Where Death Reigns, Grace Triumphs
by Linda Rex
February 26, 2023, 1st Sunday in Preparation for Easter | Lent—I’ve been pondering the way in which we as human beings so often trade in our relationships with God and others for things that ultimately don’t satisfy. I believe this began in the garden of Eden, in that conversation Eve had with the serpent who deceived her. He told her that when she ate the forbidden fruit, her eyes would be opened and she would be like God, knowing good from evil.
When reading over that part of the creation story, we often miss the subtle detail of what Adam and Eve turned their back on when they chose to disregard God’s instruction to leave alone the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What we fail to see and appreciate is the magnitude of what Adam and Eve had from the beginning—a personal relationship with the God who created them, a warm fellowship characterized by walking and talking together, sharing life in union and communion with Father, Son, and Spirit.
It is instructive that the serpent or Satan told Eve, and she believed it, that being “like God” meant that she would know good and evil. The knowing that she and Adam were created for was not this kind of knowing, but that which involved both the knowledge of who God was, but also knowing God in an intimate and personal way. Walking and talking with God, living in face-to-face relationship, is what humans were created for, and Adam and Eve traded this in for the knowledge of good and evil.
When their eyes were “opened,” what they saw wasn’t the truth any longer. Sin had entered their existence, and with it, death, and when they encountered God again in the garden, they couldn’t face him anymore. So, they hid. And human beings have been hiding from God ever since. Shame, guilt, and blindness kept them from seeing that God had not changed at all—they were the ones who were so alienated in their minds that they could no longer see the truth.
What the apostle Paul shares in the New Testament reading for this Sunday, Romans 5:12–19, is the lengths to which God went to make this whole situation right. Because of the one man, Adam, sin entered the world, and therefore death entered the world. Adam set the course of humanity on the path to death and destruction—returning back to the nothingness out of which God had made everything. But God, being God, was not content to allow this to happen without doing what was needed to restore and renew all things.
In the garden of Eden story, following their rebellion, God walks into the garden looking for Adam and Eve, but they are hiding. What does God do? He seeks them out and calls them back into relationship with himself. When he sees they are uncomfortable with their nakedness, he, through the shedding of animal blood, clothes them. He tells them the consequence of their choices—the result of sin, but then offers them hope in his promise of a redeemer.
In the fullness of time, God kept that promise, in the person of Jesus Christ. Here, a human being, who was the Son of God in human flesh, came to live a genuinely human life in face to face relationship with Father in the Spirit. Jesus did what Adam did not do. In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Matthew 4:1-11, we learn about the new Adam, Jesus Christ, and his encounter with “the serpent” Satan during his time of testing in the wilderness after forty days of fasting.
During this spiritual battle, Satan challenged Jesus in three ways, what the apostle John calls “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16 NIV). Looking back to Eden, we find these same temptations are a common occurrence in our human flesh. The consequence of our yielding to them in sin is and has been death. When we try to resolve these on our own, through law keeping or even ignoring them, we find ourselves even more enslaved by sin. It is only in Christ that we have any hope of redemption.
The wonder of what God has done to resolve what occurred in Adam, is seen in the one man Jesus Christ, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and even in the sending of the Spirit by which all of us can individually participate in his intimate relationship with Father in the Spirit. We, by faith, can now experience the union and communion we were created for—coming to know not just about God, but to know him personally and relationally as his adopted children. We can live now and forever triumphant over evil, sin, and death because of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ’s obedience in the face of profound temptation from the evil one has undone Adam’s, and therefore humanity’s, disobedience and sin. Jesus’ righteousness, or right relationship with God, has become our own righteousness. Jesus’ justification has undone our injustice and rebellion, restoring us and making us one with God. Death itself has been defeated, such that we participate now and forever in the eternal life Jesus spoke of, that of knowing the Father, and him whom he sent (John 17:3). Every one of us is invited to live this out, as we trust in Jesus’ perfect work in our place and on our behalf, and receive his gift of the Spirit of life everlasting, embracing our place as beloved children of our Father.
Thank you, Father, for your great love and faithfulness. Thank you, Jesus, for coming for us, facing temptation, and triumphing over evil, sin, and death. As we live in face-to-face relationship with you, dear God, may your heavenly Spirit, manifest anew in and through us all the righteousness and goodness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:12–19 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/02/olitwhere-death-reigns-grace-triumphs-e.pdf ]
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Life in a Paper Cup
By Linda Rex
September 4, 2022, PROPER 18—I know I will show my age by asking this question, but do you remember back when going to a water cooler, you would find a holder full of little paper cups in the shape of a cone? They might hold one small serving of cold water, but then they could not be reused more than once or twice because the water would soak the cup, causing it to leak.
Early this morning I woke up from a weird dream in which I was being sung a song about a paper cup. It was beautiful and I wish I could have written down the lyrics, because they were profound. But the point of the song was that I and every other human in this world are like paper cups—fragile and yet containing a valuable substance which is life-giving. Like the clay vessels which the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 4:7, we are fragile containers filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s real presence in us and with us.
So often, we minimize our worth and value as human beings, not realizing how absolutely precious we are. All we see is a little paper cup, plain, easily squashed, and short-lived. If we look solely at our usefulness, we may find that we have a small something to offer others—a life-giving drink that may do a little good when a person is thirsty. But we are in no way able to supply the real need of a person who has just wandered in off the desert, not having had a drink for hours.
I suppose we could begin to look at ourselves from the point of view of what we contain, rather than who we are as a container. Often, we want to focus on the presence of God within. But in Psalm 139 we read how God created each of us very carefully and he knows everything about us. He knows when we awaken and what we will say before it even comes out our mouths. And he knew us before we were born, and knew what we would become and planned for us to share life with him now and forever.
Like the potter the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to learn from, our Lord has carefully fashioned each one of us, making us vessels who are able carry his very presence and power. (See Jeremiah 18:1–11.) And even though, like the potter’s flawed vessel, none of us have taken the shape God originally intended, Christ took our human flesh and reforged it into the shape needed to be true reflections of our Triune God, able to participate in a real way in all he is doing right now and in the world to come.
The thing is, many of us have a tendency to argue with God about his creative efforts. We tell God, “I have no interest whatsoever in being a paper cup. Why did you make me like this? Why was I even born?” (See Rom. 9:20.) I can understand how someone may feel this way when all of the experiences in their life up that time have told them they are somehow worthless or unlovable. But our everyday experience of life does not determine our value or worth—God has already declared our value and worth and lovability in Jesus Christ.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus was walking along, being followed by large crowds of people. Significantly, he turned around to face them and began to talk with them about seriously considering the cost of following him. He knew many of them did not realize the price that would be asked of him—crucifixion, and his followers—persecution. They were looking at him as the one who would deliver them from Roman oppression and make their life abundant and blessed again, where he was seeking to free them from an even greater oppressor—sin, evil, and death. They did not even see how they were being held in bondage by their flesh and how desperately they needed to set free, free to be who God always meant for them to be—those who loved him with their whole beings and who loved one another as themselves.
Can you see the connection? How often we get swept away into false view of ourselves and of why we are even alive! We get pulled way from the simplicity of what God meant for us to be all along—paper cups that would hold his life-giving water providing refreshment for others. We were never meant to be the Savior or Redeemer—that is why Jesus came. Our participation in God’s life is precious and of great value to him. And he will not stop until we are all gathered around his table—his very own adopted children in Christ the Father’s Son. Paper cups—adopted children. Isn’t that enough for us?
Jesus didn’t pull any punches that day—he told the people the stark and painful truth. He told the people following him that no one in our lives, not even ourselves, should be of greater importance to us than him. If there is anyone else who is of greater importance to us than Christ, then are we truly his followers or disciples?
He also said that we each have our own cross to bear—some place in which we ourselves must be willing to lay down our lives as Jesus laid his down. What needs to be put to death in us that Christ may live? Too often we make the profession of faith in Jesus, but then we want him around just to make sure we are successful, wealthy, popular or blessed in some way. We certainly don’t want him to ask anything of us. We don’t want to have to give up things we may be attached to, such has unhealthy relationships or habits. Why should we have to give up a good paying job just because what we are doing is unethical or destructive?
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the difference between following our Lord Jesus Christ and simply professing our faith in him. We need to take seriously Jesus’ words about considering the cost. When we plan to build a new home, often we don’t realize the extent of the details involved and all of the decisions which have to be made in order to complete the project. Imagine multiplying that by the thousands of decisions and millions of dollars needed to complete the construction of a modern-day skyscraper? The leaders and generals of Ukraine and Russia, we’d like to hope, are taking into account the cost of their war against one another—are they prepared to finish what they have begun?
In the same way, we need to take seriously our commitment to Christ. Why? Because Christ is the one, as God in human flesh, who took our little paper cup humanity and transformed it. He’s the One who did all that was needed for us to live the life we need to live, die the death we deserve to die, and to bring us into his own relationship with the Father in the Spirit. When we follow Jesus, we lay down all our possessions—our own effort to find life in this world, our own expectations, our own will, our own solutions to life’s problems—and we receive gratefully everything from him. Jesus is our life. He is our hope. He is our past, present, and future—the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. We gratefully follow him wherever he goes, no matter the cost to ourselves, because by the Spirit, he has included us in his life and love, now and forever, as beloved children of the Father.
Lord, thank you for inviting every one of us to follow you. Grant us the grace to count the cost of discipleship, but even so, to choose to follow you wherever you lead. Thank you for including us in your love and life. By your Spirit, make us true reflections of you, for the Father’s glory. Amen.
“Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.’ ” Luke 14:25–33 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/olitlife-in-a-paper-cup.pdf ]
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The Messianic Spirit
By Linda Rex
January 23, 2022, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany—One common thread that seems to run through life no matter what century we live in is a desire for someone to come and solve the great problems of life. We may face economic woes, political corruption, moral depravity, or natural disasters, and be tempted to embrace just about anyone who will come in and “save the day.” The price we pay for trusting the wrong person to be our messiah can ultimately be pretty steep, but in those times of great stress and struggle, we may think that we can look the other way for a while, and trust them to fix what we want fixed, and hopefully deal with the fallout on the other side without too much loss.
It is significant that when God pulls together by the Spirit members of the body of Christ, he doesn’t choose any particular person to be the savior. Rather, he pulls together all different sorts of people, gifting each one uniquely so that his purposes will be accomplished, but done in the context of community. The Spirit brings together unique persons with distinct gifts and creates a body of people in and through whom he can do ministry in this world. But Christ remains the one unique Messiah, Savior of all, and allows his body, the Church, to participate in what he is doing in the world.
When Jesus described his messianic mission, he began by saying, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus did not function alone in this world while he was on earth. No, he came as God in human flesh on mission with his Father in the Spirit. The Triune God was at work in and through Jesus Christ, and it was God’s kingdom that was present and active in his personal presence and action when Jesus stood that day in the synagogue and began by the Spirit to read from the book of Isaiah.
Jesus went on to read about what he was anointed by the Spirit to do: “… he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the line, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
Then he ended by telling his listeners that this was being fulfilled in that moment as Jesus stood and expounded the Scriptures to them (Luke 4:14–21 NASB).
In a community that had recently experienced Roman wrath poured out against a Jewish messiah, such talk from a Jew who they were familiar with was really hard to handle. What would be the consequences of the wrong person hearing Jesus speak? Perhaps the common people might appreciate the miracles and the preaching, but the leaders would not have wanted another season of Roman oppression and violence.
But Jesus said, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” That’s the real issue. What do we do when the Spirit goes to work and says to us, “I’ve got something new I am doing—join me.” When the Spirit calls us down a new road of ministry that looks different than what we have been doing, then what? Do we dictate to the Spirit or does the Spirit call us to join with him? This is our challenge as the body of Christ. Are we doing what we are doing “in the Spirit?” Or are we doing it in our flesh and asking the Spirit to bless it?
The body of Christ takes many different forms in the world today. The Spirit brings people together to do ministry in this world. The Spirit even moves in ways which many of us would consider secular. But the Spirit is always and ever active, moving to accomplish the purposes of God in this world. We can enthusiastically join in with him in what he is doing, or we can insist on God accomplishing those tasks we think he should be accomplishing. What does the kingdom of God look like when God brings it to fulfillment here on earth as it is in heaven?
Life in the kingdom of God begins now as Christ in us by the Spirit reigns in human hearts. There is an already-not yet aspect to the kingdom of God. In Christ by the Spirit the kingdom of God is already at work in this world, specifically within the body of Christ, in the communion of the saints. But we also realize that the kingdom of God is not realized in its fulness since so many people today do not fully participate in God’s life and love, not knowing that the kingdom of God is present and active in their lives even now through Jesus and in the Spirit.
The Spirit brings people together into a body, a group of people joined together, uniquely framed into a form that will accomplish God’s particular task in that place for his purpose. We find that not everyone is the same. The Spirit gifts people uniquely, and some may seem to be more gifted than others. The point is not whether someone is more gifted than another. The point is that each of these gifts are brought together into the unity of the Spirit to accomplish a particular purpose in that specific place.
It is equally true that the body of Christ takes a form which is always changing. We like to get in our groove and start doing things a certain way, and then assume that it will always stay like that. In reality, the Spirit is living and active. He is always in motion, doing what is new and life-giving at all times.
It may be that that the Spirit is wanting to do something new while we have our boots stuck in the mud and don’t want to move forward. This is why Jesus faced such opposition from the Jewish leaders in his day. They believed the Spirit only worked in one particular way—their way. They did not see that the Lord of all, who was filled with the Spirit, was the one directing them into a new path. The king of the kingdom of God was present and calling them to a new direction, but they did not want to hear it, much less participate in it.
The apostle Paul, in our reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a, ends this section about spiritual gifts with an invitation to see a new and better way rather than focusing on spiritual giftedness. This transition invites us to discover the beauty and wonder of God’s way of being—love. This is an other-centered way of being that both gives and receives in a mutuality of love and respect. This harmony and unity among unique and equal persons is the image we are to reflect as the body of Christ, for this is the way of being of the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit.
Ultimately, we don’t need a messiah just to deliver us—we need the Messiah to transform and heal us. What happens in this world would be so much different if we each were living “filled with the Spirit” in the unity and oneness Christ brought us into through his messiahship. Jesus described life in the kingdom of God in this world today as discipleship, and said that people would know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another. What if, instead of counting on a human messiah, we began to trust in our true Messiah, Jesus Christ, and began living and walking in the Messianic Spirit he has poured out on all flesh?
Thank you, Father, for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to remain open to your leading and obedient to your Spirit at all times. Keep us surrendered to your will and purposes, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. … God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. … Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. … But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.” 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a NASB
By Linda Rex
May 23, 2021, DAY OF PENTECOST—Recently while on vacation, I pulled out an empty canvas and some acrylic paints a dear friend had left me, and began to paint. Staring at an empty canvas that needs to be filled is a lot like staring at an empty page and trying to figure out what to write. There are so many possibilities ahead that one hardly knows where to begin. Consider for a moment what it was like as the Spirit hovered over the waters, as everything was without form and empty.
In times past I have avoided painting due to the difficulty I have in controlling the outcome. The brush has a mind of its own and I cannot always get it to do what I want. My preferred method of artwork usually involves colored pencils or pen and ink for this very reason. But there is a loss of freedom in such control of the outcome.
But the Creator sees things differently—he gives each and every thing which he creates an incredible freedom. He does not need to control every movement and every decision—otherwise we would all be robots. Instead, God allows each tree, plant, fish, bird, animal, and human to be who he created them to be. By his creative Spirit, he moves in all he has made to accomplish his purposes, but always with this element of true freedom based in his love.
This creates a built-in risk for our Creator—what if a creature he has made decides to live in a way which is different from his design? When my brush takes off across the canvas in a way I didn’t plan for, I get frustrated—in my mind, I now have a big mistake to rectify. But what if mistakes are part of the picture? What if the possibility of something not turning out in the way I expected actually ends up adding to the result, making it better?
What we find is that the Creator of all things planned in advance for this reality in what he created. We discover in the written Word of God that even before he created all things, the Maker of all had a plan to redeem and restore his creation should it wander away from its intended life path. He made our mistakes a part of his picture—redemption and restoration in and through the gift of his Son was allowed to be an essential part of his creation process. In fact, God always meant to include us in his life and love—and our turning away from him did not prevent this purpose from being realized.
Think about the history of human beings and how God has worked in and through each one to accomplish his purpose. Over the millennia before Christ, we find kingdoms rose and kingdoms fell, people lived and died, children were born and grew up. Through all these events, natural calamities, and over a long period of time, the creative Spirit worked. God even included certain people in his efforts—calling Noah to build an ark, Abraham to leave his country and people, and Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt. Flawed people included in his plan—and yet the Creator continued his masterpiece.
Indeed, we find that all along God was working to restore and renew his creation, and allowing us as broken human beings to be a part of the process. When he sent his Son, we find angels celebrating this momentous event. Now God had moved even closer to his creation—he had taken on human flesh to live and walk on earth as one of us! The divine Painter had himself become the brush in the hand of the creative Spirit!
How amazing that God reconstructs the creatures he made in his image from the inside out. He enters our space and time, experiences our limitations and frailties, and begins to redeem and restore as one of us. He develops personal relationships with those he made and begins to teach them what it means to be truly human, demonstrating it by the way he lived. Rather than being enslaved by the sin which controls us, he conquered it, taking it all the way to the cross and delivering us from it through death and resurrection. And then he took our humanity up with him into the presence of the Father—our humanity restored and renewed in his person, dwelling forever with God as was always intended.
Jesus told his disciples when he left at ascension that he would not leave them as orphans. He was going to send them the Spirit, the other Helper like himself, who would be with them forever. The creative Spirit was poured out on all flesh from the Father by Jesus so that we all could participate in Christ’s true humanity. Instead of the masterpiece being so flawed that it must be thrown out, all God has made has incredible possibilities in store!
Think for a minute about Judas Iscariot, the son of perdition. This man had many choices in his life, the capacity to be a true follower of Jesus Christ. But he was given over to thievery—often stealing money from the common purse. And when push came to shove, he sold the Savior for thirty pieces of silver. Here was a mistake beyond mistakes—selling the Messiah for a paltry sum so that he ended up being crucified.
But the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a part of the masterpiece God was creating. It was not as though God wanted Judas to do this idiocy, but rather, that he included it as a necessary part of the picture. It was not God’s choice for Judas, but it was Judas’ choice, which God honored and allowed, using it to accomplish a greater purpose in the end, the redemption of all humanity.
What if, instead of focusing on our faults and failures, we offered them up to the creative Spirit to pour into them his recreative power to renew and redeem? What if we allow Jesus to be who he is—our Savior and Redeemer, the One who restores all things? What is it in your life and mine which needs to be reconstructed?
There may be a time of deconstruction first—God sometimes needs to remove some things so there is space for something new. But God’s purpose is to transform, heal and renew—and we can participate with him in that process. And who knows what the outcome will be? God says that through Christ and by the Spirit, it will be better than we can ever ask or imagine! His masterpiece—humanity transformed and renewed—will live with him forever in the new heavens and new earth, as we begin by his Spirit to experience this life in relationship with the Father and Son even now.
Thank you, Creator of all, for everything you have made and how wonderfully you have worked and will work to transform, heal and renew your creation. We invite you, Creative Spirit, to finish what you have begun in us and in our world. Keep our focus on you, Jesus, and the incredible possibilities that are ahead, because of all you have done and will do by your Spirit to the glory of the Father. Amen.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” Acts 2:1-4 (5-21) NASB
“O LORD, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all; | The earth is full of Your possessions. … You hide Your face, they are dismayed; You take away their spirit, they expire | And return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; | And You renew the face of the ground.” Psalm 104:24, 29-30 NASB
A Heart of Compassion
By Linda Rex
August 2, 2020, PROPER 13—So many news reports today focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the related economic and unemployment troubles, as well as the ongoing racial tensions around this country. We have experienced powerful emotional responses to the news and social media coverage of these situations—fear, anger, frustration, sadness. It seems that we are being bombarded on all sides with every reason to lose hope and give ourselves over to fear and anxiety.
I have no doubt that this is encouraged and inspired by the father of lies who seeks only to kill, steal, and destroy. And whether we want to admit it or not, we are responsible for our choices to walk apart from the One who would gladly intervene to heal, restore, and help. Whether we like to hear it or not, blaming God for all this isn’t truthful, nor is it helpful. If anything, we need to believe that underneath all of our messy lives still lies the everlasting arms of a loving Savior.
It would be healing, I believe, to take the time to contemplate the manner of Savior we do have. If we had a God who understood what it means to suffer and grieve, and who cares about us, that would provide some comfort and encouragement when life gets tough. We read the testimony of witnesses in the Bible who say that the Word of God was sent to us, to live in our humanity and experience life as we do. This God/man Jesus Christ walked the dusty roads of Palestine, ate and drank with people from all walks of life, and bore the rejection and ridicule of those who should have welcomed him.
He had a relative named John, who was called by God to prepare the way for his coming. John preached in the wilderness, and baptized those who responded to his call to repent and be baptized. Jesus himself came to him to be baptized for the sake of all humanity, and John, under protest, did as Jesus asked. Later, John had the courage to speak the truth about the king’s immoral behavior, and ended up in prison.
Both men were obedient to the call of God on their lives. When Jesus heard that John had been beheaded by the king, he was profoundly impacted by the news. His heart was filled with compassion and grief for John, possibly some concern about his own path towards a tragic death, and he knew the only way he could deal with any of this was by taking it to his heavenly Father. He went to find a secluded place to spend time with his Abba.
But the people followed him. They were looking for a savior, a deliverer—someone to help them and heal them. When Jesus saw them, his heart went out to them. He was filled with compassion, and healed the sick people who came to him. Even though what he needed as a human was time alone with God to heal and prepare for his future, he took time to help those who sought him out. He ministered to others even though he desired to be ministered to by his Father.
In Jesus we see a deep compassion—an other-centered love which placed the needs of those around him above his own needs. Jesus knew the Source of his strength, wisdom, and power, and was wanting to be renewed and refreshed in his Father’s presence. But he also understood the cry of those about him who needed love, healing, and forgiveness. He knew this was the Father’s heart that he was expressing toward them. Every act of healing and love came straight from his Father’s hands by the Spirit to those who were in need.
As the day drew to a close, the disciples came to Jesus and suggested that he send the people away so they could get food before the shops in the distant towns were closed for the day. Jesus challenged his disciples by telling them, “You give them something to eat.” No doubt their jaws dropped in surprise. “You can’t be serious, Jesus!” Right away they began explaining their limitations—there was no way they could feed over five thousand people!
So often this is my own response to that twinge in my heart which calls me to help someone! Here the disciples couldn’t see any way to do what was needed in the situation—they only had five loaves of bread and two fish. How far could that go? It wouldn’t even feed the disciples themselves. Why would Jesus ask them to do something they could not realistically do? What was he thinking?
What Jesus did next is instructive to us as his followers. He took the little that was available and lifted it up to his Father in prayer. Jesus knew from personal experience that what little he had, when given to the Father, would be more than what was needed in the situation. Hadn’t he experienced this that very day, when he had sought time alone with the Father to regain his spiritual strength and peace, and found himself doing ministry instead? And hadn’t his Father been faithful to carry him through as he needed the presence and power of the Spirit to do ministry?
So Jesus lifted up the fish and bread to his Father and blessed them. Then he gave them to the disciples, who then gave them to the crowd of people. Jesus was not directly involved in this miracle—he left the grunt work to the disciples. It was as they distributed the bread and fish that it was multiplied to the point that everyone ate and was satisfied. Remarkably, there was so much food left over, that each of the twelve disciples picked up a basketful of the remnants of the meal when everyone was done eating.
What happened when Jesus offered the little that the disciples had to his Father? It was multiplied to meet the present need. This was a lesson that they needed to learn—to trust God for all that they needed in order to serve those they were sent to.
Maybe today would be a good time to pause and consider, what have we been anxious and concerned about lately? Is there anything we feel totally inadequate to deal with or to take care of? What are we lacking that we know we cannot provide for ourselves? Is there some ministry task Jesus has given us that we believe we cannot do because we think we don’t have what is needed to do it?
The reality is that so often we depend upon ourselves, or others, or money or our government for what we need. This life is filled with experiences and circumstances where we cannot do for ourselves or for others what is needed. This means life so often can be fearful, frustrating, infuriating, and full of anxiety, sorrow and grief.
What we need to remember is the compassion and understanding of the God who made us, who is willing to do for us what we cannot do. He is the God who can stretch things way beyond the limits we think they have. He can also help us to see things in a new way and discover that what we thought we needed isn’t what is really important—he may have something much better in mind.
Our Abba is the compassionate One who is Healer, Restorer, and Provider. Relying upon ourselves places us in the middle of the wilderness with only a bit of fish and bread to take care of our needs. What God wants us to do is to offer all that we do have up to him, and then to take it and do those things he would have us do with what we are given. Then as we trust, as we walk in obedience, he will ensure we have everything we need and maybe even more than we can ask or imagine.
Thank you, Father, for your faithfulness, love, and grace. We offer ourselves again, all we are and all we have up to you. Please stretch it, replenish it, renew it—make it abundantly sufficient for all you give us to do. Grant us the grace to trust you, to walk in obedience to your Spirit, and to express your heart of compassion to each and every person you bring before us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; |And you who have no money come, buy and eat. | Come, buy wine and milk | Without money and without cost. | Why do you spend money for what is not bread, | And your wages for what does not satisfy? | Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, | And delight yourself in abundance.” Isaiah 55:1-2 NASB
See also Matthew 14:13–21.
Taking the Lower Place
By Linda Rex
September 1, 2019, Proper 17—A while back my ministry team and I were invited to attend the 150th anniversary banquet of the Stones River Missionary Baptist Association from whom we rent our church building. My outreach ministry leader, Pat Brazier, and I attended this event as a gesture of gratitude and goodwill toward the association and its members.
As we entered the building, I was hoping we could find a table at the back which would not be conspicuous. I tend to be shy at large gatherings like this, especially if I don’t know anyone—I describe myself as an extroverted introvert. I prefer to hide rather than open myself up when there are a lot of people around me in a room whom I don’t know.
On this occasion, though, I could not have my wish of anonymity. Even though we were the only people there of white skin, the harmony of God’s Spirit made us one with these brothers and sisters in Christ. Pat and I were escorted to the front of the room to a special table reserved for guest pastors. We ended up seated across from Tennessee Senator Brenda Gilmore and two other pastors and their wives. It was a wonderful, inspiring experience for Pat and me.
During the event, I learned a lot of things I did not know about this group of fellow believers and their journey with Jesus. And I learned some things about myself as well. I experienced what it meant to be faced with challenges to my beliefs, preferences, and opinions. Whatever hidden prejudices I have, they were also brought a little closer to the light, as such encounters often expose those things we try, consciously or unconsciously, to keep in the dark.
Our interactions with other human beings are the place where the Holy Spirit does its greatest work, bringing us face to face with others and by doing so bringing us face to face with ourselves and Jesus. It is in relationship with others that the Spirit works to transform hearts and minds, specifically in teaching us about the Father’s love for us in Christ expressed in our love for one another. We are broken human beings, often due to significant relationships which have demonstrated to us and taught us everything but God’s love. Our way of doing things is often the exact opposite to the way God does things, and our broken world with its broken people clearly shows the result of trying to do it our way instead of his.
One of the greatest struggles as human beings sometimes is this whole question of self-exaltation and humility. We live in metropolitan Nashville, a place where musicians and singers come when they want to make their mark in the music world. Often I talk with people who tell me they moved to Nashville from somewhere else in America and when I ask why they moved here, they tell me they wanted to get a job in the music industry and maybe even to be a star. Almost every one of these people is not working in the music industry today but in some other job entirely unrelated to it.
Were they wrong in coming to Nashville and seeking to make their mark? I doubt very much that any of these people were seeking self-exaltation. I’m more inclined to believe most of them were seeking self-expression, to obtain some personal significance, worth, and value through their music. I imagine they wanted to do what they loved and make a living at it. The real world often stands in the way of people being able to achieve their dreams in this way.
The issue, I believe, is not in the desire to take one’s talent, abilities, and gifts and use them to their fullest expression. In God’s kingdom life, we receive all of these things as gifts from God and pour them back out to him in gratitude and in the service of others. We are meant to shine with the glory God has given us as his adopted children and if that includes our musical gift, then it is meant to be fully expressed as God guides and provides us with the opportunities.
The problem seems to be more in what our motive is and why we do what we do. Christian musicians and pastors can very easily care more about their popularity, prosperity, and getting noticed than how they go about being a follower of Jesus Christ. Even while they are up in front of the audience talking about Jesus and his ways, they may be drawing their worth and value from the applause and approval of others rather than resting confidently in the grace and love of their Abba. We are broken human beings—we do these things, whether we are willing to admit it or not.
In Jesus Christ we see exemplified the epitome of humility. The One who was the Word, who had all power, glory, and honor, set the privileges of his divinity temporarily aside to take on our humanity. He who lived in inapproachable light joined us in our darkness, in the tiniest cells in Mary’s womb, so that we could be lifted up from our abasement and drawn up into the Triune life and love.
Jesus told his followers that when they were invited to a banquet, they were not to take the prominent seats, but to sit in the lower places and to allow themselves to be moved up by the host. Jesus did not seek his own exaltation, but sought the exaltation of humanity. When challenged in the wilderness by Satan, he rejected his offer to give him ultimate human power and rule. He refused to stop identifying with us as broken human beings and serving us by offering his life for us in our place and on our behalf.
There is no place low enough that Jesus was not willing to enter. Even though the most shameful death for someone in Christ’s day was to be crucified, Jesus intentionally walked toward the cross throughout his ministry. It was not beneath him to enter the realm of the dead nor to become sin for us. His whole purpose was in lifting us up, not in promoting himself.
The kingdom value of true humility as exemplified in Jesus is countercultural. It opposes everything our culture and society work toward. It stands in stark opposition to any leader who promotes himself as being a messiah or savior to his people or someone to be revered. It resists the human pull to self-promotion, arrogance, and pride which often afflicts those in the public eye.
To follow this value of humility is to open up oneself to crucifixion, to being negated, harmed or destroyed. And yet, when we seek the way of true humility, we find that our relationships begin to be healed, our life moves away from darkness into greater and greater light. Leaders who are truly humble and seek to serve those under them rather than manipulate, control, or manage them create a healthier community which more closely resembles God’s kingdom life.
But being humble exacts a price. The price we must pay to be truly humble is to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his sufferings. In this life we may never experience our exaltation, but we can trust in the exaltation of Jesus. We will be exalted in his presence as the adopted children of Abba, fully glorified and reigning with him forever—this is our hope and expectation as we walk in humility before him. In the meantime, our challenge is to live counterculturally in in a world which venerates self-exaltation, self-promotion, and self-interest, by participating with Jesus in his true humility.
Thank you, Jesus, for demonstrating so wonderfully the grace of true humility. Abba, please grow this in us by your Spirit, enabling us to participate fully in your humble nature. Give our human leaders hearts and minds which are truly humble. If they are stubbornly resistant to your humility, may you take them through the consuming fire of your love and grace that they may learn humble servants. We are grateful that you are the true Lord of all and have included us in your life and love in and through Jesus. Amen.
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11 NASB
Rejected, but Beloved
By Linda Rex
Creative people such as writers, songwriters, and artists will most likely at some point experience the painful reality of rejection or dismissal of their creative efforts. Sadly, many a gifted person has walked away from pursuing a career in a particular field because a significant person or instructor has rejected or harshly criticized what they have offered.
I remember as a youth I had loved to write little stories and poetry. I thought maybe I might like to be an author someday, but my writing always seemed inadequate and trite. When I first went to college I turned in a paper for an American literature course. The teacher gave me a C, which was a new experience for an A student. I finally got up the courage to ask her why she gave me such a low grade on what I thought was a good paper. She proceeded to annihilate all my efforts at writing. If I had been emotionally healthier, I believe I might have handled her criticism better, but as it was, it took me a long time before I allowed someone else to read or critique my creative writing.
I realize today rejection is a part of our human experience. None of us like it, especially when we have become hypersensitive due to attachment wounds. Rejection can feel very much like a death, because it penetrates down to the core of who we believe we are. We can allow fear of rejection to hamper us and tie us down, even to the place we are immobilized by it in the very areas we are the most gifted.
Rejection is not something we are alone in experiencing, though. Throughout the centuries, our loving God has experienced the rejection of his chosen people, and the rejection of the creatures he created in his own image after his likeness.
I would say in many ways our experience of rejection, whatever it may be, is a sharing in the rejection God has experienced since the first rejection of Adam and Eve. They chose to turn away from him and trust in their own ability to determine what is right and wrong rather than embracing his gift of the tree of life in relationship with him.
If we were to accept our common experience of rejection, we might find ourselves better able to handle rejection when it happens to us. We can be compassionate when it happens to another person, and more thoughtful before rejecting someone else. And if anything, it ought to at least make us sympathetic enough to reconsider our own personal response to God’s personal offer of love and grace to us.
Truly, we are each put in the place of having to make a decision when we encounter Jesus Christ. When we come face to face with the living Lord, we must embrace him or reject him—he does not give us any middle ground.
The story in the Christian calendar which is normally told on December 28th involves the encounter of the wise men from the east with the newly born Messiah. In this story, we see two completely different responses to Jesus Christ’s arrival. The correct response is illustrated by the wise men following the lead of the Spirit and the light of a star, seeking out the Christ child, and upon finding him, worshiping him and offering him gifts. This is the best response any of us can give when we come face to face with the truth of God’s love and presence in the person of Jesus Christ.
The other hell-bent response is illustrated by King Herod. Yes, he sought to know where the Christ child was, ostensibly to worship him, but in reality, for the sole purpose of destroying him and preventing him from fulfilling his purpose for coming into the world. King Herod wasn’t satisfied with ignorance of Jesus’ location, No, his rejection of the Messiah went so far as to include massacring all the boy babies in Bethlehem.
The rejection of the Messiah by King Herod is only the beginning of the many ways in which Jesus was rejected during his lifetime on earth. Though he “grew up healthy and strong” and “he was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him” as a human boy (Luke 2:40), we find out later by some of his people he was considered an illegitimate child only worthy of contempt (John 8:41).
Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus either embraced or rejected by the people he encountered. Indeed, the ones we expect to see him welcomed by are the ones who actually opposed him. Sitting at his feet were the lost, the least, and those rejected by the religious leaders. Those same leaders rejected Jesus’ person and ministry, even though he demonstrated by miracle and acts of love he was the Messiah, the Son of God in person.
Toward the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus began to push the buttons of these leaders. He brought them face to face with the sinfulness of their hearts, and exposed the evil motives which drove them. He brought them to judgment, to krisis, to a place where they would have to choose. He sought to bring them to repentance and faith—but he knew they would not make that choice. He knew the Jewish leaders would reject him, and he warned his disciples this would happen.
We are reminded on Palm Sunday how the crowds welcomed Jesus with joy, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem. And then on Good Friday we are reminded anew of the real extent of all of humanity’s rejection of the Savior of the world as Jesus died at our hands in the crucifixion. It is not enough that Judas Iscariot betrayed him, but then Peter his close companion denied him. You and I stand there in each moment of rejection, betrayal, and denial, and we find ourselves betraying, denying, and crucifying Christ Jesus ourselves.
This should not create an oppressive sorrow, but rather the deep sorrow of repentance which is overwhelmed by the joy of renewal and forgiveness in the resurrection. This rejected One took your place and mine and in our stead gave us new life—the acceptance and embrace of our heavenly Abba.
Jesus Christ, the rejected One, does not reject us—he saves us! Abba, the Father we turned our backs on and rejected, receives us in his Son Jesus Christ—we are accepted in the Beloved. The Spirit is sent to us so we can participate fully in the divine perichoretic relationship of love and grace.
We find in Christ, the rejected One, a unity with God and with one another which would not otherwise exist. In Jesus Christ by the Spirit we find the capacity to forgive those who reject us, and the ability to embrace those we would normally reject.
The beauty of the Triune life in each Person’s unique relationship, equality, and unity begins to be expressed in our relationships with God and one another as we turn to Christ and receive the gift of the Spirit he gives us. This time of year, as we ponder the loss of so many innocent lives both then and now, we are comforted by the gift God gave us in his Son Jesus Christ. As we receive this precious gift and open ourselves up to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, we will find we are not rejected, but beloved and held forever in the Triune embrace of love and grace, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Dearest Abba, thank you for your infinite patience, compassion, and grace toward us in spite of our rejection of you and our refusal to humble ourselves to accept your love as obedient children. Grant us repentance and faith—a simple trust in your perfect love and grace—a turning away from ourselves and a turning toward your Son Jesus, and an opening up of all of ourselves to you and the work of your Spirit of truth. May we walk in love and grace towards one another in Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11 NLT
Back to the Who of Jesus
by Linda Rex
One of the hazards of being a pastor, I am learning, is receiving emails from concerned people who diligently attempt to correct what I believe and teach. For the most part, the emails I have received from these people directly contradict sound theology and attempt to persuade me to believe some esoteric prophecy about the end of the world coming at a particular time in the near future. And of course, none of these things have happened as predicted in these emails.
I received one of these emails recently in which the author boldly declared a new prediction of upcoming events in the light of what occurred with the ministry and death of Herbert Armstrong. I won’t go into what he believes or predicts because it is not worth your time or mine to review it, but I was struck by his statement that with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Jesus is no longer the Son of Man, but is today only the Son of God.
I’m sorry to hear he believes this. It is a useful belief for him, because in his predictions, saying the Son of Man is Jesus would contradict what he believes. It does away with what he believes is going to happen in the future. Apparently, it seems to me, it is inconvenient for him to believe the risen Jesus Christ is today, both the Son of God and the Son of Man.
Personally, I feel it is very important we understand who Jesus Christ is. Understanding who he is as the Son of God and the Son of Man establishes a basis for our belief in God and who he is, and what he is doing in the world today and will do in the future. If we do not grasp who Jesus is as the God/man who delivered us from sin and death, how can we understand ourselves and who we are? How can we understand who God is, and how much he loves us and desires to have a relationship with us?
Believe me, I cannot be critical of anyone who sees this whole thing differently from me. There was a time in my life when I had no clue of the significance of Jesus being both the Son of God and the Son of Man. I don’t think I even knew what this meant. I had no idea of the fundamental nature of this belief, much less how the early church came, by the Spirit’s direction, to establish the boundaries around this doctrine.
For this reason I am very grateful for my classes at Grace Communion Seminary on the history of the church since the time of Christ. So much I had been taught as I grew up in Worldwide Church of God was not true, or at the least, very misguided. The more I learned, the more I began to see how the Spirit worked to bring the church (and no, back then it was not the Roman Catholic Church or any other specific church. It was just the universal body of believers.) into a unified understanding of the nature of God and Jesus Christ, and the central core beliefs surrounding this truth.
In one of my textbooks, “What Christians Believe: A Biblical and Historical Summary” by Johnson and Webber, the authors quote a rule of faith which appeared at the same time in various parts of the Roman Empire toward the end of the second century. I’d like to quote it here:
“[We believe] in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father.” (p128, 129)
Even back then, while there were still people who were closely related to those who had known, heard and seen Christ, there was the understanding of the humanity of Jesus continuing on after his death into a glorified humanity. It was important to the body of believers to stress this because of the Gnostic heresy which was pressing in upon them.
The authors go on to say, “The rule of faith clearly affirmed an enfleshed God. Jesus Christ, it proclaimed, is no apparition, but a true human being who lived in the flesh, died in the flesh, and rose in the flesh. In this affirmation the church made a statement that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man.” (p. 129)
This, of course, was hammered out then in greater detail as the earlier church fathers met and began to clarify just what the incarnation of Jesus Christ involved, and what occurred before and after his crucifixion and resurrection. And fundamental to this discussion was, “Who is and was Jesus Christ?” The conclusions drawn from the Chalcedon council in 451 A.D. clarified the creed, and spoke of Jesus Christ as having two natures present in one person.
Of course, there has always been some debate as to the nature of Jesus’ person—how can someone be both God and man at the same time? What does this mean? Does he only have God’s will, or does he have a human will as well?
These are all great questions and worth consideration, but we need to consider some of these things pertain to the divine mystery of God’s transcendent being. Subsequent councils discussed and hashed out many things. There were disagreements and contradictions, and errors were made. At times, believers, especially those with more naturalistic or liberal interpretations, have drifted away from this fundamental belief about Who Jesus was.
In recent years, Karl Barth challenged these views and called the church back to an understanding of God being present in Jesus Christ in his human flesh, and in this way drawing all humanity up into true relationship in his resurrection and ascension. In spite of the Gnostic and other heresies which continue to raise their heads, there are believers today who hold to the understanding that Jesus was indeed God the Word present in human flesh, who both was and is God and man, and who has not ceased to be the Son of man now that he is risen from the dead.
I believe it was Athanasius who said, “The unassumed is the unhealed.” If Jesus did not and does not bear our humanity now, as he did then, then we as human beings have no hope. I agree with Johnson and Webber who write, “We stand in the historical tradition and affirm that our Savior was fully divine, for only God can save, and we affirm that our Savior is fully human, for only that which he became in the Incarnation is saved (salvation requires one who is fully man to represent us).” (p. 146)
I worship a God who is so holy and pure and just he is able to take on our humanity and transform it into something completely new. If he had and has the capacity to take on our humanity, to “be sin” on our behalf, he has the capacity to remove our sins and to make us new, uniting us with himself in his own being as Jesus Christ, the God/man. And as Jesus himself said, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matt. 19:6) Let’s not separate God from us as humanity, for he has joined himself to us forever in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Thank you, Father, for your great love, and your faithfulness in fulfilling your covenant with humanity and with Israel. Thank you that in Christ and by the Spirit, you took on our humanity and transformed it, and you have brought us up in Christ’s glorified humanity to participate in your divine life and love forever. Open our hearts and minds to fully grasp and receive the truth of your loving gift to us of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man, who lives forever in glory with you, and your precious Spirit, by whom you dwell in us. In your Name we pray, amen.
“You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.” 1 John 3:5 NASB
“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15 NASB
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21 NASB
“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” 1 John 3:2 NASB