temple

Redemptive Reconstruction of God’s Church

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By Linda Rex

August 23, 2020, Proper 16—Recently, one of the hardest things for me as a pastor was to have to stay at home on Sunday mornings when I would much rather have been at church among the dear people of my congregation, talking with them face to face. I missed the laughter, singing worship songs together, and praying with people carrying heavy burdens needing lifted. We were so blessed to be able to still gather online, but there were so many faces I was not able to see and voices I was not able to hear since the quarantine began.

It is hard to watch the church in exile in this way, and I’m glad so many congregations like our own are beginning to be able to gather again. It is good to remember, though, that it is in times like these that the seeds of God’s greatest work are often planted. It is when the church is resisted or pressed against that it expands and grows in exponential ways.

This brings to mind the Old Testament reading for August 23rd (Exodus 1:8–2:10). Here we find the fledgling people of Israel have been in the land of Egypt for over three hundred years. Over the centuries, the rulers of the land have forgotten the history of this people and how Joseph helped to save Egypt from starvation. Now they only see the people of Israel as a threat to the present regime, so they are enslaved, forced to help the building of Egypt’s great cities.

As the numbers of the Israelites grew, the ruler of Egypt made an edict that every one of their boy babies was to be killed at birth. He increased the toil in their slavery and pressed harder and harder upon them. But no matter how hard he tried to restrict, reduce, or diminish Israel, the more they grew in numbers. In time, God even sent a deliverer, a baby boy placed in a rush basket in the Nile river who was adopted by the king’s daughter. He would, in God’s good time, deliver his people from slavery in Egypt.

This story is a good reminder that no matter how hard any of us try, we cannot resist the purposes and plans of our mighty God. He had made a covenant with Abraham, renewed it with his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob (whom he named Israel). He had told Israel that his people would be in Egypt for four hundred thirty years, and sure enough, when that time was up, God ensured that they were brought out of Egypt and into the new life he had in mind for them in the promised land.

The redemption of the nation of Israel began, in this sense, with the revelation to Moses of who God was—the I Am. He was their deliverer, their redeemer, and he was faithful to them in all their ups and downs, even when they turned from him and fell back into their idolatry and rebellion. The I Am was faithful to them, and even when they ended up in exile because of their turning away from him, he ultimately brought them back to their homeland in Judea.

But the nation of Israel Jesus came to had been through so much. The scribes, Pharisees, and leaders of the nation had made significant changes to how they worshiped God while they were in exile. They had put so many traditions and rituals into effect to ensure their purity that they had actually placed the Jewish people into a new form a slavery. Instead of a joyful relationship with their redeemer, they often found they could not do everything that was required of them. And when it came to temple worship, there were levels of exclusion, with women and proselytes being relegated to the outer courts, and Gentiles of any nation being excluded from table fellowship with the Jews.

This obviously was not God’s intent. We find Jesus near the end of his ministry asking his disciples who people were saying he was (Matthew 16:13–20). The common person believed Jesus was some type of prophet. There hadn’t been prophets for centuries up until the time of John the Baptizer and there weren’t supposed to be any more until the end of the age. This was a significant assumption on their part—the messianic deliverance of their people must be near since now Jesus was present and doing healings, miracles, and feeding the multitudes.

Jesus’ then asked his disciples who they thought he was. This is a good question even for you and me to ask ourselves. Do we imagine that Jesus is just a prophet—a good man who did a lot of nice, miraculous things and taught people how to live? If this is the case, we are missing out on the whole point of Israel’s story. We are missing the message of scripture—in the fullness of time, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Deliverer, not just of his people but of all people everywhere. Jesus, the I Am in human flesh, the Messiah who lived our life, died our death, and rose, ascending into glory, is so much more than just a prophet!

Jesus is the one who establishes in his person our identity as human beings. When Jesus said, “But you, who do you say I am?” he was asking them to accurately ascertain what it meant that he was their Messiah. It did not mean he was a political leader set to take over by powerful, military means. What it meant was that he would allow circumstances to take their course, submitting himself to the evil plans of the leaders of his own people, knowing it would result in his crucifixion. He knew this was the path that was going to be necessary to reconstitute the people of God, Israel.

Peter’s response, given to him by our heavenly Father, acknowledged who Jesus was as the Son of the living God, the Messiah. He may not have understood the distinction between who the Messiah Jesus was and that kind of messiah which the people hoped he was. But his answer pointed to a new reality.

Jesus, in response, took the Jewish rabbis’ authority to ratify what was bound and loosed in heaven and gave it to the apostles, with Peter as their representative. He gave Peter, and the apostles, the keys to the kingdom—and we see in the book of Acts how Peter and the apostles first opened the doors to the kingdom through their proclamation of the word on Pentecost after the resurrection, and subsequently when the gospel was received by the Samaritans, and later the Gentiles at Cornelius’ home. The doors of the church were opened wide to receive all nations and peoples, with all worship and obedience centered in Jesus Christ alone.

Jesus told the disciples that not even death could stop the expansion of the kingdom of God. Death would not prevail against the church, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ was assured and it happened just as Jesus said it would. Yes, he did have to die on the cross and enter the gates of death, but death could not hold him! And neither can it hold us any longer.

Whatever effort the evil one may make to silence or kill the church will fail. We know this because love never fails. Our God, who is love, has come, given himself to us and for us, and has risen from the grave. He has bound all humanity to himself in an unbreakable bond and sent the Spirit to draw us together into a community of faith, a body of believers, the church. By the Spirit we are given special gifts for each member to participate in the edification of the church and the proclamation of the gospel.

Our calling today is to cease giving ourselves over to the ungodly ways of this broken world and to embrace who we are as the called-out ones—the children of God. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds—informing ourselves of the will and purposes of God and living accordingly, participating fully in the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit (Romans 12:1-8). And we can rely fully on Jesus’ assurance that what he has begun in his church, he will finish, even to the end of this cosmos.

Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you are Lord of your church, and that death did not, cannot, and will not prevail against it, for its existence is bound up in your very self. Thank you, Spirit, for your giftings and blessing—grant us the grace to edify your church and proclaim the good news with boldness, courage, and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Look to Abraham your father | And to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; | When he was but one I called him, | Then I blessed him and multiplied him.” Isaiah 51:2 NASB

“’Had it not been the LORD who was on our side,’ | Let Israel now say, ‘Had it not been the LORD who was on our side | When men rose up against us, | Then they would have swallowed us alive, | When their anger was kindled against us; | Then the waters would have engulfed us, | The stream would have swept over our soul; Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.’ … Our help is in the name of the LORD, | Who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 124:1-5, 8 NASB

“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; | You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, | And Your right hand will save me. | The LORD will accomplish what concerns me; | Your lovingkindness, O LORD, is everlasting; | Do not forsake the works of Your hands.” Psalm 138:7-8 NASB

Follow Him Free From Fear

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By Linda Rex

June 21, 2020, PROPER 7—Lately it seems that much of our media is focused on finding things for us to be afraid of. Social media has been especially bad, with a proliferation of information, false and true, regarding possible apocalyptic outcomes of the pandemic, politics, and natural occurrences.

It is unfortunate that we as human beings are enchanted by the spectacular, the exciting and the fascinating. This is what sells and so this is what is focused on by our media. What is everyday and ordinary, however marvelous and beautiful, is often pushed aside by that which is sensational or dramatic. The overwhelming value of a human life becomes small change in exchange for the appeal to our human senses.

What Jesus asks us to do when we encounter him is to follow. To follow Jesus seems like a simple process—just go do what you think Jesus would do. But there is more to it than that—Jesus comes to dwell in human hearts by the Holy Spirit. The human body is the temple of God the Spirit, and the Lord the Spirit often asks us to do things much differently than how we think Jesus would do them.

For example, we may believe that if we are going to follow Jesus, we have to make sure everyone in our church is a good person (and we define that). When a man who is smelly and disheveled enters our church doors, we may ask him to leave and find a different place to meet. Surely we must keep the sanctuary pure for the Lord, right? Wrong.

This is far from how Jesus works. As we trust in Christ and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell, to rest and abide within our hearts, God enters into a place which is like a rundown shack on an isolated mountainside with trash all over inside and out. What was designed in the beginning to be a showpiece had become a dump, but in Christ we become a dwelling of the Holy Spirit.

As Christ by the Spirit goes to work, transforming our hearts by faith, the old rundown shack begins to change. We discover as time goes by that we never were the rundown shack in God’s mind—he always knew the truth about us. He always knew the tremendous potential of what he created when he made us.

But the coming of the Spirit to dwell within isn’t all God is doing. When we encounter Jesus and place our faith in him, he tells us to follow him. Following Jesus means leaving behind all that was and moving toward all that God has in mind for us. Jesus becomes the defining factor in our lives, not our own decisions and preferences. As Jesus laid down his life, we learn to lay down our own for others, trusting him to make things right when they don’t seem to be working out the way we expect.

Jesus pointed out to his disciples, as they were asked to follow him, that when we start on this road of obedience, that not everyone in our lives will agree with us or honor our efforts to follow the Lord. In fact, those we are closest to may become, in essence, our enemies—turning against us and rejecting us. We must not think this is solely due to us—it is often their own wrestling with the claims of Christ that brings about this crisis, this anxious desire to resist any semblance of godliness, truth, or righteousness. Because they reject Jesus Christ, they reject his followers, no matter who they are.

But Jesus says to us, three times in fact in this passage: Do not fear. Don’t fear what anyone might say or do. Just follow me, he says. In spite of the risk, the danger, the opposition—follow me.

The reason we don’t need to fear is because of who we are. We are God’s beloved in Christ the Beloved One. When Abba looks at us, he sees the ones who are his very own—the ones whom he cares deeply for and watches over and protects. If God cares about whether or not a little bird falls to the grown and dies, how much more does he care about his very own adopted children?

Even if we are brought to the place where our very life is threatened, we have no reason to fear. Because in Christ, we have hope beyond this life. No one can take us from the Father’s hand, as he holds us near his heart. This should give us great boldness in the midst of all our struggles, persecutions, and difficulties.

But Jesus does say, follow me. He does ask us to give up all we value in this life, trusting that he has our real life in his hands—a life so much more wonderful than this one. There is a showplace with a glorious view he is working on, but we need to be willing to give up our rundown shack and let him do the work he needs to do to renovate it. If we hang on to our rundown shack and resist the Spirit’s work, refusing to participate in what God is doing in our lives, we may find ourselves standing in the midst of a pile of rubble rather than in a comfortable home for our soul.

There is only one thing that we should ever fear and that is that we might miss out on the love and grace of our Lord because we refuse to follow him. Instead, let’s allow God’s perfect love to cast out all our fear and let us follow Jesus wherever he may lead us. Let us surrender to the inner workings of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus as he does reconstruction surgery in our hearts. And as we do so, we will find our real life, a life both now and for all eternity, held in the midst of the love and life of our Father, his Son and Spirit.

Dear God, thank you for making us your very own, for watching over us and loving us so completely. Turn our hearts and minds toward you, and enable us to know that you do indeed hold us in the palm of your hand. Enable us to respond to the work you are wanting to do in our hearts and lives. Jesus, give us the courage to follow you wherever you may lead us, no matter how difficult and dangerous it may be. In your name we pray. Amen.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household! Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows. … And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 10:24-31, 38-39 NASB

Courage to Share God’s Grace

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By Linda Rex

November 10, 2019, Proper 27—As a pastor of a small church in North America, I have read, heard, and seen many books and conferences on how to grow my church. I have experienced a wide variety of emotions about the state of my congregations and the state of Christian churches as a whole. And so often, I have come away caught between the demand for greater performance and more investment of time and money, and our utter dependence upon a mighty move of the Holy Spirit to transform our society and culture for the better.

Last night some of the members gathered at the church to provide hot chocolate, cookies, and candy for the trick-or-treaters who were walking through the neighborhood. We played some board games, and chatted with the few who came in out of the cold to join us. I was grateful to each person who stopped by, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed more did not come to enjoy a moment with us.

It is easy to feel discouraged when we are trying so hard to reach out to our community members and so often, we seem to have very little response. I was wrestling with this frustration last week when it occurred to me that being aware that things are not changing as I want them to is one thing, but being critical and condemning is another. There has been ample evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work, and I must not imply or infer that he’s not, or that he isn’t doing a good enough job to suit me.

We’ve been able to touch the lives of several people. We’ve had a few baptisms. We’ve had new people join us here and there over the years. Even though our doors aren’t flooded with an overwhelming attendance of new folks, we do have a few here and there who have joined us on the journey. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

I am reminded of the story of Haggai, how the remnant of the people of Israel and Judah had returned to their homeland, but had lost heart in rebuilding the temple. Enough negative resistance and personal distractions occurred that they quit doing what before had been so important to them. They lost sight of a very important truth—the abiding presence of God.

The prophetic word of Haggai to Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the people was for them to “take courage.” They needed the courage to move forward against all obstacles, trusting that God would move away whatever stood in their way and that nothing would prevent them from finishing the task he had given them to do.

The reason they could have this kind of courage was that God was with them. Haggai reassured them that the Spirit of God was abiding in their midst and that they were not to be afraid. We today as the living temple of God’s Spirit individually and collectively need to be courageous and brave about building up God’s spiritual building, and have the same kind of confidence that God is in us, with us, and for us.

He is present and has promised that he would be with us to the end. In Matthew 28:19-20, when commissioning the disciples, Jesus sent them out to make disciples with the understanding that he was with them and would be with them until the end. And that all power and authority in heaven and earth were his, therefore all these resources were theirs to draw upon. There was every reason for them to move courageously out to preach the gospel!

But Jesus also told his disciples to wait on the Holy Spirit—to remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit empowered them for this ministry. There is a two-fold path we take as stewards of the gospel (and we are all stewards of the gospel as God’s children). As we go through our lives, we share with others the miracle of God’s grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. But we also live, work, and share with others the good news of God’s grace and love in full dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance, power, and provision.

I know from personal experience that it is easy to approach the circumstances of my life in such a way that I don’t see my daily encounters with people as an opportunity to share the good news. However, looking at the early church, I find that sharing the good news was an integral part of their individual existence.

In fact, the very reason the early church exploded in numbers was that when persecution happened and people left their homes for new lands, they talked about Jesus wherever they went. They were on fire with the transformation power and love of God in Christ. And this was both the everyday way of being of people who had been touched by the gospel of Jesus Christ and a powerful move of the Holy Spirit.

Coming out of a church paradigm where the denomination headquarters did all the work, where special evangelists were the ones who preached the gospel, I find one of hardest things for me to do is to make everyday encounters with people a venue for the gospel without being preachy or annoying. I want everyday conversations to be opportunities to build meaningful relationship, but find instead that constant inner voice which tells me to put up walls and to self-protect.

Sadly, I do not find within myself as much as I would like that total self-giving which identified so many in the early church who were willing to die for the sake of the gospel. To lay down my life as they did would be considered foolish by many Christians today—unless I was a missionary in a foreign land or in an inner-city ministry. It seems that for many of us as everyday Christians, laying our lives down for the sake of Christ is not what we do—that’s left for certain people to do—pastors, evangelists, preachers, televangelists, for example. But the everyday Christian?

But Jesus didn’t come just for the sake of a few people. He took on our humanity so that every, all, each human being would share in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit—there is a place at the table for each person. If we are believers, then we know this and believe this. So implicit in that knowing is a call on each of us to share that good news with the person in front of us in some way.

So, we pray for open doors, for ways to share this good news. We ask for the words to say and the actions to take. We may only be allowed to help or serve this person in front of us in this moment in some small way. We may not even be able to say anything about Jesus immediately. But we begin in whatever way God puts before us, and we move on from there.

God wants us to be brave and courageous, remembering he is in us, with us, and for us. We can and should share the words of life which have been so life-transforming for us. At the same time, we are to live and share these words in total dependence upon the Spirit’s presence and power, trusting that God will finish what he has begun. May God move in a mighty way, in and through each of us, even today as we yield to and depend upon his Spirit and trust in Jesus.

Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your love and life through Jesus in the Spirit. Show us the open doors you would have us walk through. Fill our mouths with the words to say in each moment we are given. Fill our hearts with courage and faith, a boldness to share the words of life which have so helped and transformed us. We trust you to finish what you begin, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people saying, ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the LORD of hosts. ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” Haggai 2:2-5 NASB

Tending the Cathedral

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By Linda Rex

I have been blessed with the opportunity over the years of visiting churches from many denominations. I have played a grand piano in a Methodist church, a spinet in a Christian church, attended a wedding in a Catholic church, a choral concert in a Catholic cathedral, and high mass in an Episcopalian cathedral. I have attended worship services in a Bible church and in a Baptist church, and meetings in churches of other faiths. I have been exposed to many different forms of worship and celebrations of communion.

Over the years I have met followers of Jesus from all over the world as well. There is a common spirit among these believers, which I often sensed from the first moment I encountered them. The Holy Spirit, who binds us together into the Body of Christ, was present in each of these encounters, for there was a unity which harmonized our differences, creating a oneness which could not humanly be explained. Between us was an understanding, an openness, and a gracious patience which made room for others to share in the community of faith.

A few years ago, I attended a meeting at a very large and beautiful church with lots of stained glass windows and tall towers. I was introduced to the person who tended to the building and grounds. This person was responsible for maintenance and repairs, as well as seeing the gardens were weeded and the grass was mowed. He was the one who made sure the bathrooms were cleaned, the sanctuary was dusted and vacuumed, and the kitchen was kept ready to be used.

In a large church—maybe less so in a small one—all of these items need to be taken care of in a responsible way so the church building may be used on a regular basis for worship services, children’s classes, and other important events in the life of the members. Often the pastor tends to the word of God and prayer, while other people tend to the physical details of the building—unless, of course, the congregation is so small that the pastor does everything.

When the tabernacle was built and put into use by Moses, he was told by God that Aaron and his sons would tend to the holy place and the sacrifices—the worship and liturgy of the people of God (Ex. 28:1). The tabernacle itself with all its equipment would be tended by the Levites (Nu. 3:6-8). There was a responsibility to the place where God put his Presence, which in that day was the tabernacle.

We can draw upon these pictures of God’s dwelling place when we look at the way God works today. The apostle Paul told the crowd on Mars hill: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; …” (Acts 17:24-25 NASB) Paul was explaining that the God he worshiped did not live in buildings. This God is not contained within anything physical in that way. As we read in Psalm 139, God is present everywhere in every place in and through his Spirit.

People for centuries—millennia even—have assumed God needed a place to live in so he could be close to them. In order to worship God, they thought they needed to create a place for God to be. Indeed, even King David fell prey to this sort of thinking when he decided he wanted to honor and please God by building him a temple. God called him on it, asking him whether he at any time had asked for a place to live (2 Sam. 7:4-7). It was a rhetorical question—God doesn’t need any place to live—he is present all the time in every place.

And the truth was, at that moment and even when the tabernacle was being built, God was in the process of redeeming the temple he had already created for his presence to reside in. He was in the process of working out the redemption of humanity—those vessels who were created to bear his image and his likeness, and in due time, his very Presence.

In Christ, God entered our humanity, taking on our unique being as those made in his image—those who were distinct from God and yet meant to be one with him. And in joining himself to us in hypostatic union, God brought us into a unique relationship with himself, enabling us as human beings to receive the indwelling presence of God himself through Christ in the Spirit. We became the dwelling place for God. As the Body of Christ, we are also where God dwells by his Spirit within the spiritual community of believers.

What this means then is, we need to take seriously the reality we are, personally and collectively, the dwelling place of God in Christ by the Spirit. The apostle Paul reminds us: “…do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:19-20 NASB) He understood we are the temple in which God dwells by his Holy Spirit, and we are responsible to care for and tend that temple.

One of the biggest struggles within the Body of Christ which I see today (and it’s a common struggle for humans everywhere) is the struggle to care for the temple of the Holy Spirit, the human body. I know from my own personal battles over the years, and hearing the painful stories of others, that food and sex can be direct channels into the desecration and destruction of the temple of the Spirit.

Those who have nurturing and caring personalities and gifts are especially vulnerable to this because they can be so busy pouring themselves into others, they fail to care for and tend to themselves. When we are busy with life, have many responsibilities, and are always on the go, we can neglect the temple of the Spirit, allowing ourselves to eat, drink, view, or participate in what is convenient and culturally acceptable rather than in what is best for us. Instead of nurturing the indwelling Spirit and the real Presence of God within, it is often much easier and more tempting to numb one’s pain or distract one’s mind or resolve one’s loneliness by becoming involved in illicit and unhealthy relationships, viewing pornography, or abusing food or other substances.

But God is gracious. He may have made us tenders of the temple of his Spirit when he created us, but he knew our tendency to go the wrong way and to do what is unhealthy and unloving. This is why we are so blessed to have the real Presence of God within. Because Jesus was willing to live and care for his own flesh the way we ought to, we can have the assurance that if we fail to properly tend ourselves, he is willing to intercede on our behalf. As we turn to him in repentance and faith, he continues to infuse us with his real Presence by the Spirit so we can and will overcome our failures to nurture and care for ourselves.

Because God dwells in human hearts by his Spirit, each and every person can come to know God in a real and intimate way. Each and every person, as they turn from their false concepts of a God external to them and detached from them, to Christ who by his Spirit comes to dwell within them, can live and walk with God in real spiritual union. This was what God intended from the beginning and wants us to share in both now and forever. As we tend to the temple of the Spirit (our own persons as well as the Body of Christ) we will find ourselves growing in our relationship with God and others, and becoming healthier and more Christlike in the process. And this was God’s purpose from the beginning.

Abba, thank you for calling us into relationship with yourself through Jesus and by your Spirit. Thank you that you have created us in your image to be your dwelling place. Create in us a reverence and respect for your dwelling place, for our own persons as well as the Body of Christ. Grant us repentance so we may turn away from our false concepts of you and our unhealthy ways of living and being. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But in the same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying, ‘Go and say to My servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord, ‘Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt, even to this day; but I have been moving about in a tent, even in a tabernacle. Wherever I have gone with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel, which I commanded to shepherd My people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?”’” 2 Samuel 7:4-7 NASB

A Citizen’s Prayer

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by Linda Rex

One of the concerns I have as I watch the political debate and the community of faith’s response to it is the constant appeal to Christians in this nation to work through prayer and righteous living to make America great again. There is a subtle message beneath all of this rhetoric which says that somehow we are a special nation, the Israel of God, the chosen people, and if we just repent and turn back to God, everything will all be better. What I’m hearing is, all of this upheaval is just because America has turned away from God, so if all the Christians in America would humble themselves and pray, God will fix everything.

The main text used to defend this position of calling the nation (or the Christians in the nation) to prayer is 2 Chronicles 7:14: “[If] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (NASB) I have some real concerns about the way this scripture is being used to promote what are, in my opinion, some very nationalistic agendas. I also believe the way it is presented forces us back upon ourselves as the means of getting God to change our circumstances and to remove the consequences of our choices.

The desire to have America great again I assume must be because we want to live freely and abundantly in this nation we call home. It would indeed be a good thing to be able to practice our faith and to enjoy our freedoms without fear or oppression—and for the most part, we’ve been able to do that in this country. But there are forces at work which are making it more and more difficult for us to do this in this country, and that is what drives this need to ensure our domestic felicity, so that our “happy home” will continue to be just that.

Whenever I hear the statement “Make America great again”, I cringe because I am reminded of how post-WWI Germany sought to make Germany great again. This was the cry of the Nazi’s which enabled them to gain political power, and enabled them to promote many of their agendas which otherwise may have been rejected by the German populace. Sadly, the German church at that time also got caught up in this nationalistic momentum to the point they gave the leadership of their church to Hitler himself, and began to promote his faith rather than the truths of the faiths as established by the early church. It was this battle Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to fight by remaining in Germany when he could have stayed safely in America.

The point is, we need to get rid of our nationalistic focus and turn back to Jesus Christ as being the central “Who” of this whole matter. Looking at this particular passage honestly, through sound exegesis, would help us to do that if we were willing. So let’s begin by reading the passage in the context in which it was originally written:

“Then the LORD appeared to Solomon at night and said to him, ‘I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a house of sacrifice. ‘If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayer offered in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that My name may be there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually.’” (2 Chronicles 7:12–16 NASB)

The first thing we see is this was a statement God made to King Solomon after his prayer at the dedication of the temple he built in Jerusalem. God was explaining he had chosen the temple as a place for sacrifices to be offered to him just as Solomon had asked him to. The Lord would hear and answer the prayers of his people Israel when they would humbly seek his face in prayer and turn away from evil. The God, whose Name is Father, Son and Spirit, placed his name upon that house and affirmed his eyes and heart would be there as well.

This whole conversation took place within the covenant relationship of God with his people Israel. This was a reaffirmation of that covenant in which God included this house of worship in his relationship with Israel out of his gracious love toward them. Nowhere in this conversation do we read anything about the nation of America—it did not exist back then, nor was it included at that particular moment in this conversation. The whole discussion was with regard to God’s covenant relationship with his chosen people, Israel, and his desire to love them and to receive their worship and prayer.

When we read the continuing story of God’s children Israel, we find they did not honor their part of their covenant with God, and in time even Solomon’s temple was overrun and destroyed. They did not have the heart and will to love and obey God. They did not humble themselves, repent and pray, or the destruction of the nation would have been delayed as it was in the time of King Hezekiah and King Josiah, who led God’s people into a place of repentance and renewal. Instead, Israel and Judah ended up losing everything God had given them in his gracious love.

This passage, we’ve seen, was a conversation God was having with the king of the nation of Israel with regards to a temple which was eventually destroyed and replaced with another one many years later. Some exiles made their way back, thanks to the Persian king Cyrus, and the temple and the city wall of Jerusalem were rebuilt. In time, a baby was born in Bethlehem, who was the true Son of God and would fulfill in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, all the promises made to Israel, for he stood in their place.

Jesus Christ came as the Israel of God, the Son of God, Abba’s Word, who was both God and man. We see Jesus, who had no sin, repenting and being baptized for his people Israel, and for us, and we see him sharing in Israel’s wilderness wanderings by facing the evil one during forty days of fasting in the wilderness of Judea. Jesus lived the life of obedience, humility and prayer Israel was called to live, but never was able to. In his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus fulfilled all of the covenant God had made with Israel—he did what they never were able to do.

Ultimately, we see Jesus after his resurrection, standing in the presence of God as high priest of Israel and of all humanity, bearing in his being the names of all people before Abba in the Spirit, being the One who is truly humble who prays in the Spirit and in truth for each and every person in our place and on our behalf. It is Jesus’ prayer which Abba hears and answers, and each and every prayer we give is caught up in Christ’s prayers and made acceptable to the Father.

In this same Christ, the barriers between human beings were and are torn down. We learn in Acts the early church had to face the reality God did not distinguish between Jews and Gentiles when it came to having a relationship with God or each other. All nationalism was thrown out the window and replaced with the reality we are all a part of the body of Christ by the Spirit. All were included in God’s grace when it was given, and all are called to faith in Christ and offered eternal life—knowing Abba and his Son whom he sent.

The life we live, no matter our race, ethnicity, nation, tribe and tongue, is bound up in Christ and is held in him in God. Whatever good deeds we do, whatever repentance we may muster up, all comes first from God through Christ in the Spirit. It is Christ’s prayers and intercession which will bring about change in America.

But Christ is concerned about a whole lot more than just this nation. He is concerned about all of humanity. And he is a whole lot more concerned about our spiritual transformation and the furtherance of his kingdom than he is about whether or not America is the most prosperous, paradise on earth. This world is passing away. But our relationship with God, whatever it is, transcends this physical world and will last beyond it. And this is what God wants us to invest our effort, time and energy in.

Abba has work he is doing through Christ in this world. He’s sent Christ on a mission of reconciliation with God and man to be worked out into every part of life by the Spirit. We can participate in this through our humility, repentance and prayer—but apart from Christ and the work of the Spirit, our humility, repentance and prayer is worthless. It’s just a bunch of hot air and will not change a thing, except to make us exhausted, and to fill us with disappointment when things don’t go as we expect.

In a nation obsessed with nationalism and power of the state, the apostle Paul instructed his people to pray for their leaders so they could live and preach the gospel in peace. He also reminded them their loyalty was to God first, and not to the nation. We are citizens of heaven, he said. These are words we can take to heart today, because we also are citizens of the kingdom of God, and are seeking a peaceful environment in which to preach and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But we need to see this as our participation in what Jesus Christ is doing in the world today as we share in his mission of reconciliation. It is his work as our intercessor and high priest which will make the difference in the world today. It is his Spirit who calls us back to him, to repentance and faith. It is Abba who pours into us and our world a different heart and mind. We share in the work of the Trinity as God brings about healing and change. In my mind, this is the heart of this passage, and how we should read and apply it today.

“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:1–4 NASB

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.” Philippians 3:20–21 NASB

A Vacuum of the Soul

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Stream Scene
Stream Scene

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