salvation

Why Look at the Sky?

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By Linda Rex

May 29, 2022, ASCENSION Sunday—The past few years I have been slowly working toward a divinity degree. Last week I started a new course with Grace Communion Seminary called Church Planting and Development. As I was writing a reflection paper last night, it occurred to me that the timing of this class fits right in with where we are on the Christian calendar.

Indeed, this Sunday we are celebrating Jesus Christ’s ascension, a significant event in God’s story. Here we focus on the spiritual reality of the fulfillment of an essential part of Jesus’ mission here on earth, him having been sent by the Father to bring all humanity home to eternal fellowship with the Triune God. It was necessary for Jesus to live, die and rise again as God in human flesh in order for all of us to be included in his own intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. It is in Jesus’ ascension that the mission of God to restore our relationship moves into the realm of the Spirit, who is sent so that each of us individually can participate by faith in what Christ has done.

Luke’s gospel version of the ascension event, Luke 24:44–53, gives the impression that it all happened on the same day as the resurrection. However, when he describes the event in Acts 1:1–11, we see that all these things happened over a period of forty days following the resurrection. The disciples and others were given many opportunities to experience firsthand the risen Lord, to talk and eat with him, and to hear him expound the Old Testament scriptures which spoke of his coming and his mission. At the end of this time, he blessed his followers and ascended to his Father’s side.

In Acts 1, Christ’s followers stood there for a while after being blessed, looking up into the sky. This makes me ask: I wonder how long they stood there before the angels spoke to them, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?” I can imagine Jesus, having already made the transition into glory, saw them standing there still trying to see him and he finally said to the angels nearby, “I think you’re going to have to tell them to quit looking for me and get busy.”

But this does speak to what we as the body of Christ have often done when it comes to the whole idea of the ascension. It’s as though we believe Jesus is done with his project, has gone home, and we just have to wait until he comes back. Faith in Christ and salvation become all about us being good people who live good lives until Jesus returns in glory. And we miss the point of it all—God bringing all of humanity back into relationship with himself through Christ in the Spirit.

What had Jesus told the disciples to do? He had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received the promised Holy Spirit. Then they were to go and make disciples, baptize them, teach them, and include them in Christ’s mission to the world. Jesus came as God in human flesh to draw all of humanity up into right relationship with God in the Spirit. He’s still on that mission. Having been sent by the Father, he has returned home and sent the Spirit to continue his efforts. We, as the body of Christ, are set apart to participate in that mission of reaching out to all the world, sharing the good news and making disciples or new followers of Christ. Our unity and our love in the body of Christ, the church, are meant to testify to the presence of the kingdom of God here on earth by the Spirit, a kingdom in which all people are welcome to participate.

Even at the end of John’s apocalypse, he points out the reality of the body of Christ, his bride, being on mission with Jesus. He writes, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who hears this say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life (Rev. 22:17 NASB).” Our role is to join with Jesus in the Spirit to say to the world around us, “Come.” Anyone who is thirsty is welcome to come. The water of life is available to everyone now in Christ, so every is able to drink if they so wish. And the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the church, is called by God in participation with Jesus by the Spirit to freely offer that water of life to all.

And, if this seems to be an intimidating prospect, consider the indicatives which went with Jesus’ command to preach the good news and to make disciples. First of all, as we read in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus has ascended to his Father’s side and has received all authority and power and glory in his exaltation as the risen Lamb of God (Ephesians 1:15–23). Secondly, he has promised to be with us until the end. And thirdly, he has sent the Spirit, the One who empowers us to do the ministry and mission Jesus has called us to. God is doing the heavy lifting—we just get to join in with what he is doing through Jesus in the Spirit.

As Luke explains, our mission to the world begins where we are, and moves in ever-widening spheres of influence as we respond in faith to the voice of the Spirit and move out, sharing the good news of God’s love expressed to all of us in Jesus Christ. What is your current sphere of influence? Are there people God has placed in your life that you have conversations with and do everyday activities with? These are opportunities for the gospel. And sharing the good news is what Jesus has called us to participate with him in doing.

When I think about how far God has brought me in this journey of faith, I see that we have traveled a longways together. But I also see that I have only begun to really understand what it means to live on mission with Jesus, and to be a genuine follower of Christ. It is so easy to be distracted with the concerns of everyday life. And so easy, too, to place my focus on how well I am doing in my own relationship with God, rather than on remembering that others need to hear the good news too, and need to experience the joy, unity, and love of the body of Christ for themselves. Oh, for the heart of Jesus for others!

May we remember today, and every day, to pray for the people in our lives, to ask Jesus for opportunities to share the good news, and for the courage and faith to do so. May we quit looking up at the sky and be busy doing what Jesus has called us to do—to move out on mission with him, sharing the good news of all God has done for us in sending his Son and his Spirit for our salvation.

Heavenly Father, thank you for all you have done in sending your Son and your Spirit for our salvation, for drawing us up into life with you now and forever. Grant us the grace to move outside of ourselves into genuine relationship with the people around us, and give us the inspiration, courage, and wisdom to share with them all you have given to us through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.

“The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.’ ”     Acts 1:1–11 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/why-look-at-the-sky.pdf ]

Wake Up, Get Up, and Pray

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By Linda Rex

April 10, 2022, Passion Sunday [or Palm Sunday]—There’s something about death and dying that causes us to want to avoid the topic like the plague. It’s so final—and it’s so disturbingly disruptive to our peace and our status quo.

The reality is, though, that before God can do something new in someone’s life or in a church’s life, he has to bring the old to an end. Jesus remarked that it doesn’t work to put new wine in old wineskins, for they will break from the strain. One can only put new wine in new wineskins, which can stretch to accommodate the stress it will place on the containers (Matt. 9:17).

This is true about our humanity as well. We were all dead in sin, unable to live in the truth of who God created us to be as his image-bearers. We were bound in the chains of unhealthy ways of living and being. Apart from God’s gracious provision, we were all bound to the consequence of sin which was death.

The gospel reading for Passion Sunday this year is extensive, including the contents of two chapters in the book of Luke, Luke 22:14–23:56. This reading takes us from the gathering in the upper room for the last meal with Jesus, through Jesus’ agonizing prayer of relinquishment in the garden, to the betrayal by Judas, Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the long vigil during Jesus’ various trials, his crucifixion, and his burial. This sequence of events was a necessary part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to free us from the shackles of evil, sin, and death.

In the midst of this reading, we find Jesus inviting his disciples to share in the Passover meal with him. Taking bread in his hands, he gave thanks, and broke it, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:20 NASB). And taking one of the cups offered during the meal, he gave thanks and said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table” Lk. 22:20b-21 NASB).

Table fellowship in that time and place was a treasured privilege. To open your home and offer your table to someone was to include them in your inner circle. Someone who shared your table was bound by the social code of that day never to betray you—it would be unthinkable that someone would dare to turn against the person who invited them in and made them feel welcome. How astonished the disciples were that Jesus would even suggest that one of them would betray him!

But, as human beings, isn’t it true that deep inside each of us is the capacity to do that very thing? It is easy for us to look back at Judas Iscariot and say to ourselves, “I would never, ever betray Jesus in that way.” But in our heart of hearts, we must know that we each are capable of giving an appearance of fidelity and loyalty, when in our hearts we are unfaithful and disloyal. This man, who thought the bottle of nard should be sold to feed the poor and needy, was in reality, a thief—one who used the common purse as his personal wallet when he felt like it. But it took a crisis—a temptation—to reveal the truth of who he really was inside.

Peter told Jesus that, even if threatened with death, he would never deny his Lord. Jesus, on the other hand, knew the capacity of the human heart for infidelity and disloyalty. He told Peter that, on the contrary, before the rooster crowed, he would deny his Lord three times. Peter was indignant at the thought, but Jesus knew him well—his impetuosity, his bravado, and his weakness. And he loved him enough to tell him the truth about himself, just as he told the betrayer he knew what he would do.

It does not hurt for us to be honest with ourselves about our capacity to be disloyal to our God or unfaithful to our commitment to him. Having humility about our human weakness is the very place we need to be for God to do his greatest work within us. It is in breathing out with Christ the last breath of our old life and finding ourselves laid with Jesus in the tomb that we awaken with the new life in his resurrection. Peter, upon his third denial, caught Jesus’ eye, and was broken—he left, weeping with remorse for his denial of his beloved Lord. It was in that moment of death to his old way that Peter was suddenly open to a new life—the one Jesus was creating for him in that moment as he was being mistreated, beaten, crucified, and laid in the tomb.

Judas, in his moment of remorse, went to the temple and the priests to return the money he had received for betraying Jesus. Rather than receiving the grace of redemption and salvation from their words and their hands, he received rejection and ridicule instead. Left holding the baggage of his old life, how could he receive a new one? He took matters into his own hands, judging himself worthy of death and executing himself, rather than receiving the death of Jesus in his stead. What he desperately needed was available in Christ, but he was blind to this reality.

Jesus understood the power of temptation, and Satan’s pull to take matters into our own hands. He knows our tendency to try to save ourselves or to play games with ourselves, believing that as long as no one truly knows the state of the internal trash heap of our soul, we are fine. He knows that what we need, only God can give. Our redemption, our transformation, and our healing can only come through the One who stands in our place, on our behalf—our Lord and Savior. Jesus faced temptation in the garden of Gethsemane by grounding himself in his personal relationship with the Father in the Spirit. He took his humanity to the feet of his God and submitted himself fully to the Father’s will, in spite of what his humanity and the adversary, were screaming at him to do.

Jesus reminded his disciples more than once that night to get up and pray rather than sleep. How many times have we been caught unaware by temptation because we were not living in close fellowship with God? How often have we been spiritually asleep when we needed to be alert to the wiles and seductions of Satan as he was seeking to break up the communion we have been given with God and with others through Christ in the Spirit? Passion Sunday is a good time to be reminded to wake up, to get up and pray.

It is also a good time to be reminded of the need to let our old life remain where it is—in the death of Jesus. Wake up to the reality that our sinful flesh is not the truth of our life in Christ—leave it there on the cross and in the tomb with Jesus. Get up—walk in the newness of life given us in the resurrected Lord—the resurrection we will celebrate next week on Resurrection Sunday. And pray—live within our dependency upon God in Christ and through the Spirit to recognize and resist temptation when it arises.

During Holy Week, may we take some time to reflect deeply upon Jesus’ self-offering, how he set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity, so that he might free us once and for all from our enslavement to evil, sin, and death. May we be reminded of our participation in Christ’s death—laying silently in the tomb as those who are dead to sin, evil, and death. And may we be reminded to wake up, get up, and pray—that we may not enter into temptation. And may we rest in the finished work of Christ as God completes in us his work of redemption and transformation.

Thank you, Father, that we can come to you as dirty, scruffy, misbehaving children and find the grace to be cleansed, restored, and healed. Thank you that in Christ, we are delivered from temptation—grant us the grace to wake up, get up and pray, that we may live freely and joyfully in fellowship with you now and forever, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him. When He arrived at the place, He said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.’ Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow, and said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ While He was still speaking, behold, a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was preceding them; and he approached Jesus to kiss Him. But Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’ When those who were around Him saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus answered and said, ‘Stop! No more of this.’ And He touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come against Him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against a robber? While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power of darkness are yours.’ Having arrested Him, they led Him away…”     Luke 22:39–54a 

[Printable version of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/wake-up-get-up-and-pray.pdf%5D

The Messiah’s Lament

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By Linda Rex

March 13, 2022, 2nd Sunday in LENT—Lost and all alone. Wandering in the wilderness. Struggling to survive one more day. Fearful of every person they meet, wondering if they are friend or foe. This is the life of a person caught in a heart-rending situation such as war or abuse.

When life gets tough and we have lots of questions and concerns about what is going to happen next, it is good to be reminded of the compassion and tender concern of our living Lord. Indeed, it is at those times when we’re at the bottom of the well and looking up that we begin to see how much we need Someone looking out for us and tending to our every need. And we have such a person in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Here in America, the average citizen has not experienced having their city invaded by a foreign army. Nor do many of us know what it is like to live in a war zone, fearful to do the simple tasks of life like buying groceries or visiting a neighbor. Our veterans understand the horrors of war, having experienced this firsthand on the battlefield. And some of our citizens and immigrants within our borders know this kind of devastation, having experienced it in their home country.

I don’t believe that God ever intended for any of us to experience the terror and suffering of war. We find that war is a natural consequence of placing our focus on earthly things rather than on the heavenly realities which are ours in Christ.

What is true about our existence as human beings is that what our senses experience often becomes the focus of our attention. What we experience often becomes our reality, unless we intentionally make the effort to turn our attention to the spiritual realities which are ours in Christ. When we allow what is going on around us and the opinions and preference of others determine our life choices and decisions, we are often tossed about and caught up in circumstances and situations which take control of our lives.

Jesus was often caught in the midst of experiences which might have become the motivation for his actions. But he had his focus squarely placed upon the Father’s will, and was intentionally moving toward the goal that he had been given—the salvation of our souls, through death and resurrection.

In this Sunday’s reading we find Jesus having a conversation with the Jewish leaders, who were encouraging him to leave the area lest Herod take his life. It’s possible, but not likely, that they were genuinely concerned about his safety. For the most part they had constantly plotted Jesus’ death since his ministry often interfered with their earthly concerns for popularity, power, and prestige. Even so, in this passage, we find them insisting that for his safety, Jesus should leave the region.

Jesus knew Jerusalem’s historic attitude toward the prophets—they often ended up stoned or killed. He pointedly reminded the Jewish leaders that he knew the road he was on. His path involved healing the sick, casting out demons, and heading towards the goal of his ministry—the crucifixion and resurrection. Then he broke into deep lament for the people of Jerusalem, who rejected the One who so dearly loved them and sought to gather them into his arms of love. How deeply he felt that rejection! He knew the price they would soon pay for choosing other messiahs other than the true Messiah—they would experience the loss of their city and their beloved temple, and experience all of the suffering involved in being invaded by a Roman army.

In Jesus we find that God has come and lived in our human flesh, experiencing in our place and on our behalf, suffering, death, and resurrection. What Jesus has done is significant and powerful. He has brought all of humanity into the presence of the Father in the Spirit, and he has sent the Spirit to us so that we can live in intimate relationship with God now and on into eternity.

Our problem is that we often believe these spiritual realities become intangible and irrelevant in the light of our increasing focus on tangible earthly realities. What I hear people being concerned about often has everything to do with ourselves, what we need, want or desire, and very little to do with God or what he might want or desire. In fact, one’s perception of the spiritual realities is often associated with going to church somewhere, or reading some book, or having a religious symbol to focus on. It’s easy to miss the point completely that the spiritual realities have to do with a living Being, with having a relationship with the God who loves us so much that he came personally to join us in our humanity and to bring us home to himself.

God is calling us out of our blindness and deafness into the light of his presence. He has come for us in Christ and has done what is needed to make us right with himself. Just as Abram slept through his covenant agreement with God (Genesis 15:1–12, 17–18), we have been included apart from our own effort in the covenant God has made for us in the sacrifice of his own Son. Our participation is saying yes to God’s ‘yes’ to us in Christ. Rather than being “enemies of the cross of Christ”, we receive the perfect gift of God’s own Son in his death and resurrection, trusting in his finished work, and receiving the gift of new life given to us in the Holy Spirit (Philippians 3:17–4:1).

In Christ, God has done all that is needed for our salvation. He will finish what he has begun in us. We focus our minds and hearts on the things of the Spirit, not on earthly things (Col. 3:1–2). We focus on our relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit, trusting in Christ’s finished work, not in our own ability to make things how we believe they need to be. Jesus is our firm foundation, and we stand firmly in him as we trust in his finished work and God’s love and faithfulness.

God has our best in mind, and will not quit until he has finished what he has begun in us. This means that even though we are facing difficult, painful, or devastating events, we are not alone. God is still at work. We turn away from ourselves and our own self-sufficiency, and trust in the One who has the capacity to make things how they need to be. As we experience the consequences of choosing our own way, as we live in a fragile, broken world, we can be comforted, knowing we are not alone, but are held in God’s love and grace. He will not stop until all is brought into conformity with his plan and purpose—our inclusion in his love and life now and forever.

Dearest Abba, thank you for loving us so much—for caring for us in spite of our willful turning away to ourselves and the things of this life. Open our minds and hearts to the spiritual realities, that we may see you and live in the truth of who we are in Christ. Thank you for bringing us into the fullness of that glory which is ours through Jesus your Son in the Spirit. Amen.

“Just at that time some Pharisees approached, saying to Him, ‘Go away, leave here, for Herod wants to kill You.’ And He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.” Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! Behold, your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you will not see Me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” ’ ”     Luke 13:31–35 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/the-messiahs-lament.pdf ]

Blessed and Sent

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By Linda Rex

May 16, 2021, ASCENSION SUNDAY—With spring fully sprung and temperatures here in Tennessee beginning to move into summer intensity, we find ourselves in a new place on the Christian calendar—Ascension Sunday. This event is actually celebrated on Thursday, May 13th this year, but we at Grace Communion Nashville take time on the following Sunday to remember this special event.

The event of Jesus’ ascension is a very important one, as the gift of the Holy Spirit would not have come if he had not ascended. After his resurrection Jesus retained our now glorified human flesh, bringing it into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We find that all human beings now are welcome to participate by faith in Christ, enabling them to experience God’s life and love now by the Spirit and in glory when Christ returns to establish the new heavens and earth.

During the forty days following his resurrection, Jesus took time to instruct his disciples, giving them understanding of how all that he had been and done was the central theme of the Old Testament scriptures. Christ then told them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Spirit, and sent them out to be witnesses to everything that he had done while on earth. In his final moment, he lifted his hands and blessed them, as the high priest would do when the reconciliation was complete.

Even today, as Christ’s followers, we are called to be on mission with Jesus, showing and telling others about the love of God and what Jesus Christ did for our salvation. We are called to open ourselves up to be filled with the Spirit—growing in our relationship with God through the Word of God, prayer, gathering together for fellowship with believers, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We live as those who are sent, actively participating in Christ’s mission in this world. And we go in Jesus’ blessing.

As I was reflecting on all this recently, the Lord brought to mind something he had led me to years ago when I first was wrestling with the call to pastoral ministry. I was shown how the body of Christ today, specifically in our denomination, was being called to rebuild the church on the new foundation we had been given in Jesus. I encourage you to take the time this week to read the book of Haggai. The prophet Haggai wrote shortly following the exile to those Jews who had returned to their homeland. They had rebuilt the altar and were offering sacrifices. They had set the foundation for the temple. But there the work had stopped.

Haggai was directed by God to ask his people, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate? … Consider your ways!” (Haggai 1:4-5 NASB) He showed them how they were preoccupied with taking care of their own interests and concerns, and were neglecting the restoration of the temple. God’s priority was preparing the way for the coming of his Son to earth, and for that to be accomplished the way he desired, the temple needed to be rebuilt. Haggai was sent to remind the people to get their priorities centered on what God wanted do. And then God moved in them by his Spirit to act accordingly.

In some ways, I’m concerned that too often, we as believers have neglected to move on beyond setting the foundation of Jesus Christ in our lives and offering up worship on an occasional Saturday or Sunday. We have all the trappings of religiosity but we have lost the substance—life in Christ that reflects both his grace and his truth. Too often we have neglected God’s priorities and plans, preferring to seek our own agenda, including those things which distract us from keeping our kingdom focus. Is our focus on what God prefers—his kingdom and his righteousness? Jesus said if we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, all these other things will be added.

Jesus told the woman at well in Samaria that our worship of God is to be in spirit and in truth, that it is much more than religious rites and rituals or having a particular location of worship. Jesus Christ is the place of worship now, where we are called together in unity, to worship God and serve him. When Christ defines our identity and our relationship with God and one another, that says something about how we are to live and treat one another. As followers of Christ, we need to move beyond the religious trappings which anyone can imitate into the reality of life in Christ—something only possible in the power of the Spirit, with the living presence of Jesus in us and with us. It should be evident to those around us that we are Christ’s disciples, by our Christ-like love for one another, no matter our church denomination or fellowship preference.

Going back to our story—when the work on the temple began, those who had seen Solomon’s temple grieved the lost of the majesty and wonder of the former building. Haggai asked, “Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison?” (Haggai 2:3 NASB) In the same way, the disciples kept expecting Jesus to bring about his kingdom in the sense of using his might and power to destroy the existing government and install a theocracy. But Jesus told them he had something else in mind. We need to remember that God’s kingdom work in this world may look a lot different than we expect. What Jesus plans for the body of Christ may be a lot different than what we prefer. The church of the future very well may look a lot different than the church we remember—and we need to be okay with this.

Finally, the most important message which Haggai gave his people was one that we can take to heart today. Just as when Joshua was entering into the promised land and was told to take courage, God encouraged those who were rebuilding the temple. “ ‘… take courage,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the Lord of hosts. As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” (Haggai 2:4b-5 NASB) In the same way, Jesus told his disciples before he left them and ascended that God had given him all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, he told them, go and make disciples. He promised he would never leave them, but would always be with them—and he was, by the Spirit (Matt. 28:18-20).

What a marvelous thing the ascension is! Now we are participating in a real way in what God is doing in this world, all because this Jesus, who was God in human flesh, died and rose for our salvation, and now dwells forever in the presence of the Father bearing our humanity. By faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit sent from God and are each empowered to share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, and to participate in what Jesus is doing in the world today as he brings about renewal, healing, and transformation. We have been given both a hope and a future. We truly are blessed.

Holy God, thank you for reminding us to keep the main thing the main thing, and to trust you to know what is best for us as we move into the future. Grant us the passion and the courage to do the hard work of sharing the good news of your love and grace, of building up the body of Christ. And give us the endurance to weather all that we may have to bear as we do this. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit, of all you have done for us through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

“Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.”     Luke 24:44–53 NASB

God’s Word to a Sinful People

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By Linda Rex
January 24, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—One of the fun Bible stories put into film by Veggie Tales was that of Jonah the prophet, who was eaten by a large fish and then spit up on the shore near Nineveh three days later. Not many people today have much faith in the miracle of this story, but it is one of the signs which Jesus said pointed toward his death and resurrection. Beyond Jonah being the big fish’s dinner is an element of the story which touches all of us and speaks to much of what we are facing today as a nation, and as a world.

With the number of deaths due to COVID-19 reaching beyond the two million mark, we are faced with the reality of the transience of human life and the fragility of its existence. We are impacted by the limitations of our circumstances and where we live—we may never see the blessing of a vaccine if we do not live in a country where they are provided and paid for. And if we choose the option to not receive this vaccine, what will be the impact on those around us whom we may infect or be infected by? What has been happening lately illustrates powerfully that what we do as individuals has consequences—not just for us, but for everyone else around us.

The story of Jonah speaks to the reality that every nation or people group, no matter its history or military prowess, has to answer to God for its conduct and the way its citizens conduct their lives. God told Jonah that the people of Nineveh were so overcome by evil and depravity that they were facing destruction—but later explained to Jonah that the people simply did not know their right hand from their left. In other words—they didn’t know any better. Jonah, whether he liked it or not, was sent to the Ninevites to help them see they needed to change—to turn away from their evil ways, and to begin living the way they were meant to live.

The church in many ways has failed our nation and the world by not simply helping people know they are loved and accepted, and that there are healthier ways of being in which we can and should live. So often as believers we have been happy to wish upon others God’s flaming judgment of destruction, just as Jonah sat up on the hill waiting to see God pour down flames of fire on Nineveh in response to their sin. We must never forget that God’s heart is not for any person’s destruction, but rather their salvation. It is more important to God that people see they are wrong, turn away from their sin to him in faith, and begin to live in outgoing love and service, than that they pay a painful and destructive consequence for the evil they are doing.

When Jesus arrived on the scene in Galilee following John the Baptizer’s imprisonment, he told the people that the time was fulfilled, the kingdom of God was at hand, and they were to repent and believe the gospel. He called people to believe and live out the good news of God’s love for humanity expressed in Christ—the One who revealed to us the Triune God who lives in other-centered love, unity, and equality as Father, Son, and Spirit. In Christ’s birth and as he lived here on earth, the Son of God inaugurated the kingdom of God. As the king of the kingdom, he called people to turn away from themselves and their sinful ways toward him in faith. Jesus spent time teaching disciples who were called to create new disciples, who would continue to expand this kingdom with more and more disciples or followers of Christ.

God’s word to Jonah as he sat waiting to see Nineveh get what it deserved is his word to the Church today. Are we waiting for Jesus to come and set everything to rights by bringing death and destruction to everything and everyone we believe is evil? Or do we recognize the simple truth that all people, including ourselves, simply do not fully realize what it means to be God’s beloved, those meant to be his adopted children who were created to love God and one another in other-centered love and humble service?

Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward those he believed were unworthy of God’s love initially motivated him to try to avoid going to Nineveh at all. The ship he got on was headed for Tarshish instead. As believers, what ship are we on? Are we seeking the healing, transformation, renewal, and blessing of those who have different ideologies or beliefs than us, or whose background, status, or position in society is different than ours? Do we pray for, encourage, help, support, and speak words of life into those who just can’t seem to get beyond their addictions, poverty, or mental illness? Or do we avoid them, insult them, or even worse, seek their ostracism or destruction?

Jonah told the men on the boat headed for Tarshish as the storm grew stronger and stronger that they should just toss him over the side of the ship. He would rather have died than have done the simple thing God wanted him to do—call a people to repentance so that they would not die. Are we more willing to bury ourselves in our personal interests, agendas, and activities than to help others hear God’s word to them and to know that they are loved, and that God does not want their destruction, but rather, their salvation?

The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 reminds us that the world in its present form is passing away. In time, all that we see around us will be either completely different or entirely gone. We are only passing through—we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom which will last forever, long after everything we see, feel, touch, taste, and hear is gone. Surely, we want to encourage each and every person we know to make a better choice, to choose a better way, than the path to desolation, separation, or isolation they are currently on. There is a way that leads to destruction and death, and then there is a way that leads to life and relationship, healing and renewal.

Jesus says to us, “Follow me.” His call to discipleship, to follow him and his ways, is a call to immediate action. Just as Jonah’s message was emphatic and urgent (within 40 days), Jesus’ message is also emphatic and urgent. Participate in the kingdom life now—don’t wait! This is the heart we are to express toward each and every person in our lives—now is the time of salvation! The kingdom of God has come in Christ and will be established in its fullness when he comes in glory to set up the new heavens and new earth. One precious blessing we will experience then will be life with each and every person with which we have had the privilege of sharing this good news today. What a great reason to get busy sharing the good news right now!

Dear Lord, thank you for your forgiveness of our refusal to share the good news with others. Thank you for resisting and working against our prejudices, our hatred, and our condemnation of others. Grant us the grace to receive your correction, to accept your heart of love and grace toward all people, and to embrace the urgency of sharing the good news of Jesus. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

“Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.” Mark 1:14-20 NASB

See also Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:9–12.

He is Among Us

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By Linda Rex

December 13, 2020, ADVENT | JOY—As I was sitting and writing this blog today, I couldn’t help but gaze through the window at the dark, gloomy sky. The cold, damp grayness of this winter day is a good picture of what so many are experiencing right now in the midst of the pandemic and election limbo. Many of us have experienced 2020 as a year which brought us to the brink of disaster, and for some—tipped us on over into a pit of darkness, depression, and even despair.

Even as we wonder how much deeper we will go into this pit before things get better, we find ourselves moving on into Advent. We’ve celebrated hope and peace, and now we come upon a Sunday when we ponder the miracle of joy. How can one possibly feel any joy in the middle of all we are going through? How can God expect us to find joy when everything we are facing gives us anything but joy?

The spiritual gift of joy is something which isn’t based upon our circumstances. That feeling of happiness or gladness which is induced by positive, enjoyable circumstances and experiences is not the same as the joy that is spoken of by the apostle Paul. When he says to us, “Rejoice always,” it’s not because he is insane or unfeeling. It is because joy’s roots go much deeper than the everyday situations of life. It is God’s will that we always rejoice—he wants us to have a deeper inner joy which will carry us through the most difficult times of our lives, enabling us to bear up under unbearable struggles and losses.

One of the scriptures for this Sunday is Psalm 126. In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. | He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, | Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (NASB). Here we have a picture of a farmer who is weeping while he is spreading seed on the ground in the spring; but when the wheat is harvested, he shouts with the joy of it all.

Understand that the road Jesus, the Son of God, took for our salvation took him through death to resurrection. He was the Seed promised to Adam and Eve and then to Abraham as a solution for the evil, sin, and death we brought into this world. He was buried in the grave like a seed, but when he rose, like a fruit-bearing wheat stalk from the ground, he brought all humanity forth into new life. The author of Hebrews said that “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). Notice that Jesus endured all of the suffering of the cross “for the joy set before Him.” In Christ, God is harvesting many souls—something that brings him great joy even though it cost him a great deal in the suffering and death of his Son.

Jesus described his mission as the One anointed by the Holy Spirit using the prophetic word of Isaiah 61:1–2a: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, | Because the LORD has anointed me | To bring good news to the afflicted; | He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, | To proclaim liberty to captives | And freedom to prisoners; | To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD…” (Lk. 4:18-19 NASB) This passage in Isaiah goes on to describe the work of the Messiah in bringing about redemption to his creation. The purpose of the Word, the Son of God, coming into our humanity that we celebrate at Christmastime is to bring humanity out of the deep dark hole of evil, sin, and death in which we placed ourselves. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings all of us as we trust in him into a new place where we find healing, hope, freedom, and transformation.

In verse 10, Isaiah goes on to say, “I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, | My soul will exult in my God; | For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, | He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, | As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, | And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (NASB). What Isaiah was describing was the day when God in Christ would do for us what we could not do—save us, bring us into right relationship with himself and one another.

This is why the apostle Paul so often uses the language of taking of old garments and putting on new clothing when speaking of the new life we have in Christ. God has already done for you and me all that is needed for our healing and renewal in giving us his Son for our salvation and sending his Spirit for our regeneration. Now we simply, by the Spirit, have to put on Christ the way in which a couple gets dressed up in a tux and gown for a wedding. We turn away from ourselves and our own way to doing things and our own ability to save ourselves, and we turn to Jesus Christ in faith.

This is why it is possible to rejoice in the midst of difficult and painful times. There is an underlying assurance that no matter what may happen, we are held. Christ has come, he is present by the Spirit, and he will come again, to do what only he can do in our situation. However bad it may get, we have the assurance that Christ is present with us and is standing in our place willing to do whatever is needed to carry us through to the other side. We simply need to trust him and continue to pray, to give thanks and to rejoice.

There is a story which children are often taught in Sunday school which comes to my mind in regards to this. It is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These three young Jewish men had been chosen to serve the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar while Judah was exiled to his kingdom. One day some of the Chaldeans told the king that these men refused to bow to the new idol the king had set up and they deserved to be thrown into the furnace. Now the king liked these men and he tried to talk them into simply bowing down to the idol so they wouldn’t die. Well, they chose not to, telling the king that God would save them, and even if God didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to another God but the God of Israel.

What captures my attention so often in this story is that God didn’t keep the men from being thrown in the fire. In fact, the king made the fire in the furnace seven times hotter before having them thrown in. And the fire was so hot that the people throwing in the men died. This is when the story becomes supernatural—when the king looked into the flames, he saw four men walking around, the three who had been tied up and thrown in, and another who looked like “a son of the gods.” The king finally called all of them to come out of the furnace. The three men did and there was no evidence on their bodies that they had ever been in the flames.

I hope you are grasping the point I am trying to make. We have to place our faith beyond our own ability to help ourselves and the ability of others or our government to help us, and to simply place our faith in the God who has done everything in Christ by the Spirit which is needed for us to be saved. This is the God who came into the flames of our human existence to walk and talk with us, and to bring us out with him into new life. Our joy in the midst of our struggles, suffering, and loss is based in the reality that God will bring us out of them to the other side, and that even if he doesn’t rescue us, he will be with us as we go through whatever may be required of us. We are not alone—he is Immanuel, “God with us” now and forever.

This is our hope, our peace, and it is also our joy. Whatever may happen, we are not alone. God is with us, working things out for our best and caring for us no matter how intense the flames of trial and struggle we are experiencing may get. God in Christ holds us. We trust in him, allowing his Spirit to dwell richly in our hearts, giving us the assurance that he is near, providing the guidance and direction we need, and reminding us of his promise of life eternal when this life is over.

Our ability to “rejoice always” is found in Christ’s joy, in his personal presence in us and with us by the Spirit, as we go through every circumstance of life. As we keep our eyes on the heavenly realities, on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, walking with us in the flames, we will be filled with an unexplainable joy that is grounded in the presence and person of God himself.

Holy Father, thank you for holding us in the midst of all our struggles and suffering. Thank you, Jesus, for being ever present by your Spirit and for filling our hearts with your joy. Enable us to rejoice always, remain constant in prayer, and be grateful in every circumstance, as we trust in you now and forever. In your name, we pray, amen.

“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 NASB

The Counterfeit Wheat

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By Linda Rex

July 19, 2020, PROPER 11—If we were to take a hike up a mountain in the Colorado Rockies, we may, as we arrive breathless at the summit, see an amazing view below us. We may be awed by the grandeur of such a sight and find it to be quite inspiring and invigorating.

But if we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that in the midst of all that glory were signs of this world’s fragility and brokenness. There seems to be no place on earth where everything is exactly perfect, unblemished and unmarred. The apostle Paul speaks of how even the creation anxiously awaits the coming of the glorification of God’s adopted children and the coming of the new heavens and new earth.

What we tend to forget sometimes is that this world only gives us glimpses of glory. What we were created for, the glory which was meant to be revealed in us, was to be the adopted children of God, living forever in the oneness and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We were created to be image-bearers of our Abba, to reflect God’s very nature in our being. And this is why God determined before time began that he would join himself with us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, there is a deep, dark place in all of us where we believe that God does not love us nor does he care one whit as to how we are suffering or as to whether we live or die. This lie we believe about ourselves is the infection of sin which we humans contracted in the Garden of Eden. We allow it to poison our view of God and ourselves, as well as other people. This lie becomes the lens through which we view all of life, and guides our decisions and choices.

As we live out of this lie, we find the result is death. We may decide we need to be a good person, to follow our conscience, but don’t realize that even our human efforts to make ourselves good, good enough to be loved and accepted by God, don’t work. If anything, our efforts to clean up evil and to make things good often result only in more pain, suffering, and death.

Jesus often encountered this while interacting with his countrymen who were the leaders of the nation, the rabbis, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. The intent of the leaders over the centuries had been to get the people to be good, to keep the law meticulously, that they might be acceptable to God and be blessed by him. Unfortunately, their efforts merely created burdens that could not be borne by the people and caused much suffering. Their efforts to be free from their Roman overlords often ended up in the suffering and death of many Jews. It seemed that they could not accomplish the eradication of evil and the establishment of the kingdom of God by any of their human efforts. They were powerless over evil, sin, and death.

Jesus told a parable which described a sower who sowed good seed. As the sower went and rested, which all farmers do at night, an enemy came in and sowed bad seed among the good seed. The servants, when realizing what had been done, wanted to rush out into the field and get rid of all the bad seed. But the sower told them to forbear, to allow the plants to grow together until the time of the harvest, so that the good seed would not be harmed by their efforts to remove the evil seed.

In this parable, the sower turns out to be Jesus himself and the enemy, the evil one—the devil. The good seed was sowed in the field, the world, but then in the midst of this good creation, this sowing of good seed, was sowed evil and sin which results in death. The good or bad seed, in this parable, is what grows from what was planted, either the sons of the kingdom or the sons of the evil one. The Greek word used to tell the servants to forbear, resonates with the word to forgive, to permit it to be so for the time being—a gracious act by the sower of the seed.

The tare or darnel was a weed which when it first began to grow, looked just like wheat. It could easily be mistaken for wheat, and it would grow close enough that if you pulled it out, you would pull out the wheat with it. It isn’t until both plants were ready to be harvested that it could be clearly seen which plant was which. Then the wheat could be harvested and the darnel cut down and bundled to be used for fire.

This is a good illustration for us as human beings. We may all look the same on the outside, but what is going on inside is what really matters. We cannot and must not judge others as to whether they are the bad seed or good seed—that is yet to be determined. Eschatologically—when the end comes—this will be determined by the One who knows everyone down to the bottom of their heart. In the meantime, God’s call to his angels is to forbear, to allow, to permit—to offer you and me grace.

The apostle Paul reminds us that we no longer focus on the flesh, because we are now new creations in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:16-17). Our true life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). We may look sometimes like a son of the evil one, but in reality, in Christ, we are sons of the kingdom. This is why we need to be careful not to assume we know who is the true wheat and who is the counterfeit. Jesus is now the true measure of any human being.

The counterfeit wheat looks good, but its grain can be toxic. In the same way, the sons of the evil one may look just like the sons of the kingdom. They may even do and say all the things that we assume godly people would say and do. But on the inside, they are actually a churning mass of darkness—they have never given up the lie that God doesn’t love them, that they have to earn his love and salvation, that they are going to go about life in their own way under their own power. They have struggles, pain, and sin that has never seen the light of day. For them, being good has replaced being in relationship—they do not realize that eternal life isn’t something to be earned or bought or worked at. Eternal life, Jesus said, is a gift—it is to know him and to know the Father who sent him—an intimate knowing and being known which is only possible by grace.

When the time for harvest arrives, it then becomes obvious what is counterfeit wheat and what is true wheat. It was Jesus who said that some would stand at the door and knock and they would be turned away because he did not “know” them (Matt. 25:11-12). All of our human efforts will not buy us entry into the kingdom of heaven—only grace will. It is those who know their need for God to rescue them who will be saved.

The others never did believe God was love and that he loved and included them—they turned away from their only hope for salvation, which was in Jesus Christ. They trusted in themselves, in their own method of self-preservation. And so, in the end, they find themselves face to face with Jesus, the One who is both Judge and Advocate and who defeated evil, sin, and death. As the God who is “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), he will determine their ultimate destination.

We might want to pause for a moment to consider this: What is going on deep down inside of us? Does the Spirit bear witness with our spirit that we are God’s beloved children? Do we know that when the voice of condemnation and accusation speaks, that it is a lie, that now there is no condemnation for us, we are forgiven in Jesus? Are we trusting in Christ or in our own ability to get it right? Whatever our answer, we have no reason to fear, because God is gracious and forbearing—we turn to Jesus in faith. As sons of the kingdom, we have joyous hope in Christ!

Dear God, thank you for your faithful love and gift of grace. Grant us the humility and faith to open ourselves up fully to you, to release ourselves from the hamster wheel of human works and self-salvation. Awaken us to reality of the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, to our inclusion in your love and life. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?” And he said to them, “An enemy has done this!” The slaves said to him, “Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?” But he said, “No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’”’” Matthew 13:24–30 NASB

Also read Romans 8:12–25.

Accepting the Cost

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By Linda Rex

September 8, 2019, Proper 18—As I was reading the passage for next Sunday, I remembered a scene from when I was driving home from Cookeville to Nashville recently. It was located in a small farming community nestled between several tree-covered peaks. In the middle of a large pasture near some other houses sat a wooden frame which looked as though it had been abandoned, with new pieces of lumber scattered among broken pieces from an old farmhouse. What had been built looked great, but sat abandoned, with no one working on it, with no equipment around, and no sign from what I would see that anyone was planning to finish what they started.

If we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel like that unfinished building—abandoned, forgotten, with no hope of ever becoming what we believe we really ought to be or could be. We may have had great plans of overcoming this, of developing that, of doing that good deed, but we so often come up short. What we may feel like is worn out, burned out failures at life.

When we think about picking up and carrying our own cross daily, this is often what we feel like. Living life as a Christian and trying to do the right thing all the time is difficult. I’m grateful I do not have to carry Christ’s cross—I’m still trying to fully understand how to carry my own. And this is why it is important to understand what Jesus meant when he said this.

We often assume that the Christian life is meant to be a struggle against sin, a war to overcome the evil within ourselves. This makes our Christian walk rather self-centered, as an effort to become what we are not. But this is not really a helpful way of seeing things, and not what Jesus meant when he told us to carry our cross and to follow him.

What would be helpful for us to understand is that when Jesus told us to pick up our cross daily and to follow him, he was not telling us something we had to do on our own all by ourselves. When a contractor sets out to build a house, he usually does not attempt to do so all by himself. No, he has someone come to do the plumbing, someone to do the electricity, maybe even a few carpenters and carpet layers come to help him out. In other words, he doesn’t attempt the task all by himself—he does it in community.

In the same way, Jesus calls us into community, into fellowship with the Trinity, where we live life in Christ by the Spirit as participants in his own intimate father-son relationship with his Abba. Jesus says no other relationship should have this precedence in our life—we love all others less in comparison. As participants in the divine life and love, we don’t build our lives under our own power according to our own plans. Whatever we do coincides directly with who we are as God’s beloved adopted children who share in Christ’s perfect and holy sonship.

Jesus also calls us into the community of believers. We are not meant to go through the struggles to live as a follower of Christ alone. The Spirit calls us together into a community so that we can encourage each other and lift each other up, and when our burdens become too difficult for us to carry alone, we have someone to come alongside us to help and strengthen us. We aren’t alone, but rather are called into spiritual community, the church, which is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ who, like us, are beloved adopted children of Abba.

In other words, the life of a follower of Jesus becomes a matter of finding and living out our true identity in Christ as Abba’s beloved adopted children rather than seeking to gain acceptance by our religious performance and moral goodness. We don’t depend upon our ability to do what is necessary—the cost is too great because we will fail. We depend solely upon Christ, walking by faith in him, and living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh. Our focus is not on how well we are doing or not doing, but rather on Jesus Christ, and how he has done it, is doing it in us by the Spirit, and will finish it when we are glorified at his return.

What this means is, the cost of our salvation has been paid by Jesus. The cost to us is the laying down of our life and the receiving of Jesus in our place and on our behalf. This means we cease to be the center, other people cease to be the center, and the cares of this life are set completely aside—Jesus Christ himself is now the center of our life. We are baptized in his baptism, acknowledging he lived our life, we died in his death, we rose in his resurrection, and we ascended in his ascension. We eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, thankfully celebrating that he is all we need—his life for our life. He became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

When we count the cost of following Christ, we aren’t examining ourselves to see whether or not we have what it takes to follow through to the end. The reality is we don’t. That’s why God had from the beginning, before all was made, intended to join our life with his life through the incarnation. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is our assurance that we have what it takes—we turn to Jesus, again and again, daily relying upon him to finish what he began in us. We, as temples of the Spirit, are in process, and in the end, the beautiful bride, the universal fellowship of all believers, will shine with God’s glory in his presence forever.

So, the question for today is, what do you need to lay down so that you are solely picking up your daily reliance upon Jesus? What is it that you need to relinquish or surrender control over so that Christ can rule in your heart and life? What relationships need to be given healthy boundaries so Christ becomes your focus instead someone else being the center of your life? You are the beloved adopted child of Abba and by the Spirit you share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with him. Accept your cross of life in Christ daily, and follow him wherever he goes. Let him do the heavy lifting—you enjoy the journey.

Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your perfect relationship with your Son Jesus. Thank you that by the Spirit, we participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. What a blessing that it is all up to him and not all up to us! Enable us this day, and each day, to lay down all our human efforts at righteousness and surrender fully to dependency upon Christ alone. Enable us to establish healthy relationships, keeping Christ at the center of our lives. Grant us the grace to yield control completely to you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:27 NASB

Pending Judgment–Part III

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By Linda Rex

When it comes to God’s judgment, we saw last time that God has done all that is necessary for our salvation. God frees us in Christ to participate fully in this gift of grace, enabling us by the Spirit to live in the truth of who we are as God’s beloved children. At the same time, though, we are free to embrace or reject the gift God has given us in his Son Jesus Christ.

In essence, we judge ourselves—we come into the Light of God’s penetrating gaze and allow him to cleanse and restore us, or we turn from him and continue to walk in darkness, thereby experiencing the consequences of turning away from Christ.

Adam, and all humanity since his time, has turned away from God—but God, in Christ, has turned humanity back into face to face relationship with himself. Jesus Christ is the right relationship each of us has with our heavenly Father.

But God does not force us into relationship with himself. He has secured our relationship with himself in Christ, but does not force us to participate in it. Rather, he invites us. He woos us. By his Spirit, he draws us to himself. We are beloved, held, cherished, and yet free to turn and walk away.

I do not know why people choose to resist and walk away from this awesome relationship, but they do. And if a person insists on resisting and turning from this relationship, God will eventually yield to their decision, while at the same time never ceasing to love and forgive them.

What’s interesting is that people who do not know or believe in Christ are still participants in God’s life and love. They do not recognize or concede that this is so, and may even resist any attempt God makes at drawing them closer to himself, but they are still included in God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. God allows them to be a part of what he is doing in the world, even if the part they play is a negative one.

The struggle we have with reading the Old Testament is seeing God at work among the nations, allowing the destruction of people groups, wars, and genocide. We find it difficult to accept God ordering certain people to be killed or allowing others to suffer famine and other hardships. If the God of the Old Testament is just like Jesus Christ, then why did he allow or cause these things to happen?

The modern-day Jesus is often portrayed as soft, kind, gentle, and loving. Our pictures of the long-haired, white American Jesus give us the impression he was full of compassion, understanding, and was sensitive to every possible issue and feeling of the human heart. He loved little children and working with his hands. Yes, he might have had a moment of anger in the temple when dealing with the buyers and sellers, but this wasn’t his usual response to such things.

We don’t usually get the impression that the Jesus of scripture is a real, flesh-and-blood man who was strong, decisive, and oozing masculinity. It seems that the Jesus we think of who is powerful and comes to deliver and help is the One who sits in glory ready to condemn and judge the world, who in his second coming is expected to punish and eliminate all the evildoers in the world. This Jesus more closely resembles the God of the Old Testament.

Jesus favored the use of “I am” statements during his time here on earth. He made it quite clear that he was the God of the Old Testament here in human flesh—the “I Am” in person. Over and over he went out of his way to show the truth of this, and that he was the perfect embodiment of God in our humanity. And this is where we begin to struggle. Just who is Jesus, and just how does he jive with the God of the Old Testament? They almost seem like two different people.

There also seems to be a dichotomy between the Jesus of the first coming and the Jesus of the second coming. And this also reflects on how we view the God of the Old Testament. There are inconsistencies between each of these God-views because we do not see Jesus Christ clearly, and we do not see God himself through the correct lens.

And we see events almost always in terms of this life alone. We don’t usually keep a kingdom perspective about things. When someone dies, we think or feel that’s the end, even if we believe in an afterlife. But the apostle Paul tells us we need to keep our minds and hearts on heaven, not on things of the earth which are passing and fleeting. What happens in this life needs to be kept in the context of eternity and the eternal purposes of our Living Lord.

This is the same perspective we need to use when looking at the events in the Old Testament. We need to realize that this is God’s story. It is the story about all he did in preparation for and in bringing about the salvation of the world in and through his Son Jesus Christ. God’s ultimate judgment on sin and death was fully taken up in Jesus Christ and resolved once and for all.

The Old Testament tells the story of God’s covenant relationship with the people of Israel from whom the Messiah came. These scriptures tell about God’s love for his people, and indeed for the whole world, and his deep compassion as they wandered away from him, and his longing for them to be faithful and obedient to him. It tells how he defended and protected his people, providing for them in the midst of difficulty and struggle, and in the midst of hostile, pagan nations. It also tells how he allowed them to experience the consequences of turning away from their covenant relationship with him, while he still called them back and sought their change of heart and mind toward himself.

Everything which happened as recorded in the Old Testament must be viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ, and from the perspective of God’s eternal purposes. God judged all humanity worthy of the gift of his very own unique Son—Jesus Christ is God’s judgment on sin and death. God’s redemption of his own chosen people Israel set the stage for his redemption of all humanity.

In Hebrews 9:26 we read that Jesus, rather than being offered over and over like the temple sacrifices were, was offered just once “at the consummation of the ages.” When the time was exactly right, after specific events and circumstances had taken place, and after certain prophecies had been fulfilled or were prepared to be fulfilled, Jesus came and offered himself in our place. This was to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” Jesus took care of sin once and for all—so we do not have that hanging over our heads any longer. Romans 8:1 says, “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” In Jesus Christ we are free from sin and death.

Judgment, for those who are in Christ, is not a thing to be feared. In Hebrews 9:27-28 we read, “…inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Christ’s coming is meant to be a celebration. It’s meant to be the time when we all gather together, rejoicing in his return, and having a merry time at his banquet, clothed in his garments of righteousness. Death is not to be feared, but to be celebrated as the transition between this life and the life in eternity Jesus purchased for us to be spent with our loving God and all those near and dear to us.

Jesus Christ, being God’s judgment on sin and death, is the One we welcome with open arms and happy faces when we see him in glory, because we are trusting in all he did on our behalf. But it is equally possible that in that moment—in death or at Christ’s return—our hearts might condemn us. We may, when face to face with the glorified Jesus, be like those described in the book of Revelation who try to run and hide from him. We may come face to face with the glorified Savior in that particular moment and realize our way of being is a far cry from that ordained for us by God in creation as made in his image, and renewed by Christ in his redemption. And we have nowhere to turn if we refuse Jesus Christ since he is our salvation, and he is God’s judgment on sin and death. And so, our hearts will be filled with fear, fear of God and fear of his punishment.

But fear is not what God meant for us to have in that moment. In fact, God meant for his perfect love for us expressed to us in Christ to cast out all our fear. God has reconciled us to himself in Christ, and merely asks that we be reconciled in return. How often God has said to us as humans, “Don’t be afraid!” God means for our response when we see Christ in glory to be receptive, heart-felt love not fearful dread—this is why Jesus came and did all that he did and this is why God sent his Holy Spirit into human hearts.

This unhealthy response to God was something he battled with from the very beginning. Case in point was when Israel came to Mt. Sinai and God spoke with them. They were terrified and begged to have Moses speak in God’s place. And while Moses was receiving the terms of the covenant, Israel decided to play with idols. These people who were very special to God never really grasped the real nature of God. God wanted them to get to know him, but they constantly set up barriers between themselves and him.

God called the patriarchs and then the nation of Israel into covenant relationship with himself. He would speak to them through prophets. He would speak of bringing them to the place where they would “know” him—come to be intimately aware of and obedient to his loving will. He defended and protected them. He chastened them, and allowed them to stubbornly go their own way even when it was to their detriment. God’s heart from the beginning has been eternal life—this knowing and being known intimately as Abba and his Son in the Spirit.

We need to understand that God’s judgment ultimately is meant to restore, renew, and heal broken relationships—between us and God, and between us and each other. The purpose in judgment is not to destroy or punish so much as it is to bring us into truth so we can experience the true freedom which is ours in Christ. We were meant for life, real life, in fellowship with God and one another—and God’s purpose is for us to experience that both now and forever. We are free to refuse to participate in this kingdom life—but we will experience the consequences of having done so—and that is another conversation altogether.

Abba, thank you for your loving heart and the gift of eternal life in your Son Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to embrace all you have done for us in Jesus. Let us turn away from ourselves and the things of this life and place our dependency fully upon Christ. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Hebrews 9:26-28 NASB

Pending Judgment—Part II

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By Linda Rex

Last week I asked the question: If Jesus is indeed the exact representation of the Father, does that mean that our heavenly Father is a really nice guy who never did or does anything in anger or that might be hurtful to us as human beings? I wrote about how Christ is our reconciliation and perfect relationship with our Abba, but often we seek to hide our sin and brokenness rather than humbly bringing it into the light of God’s love so we can live fully in the reconciliation which is ours in Christ Jesus.

God loves all people everywhere and has reconciled them to himself in his Son Jesus. We read in John 3:16-17 that God gave his Son for each human being, not so they would be condemned, but that they would be saved. And yet we also read in the Old Testament conversations and situations in which it seems as though God loves some people more than others.

I was sitting on a sofa in someone’s living room one day talking with a gentleman who loved God and wanted to live rightly, but more often than not was unkind and uncaring to his family and others. This person had such a low opinion of himself, it was reflected in how he treated others. He told me that God loves some people and hates others, and wondered whether or not some people were born already unloved and unblessed by God.

The example he pointed to was the story of Esau and Jacob in a passage in Malachi. In Malachi 1:1-2 we read, “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have You loved us?’ ‘Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ declares the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.’” Here, in most translations, it says that God hated Esau but loved Jacob.

Now my understanding of the language (I’m not a Hebrew scholar) is that what is being said is not that God hates or abhors Esau, but that comparatively, he loves him less. But that still doesn’t seem to jive with our understanding that Jesus came because of God’s love for every human being. How could God do that and love some more or less than others?

The thing to avoid here is “either/or” thinking. It is better to turn to “both/and” thinking, understanding that both things are true at the same time. God “so loved the world” and he “loved Jacob, but hated Esau.” Both of these are true statements and neither is contradictory of the other. Indeed, the whole outcome of God choosing Abraham, then choosing Isaac (over Ishmael), and choosing Jacob (over Esau), was so that God could fully express his love for the whole world in his son Jesus Christ, who bore the humanity which had its roots in these patriarchs.

The apostle Paul actually writes about what God did in choosing Jacob over Esau. In Romans 9:10-13 he wrote: “there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Paul’s point here was that what God did in showing his mercy and love was not because of any particular person’s performance, but genuinely from his own heart of love and grace.

We don’t earn God’s love or forgiveness. It is fully a gift. Some have refused it. Others have not. God loves both Jews and Gentiles, and even though the Jews were his chosen people, he offered salvation to them and to the Gentiles. During Paul’s missions to the Gentiles, though, often it was the Jews, God’s very own chosen people, who refused to receive the gift of forgiveness in Jesus. The Gentiles, who had for centuries been excluded from the fellowship of God’s people, warmly received the gift of grace. They were willing to come into the Light and live in the Light, while the Jews continued to deny the truth of who Jesus was as their Savior and Lord, the Messiah of all.

Salvation is a gift from God, and the Holy Spirit, who has been poured out on all from Abba through his Son Jesus, works to bring each and every human being to saving faith in Christ. We do not know why some people come to faith now and others don’t. God has his reasons. The Holy Spirit works in ways we do not understand. But if we look at things from the view of eternity and God’s perfect love expressed to us in Jesus, we can see God has no desire to leave anyone out or reject anyone.

We are forgiven and accepted in the Beloved. But we are also free to reject and turn our backs on that gift of love and grace. We are included in God’s life and love but are free to live our lives as though we are forgotten, unloved, and unwanted. We exclude ourselves—God doesn’t exclude us.

The reason Jesus Christ is the Elect or the Chosen One is not so that only people who are Christian can be saved or go to heaven when they die, but rather so that each and every person might be included in God’s love and grace right now as well as for all eternity. Jesus Christ is our perfected humanity, and whatever may happen in this life that may make us feel as though God loves us less, as though we have been left out in some way, is a lie—a deception which Satan has suckered us into since Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden.

The question which arises now is whether or not someone who has refused God’s grace before death will be offered grace after death. This is a great question full of all types of complications. But I would, at this point, simply point out that death and Hades were defeated in Jesus, and will ultimately be tossed into the lake of fire. Death is a place Jesus has already been to and returned from, and so death is not a barrier to eternal life. God’s heart is that each and every person be saved: “God so loved the world.” And his Son Jesus Christ is his final and ultimate Word in this regard.

Thank you, Abba, for loving each and every one of us so much that you sent your Son and your Spirit for our salvation and our communion with you. Grant us the grace to believe we are included and accepted in Jesus, and to live in the truth that each and every other person is also included and beloved in Jesus. We trust you to finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His 1conly begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” John 3:16-17 NASB