By Linda Rex
4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—I have met many people over the years as I have been doing ministry here in Tennessee. I am sometimes surprised by how many times a person has been baptized on their journey with Jesus Christ. It seems that some churches require baptism as a mark of entry even though the person had been baptized before. Baptism, I believe, can begin to lose its significance when it is treated solely as a ticket for membership.
Jesus tells a story about a king who sends out invitations to a wedding feast (Matt. 22). The people he invited didn’t come, so he had his servants go out and invite anyone they could find to come. Finally, the day came. At the banquet, he finds a guest who doesn’t have on a wedding garment. Since every guest had been given a wedding garment when they were invited, there was no reason for this man to not to be dressed in one. He was excluded from the banquet.
When Jesus hung on the cross, all of humanity hung with him. When he was laid in the tomb, we all laid there with him. And when the resurrected Jesus walked out of the tomb glorified, our humanity walked out glorified with him. In his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus carefully constructed our white robes of righteousness, preparing before time began for us to share in his glory.
It’s not when we are baptized that Jesus includes us—we were included back when he did his perfect work in our place and on our behalf. But we do come to a point in our lives when the Holy Spirit brings us to the place of recognizing and believing in who Jesus is and trusting in his finished work, gratefully receiving what he has done for us in place of our self-centered and self-sufficient ways of living and being. Our baptism becomes a participation in Jesus’ baptism, a symbolic sharing in his death and resurrection.
We can know about Jesus and even believe he is the Son of God, but never put on what he has given us. He has given us a new life, a new existence, a sharing in his love and grace which is life-transforming, healing and renewing. Jesus has included us in his perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit. He has drawn us up into their perichoretic dance of love, and is allowing us to participate in his life in the Trinity both now and forever. He has baptized us with the Father’s love by and in the Spirit.
We express our grateful reception of and participation in Jesus’ perfect and extremely expensive gift through baptism. But going beyond baptism, we begin to live in the truth of who we are in Christ. In essence, we take the white robes which are ours and we put them on. As we eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, we tangibly “put on” Christ—we acknowledge our dependence on and trust in Jesus—we “feed” on him in an ongoing way, because he is our life. God works to grow us up in Christlikeness, as we respond to him in faith.
A lot of us, though, act as if we have to make ourselves good people. We work really hard at “being good enough to go to heaven.” The reality, though—if we are honest with ourselves—is that we will never be quite good enough. We are broken, sinful people who just can’t get it right. We can put on a nice front, make ourselves look kind, helpful, and generous, but at the same time be greedy, selfish, and indifferent. We can learn a lot of Bible verses, spout them at will, and yet never have a kind and thoughtful word to say to someone who is hurting.
Jesus’ finished work speaks volumes to us if we are willing to listen. It is because we are so faulty and in need of rescuing that he came to rescue us. It is because we are broken and sinful that he came to live in our humanity and redeem us. It is because we were captured by the kingdom of darkness that he, like a knight in shining armor, came to our defense and brought us safely into the kingdom of light at the risk of losing his own life like a sacrificial lamb.
This shepherd king, Jesus Christ, is the one who found us starving and wallowing in the pig sty, and brought home to his Father. God created us for so much more than this—we were intended to share in Jesus’ kingship and priesthood by the Spirit—an elevation to dignity and worth which is far beyond our own ability to attain. We were meant to live with God forever, immersed in his love and grace, filled with his Spirit, and participating in his plans and activities. We have a reason to live—a purpose and a hope beyond the temporary pleasures of this life. Whatever we do in this life now, and in the life to come, has great meaning and value as it is connected through Christ and in the Spirit with God’s love and will.
The fundamental issue which we face when faced with Jesus Christ is—are we willing to submit, surrender, relinquish all our claims to the throne? Are we willing to take our appropriate place as his dependent children, humbly surrendering to God’s desire for us and our lives? Are we willing to allow Jesus Christ to define our humanity and how we live our lives? This is the place where we are faced with the ultimate decision.
It’s easy to go through the motions of repentance, faith, and baptism. We can do the things we believe are necessary to become members of whatever church we may wish to join. But can we—no, will we—allow Jesus Christ to be who he is, the Lord of this universe and our Lord as well? Will we surrender to all to his purposes and plans, allowing him to redirect our lives and our relationships? Will we live and walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh any longer? This is where things get tough.
When Abba through Jesus sent his Spirit on all flesh, he opened the way for each and every person to make their very own the finished work of Jesus Christ. There is substantial freedom in what God has done. We can come to the wedding banquet wearing our own clothes or we can toss them in the trash where they belong and put on the white robes Jesus made for us. We are free to make this choice. It does not alter God’s love for us, but it does alter our experience of that love and whether or not we can participate in what God has planned for us, both now and in the world to come. The Spirit says, “Come.” Will we?
Thank you, Jesus, for doing everything necessary so we can be with you both now and forever. Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Give us willing and obedient hearts, and enable us to gratefully receive and live in the truth of all you have given to us. Amen.
“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ ” Revelation 7:9-10
By Linda Rex
This week as my daughter and I were experiencing the unique dimming and darkness of the total eclipse, I could not help but express how cool God is. An eclipse is one way in which the sun, moon, and stars participate in bearing witness to the glory of God—this God who set planets and heavenly bodies into motion and who holds them in their particular relationship with one another.
And God made it so we each could have this extraordinary experience of a total eclipse in which we might see our smallness in comparison with the magnitude of the cosmos in which we live. It is a blessing, though, we live in a generation which isn’t intimidated and frightened by eclipses. Not too many centuries ago this type of event would have been accompanied by great fear and distress.
I thought it was wonderful how this day actually became a holiday of sorts in America. I know it might have made us look a bit ridiculous to other nations, but to celebrate the wonders of the heavens is not in itself a bad thing. It actually is a way in which can we point out the goodness, power, and glory of our Creator and Sustainer to one another.
Unfortunately, I heard some say this eclipse would be signaling God’s judgment on America because of the error of her ways. Why create fear in the minds and hearts of people over something which is meant to point us to the power and glory of our amazing God—something in which we can celebrate his majesty, glory, and power, and his ability to do all things, including saving the human race?
Now I agree—America and her people have some very serious errors going on right now. And the consequences of those errors are pretty profound. Many unwilling souls are experiencing loss, torment, suffering, and even death because of the errors of our ways. And I say our—we are all participants in these evils to some extent.
I believe what we are experiencing as a result of our ways of living is a significant judgment in and of itself. Living in a certain manner has unhealthy and unpleasant consequences—it’s just the truth about living life apart from the reality of our created and redeemed being as image-bearers of the Triune God. We create our own living “hells” when we seek our existence apart from our true humanity in Christ.
And apart from the unifying power and presence of the Spirit of love and grace, we find ourselves divided and at war with one another. Away from the Spirit of humility, service and compassion of the living Lord, we become insensitive and indifferent to the suffering and grief of those around us. When we focus merely on good and evil, we cease to focus on life—the true life which is found in real relationship, in knowing and being known intimately by the God who created both us and the amazing cosmos in which we exist.
God’s purpose isn’t to condemn us. In fact, Jesus himself said:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17 NIV)
God was most concerned with bringing us up into communion with himself in Christ, not with condemning or judging us. God in Christ saved us from evil and the evil one by becoming sin for us—taking on any judgment or condemnation we deserve upon himself.
God in Christ judged all of humanity worthy of eternal life—of grace and forgiveness—of spending eternity within the Father, Son, and Spirit relation. God determined not to be God without us.
However, we as human beings are really good at judging ourselves and judging one another. And we actually condemn ourselves as not worthy of God’s love and grace. We reject Jesus Christ, the One who stands in our place and on our behalf. We believe more in ourselves and our way of living—making our own choices, following our own agenda—than we do the One who created everything and who sustains it by the Word of his power. Here’s how Jesus put it:
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:18–21 NIV)
I don’t believe we as Christians need to go around condemning anyone. Yes, we can be discerning. We can tell the truth about what is being said and done which does not align with who we are as God’s children and his image-bearers in this world. We can work to bring about healing, change, and renewal so all people may live together in the unity we have in Christ.
But only God can change a person’s mind and heart, and bring them to faith. Only God can enable someone to believe the truth about who God is and who they are, and what Christ did, is doing, and will do to save them. Only God can change a person’s mind and heart in such a way their actions become different. Only God can truly heal relationships in such a way people live joyfully and at peace with one another.
And God always honors our right to choose—our freedom to say “no” to him and to reject him, and thus experience the consequences of living life in the shadows. Even though the Light has come, people do choose to turn away from the Light and live in the shadows. We can show them they need only to turn back to the Light into face-to-face relationship with the God who made them and redeemed them. But we must realize, God has granted each of us the freedom to say “no” to him.
In this way—by saying “no” to God—we pass judgment upon ourselves. God does not condemn us—we condemn ourselves as unworthy of the love and grace God has already poured out and made available to each and every human being who has ever existed. And this is what breaks my heart.
But thankfully, God is not willing that any person perish apart from his grace and mercy. And so he is patiently at work in each and every human’s life to bring them to faith—into trusting him rather than themselves for salvation—into finding their life in Jesus Christ rather than in the temporary things of this world which will one day be burned away and replaced by a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness (right relationship with God and humanity) dwells.
And I, as well as others, am able to participate with God in this ministry by sharing his life and love with each and every person I meet. This is my small way of participating, along with the amazing cosmos, in bearing witness to the glory of God.
Abba, Jesus, Holy Spirit, thank you for your amazing creation which testifies to your glory and power. You have done and will do awesome things as you work to redeem, restore, and renew all you have created from nothing. We trust you to finish your work, to bring to pass a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Grant, please, that we may participate fully with you in this new life you created for us in Christ and are creating for us and in us by your Holy Spirit. In your Name and by your power and for your glory. Amen.
“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” 1 Peter 3:18 NIV
by Linda Rex
Last week I did my best to come up with a blog to post, but due to my involvement with vacation bible school (VBS), and other family and work responsibilities, I found myself drawing on empty when it came time to write. But I would like to share what stood out in my mind from our work with the young people in the Old Hickory community.
The topic of our VBS last week was the armor of God. At first, when we were reviewing the curriculum at one of our planning meetings, I and others were struck by the emphasis it had on our human efforts to put away sin and defend ourselves against Satan’s attacks. Our challenge was to revise the curriculum in such a way as to put Jesus Christ as the foundation and center of it rather than our own human efforts.
It is my personal belief what is lost in most discussions and devotions about the armor of God is the reality that each part of the armor is in essence Jesus Christ himself. Even the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, points us to the living Word, Jesus Christ. To separate each part out individually as if it stands on its own is to miss the point of this whole passage.
Paul starts out this section of scripture by saying, “…be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” God’s might is our might, his strength our strength. In Jesus by the Spirit we have the capacity to resist evil and the evil one. It’s not something we have to figure out or do on our own.
We need to beware of any way of looking at scripture which casts us back upon ourselves, as if we are capable of resisting or overcoming evil on our own, or are responsible to do so. Trying to overcome or resist evil on our own by keeping the law or doing lots of good deeds is basically human religion. And such a religion does not save us—rather it can enslave us and bind us to unhealthy and unfruitful ways of living and being.
What Paul seems to be saying here in Ephesians 6 is we have an adversary who is always scheming against us, and there are forces of evil at work which impact our lives on a daily basis. But we have a simply divine outfit laid out on the bed for us—we just need to put it on and stand firm in Christ, while resisting the devil’s efforts to deceive or distract us.
Salvation isn’t something we have to make sure we run to the boutique and buy, but rather something Christ has already done in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have been delivered from sin and death by the Son of God, who was victorious over them. But there is an action we do—we pick up the helmet of salvation, and we put it on. We experience a change in our mind and heart—we repent and turn away from our self-centered ways of thinking and being, and we turn to Christ. We stop trusting in our human efforts to save ourselves and start trusting in Christ instead. We put on Christ.
The thing is, the helmet of salvation isn’t something you take off and put back on. Salvation just is, because Christ has done it and won’t go back on his action of taking our humanity on and redeeming it. So we just receive this gift and live in the truth of it from now on. Our decision to live in the reality of our salvation in Christ does not alter whether or not Jesus saved us. It merely enables us to enjoy all the benefits of what he has done for us and in our place, and what he is doing today by his Holy Spirit. It is life-transforming.
This theme of putting on Christ can be found throughout this whole discussion about the armor of God. When we put on Jesus Christ, we are wrapping around ourselves the truth of who God is and who we are in him. Jesus is our belt of truth. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—we draw our being and life from him as the One through whom and by whom all things were created. As made in the image of God, through the Spirit we reflect Jesus Christ, the One who is both God and man—he is our perfected humanity. The truth about our existence is found in him. Whatever lies may be said to us or we may believe need to be held up against this plumbline, recognized for what they are, and discarded. The truth of our being, which is found in Jesus Christ, orients us toward our true north, our heavenly Father, in every area of our lives as we live and work in community with others.
The gospel of peace—how the Word of God took on our humanity to bring us peace with God and peace with one another—is the story of our lives. This good news, who is our Savior Jesus Christ, has transformed our lives, and we spend our existence sharing this good news with others. We don’t hold grudges or refuse to forgive people’s slights against us because we are living in the reality of and sharing with others the immense gift of grace given to us from God through our Lord Jesus Christ. All the human barriers we place between ourselves are removed in Christ, because he has made us one in himself, taking on our humanity and redeeming it. Because Christ is our life, we walk in him in the Spirit, in this path of grace and peace he has walked before us, in our place and on our behalf.
As we put on Christ as our footwear, we also put him on as our righteousness. Jesus is our right relationship with God and one another. God has reconciled to himself all things in Jesus Christ. In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are brought up into the very life and being of God himself, at one with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and in Christ, made at one with every other human being. We put on Christ by living in the truth of our reconciliation and our right relationship, by being truly reconciled with God and one another, because of Jesus’ finished work.
Even when it comes to faith, we are reminded to turn to Christ for the faith we need when we are being assaulted by the lies of the evil one. The one weapon the devil uses against us over and over again is the lie which says God is not good and is not trustworthy, and he does not really love and care about us. When these lies begin to overwhelm us, we need to draw upon Christ’s perfect faith. Jesus trusted his Father implicitly, even when he hung dying on the cross and it seemed to his human mind his Father had forsaken him. Jesus’ perfect faith caused him to trust his Father even at the very end of his suffering—this faith is ours. All we need to do is ask—to pick up the shield—to put on Christ.
So we have put on Christ, and it seems it is not enough for us just to have our armor on. God also gives us an offensive weapon—the sword of the Spirit. The capacity of the word of God to penetrate down to the core of our being is made possible through the living Word, Jesus Christ, by his gift of the Spirit from the Father. It is Christ at work in us by his Spirit which transforms us and enables us to effectively live out and share the gospel of peace. It is the Spirit of truth at work within which enlightens us and enables us to see and walk in the truth who is Jesus. Any faith or righteousness which may well up within us is the work of the Spirit, who writes God’s ways on our minds and hearts, gives us the heart to obey, and enables us to live in accordance with the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.
The centrality of Christ to this entire discussion on the armor of God can be clearly seen when we start and begin with Jesus as the One who is the Word of God come into our human flesh. This can be a comforting and encouraging study when we do it this way. It’s not up to us to do this battle with the enemy all by ourselves. Rather, it is a battle Jesus already fought and won, and he shares his decisive victory with us as we respond to the Spirit’s work, and put on and use the divine outfit he created for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus Christ is our mighty warrior, and we get to participate by the Spirit in his perfect deliverance against sin, evil, and death. What a blessing!
Dear Abba, thank you for giving us, in Jesus and by your Spirit, total victory over evil, sin, and death. Thank you for giving us this perfect armor to wear, and the sword of the Spirit to wield. Grant us the grace to daily put on Christ and to respond fully to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, and in the world around us. May we trust in you fully, resting in Christ, and drawing upon the Spirit each day. Amen.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:10–17 NASB
By Linda Rex
When my kids were little, one of their favorite Bible stories was the story of Noah and the ark. They loved the idea of this man and his family building a big boat on dry land when everyone around him probably thought he was crazy. The kids especially loved the part about Noah filling the boat up with all sorts of animals. The thought of all those different animals finding their way to the ark captivated their imaginations and mine. What was it like for Noah to come face to face with a couple of king cobras?
Over the years, I have come to see there was a lot going on in this story which we need to pay attention to which is often overshadowed by our focus on the animals and the flood of water. When we look at the comments made in the New Testament about Noah we find he was “an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” In other words, Noah was regarded by God to be righteous, not because of his perfect behavior, but because of his faith. (Heb. 11:7)
In Genesis 7:1, God tells Noah to enter the ark with his family because he alone was “seen to be righteous before Me [God] in this time.” There was a uniqueness about Noah and his relationship with the God who made him and called him to be the “savior” of the human race in this physical way. Earlier, in Genesis 6:9, we read, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless [Margin: Lit complete, perfect; or having integrity] in his time; Noah walked with God.”
Noah did what apparently many other people in his generation didn’t do—he walked with God. In God’s sight he was considered blameless or having integrity because of his faith in God, because of his trusting obedience to God’s direction in his life. He believed God was a good God, a God he could trust, a God Who meant him well, even when God asked him to do something which seemed incredible and impossible to do.
Noah’s amazing life experience was based in his relationship with God, in his walk with God. In the same way, Jesus’ unique life experience had its basis in his walk with his heavenly Father. The Son of God had existed for all eternity in a face-to-face relationship with his Abba, and knew his Father well.
In taking on our humanity, Jesus built an ark for the salvation of every creature he had made and every part of the cosmos which would be renewed through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. And he trusted his Abba would bring him through the flood of evil and death to the other side, along with every one of those who would be saved through him, because he knew Who his Abba really was.
Many times we say we believe in God or believe in Jesus, but our walk with God reflects something entirely different. We say we believe in God, but we act as if he either doesn’t exist or he doesn’t really care about us or the world we live in. We go about our lives making decisions as if it’s all up to us, or as if we are lord of the universe, or as if God were angry, harsh or indifferent, or even nonexistent.
On my way to work in the morning when the sun is just rising over the horizon, I am often caught by the beauty of the sunrise. When I am in communion with the Father, I’m am mindful to thank him for his artistic creativity. He reminds me he did it just for me, for us. How can this be that God in every moment is creating something beautiful just for you and me—for us to see, feel, experience and enjoy?
If I were to really pay attention to the reality of God creating something new in every moment to grace my life, I probably would find myself living differently in response. At least I hope I would. But what does it mean to walk with integrity in my relationship with God and with others? What does it mean to really walk by faith?
In Jesus’ human experience, walking by faith meant taking the difficult and arduous path with us and for us through death and resurrection. He joined us in our human struggles, and experienced the best and worst of us as human beings both within himself and externally. He felt our estrangement from the Father, and wept with those who felt a deep sense of loss as they grieved losing those they loved. Jesus was more than willing to allow the entire flood of our broken humanity to flow over him and immerse him completely. But in all this he never lost his trust in the faithfulness, love and goodness of his heavenly Father.
Jesus never stopped living in the truth of his being as God in human flesh. He never ceased being faithful to Who he was as the Son of God even when everything around him tempted him to do otherwise. Even when the Tempter questioned the goodness of his Abba, Jesus did not listen to him, but stood firmly on the ground of his Father’s goodness, faithfulness and love.
Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father, his overwhelming love expressed through the laying down of his life, and his perfect goodness, teach us first of all we need to face the reality of our human tendency to not live in the truth of who we are as God’s children. In Christ, we see both our brokenness and fallenness, but also the infinite value Abba places on us as those made in his image created to reflect his likeness. In turning to Jesus Christ and away from ourselves, we begin to embrace the reality of the relationship with God we were created for and begin to live in the truth of it day by day.
But this walking by faith is a journey with Jesus. We may find ourselves at times in the midst of our own flood, clinging to Jesus as the ark Who will carry us through to the other side. On other days we may find ourselves, like Noah and like Jesus, the only ones speaking truth into a situation, and so at odds with everyone else in our lives we’re not sure how we’re going to survive.
In every circumstance, though, we do not walk alone—God is in us, with us, and for us. God is a good, faithful and loving God—he is trustworthy. And so we are able to walk by faith, moment by moment, through our lives in loving relationship with him and others in and through Jesus and by his Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your faithfulness, your goodness and your love. Remind us every moment of the truth of Who you are, who we are as your beloved children, and how you are ever present, in us, with us, and for us. Enable us to walk with integrity, and to walk by faith, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;…” 2 Peter 2:5 NASB
“By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” Hebrews 11:7 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
By Linda Rex
As many of the members of our congregation know, our pastoral team uses the Revised Common Lectionary as a resource in preparing our sermons each week. This helps us to keep in step with the Christian calendar and enables us to cover a large portion of the biblical text as the year goes by.
This Sunday I hope to preach on one of the passages listed in the lectionary—in particular, a passage in James 5. Several times during my morning commute to my second job this week, I listened to the book of James being read aloud. I don’t know if you ever have this happen when you read God’s Word, but something just jumped out at me as the reader was speaking.
Perhaps I was just in a Trinitarian frame of mind. I don’t know. But what struck me was James was expending a lot of energy talking about what it meant to live righteously. Over and over he described what the godly life looks like and what it doesn’t look like. And it all had to do with relationships.
The relational God, when he lives in us by the Spirit and we are responding in faith to his work in our hearts and minds, moves us to live in ways which build and reflect healthy relationships. It seems to me, when righteousness is discussed in terms of “right relationship” it can be described in just the way James described it.
For example, when James says a person who does not guard his or her tongue is not practicing true religion (1:26), he is showing how what we say or do not say reflects what is going in our hearts and minds. Later he reminds us when we are living out of the truth of who we are in Christ—the spring of living water—what we say will reflect Christ’s wisdom. When we are living out of the acrid, putrid water of our flesh, we will say things which are abusive and reflect a heart full of jealousy and selfish ambition. (3:9-18)
Obviously what we say and how we say it directly impacts our relationships with God and with other people. Speaking out of the abundance of a heart full of evil motives and desires will not achieve the right relationships we wish to have with God and others—it will not produce the righteousness of God.
James says in another place “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”. When we think in terms of relationships and the love which goes on within the Triune God this can seem like a no-brainer. Our flashes of human anger where we are triggered and we blow up at the people around us—usually people we love and care for—do not build relationships but fracture and harm them.
When we are in tune with God’s heart and mind though, living out of the spring of living water Who dwells within us, we will be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger—all of which builds relationships and does not destroy them. When we look at the human life Jesus lived on this earth, we see this very thing occurring in all his relationships. This is the way of being of the God Who lives in and with us through Jesus and in his Spirit. This is what Jesus by the Spirit puts into our hearts and minds.
This is the “wisdom from above” described by James: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” The fruit or result of living out of the truth of who we are in Jesus is right relationships with God and others. How we live with one another—which spring we draw from—determines the seeds which are planted in our relationships and the fruit which is borne as time goes by.
This puts me in mind of a friend whose supervisor is rude, disrespectful and controlling. He creates an unhealthy work environment for those who are unfortunate enough as to have to be his employees. And it never occurs to him that the poor work performance and rotten attitudes of some of his employees may be the result of the way he treats them. The fruit of what he is sowing certainly isn’t right relationships!
Broken, fractured marriages result when spouses live out of the rottenness of their human flesh rather than out of the life-giving spring of living water available to them by the Holy Spirit. Even so, putting two people together in close proximity means there will be misunderstandings, inadvertent hurts, and thoughtless acts. This is why we need something or Someone beyond us interceding between us in all these situations.
Christ living in us enables us to weather relational difficulties and to resolve impossible relational schisms. Time and again I have seen and experienced the healing which comes when we turn to Christ in the midst of these difficult situations and begin living out the truth of who we are as God’s children. Prayer and seeking God’s will and grace are fundamental to the success of any relationship. Why?
Because of the reality Christ is the Mediator in any and every relationship. He is both the Mediator between God and human, and he is the Mediator between each of us as humans because in him God and humanity are joined as one. In all our relationships, he is the center and source of our oneness with each other.
This is the ultimate indicative or basis for every imperative or command we read in James. Because we are connected at the core of our being with the One, Jesus Christ, Who is connected with all others, we have every reason and ability to live in right relationship with God and others. In Jesus Christ, we also find we have, by the gift of his Spirit, the strength beyond our strength, the wisdom from above, to relate properly with God and others when our flesh is calling us to do otherwise.
God never meant for us to be estranged from him or any other person, but for each and all of us to live as one with him and one another. And it was always his desire to share himself with us so we could. And this beautiful thing happened when God came to earth and took on our humanity as an infant born that glorious night in Bethlehem. The God of peace gave us the Prince of Peace so we could live forever at peace with him and one another. Shalom!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit by Who we may have peace with you and one another. May we live out of the abundance of your life in us so we may live in the truth of who we are in you. Through Jesus, our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” James 1:19–20 NASB
by Linda Rex
In my last blog I talked about the Ten Commandments and the curses that were to be rehearsed by the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. My point, in essence, was that God was once again renewing his covenant love commitment to Israel and was calling them to love him wholeheartedly in return. This covenant love relationship was to supersede all the rules and regulations given to Israel that were meant to keep them within the bounds of that love.
It is interesting that God was quite frank with the Israelites when he told them that they weren’t going to be faithful to him because they were a stubborn, willful people. He predicted that they would be unfaithful to him, and that even though they were the most blessed people in the world because they had him for a covenant partner, he knew they would still choose to worship the gods of the nations around him instead. God wasn’t fooled by Israel’s empty promises.
And indeed, the nation of Israel over the centuries repeatedly denied the God who redeemed them and chose to suffer the painful consequences of that rejection and rebellion. In time they ended up exiled as God predicted would happen and the Promised Land was overrun by other nations.
But in this prediction of the future of Israel, God also pointed to a time after the exile—a time of repentance, of a change of mind and heart. He predicted that one day, he would “circumcise the heart” of the nation and its descendants so that they would love him with all their heart and all their soul so that they would seek life. He told them that the commandment, to love God wholeheartedly, was not external to them nor was it beyond their reach. Rather it would be in their mouth and in their heart.
The apostle Paul takes this up in Romans 10:4-13 when he contrasts righteousness through the law with the righteousness which is by faith:
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “DO NOT SAY IN YOUR HEART, ‘WHO WILL ASCEND INTO HEAVEN?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘WHO WILL DESCEND INTO THE ABYSS?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of call, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” (NASB)
He shows that in Christ there is a change at the heart level which involves faith, something that the ancient Israelites failed to have in their covenant relationship with God. They did not believe, therefore they did not obey. They did not believe God and trust in the depth of his love for them, so often they chose to work things out themselves or to rely on other nations or other ways of living and worshiping.
We are reminded by Paul that when God told Abraham he was going to bless him and give him many descendants, Abraham believed him. And God counted that as his righteousness. Abraham trusted that God would keep his word, even when it seemed that there was no hope of it working out the way he said. Thus, God declared Abraham to be in right relationship with him. (Rom. 4:19-22) This is the essence of the love relationship God wants with each of us—to know him to be the loving, faithful God he really is and to trust him completely—to trust God’s love in spite of what we may see, think, or experience to the contrary.
God went out of his way to demonstrate his love for us in coming as the Living Word in human flesh. Jesus Christ lived out the perfection of his divinity within the corruption of human flesh, moment by moment working out our salvation in every situation and circumstance of his human existence. Then he died and rose again. His ascension is key to this whole thing—because in his ascension, he sent from the Father the Blessed Holy Spirit to live in human hearts. This was the circumcision first spoken about by Moses and confirmed by Jesus Christ.
This is the “mystery of godliness” Paul talks about in his letters. It is Jesus Christ, and therefore the Father, living in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In this way we all have a new existence. The people of Israel, as well as all people everywhere, have been given freedom from the confines of the external law because now we have the Law, the living Word, written on human hearts. The external law now takes its rightful place as a pointer to the One who transforms human hearts from the inside out. We have been given a right relationship God where it’s no longer a matter of judgment but rather a matter of grace.
Now God calls us out of this relationship we’ve imagined is based on do’s and don’t’s into a relationship he forged based solely on his love and his grace. He has placed his divine Word, his Law, within human hearts. We are guided and led by his Holy Spirit. We don’t get to call the shots anymore. We don’t get to try to work this out ourselves. He’s already done it all—he just calls us to accept it and enjoy it. He just asks us to believe it and receive it—to enjoy the marvelous thing he has done in bringing us back together with him again.
Like a lover wooing his wandering bride, God has removed all the barriers that we can possibly put between him and us as his people. We can’t use our nationality, our race, our wealth or poverty, our knowledge or ignorance, our human wretchedness, or anything else as an excuse for not surrendering to the blessings and wonder of a life lived in the presence of and to the glory of the God who truly and forever loves us and will not be God without us. All that’s left for us to do is to capitulate—to surrender unconditionally to the love and grace of God. Question is—will we do that?
Father, we praise you that in your steadfast love, you have given us a new heart and soul through the Word written on our human hearts and minds. And that by your Holy Spirit you awaken each of us to new life—life lived daily in your presence. Finish your great work of transformation in each of us—we surrender to your perfect will and your love. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. …For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Deut. 30:6, 11–14