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
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
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