches us love in a profound way—of God’s desire to be near to us, so near that he actually enters into our human existence himself. The presence of God in our humanity is the greatest gift of love God could ever give. He knew the cost of this gift would be the suffering and death of his Son, but he gave it anyway. He knew the rejection of his Spirit which would occur, but he gave his Spirit anyway. God freely gives—do we receive?
Whatever struggles we may have with our addictions or failures to love God and others, we find in Jesus that God is present and real in the midst of them. He is at work, as we are willing, to heal, restore, and renew. We are given Jesus Christ—he is in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. What is our response?
I’ve often thought that Joseph was an incredible man. He had betrothed himself to a young virgin who turned out to be pregnant with someone else’s child. He could have made a public spectacle of her—but he was so loving in not wanting to do this. And when God told him to marry her anyway, he did it (Matthew 1:18–25). His humility and sacrificial spirit bear witness to the humility and sacrificial Spirit of God himself. Will we in this same Spirit of humility and sacrifice receive the wonderful Gift of God in our humanity? Will we surrender to the reality we are in desperate need of God, and God in Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and will come again one day?
Thank you, Abba, for loving us so well. It was not enough for you to create all things, to set everything in motion, and to walk away. You dove right in, taking our very humanity upon yourself in your Son Jesus, renewing us from the inside out. Thank you for sending us your Spirit, enabling us to be one with you, and to be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“… concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power 1by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God…” Romans 1:3-7a NASB
By Linda Rex
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?
Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?
We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?
Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.
And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.
A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.
This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.
Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.
Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.
Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?
So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.
Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?
This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?
It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.
May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.
Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB
“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB