Clearing the Way for Fruit
By Linda Rex
March 20, 2022, 3rd Sunday in LENT—Today our neighbor is having her fence replaced. One of the blessings that came with it was the removal of a small tree next to our shed which had been holding up her fence. It is amazing how the removal of this one misplaced tree enabled us to clean up some things next to the shed we hadn’t been able to reach, while at the same time facilitated the installation of something new which our neighbor was needing done.
As I was studying the readings for this Sunday, I was struck with how this little event in my day coincided with the Word of God for today. The gospel reading tells us about people coming to Jesus with a couple of stories of how several people lost their lives—some in a Roman bloodbath within the temple grounds, and some when a tower fell on them. The common thought of the day was that if something bad like this happened to you, it was because you were a horrific sinner and you were getting what you deserved.
Jesus told them that this wasn’t the case at all—that’s not how his Father works. Instead of worrying about the spiritual condition of the people who died in these events, Jesus’ listeners were admonished to consider their own spiritual condition. He pointed out that they needed to be sure they were right with God themselves rather than focusing on the sinfulness of others.
Isn’t this typical of us, though? I remember years ago when God woke me up to the reality that I needed to quit focusing on the faults of my spouse and others, and start looking at my own issues. You and I are unable to change another person or fix them. The only person we have any control over is ourself, and there is extreme doubt that we can even regulate ourself—we are utterly dependent upon God making us what we need to be by his Holy Spirit. For that reason, we need to do what Jesus was telling these people here to do—repent. We need to experience a change of mind and heart as well as action—a turning away from ourselves to Christ in faith.
After reminding his listeners of their need to repent, Jesus told a story about a vineyard owner who had a fig tree that, after three years, still hadn’t borne any fruit. The owner told the vineyard keeper to cut it away, removing it because it was occupying space needed for production. It was hindering the growth of everything else by blocking the sun, and was taking up resources that were needed for the other plants and trees to be fruitful. The vineyard keeper, like Christ did for all of us by the way, interceded on behalf of the fig tree. He said he would dig around the tree, fertilize it and give it another year to see if it would finally bear fruit.
The point is, there are things in our lives which may simply not be fruit-bearing. Sometimes the things we believe about God or ourselves are inaccurate, misplaced, or even toxic, and they need to be removed so that healthier patterns and beliefs may take their place, and we may begin to bear spiritual fruit. Sometimes the issues may be so small and seemingly insignificant, we miss them, and don’t realize they are symptomatic of some bigger issues—things we need to face up to and repent of so that God can bring us to a healthier, more wholesome way of living and being.
Sometimes the way we read the written Word of God is part of the problem. We may need to go a little deeper in our own personal study of God’s Word rather than just going by what other people say about it. Let me give a couple of examples, drawn from the readings for this Sunday.
First, we read in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 about how God in Christ walked with the nation of Israel through the wilderness, being the spiritual rock from which they drank and drew their life. When someone is, like I am now, going through a time of intense trial and difficulty, people have a tendency to say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” They believe they are quoting 1 Corinthians 10:13, when it actually says: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (NASB). If you look at the context of this verse, you will find that the apostle Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about difficult times or trials. Jesus is the way of escape from temptations to sin, and he taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13).
A kinder, better statement for someone going through tough times, I believe, is that Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He may not keep us from the flames of fire, but like he did with Daniel’s three friends, he will stay with us in the midst of those flames and carry us through to the other side (Dan. 3). We can be truthful with the text at the same time we are compassionate with the person who is hurting, thereby avoiding toxicity and unhealthy spirituality.
Another passage in the readings for today which leapt out at me is Isaiah 55:6–9. When we are faced with difficult or confusing situations or hard times, I often hear people quote verse 9, pointing out that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
I’m all for God being way beyond anything I could be as a human. But the context of this particular passage is about grace. It’s a call to repentance, to turn back to God. It’s about God not looking at sinful people the way that we look at them, or the way we look at ourselves and God when we fail to live the way we know we ought to. God is offering his grace, his mercy, if only we would just turn away from ourself and turn back to him.
Just like the people Jesus was talking to in the gospel passage for this Sunday, we often get focused away from where God would like our focus to be—turning away from ourself and turning to Christ in faith. I’ve been thinking about why we go to church—is it so that we can get a free meal, or help with our bills, or so that we can feel better about ourselves? Or is it part of a personal relationship with the God who has called us to himself in Christ by the Spirit and is wanting us to be a part of what he is doing in the world? Yes, we need to experience God’s love through the good deeds done for us, but shouldn’t we be going beyond that to sharing God’s love with others, once we have experienced the profound goodness and mercy of God?
God is so incredibly patient and generous with us. He continues to bury us with Christ that we might once again rise with him to new life. Christ was willing to be the fertilizer in the ground, placed in the earth so that we might be given the ability to produce lasting spiritual fruit. He offers himself to us, inviting us to turn from ourselves and to turn to him in faith, allowing him produce spiritual fruit in us by the Holy Spirit, as we open up to One who is the Light of the world. May we respond to him in faith, trusting he will finish what he has begun in us.
Thank you, Father, for not cutting us out, but allowing your Son and your Spirit to intercede for us, drawing us deeper into life with you. Grant us the grace to ever turn to you in faith, trusting in your faithful love and mercy, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ And He began telling this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” And he answered and said to him, “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.” ’ ” Luke 13:1–9 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/clearing-the-way-for-fruit.pdf%5D
An Opportune Time
By Linda Rex
March 6, 2022, 1st Sunday in LENT—This morning I was reading about the conflict currently going on between the nations of Russia and Ukraine. There seems to be a variety of opinions on why this conflict is happening and what the motives are behind it. But I have yet to see anyone say that the conflict is a result of our natural human tendency to desire what is not ours and to raise ourselves above others, while subjugating them to our will—a biblical worldview regarding conflict (James 4:1–4).
While it’s easy to play the blame game when talking about conflict and war, the reality is that we often point out human failings while ignoring the underlying spirit of conflict which has its roots in the evil one. Satan is constantly at work creating suspicion and mistrust between people and groups, causing division and conflict. He is masterful at destroying fellowship and community. Often, we see him at work, not realizing we ourselves may be participating in his work of destruction and death by our own human tendency toward envy, greed, selfishness, pride, and unforgiveness.
This Sunday’s reading in the gospels tells how Jesus came away from his baptism experience filled with the Spirit, but then was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the evil one. In Luke’s account, Jesus was tempted in a variety of ways—a summary of the temptations we experience as human beings—and yet he did not sin. Drawing upon the word of God as written in the book of Deuteronomy, he countered every temptation, until Satan finally left him. But then, Luke adds—“until an opportune time”.
What Luke is pointing out is that even though Jesus emerged triumphant from this great spiritual battle, Satan was not yet done. He continued to seek out opportunities to trick Jesus into sinning—to tempt him to turn away from his purposeful journey towards the crucifixion and resurrection. The evil one knew what was at stake, and did his best to trip our Savior up as he made the challenging journey to the cross.
One example of this is the conversation Jesus had with Peter regarding his identity as the Messiah. Peter understood Jesus was the Messiah, but when Jesus started describing what he as the Messiah would have to go through—rejection, arrest, abuse and death—Peter’s concern as a friend and disciple got in the way. He told Jesus that he was wrong—these things wouldn’t happen. And Jesus rebuked him strongly by saying, “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus understood the true source of this conflict. Peter was merely a participant who had his mind on human things instead on what mattered most to God (Mark 8:29–33).
This is a good example of how Satan watches for opportune moments to bring about his agenda of discord, division, destruction and death. It’s not always obvious at first glance. Many times, it is hidden underneath the guise of what seems to be good, comfortable or pleasant. This is why we are so often reminded in the scriptures to be on the alert. Peter knew firsthand how important this is and wrote in 1 Peter 5:8–9: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world” (NASB).
Some of the opportune moments we give the evil one are moments of unresolved anger. The apostle Paul reminds us not to allow angry disagreements to go on and on without working them out. He wrote, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity” (Ephesians 4:26–27 NASB). It’s not wrong to be angry. Anger shows that a violation of some kind has occurred and needs to be addressed in a healthy way. There needs to be reconciliation, forgiveness, repentance—whatever needs addressed in order to restore the relationship. But it needs to be addressed, and not allowed to fester. Allowing anger, resentment, and then bitterness to fester is what creates an opportunity for Satan to enter in and begin to create a whole mess of issues and broken relationships and destructive situations. He loves it when we participate with him in creating division and disruption in this way.
The apostle Paul reminded us that our conflicts are not so much against humans as they are against spiritual strongholds and authorities. He wrote that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” For that reason, he encouraged us to put on Christ—the armor God has given us to protect us against the wiles of the devil.
In Jesus, we see the armor Paul talks about in Ephesians 6:10–18 being forged as Jesus resisted Satan’s temptations. Jesus walked the path to the cross—the way of the gospel of peace—and would not be deterred even though he knew the pain and suffering involved. Jesus, as the living Word of God, drew upon the power of the Spirit and the written word of God to counter Satan’s arguments. As the Son of God, Jesus knew the Father intimately and trusted completely in his love and faithfulness, even as he experienced Satan’s attacks. And as God in human flesh, Jesus lived in right relationship with his Father, keeping his heart in faithful devotion to his Abba.
In the garden of Gethsemane, one last “opportune time” occurred when Satan sought to turn Jesus away from his commitment in the Spirit to his Father and to all of us as humanity. Jesus wrestled in agony against the strong pull to do what his human flesh and Satan desired. Today, as we walk through these wilderness days of the Lenten season with Jesus, we are reminded how masterfully Jesus struggled in our place and on our behalf in this battle over evil, sin, and death. Soon we will rehearse again the events of Holy Week, walking with Jesus down the road toward his final moments in Jerusalem, weeping with Mary and the disciples as he hung in agony on the cross and lay silently in the tomb, and rejoicing on that glorious resurrection morn, when Jesus rose triumphantly from the grave.
The joyous good news is, that even though the evil one does his best to create conflict, division, death and destruction, Jesus is still triumphant. He is Lord. There is nothing that will stand in the way of what Jesus determines he will do in a given situation. Yes, as long as we human beings still try to be in charge and run things our way, we will have conflict and war and human suffering. But when we turn to Christ and do things his way, then healing, restoration, and renewal can begin to be experienced in this life, and most certainly will be experienced forever in the new heavens and new earth.
As long as Satan is around, he will be looking for “an opportune time”. But we have a triumphant Lord. We put on his armor. We trust in the Father’s love and care. And we live and walk filled with the Spirit. This is where we take our stand: in Christ.
Thank you, heavenly Father, for your faithful love and your grace. Thank you, holy Jesus, for the battle you waged in our place and on our behalf against the evil one. And thank you, precious Spirit, for filling us and guarding our hearts and minds, in Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. And the devil said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live on bread alone.”’ And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, ‘I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.”’ And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here; for it is written, “He will command His angels concerning you to guard you,” and, “on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘It is said, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.” Luke 4:1–13 NASB
[A printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/02/an-opportune-time.pdf%5D
Lord of the Spirits
By Linda Rex
January 31, 2021, 4th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—There is a fascination nowadays with the spiritual. Stories, information, and related materials can be found in movies, books, anime and television shows. It seems as though, even in our information age, we are seeking for something beyond the physical, as though we sense there is more going on than what our reason tells us. We seek out the occult, the mystical, the mythological. But when I speak of spiritual things truly existing and that God or Jesus are real, people immediately take offense or ridicule the idea.
Sometimes I am told that Jesus is just some historical, mythical figure and he has no existence beyond this one. Even many Christians today believe that healing and other miracles no longer occur in the world. In all practicality, they are atheists, living as though God doesn’t really exist and if he does, that he doesn’t care. Indeed, how would one explain an encounter with the living Jesus when there are so many practical reasons not to believe it occurred? It is difficult to explain the way in which the things of the Spirit invade our human existence and genuinely alter it, and it is equally difficult to explain to someone else what it is like to encounter the living Lord. We each have to experience this for ourself.
The gospel of Mark describes how Christ during his ministry would follow the common Jewish practice of attending synagogue on the Sabbath. There the scrolls would be opened and read, and the scribes would expound as best as they could what the meaning was. Their interpretations were drawn from the many writings of the scribes and rabbis before them. They spoke of only that which they understood, and focused on the details of the law and all the meticulous rules these forebearers had established in an effort to keep these laws properly.
On this particular Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue at Capernaum and began to teach. He amazed the listeners because he spoke, not upon the authority of the those prior to him, but upon his own authority. It was as though inherent within himself was the authority to declare the meaning of the scriptures. He didn’t need someone else’s exposition of the Old Testament scriptures to inform him—he simply knew what the intent was and so he presented it. The implication here was that he knew the intent of the scriptures because he was the One who had given them to his people in the first place.
Jesus’ teaching that day was interrupted by a man who was under the control of a presence other than himself. This spirit, Mark explained, was “unclean” or “impure” or “evil”—it is translated in different ways. But the unclean spirit obviously did not have the man’s well-being in mind, but had completely supplanted the man’s will with its own evil will. The spirit in the man called out to Jesus, seeking to silence him by exposing who he was—the “Holy One of God.” He challenged the Lord, asking whether Jesus had come to destroy him and those like him.
It was significant that Jesus immediately silenced the evil spirit and told it to leave the man. Jesus was indeed beginning his warfare against the kingdom of evil, but not in the way which was expected of him. He did not want people to get in mind a wrong idea of what kind of Messiah had come to them. Nor did he need evil spirits to affirm who he was as the Son of God in human flesh. He was Lord over all these spirits, the evil and the good, for they were created by him and had to bow to his will and wishes at all times.
The obedience of the spirit to Jesus’ command astonished the crowd. Here was another way in which Jesus’ authority was made evident. He didn’t need fancy incantations and magical spells. He didn’t use the formulas the Jewish leaders used for exorcism. No, he had the power over the spiritual world as well as the physical world, so he simply commanded and it was done. This was an epiphany—a clear revelation of who Christ was as God in human flesh, the Lord over all his creation, of both the physical and spiritual realms. From this event in the synagogue the news spread out all over the area about Jesus and what he had done.
One of the hardest things for us as humans to accept is the reality that there are some things we just don’t have control over. Some may seek out the things of the spirit as a cry to be able to know something which can’t otherwise be known, to do what could not otherwise be done, or to control others or situations which are out of their control. They do not realize that when we seek the things of the spirit world apart from God that we will often end up enslaved, controlled by forces and spirits beyond ourselves which steal from us our ability to make our own decisions and choices, and in the end, drive us to self-destruction.
We also tend to give ourselves over to attitudes and behaviors which in many ways take control in the same way as the spirit described in this story. Sometimes we allow anger to dig deep roots in our soul, creating a bitterness that begins to affect everyone around us. Resentment and bitterness, and a desire for revenge, can so consume us that we in time we may lose all desire or ability to choose another option apart from God’s intervention on our behalf. There are many other desires that we have as human beings which when properly used within God’s limits are healthy and build us up, but when we give ourselves over to them, they in the end begin to consume us and to control every aspect of our lives, even removing from us our own ability to choose another way.
God does not deprive us of our will nor control it—even though he could—because he loves us and respects our personhood. Any other spirit than that of God will not treat us with this type of respect. This includes some humans, who seek to control our will and keep a tight reign on our every decision, forcing us to do what we do not wish to do. This is not God’s way of being, nor what he created us for. He does not force himself on us. He created us and redeemed us to be his dwelling place through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, to worship and serve him joyfully out of gratitude and love—voluntarily, simply because we desire to.
God through Jesus invites us into relationship with himself and offers himself to us in the Holy Spirit, allowing us to resist, reject, or silence him. He asks us to open ourselves up to him, to make ourselves available to him, to participate with him in what he is doing in the world, but he always leaves us free to say no. When a follower of Jesus speaks of surrender to God, or being filled with the Holy Spirit, they do not mean that they intend to lose their own ability to make decisions or to lose control of their own mind or body. Rather, they are saying that they are agreeing to God’s invitation to voluntarily give space for him to live within them and form them into what all of us were originally created to be—places where God dwells through Jesus in the Spirit so that we might be true image-bearers of Jesus Christ who both love God and love others as we love ourselves.
Mark tells us this story about Jesus so we can discover for ourselves who this teacher is. It is the Holy Spirit in us who enables us to see with spiritual eyes—to see beyond the words on the page and the historical figure of Jesus into the reality of who he is today as our living Lord. This is the beginning of Mark’s testimony that this person Jesus Christ was God in human flesh—the One who lived, died, and rose again, and who comes to us as the living Word in the Spirit. This living Lord Jesus Christ is not just a prophet or teacher, but One at whose word evil spirits are silenced, teachers are amazed, and people are healed. Invite Jesus to make himself real to you—to enable you to see him for who he really is. Seek him out, and he will, in time, enable you to find him. Then you will know, in that moment, that all I have said is true—there is a world beyond this world, and Jesus is Lord of both, and is just as alive today as he ever was, and best of all—he loves you.
Heavenly Father, thank you for the precious gift of your Spirit through your Son Jesus. May your Spirit open the eyes of our minds and hearts so that we may perceive the spiritual realities and come to know Jesus personally as he really is—the living Savior and Lord of all. May we freely give ourselves to you, God, that we may receive ourselves whole and complete through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in return. Amen.
“Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, ‘What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!’” Mark 1:23–25 NASB
See also Mark 1:21–22, 26–28; 1 Corinthians 8:1–13.
The Paradox in Leading Others
By Linda Rex
November 1, 2020, Proper 26 | All Saints—Recently I started an online course at Grace Communion Seminary on humans and salvation. I remember now why it’s been a while since I took graduate level courses—they take up time and require a lot of work and deep thought. But when I am immersed in this way in prayerful thought of God and his work in this world through his Son Jesus, I find myself wrestling in a good way with my motives and heart in pastoring and preaching the gospel.
One of the failures in the western Church today is that we enjoy all the trappings and benefits of the Christian faith while we miss much of the substance. Being relevant to the culture is one thing—being driven by our need for the approval and acceptance of people is another. When we have leaders claiming to be Christian in order to garner votes while their lives and words deny Christ, we are in a dangerous place, for this is something the Lord abhors.
If there is one thing Jesus criticized about the leaders of his day, it was their hypocrisy—their flaunting of the externals of religiosity and their catering to the approval and applause of the people, rather than humbly living out God’s love and grace. They loved the praise of those they lead and enjoyed the financial benefits and power of their positions, but did not always genuinely care about the suffering and struggles of the poor, needy, and disenfranchised, of those in lower social and economic strata than their own.
But I cannot point the finger at others without finding that I have several pointing back at me. In my own life, how have I been more concerned about the approval and respect of the people around me than I have been about their suffering, difficulty, and need? Do I say all the right things but fail to act on what I believe? Too often this has been the case—not because I don’t care, but because I have not always learned to act on what I believe to be true. There has been too often a disconnect between the spiritual realities I believe and trust in, and my living out of these realities in the world in which I live.
We tend to separate the secular or physical from the spiritual, not realizing that in Christ both have come together and have been joined in his person. In the living Word, God has come to dwell with and in man. He has become one of us while remaining fully himself. He, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings our humanity into the presence of the divine, enabling each of us by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, to participate in that intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Our participation in the Triune life is expressed in the way we love God and love others, walking by faith and in tune with the spiritual realities in a world which clings tightly to the tangible, physical realities.
What does this mean for each of us, me included? Living out the gospel in a gospel-resistant world means I may have to suffer the disapproval of those about me, even those I am close to and whom I love. I may have to give up some dearly held dreams or plans so that others may have what they need and so that God’s word can be brought to those who hunger and thirst for it. I may have to do without things I prefer to have so that others can enjoy the benefits of my loss and expense. Am I more concerned about my own financial and physical security than I am the needs and concerns of others? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that, because I’m afraid the answer just might be yes.
Jesus brings us into the paradox of leadership where we find that we bear the responsibility of leading others but we do it humbly, as servants. We do it from a place of brotherhood—of joining others where they are so that we share in their life and struggles, as unique equals in a fellowship of oneness where we offer ourselves as those who serve, give, share, and help. What does this look like in a self-centered, self-absorbed culture? It looks foreign, like an alien in a new land—we don’t fit in, we are the focus of people’s distain, ridicule, abuse, and even rejection. It looks a lot like Jesus Christ.
Leadership in the way Jesus describes it is a humble laying down of one’s life for the sake of those being served. This willingness to be abased, to be the one to serve rather than be served, does not come naturally to us as human beings. But it is the path to genuine leadership. It infuses our leadership with a genuineness and sincerity that inspires others to follow, not because they are intimidated and forced to follow, but because they are compelled to do for others what has been done for them.
Quite frankly, I don’t blame young people today for rejecting organized Christianity, its denominations, and its distinctions. We are earning the consequence of teaching and preaching a gospel we did not live out individually and collectively in humble service and gracious compassion. We are receiving the full measure of payment for our sin, hypocrisy, and religious pride. We are not all guilty, I am sure, but we all can humbly admit that we need to start anew, in a place of grace and humility, beginning again in a spirit of service to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor, no matter whom they are, as ourselves.
To pause and assess the motives of our hearts is a good thing. As leaders or simply as those who influence others in our lives, we can be so busy living or existing that we don’t take the time to look deeply at what is driving us and why we do the things we do. What is the reason we go to work each morning? Why do we battle the traffic each day? Why don’t we talk with our neighbors or family, or participate in the community barbeque? Could it be that we have never looked beyond ourselves long enough to realize there is a world out there God has included us in that we are called to make better by our humble service, compassion, help, and generosity?
Thankfully, when we experience the reality of our failures to love, give, and share with others, we have the grace of God to cover us and enable us to begin anew. Jesus comes to us by the Spirit to offer us new life, a new start—the ability to begin again in him, living out the reality of who we are as the adopted children of our heavenly Father. Paradoxically, as leaders, we can commit ourselves again to the humble service of others in the Spirit of Christ, turning away from our self-centered preoccupation with ourselves, our own comfort and benefit, toward the care and help of those we lead, and therefore serve.
Heavenly Father, thank you for being our true father, the Source of all. Thank you, Jesus, for being our leader, our teacher, Savior, friend and brother. Grant us the grace and humility to lay down all our hypocrisies, self-centeredness and pride, replacing them with your real presence, genuine love and service. We receive anew your grace and peace, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13 NASB
See also Matthew 23:1–12.
Just As You Are
by Linda Rex
Sometimes it’s hard to accept the reality God knows us much better than we know ourselves. We like to believe we are good, well-meaning people who will always do or say the right thing in every circumstance we face. We hope we would never do or say anything cruel or hateful. We think in our heart of hearts we would never betray a friend or ruin a friendship because of greed or resentment.
But indeed, God does know us better than we know ourselves. One good example which comes to mind at this time of year is the story of Peter, Jesus’ disciple. Here Jesus was facing his death by crucifixion, knowing the reality of what he would be facing in the next few hours at the hands of people like you and me. He’s giving his disciples his last words, and says, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
Peter is a good friend of Jesus—a real pal. He says to Jesus, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” (John 13:37) Peter is in earnest. He really means it. He’s going to be the best friend Jesus ever had—he’s going to go all the way with Jesus. He’s just like you and me. We have the greatest intentions in the world to go all the way with Jesus, to go all the way with our family, our friends, our spiritual community.
But Jesus is very pragmatic about our humanity. He says to Peter, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.” (John 13:38) Jesus just calls it as it is—“Peter, you don’t really know yourself as well as you think you do. You’re going to betray me and deny me just like any other human being would.”
Indeed, Jesus knew and accepted Peter’s brokenness as a part of who he was at that point in his life. Jesus knew in a few short hours, he would be on his own, wrestling with the evil one in a spiritual, physical and emotional battle he did not humanly want to fight. He was not unfamiliar with the failures of the human race, but felt keenly the weakness and frailty of his flesh.
It is instructive that Jesus quoted from Psalm 22 during his last hours on the cross. I was reading this psalm again this morning and was struck by the way King David put down in words the way we as human beings would treat the Lord when he came in human flesh. How many times as he was growing up did Jesus hear this psalm read? Did it put him in mind of what he was going to have to endure at the hands of the human beings he came to save? This psalm certainly describes in many ways what Jesus ended up experiencing before and during his crucifixion.
Isn’t it interested how the God who inspired this psalm, knew us better than we know ourselves? In fact, he inspired the writing of this psalm, he ensured it was preserved, and he used it as an instructive tool during his last moments before he died. The Word came to earth, knowing we would do these things to him. He was not put off by our brokenness or our capacity for betrayal and animosity. He allowed none of our human capacity for evil to prevent him from keeping his word to us that he would save us from evil, sin and death.
That the Word who is God would take on our broken humanity expresses the true reality of God’s love. As God, he had the capacity to submit himself to our human experience while remaining pure of heart, soul and mind. Rather than rejecting us or turning away from us, God joined us in our darkness and brought us up and out into his Light.
It is unfortunate that often we portray God as being so offended by sin he cannot be in the presence of it. If that were the case, we all would have been annihilated millennia ago. Seriously—what makes us think God is this way?
I think one thing which makes us think God is this way is we are this way. We get offended by a person’s problems or faults, and so we reject the person who does not meet up with our standards. We draw lines in the sand and when someone crosses them, we count them unworthy of a relationship with us.
But God doesn’t do this. He comes into our brokenness and works from within to transform and change us. He sends his Spirit into faulty human hearts so God can take up a permanent habitation there, healing us and transforming us from the inside out. He comes to the one, who like Peter, betrays him or denies him, and reconciles with him. On God’s side of the equations, there is nothing left standing between us and him.
Because God already knows us so thoroughly and completely, and loves us anyway, we can be upfront and honest about our failures and weaknesses. We can own our brokenness, telling the truth about our “messies” to God and to others. One day there won’t be any secrets—so we might as well learn how to be transparent, open and honest with ourselves and one another—living in the grace and love of God now as we will for all eternity.
Our heavenly Father has not allowed anything to come between us and his love. There is nothing which stands between us and him. This Good Friday we remember the gift of love God gave by embracing us in our broken humanity and drawing us up into life in the Father, Son and Spirit. We are beloved, cherished and held in God’s love and life, both now and for all eternity. Praise God!
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take all our evil and broken ways upon yourself and redeeming them. Thank you, Spirit, for working all this out in Christ and in us. For your glory, God, and by your power, in your name. We thank you. Amen.
“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations.” Psalm 22:27–28 NASB
Beyond Good Intentions
by Linda Rex
Watching my teens go through the process of deciding what kind of career they want to pursue has caused me to reflect on the angst I experienced back during my senior year in high school and when I first attended university. I remember taking surveys on skills and interests. And I remember the effort I put into making sure I passed the SAT and other required exams with as high a score as possible. I wanted to be able to attend my college of choice.
I intended to enroll in my church’s college, but my parents advised me not to, telling me that they were not teaching the “truth” there any more—I may as well attend a secular university. So I applied to the University of Santa Barbara, and I was accepted. My objective was clear. I was going to graduate with a degree in astrophysics, and one day, I was going to be an astronaut on a space shuttle.
I had the best of intentions, and I really thought I could do it—I was an A student and a member of the honor society. But when I got to university, I got a D in chemistry, and I almost flunked calculus. My first attempt to succeed in finishing undergraduate school failed.
Okay, maybe I wasn’t very realistic back then. Maybe I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. But honestly, how many of us actually achieve on the first try the exact thing we set out to do?
As I’ve gotten older and have experienced the ups and downs, successes and failures of life, I have become more conservative in my estimations of what I can and cannot do. I am learning not to rely solely on other people’s opinions and preferences, and to not presume I can do whatever I want to do or think I can do. I’ve realized I need a sober estimate of the truth in the light of my relationship with Jesus Christ.
This is especially true when it comes to matters of a spiritual and moral nature. I have learned my utmost efforts to do the right thing in every situation are flawed at best, and I am utterly dependent upon God for any possibility of doing things the way they really should be done. I am too easily swayed or distracted from where I should be, and too easily influenced to do the wrong thing, especially in difficult situations.
I’m mindful of Peter’s experience when he told Jesus he would follow him anywhere, even to the point of laying down his life for Jesus. But Jesus was no fool. He knew the truth about Peter—in the midst of the intensity of the moment when Jesus was taken captive and interrogated, Peter would deny him three times. And sure enough, Peter did exactly that.
But amazingly enough, doing this did not change Peter’s status with Jesus. After the resurrection, Jesus restored his relationship with Peter and instructed him to feed and tend his sheep. Jesus already knew what Peter would do, and even though he did do it, doing it did not alter Jesus’ love for Peter or his commitment to what he was doing in Peter’s heart and life. In fact, after the resurrection Jesus renewed Peter’s call to ministry, and when the Holy Spirit came, Peter stood up and gave a powerful, moving sermon which inspired many people to repent.
This is so comforting to me. Jesus is not put off by our failures or inability to perform perfectly. Since he already knows we are going to come up short, and he has already given us grace by including us in his death and resurrection, our failures and shortcomings are not an issue. They are already taken care of before they ever happen. Jesus’ relationship with us is not dependent upon our performance, but solely upon the nature and character of God, which is love.
Knowing this isn’t intended to make us want to go out and do awful things—rather, we find we don’t want to presume upon the grace given us. We are so grateful Jesus cares that much, we are compelled even more so to do the right thing in every circumstance.
God’s love for us demonstrated in Jesus and poured out into our hearts and lives by the Spirit moves us to think, say and do those things which agree with who we are as God’s children made in his image. We love God so much in response to his love we don’t want to harm or wound our relationship with him in any way by doing, thinking or saying things which we aren’t created for.
It is when we feel strongly we are in control and able to handle things ourselves we are most likely to get ourselves into trouble. Indeed, pride is our downfall—we trust in ourselves and our ability to do the right thing in every situation—and we find ourselves doing and saying things we never meant to which are hurtful and destructive. And like Peter, if we recognize it and look into the loving, gracious face of Jesus at that moment, we will be heartsick and broken.
And this is where and when God in Jesus will go to work. The Spirit will begin to bring us to that place of true humility where we recognize only by God’s grace can and will we ever be who God created us to be—children made in his image and likeness to reflect his nature.
Even though I had a rough start many years ago, God has never stopped working with me. My vocation has totally changed, my circumstances are entirely different. But my relationship with God in Jesus by the Spirit has only grown stronger and deeper. God has been faithful to me, and he is teaching me to be faithful to him. He is slowly and surely making me into the person he meant for me to be in the first place.
And he will do the same for you. It does not matter how old you are, what you have done, or what you have been through in your life. God will start with you where you are now and begin to work. And in time you may see he has been at work all along, even though you never noticed it before, or responded to his efforts in a negative way when he did try to work with you.
God will finish what he has begun in your life and mine—and his plans are so much more wonderful and adventurous than ours. He has amazing things in store for us—whether we believe it or not. And that’s something truly to be grateful for.
Thank you, Father, your plans for us are so much better than those we make for ourselves. And thank you for offering us the grace to grow up into all you mean for us to be. May we respond to each and every effort you make to grow us up in Christ by your Spirit, and allow you to transform our hearts by faith. In your name, we pray. Amen.
“Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.’” John 13:37–38 NASB
Breathing God’s Love In and Out
by Linda Rex
My care of my mother during her end of life is teaching me to value simple things like taking another breath, being able to take care of my own personal needs, and being able to have coherent thoughts and express them. And I see how God is in the midst of even these mundane, yet essential, parts of life.
It’s amazing how the simple things in life have such powerful lessons for us as human beings. Take, for example, a breath of fresh air. We breathe for the most part without even knowing we are doing it.
If we were to take a moment and consciously breathe in and out, we would notice not only the sound we make while doing it, but also the movement in our body. This is an essential event that happens every moment of our lives and our body, unless it is ill, just seems to know when and how to breathe so we can continue to live. It knows when it is not getting air and reacts in a way that tries to ensure than another breath is taken before it’s too late.
When God breathed life into Adam, he set a whole stream of things into motion that scientists today are still trying to figure out. The human body, with its ability to metabolize oxygen from the air around it, is an amazing piece of architecture. And it’s so much more than that. Each human being is a soul.
As a soul, there is a life that goes beyond the life we see and experience as we take a breath in and out. This life transcends the physical. There’s a spiritual element, something that involves the heart and mind, the reason and the emotions. Something within us connects us to one another, and to a life that is other than our humanity. We find ourselves considering such things as life beyond death.
God created us for relationship—it’s built into us. We connect with others and they connect with us. We connect with God, because he made us, and he took on our humanity in Christ and intimately connected us with him. Connections between human beings and between humans and God are a natural part of our existence.
Yet, some of us find ourselves resisting relationships, or being unable to have healthy ones. We may shut people out, or close ourselves off from building relationships with other people for many reasons. When we do this, we are actually cutting ourselves off from God’s divine Breath—preventing our spiritual lungs from breathing full breaths of air.
It is in relationships that God moves to heal, transform and grow us as individuals. Our encounters with other people provide the means by which the Holy Spirit tends to our hearts. Our souls or inner beings grow thirsty, twisted and hard when we do not have healthy, nurturing relationships in our lives. So much mental and emotional ill health comes from having grown up in families or circumstances where relationships were unhealthy and did not reflect the divine life and love.
Spiritual community among believers should be a place where God’s love and life are seen and experienced in an ongoing way. The gathering of God’s people should be a place where the breath of God renews, refreshes and cleanses people. It should not be a place that is abusive, cold, rigid, hard and condemning. Rather, it should be clear that the Holy Spirit is breathing life into all who are gathered there for fellowship and worship.
Those who have relationships with believers ought to experience this same invigorating, life-renewing love. A real breathing in of God’s life and love ought to occur when someone encounters a follower of Christ. They should walk away encouraged, blessed, renewed and comforted.
This breathing in and breathing out of God’s love and life ought to be for each of us as natural as our breathing in and out of the air around us. In God, we live and move and have our being, Paul wrote. So not only is our breathing of air an essential part of our humanity, so is our breathing in and out of God’s love and life by the Spirit.
We are connected at such a deep level with God and each person around us, that sharing God’s love and life with others should be as natural as the next breath we take—we shouldn’t have to struggle with being able to do it—it’s a part of who we are in Christ.
So as we ask God’s Spirit to awaken Christ within us and to make us more aware of the life and love we are already participating in through him, maybe we can begin to see that following Christ and loving others is just simply being ourselves. Caring for one another’s needs, comforting one another in the midst of our hurts, and having compassion for the hurting are just a natural part of our being—it’s who we really are. Really, it’s just as simple as breathing in and breathing out.
Dear God, thank you for each breath I take today. May I live with you and others in such a way that your Spirit breathes life and love moment by moment into all my relationships. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22 NASB
Breathing God’s Air
by Linda Rex
Have you ever thought about how amazing it is that you breathe air and how doing so enables your body to function in such a way that you live? The air we breathe can be filled with a lot of things besides oxygen and yet we still are able to metabolize what we need. We take another breath without thinking about it, and go on living.
This is near and dear to my heart because I have someone close to me who, in spite of receiving oxygen in copious amounts, is unable to assimilate it like she should. It is quite upsetting to watch someone desperately trying to catch their breath and not being able to, even though they have plenty of oxygen available to them.
This morning it put me in mind of how God must feel when he breathes his life and his Word into us and yet we seem to be unable to assimilate it. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and always has, and yet we can go through life without ever responding to his presence in us and with us.
We may be frantically trying to catch our breath, so to speak, in the midst of the horrors of life, thinking we are left alone to manage it all ourselves. But the truth is that we are never alone.
Psalm 139 poetically describes the real presence of God being with us and in us in every situation and circumstance of life. In light and in darkness, God is present. No matter how far we run, or how high we fly, or how deep down we dive, we cannot and do not escape the Spirit. Our life is in him.
Not only did God in the Spirit breathe into us our very life, but he also sent the Word to bear our human flesh, to live, die and rise again in our humanity. And this Word of God to us, Jesus Christ, said that he would not leave us orphans when he died, but would come to us. And he did.
After the resurrection, Jesus came to show all of his followers than indeed he now bore a glorified human form as part of his divinity. And after his ascension, he sent a special empowerment of the Holy Spirit so that each of his followers would share in his new life and participate in his mission of seeking out the lost and bringing them home. Through Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, God breathes new life into each of us.
But it seems that we can have a lot of clutter in our lives that prevents us from breathing in God’s good air. In fact, we often choose to breathe bad air—we ingest a lot of unhealthy things that damage or injure our spiritual lungs. Our spiritual clarity begins to dissipate and we suffer spiritual oxygen deprivation.
So pretty soon, even though we are hearing about how loving and gracious God is, all we can see or grasp is that he is cold, distant, hard and unloving. Even though we may be told that we are a beloved child of God, all we hear or get out of the conversation is that God expects us to perform perfectly before he’ll consider we’re worth his time or love. Our mind becomes confused about what it means to live in union and communion with God through Christ and in his Spirit.
Truly, we all have those moments when we seem to be suffocating in the midst of a room full of spiritual gas fumes. It’s important then that we pause and remember who the Source of good air is. It’s not that he has stopped providing spiritual oxygen for us, but that we may need to step outside for awhile, and take some time alone with him to recover. Perhaps there is something we need to do differently or maybe even quit doing, so that we can catch a full breath of God’s air.
The spiritual disciplines are a way that we can open our lungs up to a big dose of healthy spiritual oxygen. I have found several resources over the years that can teach us how to make room for God to restore and renew us spiritually. Our spiritual formation group studies Calhoun’s “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook” and another popular book often recommended is Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline”. “Invitation to a Journey” by M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. also is a helpful introduction to learning to walk in the Spirit.
Taking time for spiritual renewal is an important part of the life of a disciple of Christ. Even Jesus, in his humanity, took time to be alone with his heavenly Father and to rest. He sought solitude and conversation with God when he needed renewal. After tending to the crowds, Jesus knew that he needed to tend to his disciples and to himself.
A lot of times we mistake our need for spiritual renewal for physical hunger or a desire for physical contact. We try to fill our stomachs or other appetites, when really it is our spiritual lungs that need some divine oxygen.
Developing a way of living that includes God in an ongoing way and that recognizes when there is distance in our relationship with God will help us to recognize and attend to the needs of our souls. Walking in step with the Spirit, communing with God through Jesus, will invigorate us and restore us. This is our life in Christ.
So how about just pausing for a moment and taking a deep breath of God’s good air. He’s got plenty to give you, and even some to share with others.
Creator God, Redeemer of all humanity, thank you for each breath of air you provide. Thank you for breathing your very life into us, and for giving us new life through your Son Jesus Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Renew us in you. Fill our lungs with your divine air, with its heavenly oxygen, and enable us to absorb and grasp the depths and heights of your love for us. You are our life. In Jesus’ name, amen.
“Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7
“So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:21–22
A Vacuum of the Soul
by Linda Rex
I was reading “Crossroads” by Wm. Paul Young this week and was caught by the picture of a desolate valley with a dry riverbed running through a broken-down temple. This empty place was meant to be filled with running water, which would have given life to all the plants and animals that lived there. This picture of a broken, desolate human soul was profound.
It took me back to the beginning in the book of Genesis where we see that God placed a garden, the Garden of Eden, at the headwaters of four major rivers. This river was a source of life to the garden and to all the areas around the garden. When Adam and Eve chose to decide for themselves what is good and evil rather than trusting God and eating of the tree of life, they found themselves no longer able to access this river of living water in the same way.
And humanity has been seeking to fill this vacuum in our souls ever since. We find so many ways to try to inject some life into our souls. We seek life through relationships, sexuality, wealth, fame, and a myriad of other fruitless efforts. Instead of freedom and life we often find ourselves even more empty and enslaved to demanding taskmasters such as addictions, obsessions, depression and despair.
The prophet Ezekiel predicted one day a temple would be built from which a river of water would flow—one that was so strong and so wide that it could not be crossed. This river of water would flow out and bring healing and restoration to the salted desolate places.
It is instructive that the final picture we have of the summation of all things in the book of Revelation is a picture of God and the Lamb Jesus Christ being the temple from which flows the river of life. God has made his dwelling place with us as human beings and will never leave. His life, the Holy Spirit, forever proceeds from God’s inner being through Christ to all people.
Jesus, when he came, said that he would give the gift of a fountain of living water within our souls for those who are spiritually thirsty. He said this living water would overflow to others around us, so that they would also find their thirst quenched as well. Our souls were meant to be a place filled with the rushing water of the Holy Spirit, flowing in, through and from us, bringing life and renewal.
In the Epistles, we find that our bodies are temples where the Holy Spirit dwells. God with us. We were never meant to live with the emptiness and loneliness of going through life on our own without God. We were created to be filled with and overflowing with God’s real presence through Jesus and in the Spirit. For this is true life, real life—knowing God and Jesus whom he sent. It is living in relationship each moment with the God who made us and loves us, and will not be God without us.
It can be quite fearful and challenging to stop and take a look inside. What things are we clinging to? What have we made monuments to in our hearts and souls, such that there is no room for anything or anyone else? What has taken the place that was meant for God and God alone? For this is what is creating that vacuum—that hunger that will never be satisfied. Here is where we must, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, cast out all our idols and make room for God. What must we release our hold on so that we can wrap our fingers around the hand which holds us so tenderly and tightly? May God give us the grace to let go.
Dear Holy God, thank you for your gift of Living Water. We long to be nourished by your Holy Spirit, to be renewed and refreshed, healed and restored. Lord, today we release our control over our lives and let go of those things we cling to in your place. Forgive us for placing our trust in things and people other than you and for depending on ourselves instead of you. Wash these all away in the River of your love. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers.” Genesis 2:10 NASB
“Then he brought me back to the door of the house; and behold, water was flowing from under the threshold of the house toward the east, for the house faced east. And the water was flowing down from under, from the right side of the house, from south of the altar….Again he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not ford, for the water had risen, enough water to swim in, a river that could not be forded.” Ezekiel 47:1, 5 NASB
“Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” John 4:13–14 NASB
“Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ ” John 7:37–38 NASB
“Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Revelation 22:1–2 NASB