By Linda Rex
October 2, 2022, PROPER 22—Nowadays, when someone wants to move a grown sycamore tree, if they can afford it, they call up the local landscape company who sends out a large truck with a digger on the back. The workers use this machine’s massive teeth to dig the tree up, roots and all, and to tip it back and up over the truck in order to carry it. Then the workers drive the truck with the sycamore tree on top to its new location, dropping the tree there into the ground.
In reality, a lot of us exercise some kind faith without knowing we are doing it. Looking at this activity on the surface, we may wonder exactly how much faith is needed to move that full-grown tree to a new location. For example, the workers need to trust that the people who put the truck together and the digger together did their job properly, enabling the workers to drive the truck back and forth, and to use the digger to safely remove the tree from the ground. The workers trust that the spade will hold the tree safely until they get it to its new location rather than dropping it in the middle of the highway, creating a massive traffic snarl. The workers trust in the digger’s ability to place the tree safely in its hole, and in the owner’s promise to pay them for their efforts. There is a lot of faith being expressed in this simple act of everyday labor.
In my recent studies with Grace Communion Seminary on the topic of Paul’s epistles, I am learning about his concept of faith. Faith, for the apostle Paul, not only has to do with the trustworthiness of the One being trusted—Jesus Christ, but also about his complete and perfect trust in the Father expressed in his self-offering on the cross. This faith is given to us to participate in by the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. The matter of having sufficient faith to move anything at all has been taken care of by the One who is not only perfectly trustworthy, but who also has total faith in our trustworthy Father—and Jesus enables us to participate in that perfect faith in the Spirit.
When Jesus said that with the faith the size of a mustard seed one could move a tree and plant it in the ocean, he probably had in mind the previous conversation he and his disciples were having about forgiveness. When we come face to face with impossible tasks such as continually and freely forgiving those who deeply wound us, we discover our inadequacy, our inability to do what God asks of us in those situations. It is not a bad thing to realize that our best efforts are insufficient—it reminds us to turn to the One who, by his Spirit, can and will live our best response in and through and out from us.
In our New Testament reading for this Sunday, 2 Timothy 1:1–14, we hear the apostle Paul reminding us to “kindle afresh” or “fan into flame” (NIV) the gift we have been given. Adding fuel to a fire or kindling to hot coals causes the flame to leap up and again begin to burn intensely. Paul is reminding us that there is a fire we are baptized with, the Holy Spirit, and we do not want to “quench” this fire in any way. Rather we want to facilitate and encourage its continued flame.
In speaking of this gift of the Spirit, Paul reminded Timothy that this “sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” was indeed living within him. Because God by the Spirit was living within Timothy, he did not have a spirit of timidity or fear, but one of “power and love, and discipline”. The indwelling presence of God by the Spirit enabled Timothy to do the ministry he was called into, and it was by the Spirit that Timothy found God’s grace and purpose at work in his life. It was not all up to Timothy, but rather a walk of faith in which the “faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” were expressed as he lived out God’s calling on his life.
When asked by the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus spoke of the tiny amount of faith necessary to pick up and move a large tree from land into the sea. And then he went on to use a parable, which in our culture does not really resonate with us, since so many of us object so strongly to slavery. But what if we looked at it a little differently?
Think of a college intern, Gracie, who works for a fashion designer, Laurel, in hopes of one day she might have her own designs looked at and used. (Sorry if this sounds like a romcom plot.) Gracie spends her days fetching Laurel’s coffee, running her errands, picking up her dry cleaning, and taking care of the designer’s everyday tasks. Gracie doesn’t get paid much of anything since she is an intern—she’s lucky to barely have enough income to cover her expenses with her side job waitressing in the student union.
If Gracie is out running errands for Laurel, is the designer going to call her up and invite her in for tea and crumpets, offering to serve her? No. Instead, Laurel will probably call her up and tell Gracie that while she is running around, she is to stop by Laurel’s favorite dinner spot and pick up a meal to go and to be sure to bring home Laurel’s favorite coffee while she is at it. Gracie will be expected to do all that, finish her errands, and clean off the coffee table so Laurel has a place to eat her dinner. And while Laurel is eating, Gracie will be expected to take the dog Feathers out for a walk and to feed her. And when Gracie shows up and finishes all her tasks, she should not expect praise and gratitude from Laurel, since Gracie is simply supposed to do what she was instructed to do, since she is just an intern.
Now, in the real world, I would like to hope that if there are any Laurel’s out there, that they would reconsider how they treat their interns. But this is a parable, right? It is to help us see in our minds eye what Jesus is saying. The disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus said that even the tiniest bit of faith can move a large tree to the sea should it be exercised.
The only way any of us has any faith at all is in Christ, as we participate with him in his death and resurrection. It is Christ’s faith at work in us by the Holy Spirit which enables us to do difficult things such as forgiving what seems impossible for us to forgive. And when we do forgive, when we do live like we should, when we do say what is healing and encouraging rather than hurtful, should God stand up and applaud? No, because we are simply doing what we were created to do, being who we were created to be—image-bearers of the divine, reflections of the glory of God in Christ by the Spirit.
It is God’s life at work in us by the Spirit who gets the credit. It is for his glory and to fulfill his purpose. The life of faith begins with a God who is trustworthy and who, in Christ, lives the life of faith we were created to live within, and who gives us, in Christ, the faith necessary to follow him and live in the truth of who we were created to be as children of the Father. I would imagine that even the angels of heaven have delight as does the Father when his children return home to their real selves, living in right relationship with him and each other. But truly, isn’t that where we belonged all along?
Father, Jesus, Spirit, you made us to live in loving, other-centered relationship with you and each other. We cannot and will not do this apart from your life in us and with us by your heavenly Spirit. Thank you for giving us the faith of Christ by the Spirit, enabling us to trust you in any and every situation, as you always meant for us to trust you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea”; and it would obey you. Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat”? But will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink”? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.” ’ ” Luke 17:5–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
September 4, 2022, PROPER 18—I know I will show my age by asking this question, but do you remember back when going to a water cooler, you would find a holder full of little paper cups in the shape of a cone? They might hold one small serving of cold water, but then they could not be reused more than once or twice because the water would soak the cup, causing it to leak.
Early this morning I woke up from a weird dream in which I was being sung a song about a paper cup. It was beautiful and I wish I could have written down the lyrics, because they were profound. But the point of the song was that I and every other human in this world are like paper cups—fragile and yet containing a valuable substance which is life-giving. Like the clay vessels which the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 4:7, we are fragile containers filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s real presence in us and with us.
So often, we minimize our worth and value as human beings, not realizing how absolutely precious we are. All we see is a little paper cup, plain, easily squashed, and short-lived. If we look solely at our usefulness, we may find that we have a small something to offer others—a life-giving drink that may do a little good when a person is thirsty. But we are in no way able to supply the real need of a person who has just wandered in off the desert, not having had a drink for hours.
I suppose we could begin to look at ourselves from the point of view of what we contain, rather than who we are as a container. Often, we want to focus on the presence of God within. But in Psalm 139 we read how God created each of us very carefully and he knows everything about us. He knows when we awaken and what we will say before it even comes out our mouths. And he knew us before we were born, and knew what we would become and planned for us to share life with him now and forever.
Like the potter the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to learn from, our Lord has carefully fashioned each one of us, making us vessels who are able carry his very presence and power. (See Jeremiah 18:1–11.) And even though, like the potter’s flawed vessel, none of us have taken the shape God originally intended, Christ took our human flesh and reforged it into the shape needed to be true reflections of our Triune God, able to participate in a real way in all he is doing right now and in the world to come.
The thing is, many of us have a tendency to argue with God about his creative efforts. We tell God, “I have no interest whatsoever in being a paper cup. Why did you make me like this? Why was I even born?” (See Rom. 9:20.) I can understand how someone may feel this way when all of the experiences in their life up that time have told them they are somehow worthless or unlovable. But our everyday experience of life does not determine our value or worth—God has already declared our value and worth and lovability in Jesus Christ.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus was walking along, being followed by large crowds of people. Significantly, he turned around to face them and began to talk with them about seriously considering the cost of following him. He knew many of them did not realize the price that would be asked of him—crucifixion, and his followers—persecution. They were looking at him as the one who would deliver them from Roman oppression and make their life abundant and blessed again, where he was seeking to free them from an even greater oppressor—sin, evil, and death. They did not even see how they were being held in bondage by their flesh and how desperately they needed to set free, free to be who God always meant for them to be—those who loved him with their whole beings and who loved one another as themselves.
Can you see the connection? How often we get swept away into false view of ourselves and of why we are even alive! We get pulled way from the simplicity of what God meant for us to be all along—paper cups that would hold his life-giving water providing refreshment for others. We were never meant to be the Savior or Redeemer—that is why Jesus came. Our participation in God’s life is precious and of great value to him. And he will not stop until we are all gathered around his table—his very own adopted children in Christ the Father’s Son. Paper cups—adopted children. Isn’t that enough for us?
Jesus didn’t pull any punches that day—he told the people the stark and painful truth. He told the people following him that no one in our lives, not even ourselves, should be of greater importance to us than him. If there is anyone else who is of greater importance to us than Christ, then are we truly his followers or disciples?
He also said that we each have our own cross to bear—some place in which we ourselves must be willing to lay down our lives as Jesus laid his down. What needs to be put to death in us that Christ may live? Too often we make the profession of faith in Jesus, but then we want him around just to make sure we are successful, wealthy, popular or blessed in some way. We certainly don’t want him to ask anything of us. We don’t want to have to give up things we may be attached to, such has unhealthy relationships or habits. Why should we have to give up a good paying job just because what we are doing is unethical or destructive?
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the difference between following our Lord Jesus Christ and simply professing our faith in him. We need to take seriously Jesus’ words about considering the cost. When we plan to build a new home, often we don’t realize the extent of the details involved and all of the decisions which have to be made in order to complete the project. Imagine multiplying that by the thousands of decisions and millions of dollars needed to complete the construction of a modern-day skyscraper? The leaders and generals of Ukraine and Russia, we’d like to hope, are taking into account the cost of their war against one another—are they prepared to finish what they have begun?
In the same way, we need to take seriously our commitment to Christ. Why? Because Christ is the one, as God in human flesh, who took our little paper cup humanity and transformed it. He’s the One who did all that was needed for us to live the life we need to live, die the death we deserve to die, and to bring us into his own relationship with the Father in the Spirit. When we follow Jesus, we lay down all our possessions—our own effort to find life in this world, our own expectations, our own will, our own solutions to life’s problems—and we receive gratefully everything from him. Jesus is our life. He is our hope. He is our past, present, and future—the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. We gratefully follow him wherever he goes, no matter the cost to ourselves, because by the Spirit, he has included us in his life and love, now and forever, as beloved children of the Father.
Lord, thank you for inviting every one of us to follow you. Grant us the grace to count the cost of discipleship, but even so, to choose to follow you wherever you lead. Thank you for including us in your love and life. By your Spirit, make us true reflections of you, for the Father’s glory. Amen.
“Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.’ ” Luke 14:25–33 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/olitlife-in-a-paper-cup.pdf ]
[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, TN area, or participating in a Zoom group, drop me a line at email@example.com ]
By Linda Rex
December 12, 2021, ADVENT | Joy—During my recent retreat, I spent some time on a pleasant property out in the country, where the rolling hayfields were dotted with limestone and the trees were covered with autumn-colored leaves. On my walks outside, I would pass by a small fountain of water pouring down over a pile of rocks and into a lovely outdoor pool surrounded by cattails and aquatic plants. The steady rush of water from fountain to pool gave the area a feeling of restfulness and inspired a sense of renewal.
As I was looking over the passages for this Sunday, I was reminded of the many ways in which the replenishing properties of water were used in Scripture as a way to describe the Holy Spirit—the living presence of God himself. We are reminded that there is only one cure for the unending thirst in our soul, and that our efforts to fill that emptiness on our own will inevitably end up fruitless.
Indeed, we were created for joy, but we often find our human experience falls way short of joy. If anything, we experience everything but joy in this broken and hurting world. But the apostle Paul told us to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Phil. 4:4 NASB)!” How in the world do we rejoice in the midst of our everyday struggles, difficulties and hardships? How do we find true joy when all we are given are ways to experience temporary pleasures and fleeting happiness instead?
There’s a story in the Old Testament about when Israel was traipsing around the wilderness and began to complain because they were thirsty. The place where they had been led to by God did not have any water sources. As they focused on their lack of water, they began to believe that God was not with them. They kept their eyes on what they didn’t have, and forgot what they did have—the presence and power of God in their midst (Ex. 17:1–7).
So often, this is our own issue. We can get so focused on our circumstances, or on the immediate situation—the politics, the environment, the people down the street, whatever we are concerned about—and lose sight of the spiritual realities. This is the problem. We forget that we have in our midst the Source of living water—God himself in Christ by the Spirit, living and active in our lives and circumstances.
This is God’s word to us: “Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; … The LORD your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will [renew you in his love], He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zeph. 3:14–17 NASB). God calls us to joy because he is living, present and active as the One who victoriously conquered over evil, sin and death.
During Advent we are reminded to watch attentively for the coming of the Righteous One, the coming of God into this world to deliver, restore, and renew. As we draw near the celebration of Christmas, the coming of God into human flesh becomes the focus of our worship and praise. God has not left us alone in the midst of our darkness. No, he has come to us. The Word of God, the eternal Son who has always lived in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, has come, taken on our flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again. He is that baby, born to Mary on that blessed night, for the sake of every human being. He is the fountain of living water in the midst of our arid desert. He is the spring of renewal and refreshment in a dying world.
We are called to be attentive to the reality that God in Christ by the Spirit is our salvation. “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation,” Isaiah wrote. “Cry aloud and shout for joy…for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 12:2, 6 NASB).” Shout for joy! God has come to dwell with man! Rejoice in triumph! Jesus is a victorious warrior, who is exulting over us with joy and renewing us in his love. Christ has come, and freed us from evil, sin, and death! He has brought us hope, peace, joy and love!
We need to grab hold of the spiritual reality that God in Christ has come and by his Spirit is present and real right now in us and with us. He knows we need spiritual water and is more than ever ready to provide it—are we receptive and open? Are we awakened to our need, and rather than complaining, are we humbly asking for God’s supply?
Jesus calls to us and says: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:37–39 NASB).” “… whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:13–14 NASB).” Jesus, in his self-offering, is the endless supply of spiritual refreshment and renewal we need in every part of life. By the Spirit, he is present and available, and will fill us as we repent and turn to him in faith.
It is ironic that in the gospel passage for this Sunday we find John the Baptizer contrasting his water baptism with Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire of judgment is something we get very concerned about, not realizing the significance of Jesus’ self-offering in our place and on our behalf. As God in human flesh, Jesus forged into our humanity the love of God and crucified in himself the sin, evil and death to which we had enslaved ourselves. In the resurrection we find that all that chaff that is not part of the fruitfulness of life in Christ was blown away. The apostle Paul wrote that “from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:16–17 NASB).” Humanity has new life in Christ! This is reason to rejoice.
So, what will you do with Jesus Christ? What will you do with the reality that God is now in the midst of us by the Holy Spirit, offering to each of us the living water of life in relationship with God through Jesus? Will you gaze anew with wonder and joy on the Christ child this year, gratefully receiving the life in the Trinity he has brought you in his life, death, resurrection and ascension? Will you receive from him the living water he has given—the blessed Spirit of life in Christ Jesus?
We have every reason to rejoice. We are not left alone, abandoned to this crazy world and all its darkness and despair. God has cracked open the rock and poured out abundantly his living waters of salvation, and calls us to drink deeply, to satiate our souls in his real presence in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. Jump in the river! Dance in the shallows! Soak it all up! Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!
Thank you so much, dear Father, for not leaving us hungry and thirsty for your love and grace. Thank you for planting us by your streams of living water and offering us reconciliation, refreshment, and renewal—life in Christ by the Spirit. Fill us anew with the joy of salvation. Enable us to celebrate this year with a real sense of your presence in us and with us by your Holy Spirit, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.” Luke 3:16–18 (7–18) NASB
See also Philippians 4:4–7; Zephaniah 3:14–20; Isaiah 12:2–6.
By Linda Rex
December 20, 2020, ADVENT | LOVE—One of the things I love about the season of Advent is the beautiful and inspiring music. Playing and singing music which tells the story of God’s love and grace expressed in the coming of Jesus brings joy and comfort to many. One of the songs we often sing during Christmas is “The Twelve Days of Christmas”,(1) which as a cumulative teaching song is often accompanied by laughter and giggles as the singers vainly attempt to remember all twelve gifts.
Another cumulative song which is not Christmas-oriented but was used as a memory game for children’s parties years ago is an old nursery rhyme called “The House That Jack Built.” The last line of the song went something like this: “Here is the farmer who owned the rooster who woke the priest who married the tattered man who kissed the maid so forlorn who milked the cow with the crumpled horn who threw the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the grain which lay in the house Jack built.” As the game went on, each child would add another part of the story while repeating what had gone before, hopefully without mistakes.
The beginning of the rhyme was simply, “This is the house Jack built.”(2) In many ways, this is how everything started in our cosmos. We could simply say, “This is the cosmos, the world God created.” All that we know now and study so diligently with our telescopes and microscopes exists where once there was nothing, not even the building blocks of the universe. At God’s decision, through the Word of God and by the power and presence of the Spirit, all things came into existence. Simply said—what wasn’t became what was by God’s will, word, and power.
On this particular planet, there came a time when God brought forth plants and trees, animals, fish, and birds—abundant life of such variety we are still categorizing and sorting them today. The interwoven nature of the many forms of life on this planet constantly catch us by surprise—what happens to one creature often affects many others, as well as the biome in which they live. Like the animals in our nursery rhyme, no creature stands by itself—they are all interrelated and mutually affected by one another.
As creatures, we as human beings, are also affected by and interwoven with all that exists on this earth. As our understanding of science and technology have grown, many of us as humans have taken for granted our ability to manage and control our environment and planet. It is easy to forget that we are merely another creature dependent upon others and upon the God who made all things. We have come far enough today that God himself has become a forgotten story to many, one in which we see no need to believe. It is as though we have forgotten who built the house in which we live. We have put so many other things in his place, we believe we don’t need him anymore.
In 2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16, we find that King David decided that he wanted to built a house for the ark of God since it was still residing in the tabernacle God had told the Israelites to build for it. The tabernacle was designed to be moved about rather than to remain in one place. During the years of wandering in the wilderness and crossing into the promised land, the tabernacle was the place where Moses’ brother Aaron and the priests appointed by God ministered God’s grace to his people through offerings and sacrifices and the reading of the law. When the cloud of God’s presence lifted off the tabernacle, the people would pack their things and get ready to move, following wherever they were led.
When King David told Nathan he wanted to build a house for God’s presence, the prophet thought it was a great idea and told him to go ahead with it. But this wasn’t God’s preference—he told Nathan to tell King David that he had never lived in a house, but only in a mobile dwelling. He told Nathan to tell the king that one day God would build David a house, a kingdom that would last forever—God didn’t need David to build him a house.
The problem with humans building temples for God is seen in the very statement King David made to Nathan: “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within tent curtains.” Do you catch it? David was worried about the ark, not about the presence of God himself. Too often, we as human beings get caught up in the rites and rituals, the law and sacrifices of our worship instead of focusing on interacting with God himself. When David’s son Solomon finished the work on the temple, it was filled with the Shekinah glory of God. But it wasn’t very long before King Solomon himself began worshiping the idols of his wives rather than growing in his own personal relationship with the God who had crowned him king.
Following his death, the northern half of the nation of Israel split off and created their own place of worship, abandoning the temple and worship of the Creator and Redeemer who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Eventually the northern tribes were taken into exile by the Assyrians, as the southern tribes (known as Judah) began to embrace idolatry and pagan religious practices as well. Eventually the Shekinah glory left the temple, due to the hedonistic practices being observed there. It wasn’t much longer before Judah was taken over by the Babylonians. Soon and for a time, this people who had been brought into covenant relationship with the Creator God himself were no longer residents in the land he had given them.
As you can see, even when we as humans are brought by God into relationship with himself and given all we need for that relationship, we so often trade it in for something tangible we can see, feel, hear, taste and touch. We can control worship to an idol—construct a house, bring offerings, say the right words, sing the right song. We believe that if we do this, the idol will do that, with such appeasement giving an illusion of control over the situation. But in all of this, there is no real relationship. Give us an ark we can put in a building and do nice things for—don’t make us have to interact with an intangible God we cannot predict or control, and who may ask us to change or do things his way!
It’s as though we are at the end of a long line of kids and we’re having to remember the entire nursery rhyme. We’re stuck somewhere between the house that Jack built and the farmer who has a crowing rooster. At this point we may be wondering why Jack even built the house at all. We’re not sure where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, but we’re not about to acknowledge defeat. What we don’t want to admit is, we’ll never be able to get the whole thing right on our own, no matter how hard we try.
The reality is that we cannot build a house for God to dwell in because, as the apostle Paul said: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; …” (Acts 17:24-25 NASB) Rather than us building a temple for God to dwell in, God came into our human flesh in Jesus Christ to create a space for himself within our humanity where he could dwell by the Spirit. In that place, our broken humanity, which we had filled with evil, sin, rebellion and disobedience, God in Christ forged a space for God’s presence by the Spirit, cleansing us and freeing us from evil, sin, and death.
As mobile dwellings of God himself by the Spirit, gathered together into the body of Christ—the spiritual temple of God, the church—we bring God’s kingdom into relation with the broken world around us, touching it with his presence and power by his Spirit. The church and its members are not a perfected temple yet, but are a place where sinners are being healed, transformed, and renewed as they walk in humble relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit. Even though the Spirit is present to all people at all times, not everyone opens themselves up by faith to the living presence of God in Christ—so the church participates with Christ in calling all people to the new life which is theirs in Jesus.
The reading from Luke for this Sunday describes when the angel Gabriel told Mary she was to have a baby who would be the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. Mary was chosen to give birth to the Christ child, not because of her worthiness or goodness, but simply because of God’s grace and favor. She would carry in her womb the One who was both God and man—she would be a mobile temple for the presence of God in human flesh as an unborn infant.
What was Mary’s response to this announcement? It is the same response God longs to hear from each of us as he births Christ in us by his Holy Spirit: “…may it be done to me according to your word.” Humble surrender to the will and wishes of our mighty God as he forms Christ in us—this is our best response. What will we do with the house God has forged for himself in us? Will we echo Mary’s response? Or will we continue the merry-go-round of our nursery rhyme life of godlessness?
Heavenly Father, Creator and Sustainer of all, thank you for not abandoning us when we abandoned you. Thank you for sending your Son into our human flesh to forge a dwelling place for your presence. Forgive our rebellion and disobedience. Grant us a humble surrender to your will and wishes. Dear God, by your Spirit come and dwell in our hearts and lives, forming Christ in us and transforming our hearts by faith. May it be done to us according to your Word by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“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
See also Luke 1:28–33.
1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song) (accessed 12/11/2020)
2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Is_the_House_That_Jack_Built (accessed 12/11/2020)
By Linda Rex
April 26, 2020, 3rd Sunday of Easter—It would be safe to say, I feel, that life for most of us is not what it used to be a year ago. As the specter of COVID-19 and its consequences approaches us more closely, touching family, friends, and acquaintances, I cannot help but wonder what life will be like in another six months or even a year. Who will still be with us? What will life be like for those who are survivors of this disease? Will anything go back to the way it was before?
Truly, change is not always a welcome event in our lives, especially when it is perceived as a negative one. We would prefer that life be filled with positive changes, making life better, fulfilling our expectations of success, prosperity, and comfort. Unfortunately, life doesn’t normally work that way. Very often, before success, prosperity and comfort can occur, we may go through struggle, suffering, and difficulty.
Two people who were traversing the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus over two thousand years ago were deep in conversation when they were joined by another traveler. When this man, who they thought was a pilgrim returning home from the festival, joined them, he asked them what they had been talking about. They were amazed that he was not aware of what had been the biggest story to come out of Jerusalem in a long time—Jesus of Nazareth, the man who was going to rescue the Jews from Roman oppression, had been crucified but they had found his tomb empty that morning.
The reality these travelers faced was that the oppressive Roman government they had hoped to finally be free of was still going to be their reality. The person they thought was Messiah wasn’t. The news of the empty tomb, brought by the women who weren’t (in their view) reliable witnesses, brought concern—did someone steal the body? What really happened?
The only thing they knew was that the life they had had with Jesus, of walking and talking with him, of seeing him do miracles and heal people, was gone. This person, who they thought was Messiah, would no longer be a part of their everyday life and they could not longer sit at his feet to be taught, to learn the truth about their heavenly Father and his love for them. They would miss the intimate fellowship they had experienced in his presence while he had been with them.
Jesus, when encountering them on the road, had an opportunity to see how these disciples were responding to the events which had occurred. He did not reveal his identity to them at that moment, but met them where they were so he could bring them where they needed to be in their understanding of what had happened. His admonition, that they were slow of heart to believe and understand the scriptures, must have caught them by surprise.
Slowing himself down to their pace, he began to explain to them that the events which had just occurred had been written about centuries before in the Hebrew scriptures. He took the time to help them to see that they had misunderstood the mission of the Messiah—he was to be a suffering servant not a conquering hero.
As they neared their destination, the day grew dark. These men offered this fellow traveler the culturally appropriate hospitality, inviting him to stay with them for the night. Joining them at their evening meal, Jesus took on the role of host and began to break the bread and bless it. How often had he done this with his disciples as they sat by the road in their travels or ate in someone’s home? There was such a familiarity at first, but then, in an instant—they knew. This was Jesus, present right there with them. And then he vanished.
Here they thought that everything they had hoped for was gone, never to be hoped for again. Rather than being at the mercy of an oppressive human government, they were part of an otherworldy dimension which involved a resurrected Messiah who could come and go as he willed! Was this what the others had experienced? Astonished and excited by their discovery, the two immediately grabbed their belongings, and in spite of the danger of traveling at night, headed straight for Jerusalem to see the other followers of Jesus. There they heard the testimonies of those who had seen and talked with the risen Lord.
The difference between how these two persons handled the events of the crucifixion and the empty tomb was determined by one simple thing—the presence of the living Lord Jesus Christ. It was in the fellowship of the breaking of bread that they were given the ability to see and recognize him for who he was—their risen Savior. Before, they were forlorn, believing that they were abandoned and forsaken; afterwards, they were excited and courageous, willing to take risks they might not otherwise have taken, because they knew he was still present and with them though they could not see him.
We can look at the events happening right now and believe that we are being abandoned to our fate. Not seeing beyond the physical events which are occurring, we can be caught in the belief that we have to solve this ourselves or that utter catastrophe is at our doors. Having lost a job, or lost a loved one, or even lost our retirement funds we had counted on, we find ourselves staring at a future without hope—what has happened to our Savior? Why is this happening? Who is at fault? Our minds are filled with questions or concerns, and our hearts overflow with fear, anxiety, anger, and a myriad of other toxic emotions.
What we need in the midst of all this is a real encounter with our living Lord. How are we slow to believe and understand all that was written about him? Have we resisted believing the testimonies of those who saw him live, die, and then rise again from the grave? Why is this? Perhaps what is missing is the joyful companionship with Jesus, in the breaking of bread—gathering around the table with him to eat the bread and drink the wine of communion. We need to hear the stories of those who have experienced the living Lord—whose lives were and are being transformed by his real presence in and with them by the Spirit.
Who do you have in your life who knows Jesus intimately and can walk the road with you, explaining and sharing the testimony of the written word of God and the living Word, Jesus Christ? Is there someone in your life who is struggling to understand where God is in all that is going on? Maybe you can slow down and join them on their road and walk them through the testimony of scripture. Whatever the case, the miracle which occurs in the breaking of bread, in the intimate fellowship of communion, is a gift of the Spirit straight from the hands of Jesus—and we want to share in this miracle by walking the road with Jesus and one another, both now and forever.
Abba, thank you for loving us so much that you sent your Son to bring us to yourself. Thank you, Jesus, for joining us on this road of life—that you never abandon us, but are always with us on the journey. Grant us the grace by your Spirit to ever invite you to join with us, to commune with us in our everyday life. Thank you for continuing to make all of our lives a conversation, a constant communion with you, Father, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And He said to them, ‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and 1with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. … They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.” Luke 24:25–27, 35 NASB
See also Acts 2:14a, 36–41 and 1 Peter 1:17–23.
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 1, 2019, 1st Sunday of Advent—Years ago my body clock used to wake me up before my alarm went off at five in the morning. I was grateful for this because there was nothing I hated more than to be woken from a sweet dream by the hideous drone of the alarm clock. I’ve had that alarm clock for years and now when I set it and then turn it off, in the morning it still buzzes. It’s on those days when I’m trying to sleep in and it wakes me up anyway that I have a distinct desire to throw that old alarm clock in the waste bin.
Back when the apostle Paul was writing his letter to the people in Rome, I doubt very much he had an annoying electric alarm clock. But he understood very well the need for us to be woken from our sleep—to resist our tendency to find that place of least resistance and stay there.
We are entering the season of Advent, when we reflect on and celebrate the entering in of the Word of God into our humanity in the incarnation. The people of Israel had longed for many years for their messiah to come and rescue them from their oppressors. They had the scriptures preserved by their prophets and priests which told them about his coming, and they longed for him to bring to pass the new age of the Spirit when they would be given the heart to obey and serve their God.
The sad reality of the first advent of Christ was that when he did come, he was not recognized. He was not what the people expected, so they rejected him and in the end saw that he was executed in an excruciating death on the cross. What they longed for and wanted for so long, they did not accept, but denied and rejected. They preferred their spiritual sleep, their political power, their religious trappings, and their physical comforts rather than being willing to awaken to their need for the Messiah to deliver them from evil, sin, and death.
If they had been alert to the spiritual realities, they would have remembered the lesson found in their history in the story of Noah. The people of Noah’s day had their focus on eating, drinking, and all the everyday activities of their lives. Even though Noah and his family were a clear witness to them of their coming destruction, these people ignored the warning. They had the opportunity to be saved, but they refused it. The ark was built, the animals—who obeyed the call to be saved—were placed on the ark, but when the flood came, only Noah and his family entered into that salvation and survived the flood.
When Jesus spoke of his second advent, he used the story of Noah to alert people to their tendency to ignore the warning signs of coming destruction. As human beings, we often know the right thing to do, but we don’t do it, even though we know the possible consequences of not doing it. We realize that following our flesh reaps us death and destruction, but we still choose to listen to its desires and fulfill them. We have been given deliverance from evil, sin, and death in Jesus Christ—but what do we do with this gift? This is a critical question.
As human beings, our sinful proclivities draw us down a path God never meant for us to go. And this is why Jesus came—why we celebrate the season of Advent. Jesus came to free us from our sinful nature and to write within us a new heart and mind which wants to live in the freedom God created us for. God in Christ took on our sinful humanity, lived our life, died our death, and rose again, bringing us into the presence of the Father. This is the spiritual reality of our redeemed human existence—the objective union of God with man in the person of Jesus Christ.
God has done in Christ all that is needed for our salvation. He has built the ark, gathered the animals, and has everything in order, ready to save us. We are as good as saved—evil, sin, and death have been conquered by Jesus. We have new life in him—the flood of God’s grace and love has come to cleanse the earth, but are we on the ark? Are we living in the spiritual reality of God’s redeeming grace? Or are we still asleep—laughing at the idiots who would build a big boat when there is no rain or water to be seen?
Paul emphasizes our need to wake up—for our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Indeed, the more we grow in our relationship with our God, the more we see our need for redemption, and the brighter the light of his redeeming grace is in the dark places in our hearts and lives. We can continue to live as though God has not saved us, is not saving us, will not save us. Or we can wake up to the reality that this is exactly what has happened, is happening, and will happen.
Advent is a time to be reminded of our need to wake up to the signs of the times—Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and is coming again to restore all things. We need to be alert to the spiritual realities and live in the truth of who we are as God’s beloved adopted children. The family we have been adopted into does not live in the darkness, but in the light. Our Abba loves and is loved, and this is what we are created for—to love God and love our neighbor.
Our old ways of self-centered, self-reliant, self-indulgent living are but a bad dream. We have a new life we have been given, the life of Christ, and we are to waken and live in the truth of who we are in him. Our loving Father says to us, “Get out of bed, get your dark pajamas of evil, sin, and death off, and put on the heavenly garments of grace and love, the Lord Jesus Christ. Get busy in the new day of your existence in the kingdom of light.”
We sometimes get obsessed with trying to figure out when Jesus Christ is going to return again. But Jesus says to us, “Wake up. Be attentive to my presence and coming right now.” The advent or Parousia (coming and presence) of Jesus Christ is actually one long extended event. Jesus came over 2000 years ago, died and rose again, but sent his Spirit, being present with us even now, and will come in glory when he returns again.
The calling for the church is to live awake to the real coming and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ right now—to live in a constant state of expectation, longing for his real presence in our everyday lives, alert to what he is doing and will do even now to redeem, restore, and renew all things. We are encouraged to put off our old ways of self-centered living and put on the new life given us in Christ. Yes, the alarm is going off and we may not want to admit it, but the truth is—it’s time to wake up!
Dear Abba, we’re finding it hard to get out of bed, to awaken to the glorious reality of our new life in Christ. Help us to get our old pajamas of evil, sin, and death off and to gladly put on our Lord Jesus Christ, the heavenly garments of love and grace you have handmade for us. Holy Spirit, keep us ever awake to the spiritual realities, to God’s presence in each moment of every day, and enable us to live in the truth of who we are in Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.
“Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. Romans 13:11–14 NASB
See also Matthew 24:36–44.
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
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)