By Linda Rex
February 21, 2021, 1st SUNDAY IN LENT [Easter Prep]—There is one thing which has become clear in my mind recently and that is that we as the body of Christ are in a time of wilderness wandering. In many ways we are being brought face to face with our fragility as humans in the face of powerful temptations such as those Jesus faced when he was led into the wilderness following his baptism. During this Lenten season as we move toward celebrating the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection, we have the opportunity to reflect on our need and weakness in the midst of Jesus’ sufficiency and provision.
In the book of Mark we find the condensed version of Jesus’ early ministry. First he was baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptizer, and as he came up out of the Jordan, his heavenly Father affirmed him as his beloved Son and the Spirit descended upon him in the tangible form of a dove. Mark tells us next that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan.
As Jesus was in a place in the wilderness which was filled with wild animals, so he was vulnerable and in danger, open to harm. During his wilderness experience, he went without food, causing him physical weakness. In the midst of this preliminary walk through death’s dark valley, he stood in opposition to God’s adversary, faithfully keeping his focus on his heavenly Father, and on his identification with all of humanity as God in human flesh, and on his purpose in laying down his life on behalf of all people.
We all, in ways similar to Jesus, experience the temptation to resolve our problems under our own power by taking matters into our own hands or manipulating people and circumstances to accomplish what we believe needs to happen. Jesus, being extremely hungry from fasting for several days, was challenged to prove he was Son of God by turning stones into bread—something he could have easily done simply with a word, since he was the Word of God in human flesh. But to do so would have caused him to cease to identify with you and me in our weakness and need, our human frailty and weakness. Jesus instead drew upon the written word of God to combat this temptation, saying that we as humans are not to live only by bread we put in our mouths, but by every word of the living God.
We all love magical solutions to our problems, a simple app to resolve our difficulties. But we often miss out on a deeper solution which goes down into the very core of our being. The real difficulty often lies in our refusal to believe that we can’t work it out somehow—we keep believing we can solve it, if we just try a little harder, or change things up a little, or maybe find a better way of doing what we’ve been doing. However, we often need to come to the simple realization that we are powerless—we do not have within us the capacity to heal ourselves, to fix things, to make things the way they need to be.
We need to embrace the truth that we need a power greater than ourselves—we need a savior or rescuer to deliver us. Jesus expressed this truth on our behalf when he chose to honor his own humanity by depending upon his heavenly Father to care for him, rather than solving his temporary need for food by using his hidden divine capacity to turn stones into bread. Following the confrontation in this story, we find that Jesus had angels tending to his needs, providing for him as he recovered from his conflict with the evil one—which proved the point that he did not need to do this himself under his own power—his Father faithfully provided.
In the midst of these challenging times, as we struggle with the pandemic and accompanying financial and political stress, are we questioning God’s goodness and faithfulness? Are we testing God with poor decisions and irresponsibility, attempting to make him prove to us that he loves us and wants what is best for us? Jesus himself was tempted by the evil one to prove he was the beloved Son of God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that the angels would catch him. The adversary even used scripture in an effort to prove to Jesus that he should do this. To jump in this way would have tested his Father’s goodness and faithfulness—something Jesus refused to do. Like Jesus, we need to refuse to test God, choosing instead simply to trust and obey him, and walk each moment in loving obedience to him in spite of how difficult or dangerous our experiences may be at the moment.
Again, the Son of God did not need to prove his Father’s love and faithfulness—he was confident of it, having experienced it since before time began. But as a human being, the temptation was there and was real. We may have walked with God for many years, and have experienced his love and faithfulness through many circumstances and situations. But in this time of crisis, have we lost our confidence in God’s goodness and love? Will we simply trust that he has our best interests in mind and is still watching out for us and providing for us even though the evidence seems to show otherwise? Or will we take matters into our own hands and try to work it out ourselves?
Finally, Jesus faced the third temptation—that of being offered the all kingdoms of the world if he would just bow and worship the evil one. This temptation is not unique to him, but is one we each face as children of the Father. Surely we all have had opportunities where we were promised the world, if we just did that one thing which was unjust, unholy, inhumane, or unloving. How often have we traded in our eternal glory for the transient glories of this world? We are not alone as we face this temptation—we turn to Jesus who knew and gave the perfect response which silenced the enemy.
Jesus was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness. And we can see that while he was there, he faced the reality of what it meant to be truly human and to face the evil one’s temptations, while he was at his weakest and most vulnerable. In identifying with us in the wilderness, Jesus joins with us as we wander through our own wilderness times.
Experience this Lenten season or preparation for Easter as a wilderness journey, similar to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness with God, and Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness battling the evil one. During this time, we may choose to fast or practice other spiritual disciplines as a participation with Christ in his own wilderness experience. We may want to spend extra time in reflection and humble repentance, acknowledging our need and weakness, and our dependency upon God. We may want to surrender ourselves anew to the purposes and will of our heavenly Father, trusting in him for provision, healing, renewal, and restoration, through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. As we wander through these forty days of Lent or Easter preparation, let’s draw near to God as he draws near to us, resist the evil one as Christ resisted him, and rest in God’s faithfulness, grace and loving care.
Dear Father, thank you for always being with us in every circumstance, caring for us and strengthening us even when we are at our weakest. Thank you, Jesus, for being with us in the middle of our temptations and struggles, enabling us to resist the evil one and endure whatever may come our way. Spirit, grant us renewal, refreshment, and transformation, as we turn to Christ in faith, praying in his holy name. Amen.
“Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’ Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Mark 1:10-13 NASB
See also 1 Peter 3:18–22.
By Linda Rex
FEBRUARY 16, 2020, 6th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—Lost in the midst of our current political scene, with its polarizing rhetoric and maneuvering of people into places of influence and power, is the quiet transforming simplicity of grace and truth. As I was reading the gospel reading for this particular Sunday, I was struck by the reality that even though we may have dogmatic opinions, emphatic assertions of right vs. wrong, or clear expectations of how things are or ought to be, we are never at the place where we can, with authority, say we are right and everyone else is wrong.
There is only one person who did this, and was right in doing it, because of who he was. The fundamental groundwork of the gospel message is that this person had the capacity to know exactly what to do and say in every situation, and was able to do and say it, because he was the One who created all things and held them together by his word of power. He could, and did, say to those around him, “It is written…” or “You say…” and overturned what had been said or written by simply affirming, “But I say…”.
When human beings talk in this manner, all our red flags go up. Immediately, we grow concerned, because such language overthrows any authority other than the one who is speaking. For Jesus to say, “What you may have been told or taught has no relevance anymore—what I say is what really matters now,” is to put Christ on a plane above everyone else, even to the point of him being God himself. We would never accept a human being having the arrogance to place themselves in that position of authority….or would we?
The problem we are running into today is the loss of our understanding of who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is—the One who is both fully God and fully human. I was driving in downtown Nashville yesterday, and was amazed at the vast amount of construction and renovation that is going on in this city. As I looked about me, I saw towers of glass and metal rising high into the sky, many of them only partially built. Apartment buildings that were dozens of stories tall gave evidence of the thousands of people moving into Nashville needing places to live.
Years ago, the tallest buildings in the skyscape would have been the cathedrals and churches with towering steeples. Today, such buildings are dwarfed by the immensity of other places where people live, work, and play. In some ways, this is a metaphor for the attention we give today to the spiritual realities, and to the God who sent his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to transform our hearts by faith.
What we have lost is not so much a creed or a certain religion or belief system as it is the simple understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to him. To even assert that there is a God and that we are his creatures, formed to live in relationship with him, is offensive to many people today. We do not want to surrender ourselves to the reality that there is someone to whom we owe our existence and our ability to live and work in this world. And we most certainly do not want anyone other than ourselves to have the ability to tell us what to say or do.
This is not a new problem. In reality, it is one we have been manifesting since the days when Adam and Eve walked in the Garden of Eden. They too wrestled with the choice between life, and deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil. The human tendency to choose for ourselves a way of living and being which ends in death is something fundamental to our humanity—it is our sinful nature at work within us. We just have a natural proclivity to choose death over life, and then to blame God when things don’t turn out the way we want them to.
It is ironic that the nation God called his very own, ancient Israel, whom he joined himself to in covenant love, would take the descriptions of life in his presence and turn them into prescriptions for living. They added many words to the 613 rules in the old covenant, creating an even more difficult path for the average person to follow, should they decide to obey the God of the Jewish people. Over the centuries, as the Jews interacted with God, for many of them, the law and its observation supplanted the covenant relationship it was designed to lead people into and to participate in.
Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, reminded his listeners that keeping the law in itself was insufficient—no, even impossible. He told them what the law said, and then took them farther, deeper, into the heart of his Father. He showed his hearers that God looks at our intent, our motives, and our reasoning. We can’t just go through the motions—an entire transformation of our being is needed, not just a change in our actions.
That being the case, we as human beings are in an extremely difficult place. There is no way, with our sinful nature abounding, that we can ever have the right motivation in every situation. There is no way we will ever keep our thoughts where they ought to be or our feelings and desires pure and chaste. We are helpless and can never live as we ought to in right relationship with God and others.
So we come to the simplicity of grace and truth. Truth is, we are not God—he is. Truth is, we are broken, sinful people, who will, whether we want to or not, find ourselves choosing death instead of life, and reaping the consequences of it. Truth is, we have no hope of anything being any different—in us, in this world, in our circumstances—apart from the living Lord, the One who made it all, sustains it all, and redeemed it all. So, we need grace.
And we have grace. That is the good thing. God the Word has come into our humanity, lived the life we were created for in Jesus Christ as a Son in perfect relationship with the Father, died the death we so often choose, and has risen, taking us with him into glory. Our humanity is now in a totally different place—we are free to live in right relationship with God and others because of Christ. This grace means that it’s not all up to us—it’s up to him. Whatever we say and do as humans, we say and do it in Christ, and he gives us life.
Truth—God is, and we are his, and apart from him, we have no hope. Grace—in Jesus he has come, included us in his life and death, and has sent the Spirit to make this so as we trust in him. The simplicity of grace and truth—the reception of the gift God has given—the belief that God loves us this much and will never leave or forsake us, would transform our lives, our politics, and our world, if we were willing.
Today, in the stillness of quiet reflection, consider these questions: Are my decisions leading me to a greater, fuller life in joyful relationship with God and others? Or are they leading down the path to death and destruction? What is my response to the words of Jesus to me, “But I say…”? Allow yourself to respond in the simplicity of grace and truth which is ours in Jesus Christ, receiving Abba’s gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit.
Dear God, we so desperately need healed! Thank you, Abba, for your perfect gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us grace and truth, and for leading us into life everlasting. Our life is in you alone. Holy Spirit, may you penetrate the core of our beings with the new life Jesus brought us, transforming our hearts and minds, and thereby healing our churches, our communities, our politics, this world and the earth on which we live. We long for you to finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life,…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20a NLT
See also Matthew 5:21–37.
By Linda Rex
PENTECOST—As a pastor, I am often burdened by the struggles and suffering of those I minister to and of those I encounter as I move about in my community. I would love to help people find freedom from the things which enslave them and to find peace, joy, and renewal in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
But I realize how easy it is to allow the distractions and interests of life to occupy my own mind, time, and attention to the place that I lose focus on the things of God. Any relationship becomes stale or divided if not enough attention is given to it. To become indifferent to another person rather than deeply connected with them can easily happen without our realizing it if we are preoccupied with other things.
When we read about the disciples after the resurrection, we find them gathered together in community continuing in their relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer. As a group they were focused in prayer and they remembered that Jesus had told them they were to be witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus had told them to wait—to wait until they were clothed with power from on high.
I have no doubt that Peter could have told a powerful story of his own personal redemption, of how he had betrayed Jesus but Jesus had forgiven him and recommissioned him to tend the flock of God’s people. Matthew could have told about how Jesus found him in the marketplace, a despised tax collector, and told him to follow him, and how Jesus had changed his life and given him a new purpose. Mary Magdalene could have shared how Jesus had freed her from her many demons and given her a new life of service and obedience to her Lord.
But Jesus had told each of them to wait. He had told them that telling his story in their story would not be enough. Something more was needed.
God had come in the person of Jesus Christ, had taken on our humanity, had forged a new human existence for us, and had taught his disciples how to love and serve others in the way God meant us as humans to live. But Jesus was touching only a few people’s lives while he was here on earth. From the beginning God had intended the transformation of the entire cosmos. He had meant a change in the very substance of our human existence which would heal, restore, and renew all things.
For this reason, after his death and resurrection, Jesus needed to return to the Father and send the Spirit. Pouring out this gift of God’s presence and power on all flesh gave each human being the capacity for the new life Jesus forged for us while living in our humanity. And Jesus was frank about the reality that the world would not receive this gift. He knew and understood our human capacity to rebel against God and to resist the gracious love of the Father.
It seems that apart from our Abba’s work, we do not receive this gift and walk in the truth of our existence as his adopted children. Our tendency is to listen to and embrace the lies of the evil one instead and to seek our life in this broken existence rather than in the One who created us and redeemed us. We prefer to design and assume our own self-created identity rather than embracing the one given to us by God—to be his image-bearers, children who love him and one another with a self-sacrificial, humble, serving and gracious love.
What we don’t realize is that apart from this precious gift of the Spirit and the work of God’s power and presence in our lives, we are living as if something is missing. There is a capacity we do not have which we need so that we are able to truly be the people God intends us to be. We are not truly ourselves apart from the indwelling Spirit, for when the Spirit dwells richly within us, God dwells within and we participate in the realization of the kingdom of God. We experience in those moments what it describes in Revelation 21:3-5 where God comes to dwell with man and Jesus works to make all things new.
In Genesis, we read how Adam and Eve walked in the garden of Eden with God, talking with him and sharing all of life with him. Being in God’s presence and experiencing a personal relationship with our Creator is what we were created for. But more than that, we have been given through Jesus Christ by the Spirit the very real presence of God within our very being. Now God dwells within us permanently rather than merely being with us.
The power and presence of God within is lifechanging and transformational, but we will not experience the reality of this as long as other people and interests command our attention and focus. If our dependency is upon the things of this life, we will not depend upon God and his Spirit. Due to God’s grace, we can survive quite nicely for a while doing this, but we will miss out on the capacity to fully participate in our real human existence as children of God. We will struggle to truly express the nature of God in our words and actions and any witness we may give to the person and work of Jesus Christ will be limited and ineffective.
Attending upon the things of the Spirit through the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, silence, sharing, bible study, gratitude, and meditation opens us up to the Spirit’s work within. Slowing down and taking time to focus on Jesus Christ allows the Spirit fill us and renew us for the work we have been given—to testify to the goodness and love of the Father expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ. Just as the early church learned to wait for the promise of the Spirit before moving ahead on mission with Jesus, today believers learn to rest in Christ and to wait upon the Spirit before attempting to do ministry in this broken world.
Today, how can we pause and make room for the Spirit’s work within? How can we give undivided attention to the Lord Jesus Christ through prayer and the other spiritual disciplines? Perhaps all that is needed is simply silence and rest. God is present and real at all times—we simply need to awaken to his presence and power within, and to allow the Spirit to renew, inspire, teach, and lead us.
Thank you, Abba, that through Jesus you have sent your Spirit. Awaken us to your presence and power at work within us. Enable us to experience renewal, refreshment, and healing by your precious Spirit. Holy Spirit, fill us anew and empower us to bear witness to Jesus, and to live and walk in truth in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” Acts 2:4 NASB
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” John 14:12 NASB
“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Romans 8:14 NASB
By Linda Rex
RESURRECTION SUNDAY/EASTER—I’ve been noticing how often we act as though Jesus is still hanging on the cross or laying dead in the tomb. As Christians we can talk a lot about how Jesus died on the cross for us and our sins and how he rose from the grave, but do we live and speak as though this is actually true?
As I was sitting in the last session of a recent GCI women’s leadership forum, I was invited to write myself a permission slip. We had written one on the opening session, and now we were going to write one as we prepared to leave. I closed my eyes and asked the Lord what he wanted me to write on my slip. The still small voice said, “Be free.”
As I wrote this down on my yellow post-it note, I thought about this statement. Why would God ask me to give myself permission to be free when in Christ I already was free? I was struck by the reality that I could know quite well that I am made free from evil, sin, and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and yet be thinking, feeling, and living as though this were not true.
This is similar to Paul’s direction to us to be reconciled to God because we are reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20). There is the spiritual reality of our reconciliation with God on his side and spiritual reality of our freedom from evil, sin, and death in Jesus. And then, on the other side, there is our personal experience of and participation in these spiritual realities through Jesus in the Spirit.
The apostle Peter had told Jesus he believed he was the Messiah, his Lord. He had refused to believe that he would ever betray Jesus. But standing in the courtyard trying to stay warm the night Jesus was taken and was being tried, Peter denied vehemently that he knew him. When the rooster crowed and Jesus caught his eye, Peter was devastated. He was caught between the two parts of himself—what he meant to do and what he did, what he believed and how he acted—and subsequently found himself in a place he never meant to be and experienced sorrow and deep remorse as a result.
As we read the Easter story in Luke 24:1-12, we find Peter again caught between what actually had happened, and what his human reasoning would have him believe and do—Jesus was not in his tomb. Were the women right? Had he indeed risen from the grave? How could that be? Peter saw the empty tomb and went away marveling—but apparently, not believing.
All of these experiences including his subsequent encounters with the risen Jesus, and his calling to be a shepherd to God’s people, helped to form and shape Peter. It was this Peter, the one who not only knew Jesus had died and risen again, but who had personally experienced Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa when the men sent by a centurion stopped at the gate and asked for him.
In the companion scripture for this Sunday in Acts 10:34-43, Luke tells us about the sermon Peter preached to these Gentiles. He began by saying that it was obvious to him that God was not someone who showed partiality. He could say this confidently because not only had God given him a repeated vision which told him he was not to differentiate between people, but also because he had been directed to treat these Gentiles as though they were brothers. What Peter had learned at the feet of Jesus, he was now experiencing in the midst of his own ministry—Jesus had torn down those divisions held near and dear by the Jewish people and had made all people one in himself.
As Peter preached and told of his experience of the life, death, and resurrection of his Lord, the Spirit came upon these people. What was true in Jesus Christ was now true for each person there. They were included—they were God’s people not just as a spiritual reality, but now by personal experience. They were baptized, showing their participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, by participating in the baptism Jesus did on all humanity’s behalf.
But even Peter struggled with what he knew to be true and making it a reality in his life. At one point the apostle Paul took Peter to task for not acting in accordance with the truth about the Gentiles being included in table fellowship through Jesus. Peter got caught up with some Jewish members’ refusing to eat with Gentiles, and even Barnabas was led astray (Gal. 2:11-14). Didn’t he know better? Obviously, yes, he did. But in that moment, he missed the mark.
The spiritual reality is that all are included in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. As Paul wrote: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-21 NASB) Because of our inclusion, Paul calls us to lay aside the old self and be renewed—put on the new self which has been through Christ created in the image of God (Eph. 4:22-24). Yes, we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive together with Christ, seating us in his presence in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7).
Our flesh calls to us to live in the old ways—to act like dead people. But we have been given new life, and God is calling us to act like the new creations we are. Paul says, keep seeking the things above, since that is where you (according to the spiritual realities) really are right now; keep thinking about the heavenly realities instead of obsessing on the fleshly realities of our old human existence.
Let all that is not of God continue hanging on the cross where Jesus hung. Leave the sin, evil, guilt and shame in the tomb with Jesus. Walk in the newness of life which is yours in Jesus. Cease living for yourself alone, for your own pleasure and personal indulgence and begin living as a member of God’s body—fulfilling that special place you were created to fill with your gifts, talents, knowledge, and experiences in love and service to God and others.
The truth is that, like Peter, we can be confident of the spiritual realities but fall far short in our personal experience of or participation in them. This is why we turn to Jesus and trust solely in him, and in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t count on our own ability or strength, but rather on the resurrection power which raised Jesus from the dead. It is God’s life at work in us which enables us to live in newness of life.
We trust, not in the empty cross, but in the risen Lord who died on the cross. He isn’t still in the tomb—the tomb is empty and his body has been glorified. Jesus is both seated at God’s right hand bearing our humanity in his presence and is present and near to us moment by moment by the Holy Spirit. We are reconciled to God, so by the Spirit we respond to God’s call to be reconciled to him and others. We are freed from sin, evil, and death—so we live through Jesus by the Spirit in the true freedom by which we love God and our neighbor as we were created to. By the Spirit, Abba’s resurrection power, we live, act and speak as though Jesus Christ is risen indeed.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of new life given us in your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for making Jesus’ gift our very own, enabling us to participate fully in all Christ has done. Dear Abba, enable us to walk in the life which is ours in Christ, living reconciled and free, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.
“While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.’ “ Luke 24:4-6a NASB
By Linda Rex
I remember sitting in our living room as a child reading or putting together a puzzle with one eye on the screen door. From my seat I could see the metal mailbox which was attached to the white post on the front porch. I loved the sense of expectation that came with waiting for the postal employee to put something in it—there was always some hope that a letter was there for me, with my name written on it.
Letters and packages received in the mail have a unique capacity to create a feeling of relational connection. As a child I had a pen pal who lived in Germany and I waited with special anticipation for her response to my letters. I had a cousin who was kind enough to include me in her letter-writing, and since I knew very few of my cousins, it was a delight to get a letter from her as well.
For me, writing a letter to someone provides a way of sharing what I would not ordinarily take the time to say. In other words, for an introvert like myself, it provides a way of thoughtfully putting down on paper (or nowadays in digital type) what is going on in my head. Instead of this creative person struggling to get her words together, I can take the time to sort them out and put them down in an organized fashion.
Letters for millennia have brought people together. I think about the couriers in the Roman empire who carried letters across long distances. We would not have the New Testament epistles if it hadn’t been for the apostles’ efforts to connect relationally with people in other cities and to share the gospel message and spiritual encouragement and teaching with them. In America, we had many brave people who risked life and limb to carry letters in pouches on horseback across the frontier. How sweet it must have been for a mother to receive a long-awaited letter from a son or daughter who had moved clear across the country!
It takes a certain level of commitment to sit down and write a real, personal letter to another person. It’s easy for me to make a standardized letter and use MS Word mail merge to create fifty similar letters addressed to fifty different people. These are not personal in the same way as a letter created with intentional focus on one certain relationship, which attends to the particular nuances of that relational connection.
And there is nothing quite like receiving a letter written from the heart from a friend or a lover—the words on the page are like a conduit of love and grace. There is a beauty in a well-written expression of affection and concern. Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. Sometimes the cruelest words are those written on a page, or today, in an email.
The freedom, though, to send and receive private letters and packages is an important freedom for us to have. In many nations, letters and packages are opened and examined, and the privacy of such communication is not respected. We have in this country taken for granted our ability to receive and send private communication—it is a privilege and a blessing we surely would not want to live without.
So, when a news flash goes out about pipe bombs being received in the mail by certain high-profile people, I get concerned. This news brought a flash back to more than one scare involving a deadly poison being mailed to the president and others in leadership. The insidious effort by evil to create fear and suspicion and thereby destroy relational connection is obvious. What better to create mistrust between people than to ruin their methods of private communication?
And when fear breeds mistrust and suspicion, then the installation of more controls over private communication seems to be the answer. But in reality, it destroys our ability to live in community. I hope in our efforts to create a safe letter and package handling system that we don’t lose our freedom for private communication. It would be a shame to for our college students to never be able to receive a care package because someone else would see the contents first and decide to eat all the cookies and candy. This is a serious issue!
Seriously, though, there is one thing the evil one has done from the beginning and that is to cause us to question our relational connection with God and one another. He is always making this insidious effort to create mistrust and unbelief. And we listen to it and allow it to influence us. And some of us participate in the evil one’s methods and madness. This is how we can end up in a broken world where people do insane things like mailing pipe bombs.
This is not what freedom is for. Freedom is not for us to be able to do whatever we want whenever and however we want. But rather, freedom is for us to be able to live together in the midst of our differences in equality and unity. The purpose of our redemption is so that we quit questioning God and his love, and begin trusting him. We are given the freedom to love and respect one another such that we can trust one another and care for one another as we ought. And our redemption through Jesus enables us to live at peace and in harmony with one another because it brings us all to the same place—to the cross.
Our freedom is not so we can harm and injure one another, but so we can live together in harmony and love, in a world in which each person respects and loves the other, in spite of differences in relationship or personhood. We must beware of any system of government which creates separation and fear, or which sets us against one another rather than working together for the best interests of all those involved.
And we need to be reminded there is a power at work in this cosmos which is greater than any other power. This power underlies everything which is at work in our universe, even down to the minute details of each molecule. This power is beyond our comprehension, and is not intimidated by the arrogant boastful words and actions of any leader of government or industry. This power has all the wealth of the cosmos at its disposal, and can never be opposed without great damage to its opponent. We often live as though this were not the case—but this power is at work in our world in spite of our belief that we are in charge or that certain people are in control due to their financial or political prowess.
This power is a Person, and his name is Jesus Christ. He is that divine Letter sent to us from Abba, to tell us of his love and grace. This Person was not afraid of any method of delivery, but was willing to put himself completely at the mercy of us as human beings, coming in the form of an infant, born and placed in a manger. It was this Person who was willing to risk it all so we would be included in Abba’s love as his adopted children. This Person allowed us to crucify him, knowing that within three days he would walk out of the tomb, having transformed our humanity in the process. The Person sent his Spirit so we could all live together in the harmony and oneness of the Trinity here in our broken world.
Whatever may happen now or in the future, we have this certainty at the root of all things—we are held. We will make it through this, whatever this is, because we are beloved and we are graced by the presence and power of God in his Son Jesus by his Holy Spirit. The Spirit is still at work in this world creating community, tearing down walls, dissolving fear and suspicion, and drawing us together.
Our hearts resonate with the Christ within, enabling us to trust, to believe once more there is hope and there is love at work in this world. The Letter we have received by God’s divine delivery system will accomplish his perfect work in his good time. His explosion of love and grace is at work in this cosmos and will in his good time fill all things and drive out all that is dark and evil, reducing it to chaff blown away by the wind. We have nothing to fear and everything to hope for, because we are holding within ourselves the special delivery we have received from our heavenly Father—the Letter of grace, the indwelling Christ by the Spirit.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for loving us so much! We are so blessed! Do not allow the seeds of mistrust, suspicion, and fear to grow, Abba, but blow them away with your divine Breath, replacing them with seeds of kindness, compassion, and trust. Remove from this nation and others those leaders who would participate with the evil one, and replace them with men and women who embrace and live in the truth of who they are as your children. We are so often at the mercy of those more powerful and wealthy than ourselves, Lord, so show yourself to be the One who is the divine Power at work in this cosmos, the One who holds all things in his hand. Lord Jesus, fill us anew with your Spirit of harmony, grace, and love. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” Job 42:2 NASB
By Linda Rex
I was sitting in a restaurant the other day with my family. Looking around the restaurant, I noticed a sight which is quite commonplace today—everyone at the table was looking at their smart phone. I was a little amused, because just a few minutes before that, I had caught myself looking at mine when I really didn’t need to.
It can be a real challenge to stay present in the moment with family, friends, and the task at hand, because there are so many distractions. Believe me—I love my smart phone. But I have had to learn to limit its use, or I will not be present to what is going on right in front of me and will miss valuable moments in my relationships and home life.
I think there are things we can learn about our relationship with God from this. Years ago, I believed the Holy Spirit was the substance God was made up of, that the Spirit was a force or power, but definitely not a Person. To see the Spirit as an object or force meant I was always having to ask God for more of the Spirit. Even though, as I believed then, I had been given the Spirit at baptism and God wouldn’t take the Spirit away, I was still in danger of Spirit starvation.
A song I fell in love with in those days was “More Love, More Power.”(1) This is a great song which was very inspiring to sing. But I began to see that it began with a false paradigm. This paradigm said—I don’t have enough love or power from God—I am starving spiritually. I only have a little bit of God’s power, so I have got to have more or I’m in real trouble. I desperately need God to give me more or I can’t be good enough (so I will be worthy of God’s love and attention or be a good person).
When Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit, though, he did not seem to use this type of terminology. He spoke of the Holy Spirit as being a Person like himself (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13) Yes, he spoke about the Spirit as being given or poured out. Jesus said the disciples would be baptized with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But Christ made it quite clear that the Holy Spirit was not just a power or force—he was a Person who would not speak on his own initiative but according to the Father’s will, guide them into all truth, and testify to them about Jesus.
A person such as the Holy Spirit cannot be divided up without destroying the Person in the process. The Spirit isn’t hacked up into pieces to be given a little here and a little there. At Pentecost, the apostle Peter—filled with the Spirit—explained how the events which had happened that day (the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those gathered for prayer and worship) was a fulfillment of the prophetic word of Joel 2:28-29, which said the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh.
The Scriptures indicate God has become present by the Holy Spirit to each and every person. So why did Peter say in Acts 2:38, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?”
Apparently there is a difference in how the Holy Spirit came to the believers on Pentecost (and how he comes to us today) than when he came on the men and women of the Old Testament. Back then, it seems as if they would be overcome by the Spirit and find themselves prophesying or doing extraordinary things, apart from their decision to have the Spirit’s involvement in their lives. I don’t think Saul really wanted to go about prophesying, but Samuel told him the Spirit would make him do this as a sign he would be anointed king over Israel. God seemed to work more externally with human beings back then.
The significance of repentance and faith in Christ which precedes baptism is the key. The New Testament church was born out of the events which had occurred during Jesus’ time here on earth. Jesus, the Word of God in human flesh, had lived, died, and then been resurrected, ascending into the presence of God taking our common humanity with him. The perfected humanity of each human being lies hidden with Christ in God. Our response, what we do with these events and what we believe about who we are in Christ is critical.
Jesus told his disciples toward the end of his life here on earth, “A little while, and you will not see Me, and again a little while, and you will see Me” (John 16:19 NASB). He indicated that he had to leave so that the Spirit would come to them. And when the Spirit came, Christ would be coming to them. The Spirit of Christ would indwell human beings, and in this way, Abba himself would be present.
Through Christ and in the Spirit, God is now present and available to each and every person. Notice the important details—through Christ, and in the Spirit. If you or I, or any other person, does not believe Jesus Christ was who he was, of what use is the gift of the Spirit? True, the Spirit works in mighty ways in spite of us—there is plenty of evidence of this in the Old Testament. But God always protects and honors our human dignity. He does not force himself upon us. The Spirit protects our personhood and invites us into relationship with God through Jesus, creating in us—as we are willing—the faith to believe.
The Spirit testifies to who Jesus is, and who he is for us individually. This is important, because at some point we need to repent of all our false beliefs about Abba, Jesus, and ourselves. We need to turn away from ourselves and turn to Christ. To receive the Spirit is to open ourselves up completely to the presence of God, allowing him full reign in our being.
The apostle Paul wrote, “do not get drunk with wine, … but be filled with the Spirit.” Being drunk means our bloodstream is filled with a substance which is altering our decision-making capability and reducing our inhibitions, often in unhealthy ways. Being filled with the Spirit means being filled with the Person and Presence of God himself and being governed by his heart and mind, not our broken, fleshly heart and mind. It means we are led by his will, purposes and plans, not our selfish, self-willed desires and efforts. We live undistractedly, fully attentive to and participating with Christ as he dwells in us by the Spirit.
It’s not that God has to give us more of himself, but rather that we are fully surrendered and open to him. What part of us are we holding back from God? What doors in our heart and mind are closed to God? What do we refuse to give up or surrender to him? How are we resisting or quenching the Spirit?
Coming to see this moved me to change the words to that song so we could sing it at church: “Your Love, Your Power, I give you all my life…And I will worship you with all of my heart, and I will worship you with all of my mind, and I will worship you with all of my strength, for you are my Lord.” There is a call to surrender in the preaching of the gospel. This is why each generation is so resistant. None of us want to turn over the reins of our being to someone other than ourselves—most especially not God, because he has definite views on what it means to be a human being made in his image.
What part of our lives and beings are we unwilling to surrender to the God who made us and saved us by his grace? Will we give him all, turning away from ourselves and turning to Christ? In turning to Christ, then, we are baptized—showing we agree that yes, we did die with Christ, and we rose with Christ, and one day we will be fully Christ-like, when we see him in his glory. We are agreeing with the truth of our being and are open to the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, having received the gift God has given us of his indwelling Presence.
Each moment of our lives, then, is spent in the indwelling Presence of God. Being baptized in the Spirit means we are swimming in the Triune life and love—in the midst of the Father, Son, and Spirit—participating in what they are doing in this world.
We can focus on our distractions—and there are plenty of them—or we can be present to the One who is present to us by the Spirit. Paul says to keep our hearts and minds on the things of heaven, not on the things of earth—meaning, be present to God and his Presence rather than the things of the flesh (Col. 3:1-4). This is what we were created for, and how we are meant to live—in the life and love of Abba and Jesus in the Spirit, forever.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Beloved Son, and for the gift of your precious Spirit. Thank you for the gift of your indwelling Presence, and for inviting us into relationship with yourself. Grant us the grace to welcome and surrender to the gift of your Being through Jesus and by your Spirit, Amen.
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Eph. 5:18 NASB
(1) “Worship” album, Michael W. Smith (2001)
by Linda Rex
While I was still attending worship services up in Illinois many years ago, we decided one Sunday to change things up a bit during the worship service. We were a very small fellowship group and we gathered together to sing, and to pray and to hear God’s word together. But this particular Sunday we popped popcorn and watched a movie together.
The movie had its funny points and its deeply moving points. And the verse which continually jumped out at me was Micah’s prophetic word, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8 KJV).
It occurred to me this morning as I read that verse anew in my morning devotional time, we tend to see this verse as something we have to do as part of our walk as followers of Jesus Christ. It is a challenge for us as human beings to always do what is good, especially when doing good means different things to different people. Indeed, what is truly good?
And what does it mean to be just? Sometimes our efforts to be just turn out to be cruel and unjust in the end. And we’re not always sure of the best way to show mercy, because sometimes the most merciful thing we can do for people is make them face up to their irresponsibility and codependency. And walking humbly with God? That’s another story altogether. We tend to naturally be very arrogant as human beings—when do we ever truly acknowledge our dependency upon the God who created us and sustains us?
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit this whole way of living life does not come naturally to us, even though it is what we were created for. God made everything in the beginning, including humanity, and declared our intrinsic being to be good. And yet we think, feel and act in ways which so often are not good. The critical thing for us to understand is God is the source of our goodness. In fact, it is his goodness which is necessary in this instance, since all our goodness falls short.
We do not execute justice as we ought, especially when we determine what is right or wrong based on personal preference, or prejudice, or cultural preconceptions. Too often the weighing in factors are money, power, and prestige rather than what is truly just in God’s sight. God is the One who sees all, even down to the dirty depths of the human heart—and he is the only one who executes true justice. For God is the only One who truly sets everything right in the end.
And so we come to walking humbly with our God. Even God’s chosen people in the Scriptures, the nations of Israel and Judah, did not walk humbly with God. Even though they knew the way to live and walk with God, and the need for them to be a light to the nations, they chose to go their own way. They stubbornly chose their own path, and so reaped the consequences of their choice.
But there was one person who knew the path to walk. He was the only one who lived out the truth of this verse. It took God coming to meet us in our brokenness for there to be a human being who could and would live out the truth of walking humbly with our God. This God/man, Jesus Christ, who was the divine Word in human flesh, is the One who did justly, who loved mercy and who walked humbly with his Father, the Lord of all. Jesus Christ did what none of us could or would do, and he offered himself voluntarily to stand in our place.
Jesus taught us the path to true humility. He set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity, willing to experience every part of our human existence, even to the point of the unjust indignity of being tortured and crucified. He did not seek his own path, but yielded completely to his Father’s will, and even yielded to the unjust demands of us as human beings in allowing himself to be mistreated and murdered.
In Philippians 2:5-8, the Apostle Paul describes the beauty of the humility of Christ in the midst of our humanity:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (NASB)
It’s hard to imagine some of the world leaders we have today being willing to do this very thing. Some executives in large companies would never consider doing what the Word did in setting aside his position and power for our sake as human beings, so we could be included in God’s life and love. Who in their right mind would do such a thing? Yet, we have this eyewitness account: Christ did it.
And this is where we find the resources to live in this way too. In the gift of the Spirit, Christ shares with you and with me, the heart of humility, justice and goodness which is his very own. He offers us his real humanity, the one we were meant to have from the beginning, and says to you and to me—believe. Believe this is true, this is yours, this is who you really are—and live as if it were true.
In our relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit, we find an understanding of what being truly just really means, and in time, we find ourselves being more and more just. As we study Jesus Christ, and get to know him personally in a deeper and deeper way, we find ourselves discerning more clearly it is not so much about what is good or evil according to our human understanding, but about what gives life, the true life which is ours in Jesus Christ. Doing what is good has to do with living in the reality of who we are in him, not in our carnal, broken humanity.
And in our relationship with our Abba in his Son by the Spirit, we find ourselves learning true humility—the path of walking humbly with our God which is only found in Jesus Christ, our Immanuel, who is God with us. Christ’s humility becomes ours. We come to recognize we cannot and do not walk humbly with God as we ought, so God came to walk with us and in us. God stoops down and lifts us up into relationship with himself in Jesus, and by his Spirit enables us to walk in relationship with him moment by moment. It is what God has done and does today and will do in the future which matters here—we only participate in Christ’s perfected work of humility.
So this is how we live out this verse. Christ in us by his Spirit does justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with his God. Christ in us is for us, in us and with us all we need to live in a loving, perfected relationship with our eternal God. Immanuel, God with us, calls us to participate with him in his life and love, for he has shown us, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, all which God requires of us. And so we live our lives in gratitude.
Thank you, Abba, for calling us into life with yourself, and for giving us your Son and your Spirit so we may live in you and with you forever. Dear Christ, be for us, as you truly are by your Spirit, the genuine justice, mercy and humility of our lives, so we may walk humbly before you. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8 NASB
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