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
By Linda Rex
July 12, 2020, PROPER 10—Incarnational Trinitarian theology is the basis of what we preach at Grace Communion Nashville. Our understanding of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ begins with seeing the truth Jesus taught us of how God lives eternally as three persons in one being. It is out of this communion of overflowing love God created all things, and specifically the human race to be image-bearers of him.
Knowing humans would turn away from face to face relationship with God, he determined before time began to send the living Word, the Son of God, to take on human flesh and bring us into inseparable union with the Father and Son in the Spirit. In the fullness of time, the Word came in the person of Jesus Christ, living our life, dying our death in the crucifixion, and rising from the grave. In the ascension, he brought our glorified humanity into the presence of the Father, and in sending the Spirit, offers this new life to each and every human being.
It is this point that so many have difficulty with. For in their minds, this is universalism. But the truth is that God gave each human being an amazing and beautiful gift when he created them—freedom—the freedom to love him or reject him, to obey him or rebel against him. This freedom that is a divine attribute is always meant to be kept within the bounds of divine love, but as human beings we have the capacity to move beyond those bounds into areas which are not a part of the light of life and which bring us into darkness.
When the seed, the living Word Jesus Christ, was planted in our humanity, we were given the capacity to participate in the divine life and love. The seed of the kingdom life has been planted in our humanity in that Christ’s objective union of humanity with the Triune God is a spiritual reality. And in the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh which Peter describes in Acts 2 we find that this new life is available to each and every person. In this way the seed, the living Word, has been sown all over the field in every part of it, no matter the condition of the ground or what may be growing there.
The reality is that Jesus, the living Word, is a seed which when planted has within itself the power for new life. There is an inherent fruitfulness in the Spirit as he comes to us to germinate the seed of the Word of God which is to be planted in human hearts. The issue with failing to bear fruit is not a problem with the seed, for in Christ and in the Spirit is life everlasting. The issue is with our human response to the living Word of God, the growing conditions in which the seed is placed and is germinated.
Our failure to respond properly does not earn us some divine retribution in the parable of the sower, but rather creates consequences which impact our participation in the divine life and love and our bearing of spiritual fruit. What we learn in this parable is that our response to the living Word impacts whether or not we experience the joys and benefits of the kingdom of God and how much spiritual fruit we produce.
The four different responses to the planting of the seed embrace the whole human race. On God’s side, he has been very generous with the planting of the Word of God, having made this new life available to every human being. On our side, we can live our life in a variety of ways, each of which produces a different result, but which is the consequence of our own personal free choice as to what we do with Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God he offers us.
Jesus began this parable with the seed sown by the side of the road. This seed which has such potential for fruitfulness lays on top of the well-trod ground and the birds eat it up. The living Word speaks to us by the Spirit and calls us to himself, but there are may other voices in this world which speak more loudly to us—our family, our friends, our culture, our religion, our government, our suffering. The pains and twistings from our past may also inhibit our ability to hear the Word and respond in faith. And so the seed can never produce the fruit it is meant to, since it never is able to germinate fully.
What we know today is that birds eating and expelling seeds is one way they are carried from place to place and are given the opportunity for sprouting in a new location. We may find that it is after many encounters with Christ over our lifetime, when previously the evil one stole away the seed which was being planted in our hearts, that eventually the seed lands in a place where it can begin to grow. As long as the seed is taken way by the lies, distortions, and confusion of the evil one, it cannot bear the fruit it was meant to bear. It needs fertile ground to sink its roots deeply into in order to grow.
Jesus then talked about seed sown on rocky soil—seed which sprouts but has nowhere for its roots to go. When the sun comes out, its roots are exposed and quickly dry up. In our modern world, the proclamation of the gospel reaches into nearly every corner of the world. The announcement that God loves us and this has been expressed to us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension can be heard in a wide variety of ways and media. The living Word may be experienced by people in a meal, a casual conversation, a good deed, or a radio program. People may experience Christ in the beauty of God’s creation, hearing the whispers of the Spirit telling them the truth about who they are and who God is.
There are many ways in which Jesus touches people with the truth that he loves them and wants them to trust in him, to live life in intimate relationship with him. But this good news doesn’t really penetrate deeply into their hearts. Like seed on a rocky soil, even the watering of the Spirit cannot get the roots down any farther than the surface, for the hardest heart has no room for the love and grace of God in Christ. There is no living space available for the indwelling Spirit to settle down into. When difficulties or troubles come, the Word is abandoned for other solutions or addictions and so it cannot bear fruit.
Seed which grew among thorns was next on Jesus’ list. Perhaps last year’s thistles weren’t dug completely up and started growing about the same time as the seed. Here Jesus points out how the worries of everyday life and the subtle deceitfulness of wealth choke the living Word so that no fruit is born. Note that the seed has germinated and is attempting to produce fruit. But there are other things which wrap themselves around the new life and prohibit its ability to flower and produce fruit.
Pay attention to the reality that the living Word is the seed which is fruitful—our problem is with the environment the seed is set in, not the seed itself. The seed when planted, grows and produces fruit. Unfortunately, though, when we embrace Christ, we often embrace other things as well. We draw our life from the temporary things of this life rather than finding our real life solely in Jesus Christ himself.
One of the reasons we as the western Christian church today are so ineffective as spiritual fruit bearers may be because of our obsession with financial and material success. The opportunity for us to bear spiritual fruit is inhibited so often by the many distractions of modern life and our concerns about things we should be turning to Jesus with rather than trying to solve ourselves. And our comfort and safety tend to become more important than the need to right injustices and endure hardship for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus finishes his parable with a description of the seed which falls on good soil—the seed finding root in a person who allows the Word of God to sink deeply into their soul, the roots to penetrate every part of their life. They understand and are being transformed by this gift of new life in Christ. The fruit which is born is unique to each person, since we are each unique in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and in how we participate in him in what he is doing in us and in our world. Fruitfulness is not something we do, but is solely a result of our life in Jesus by the Spirit—his life in us produces fruit as we abide in him.
The spiritual reality of the gift of new life in Jesus Christ, the one who is the seed planted within our humanity germinated by the water of the indwelling Spirit, is one we embrace by faith. Our part in the whole process of fruit-bearing (and the Father is seeking such fruitfulness) is participating in Jesus Christ—trusting in his finished work, participating with him in what he is doing in us and in this world as we walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh. By faith in Christ, this is life in communion and union with the Triune God as the adopted children of the Father, now and forever held in his life and love.
If we were to reflect today on the living Word of God as the seed planted, watered by the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, what spiritual fruit would we see in our lives? How well are the roots of the living Word sunk into every part of our life and being? How well are we nurturing the spiritual growth which is occurring in our life? Is there anything which is choking the Word or distracting us from what he is trying to do? Be encouraged—the seed will grow, fruit will be born. But it’s good to ask ourselves each day, how well are we participating in the process?
Dear God, thank you for the Seed you have planted in our humanity, the new life which is ours in your Son Jesus Christ. Create in us the fertile ground by which we might grow fully into Christlikeness. Grant us the grace to turn away from all the things which distract us, choke our spiritual life, and inhibit our bearing of spiritual fruit. We thank you that you will finish what you have begun in us through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“That day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. And large crowds gathered to Him, so He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd was standing on the beach. And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, ‘Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.’” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 NASB
By Linda Rex
Outside the house next to our patio door sit two flower pots. Last summer we moved some tiger lilies out of a flowerbed and into these pots because the local mole had decided he had a hankering for flower bulbs and managed to eliminate most of them we had planted earlier in the year.
Even though we planted the tiger lily bulbs in the flowerpots, we assumed they were too far gone to even come up. But this spring they began to grow and after quite some time they put on buds. We were delighted when the bright orange blossoms opened fully—they are quite stunning when in full bloom.
In comparison with a tiger lily, the bloom of an avocado tree is quite tiny and unimpressive. If one were to look at an avocado flower, one would have to get up really close in order to even see it. It has six tiny white or green petals surrounding an intricate white and yellow center. And yet, when the flower has done its work properly, it produces a seed the size of a walnut enclosed within a thick layer which we consume as fruit. The entire avocado can be bigger than the size of a human fist—a far cry from the tiny flower it came from.
The size and beauty of a flower may be large and glorious, but this is not what determines what type of fruit it produces. Nor does it determine whether or not it produces fruit which matures in such a way as to produce seeds. Some flowers produce fruit which is seedless—a natural process which botanists and producers have taken advantage of in order to provide us with such produce as seedless grapes and seedless watermelons.
Plants come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the “fruit”—this word includes nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Fruit from a plant may mature beyond the state any of us would be willing to consume, but for many plants, this is what is necessary for the seed to fully ripen so when it is put in the ground it will produce a new plant. We often consume what is produced before it is fully mature—corn on the cob is a good example of this. In order to plant corn, the corn kernel has to ripen completely and then dry—only then is it mature enough to be used as seed for planting. But dried corn kernels are quite hard to chew and they’re not very tasty either.
A lot of what I’ve shared here is common knowledge for a farmer, botanist, or master gardener. They understand the process by which a plant reproduces and how to work with seeds, plants, and flowers to produce the best crop possible. It is interesting that Jesus, our Master Gardener, often used the process of planting, growing, and harvesting crops in order to talk about himself and the kingdom of God.
In one parable, Jesus used seed to represent the Word of God. He was explaining the different ways in which the Word of God was planted and the results of each scenario:
“Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” Luke 8:11-15 NASB
It seems that the problem with producing quality fruit lies not with the seed, but with the soil it lands on. The Word of God always produces a result—it is fruitful—there’s no doubt about that. But the ground which receives the seed can be harsh and unreceptive, or provide little room for the roots to grow, or be so filled with weeds that a new plant can’t grow and thrive.
If we were to consider this parable for a bit, we might see that the point of putting the seed in the ground is not just to have pretty flowers. Flowerbeds are lovely and I personally enjoy a garden filled with colorful blooms. But this was not the point of this parable—the focus is on the seed and what the seed was to produce—more seed. This means each seed needs to produce a plant which will grow to the place it flowers, it produces fruit, and the fruit matures to the point that it produces seed.
Seeds come in all shapes and sizes, and travel all over by a variety of means. Seeds are not meant to stay on the plant, but to be spread to new places. We experience the reality of this when we find oak trees growing in our pansy bed or an apple tree coming up in the vegetable garden.
When we hear the Word of God—the good news of God’s love for us expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ, it is meant to take root in our hearts by faith. The Word of God, the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, works transform our hearts and lives. We open ourselves up to the work of the Spirit in our walk of faith and begin to mature as followers of Jesus Christ. Our lives begin to reflect the Word of God at work within us. Like beautiful blossoms on a plant, we glow with the glory God created us to bear—the image of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This flowering is not the end of the story though. We are meant to go even farther and mature into seed-bearing plants. Our lives and words are to be a testimony to Christ. In other words, the life-giving Word is carried to new places and planted in new ground—new hearts—because we have become mature seed-bearing plants. Jesus said as we go, we are to make disciples. Making disciples, sharing the Word of God with others, is to be a natural by-product of our spiritual growing up in Christ.
The environment in which the Word of God exists within us is critical in this process. Do we allow ourselves to be deceived by a word other than that which given to us in Jesus Christ? Do we allow ourselves to be tempted by other things which supplant the Word of God? Do we allow ourselves to be so absorbed in the cares and pleasures of this life that we suffocate the Word of God? All of these are ways in which we disrupt or hinder the process of spiritual growth God meant for us to participate in.
The healthier alternative is to receive the Word with an “honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” The Word of God sinks deep roots in the soil of our heart as we practice spiritual disciplines which open us up to the work of the Spirit within us. The Word of God can transform our lives and hearts as we obey the Spirit’s inner prompting to put away our idols and distractions and focus wholly on Christ. We make space for God to work by making sure we are not preoccupied with the cares and pleasures of this life.
And we are not satisfied with just the external trappings of spiritual growth. It’s easy to look as though we are a stunning example of spiritual maturity. But the proof is when what God has done and is doing in us is duplicated in the lives of those around us. When the Word of God begins spreading into the hearts and lives of those around us, then we know we are being fruitful, and that God’s Word is living and active, taking root in many new hearts and lives.
Thank you, Lord, for planting your Word in our hearts. By faith, may we allow your Word to grow and develop, transforming our hearts and lives in such a way that your Word may be planted anew in others hearts and lives as well. May we be productive plants for your glory, through Jesus our Lord and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Luke 8:14 NRSV