worship

The House That God Built

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By Linda Rex

December 20, 2020, ADVENT | LOVE—One of the things I love about the season of Advent is the beautiful and inspiring music. Playing and singing music which tells the story of God’s love and grace expressed in the coming of Jesus brings joy and comfort to many. One of the songs we often sing during Christmas is “The Twelve Days of Christmas”,(1) which as a cumulative teaching song is often accompanied by laughter and giggles as the singers vainly attempt to remember all twelve gifts.

Another cumulative song which is not Christmas-oriented but was used as a memory game for children’s parties years ago is an old nursery rhyme called “The House That Jack Built.” The last line of the song went something like this: “Here is the farmer who owned the rooster who woke the priest who married the tattered man who kissed the maid so forlorn who milked the cow with the crumpled horn who threw the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the grain which lay in the house Jack built.” As the game went on, each child would add another part of the story while repeating what had gone before, hopefully without mistakes.

The beginning of the rhyme was simply, “This is the house Jack built.”(2) In many ways, this is how everything started in our cosmos. We could simply say, “This is the cosmos, the world God created.” All that we know now and study so diligently with our telescopes and microscopes exists where once there was nothing, not even the building blocks of the universe. At God’s decision, through the Word of God and by the power and presence of the Spirit, all things came into existence. Simply said—what wasn’t became what was by God’s will, word, and power.

On this particular planet, there came a time when God brought forth plants and trees, animals, fish, and birds—abundant life of such variety we are still categorizing and sorting them today. The interwoven nature of the many forms of life on this planet constantly catch us by surprise—what happens to one creature often affects many others, as well as the biome in which they live. Like the animals in our nursery rhyme, no creature stands by itself—they are all interrelated and mutually affected by one another.

As creatures, we as human beings, are also affected by and interwoven with all that exists on this earth. As our understanding of science and technology have grown, many of us as humans have taken for granted our ability to manage and control our environment and planet. It is easy to forget that we are merely another creature dependent upon others and upon the God who made all things. We have come far enough today that God himself has become a forgotten story to many, one in which we see no need to believe. It is as though we have forgotten who built the house in which we live. We have put so many other things in his place, we believe we don’t need him anymore.

In 2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16, we find that King David decided that he wanted to built a house for the ark of God since it was still residing in the tabernacle God had told the Israelites to build for it. The tabernacle was designed to be moved about rather than to remain in one place. During the years of wandering in the wilderness and crossing into the promised land, the tabernacle was the place where Moses’ brother Aaron and the priests appointed by God ministered God’s grace to his people through offerings and sacrifices and the reading of the law. When the cloud of God’s presence lifted off the tabernacle, the people would pack their things and get ready to move, following wherever they were led.

When King David told Nathan he wanted to build a house for God’s presence, the prophet thought it was a great idea and told him to go ahead with it. But this wasn’t God’s preference—he told Nathan to tell King David that he had never lived in a house, but only in a mobile dwelling. He told Nathan to tell the king that one day God would build David a house, a kingdom that would last forever—God didn’t need David to build him a house.

The problem with humans building temples for God is seen in the very statement King David made to Nathan: “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within tent curtains.” Do you catch it? David was worried about the ark, not about the presence of God himself. Too often, we as human beings get caught up in the rites and rituals, the law and sacrifices of our worship instead of focusing on interacting with God himself. When David’s son Solomon finished the work on the temple, it was filled with the Shekinah glory of God. But it wasn’t very long before King Solomon himself began worshiping the idols of his wives rather than growing in his own personal relationship with the God who had crowned him king.

Following his death, the northern half of the nation of Israel split off and created their own place of worship, abandoning the temple and worship of the Creator and Redeemer who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Eventually the northern tribes were taken into exile by the Assyrians, as the southern tribes (known as Judah) began to embrace idolatry and pagan religious practices as well. Eventually the Shekinah glory left the temple, due to the hedonistic practices being observed there. It wasn’t much longer before Judah was taken over by the Babylonians. Soon and for a time, this people who had been brought into covenant relationship with the Creator God himself were no longer residents in the land he had given them.

As you can see, even when we as humans are brought by God into relationship with himself and given all we need for that relationship, we so often trade it in for something tangible we can see, feel, hear, taste and touch. We can control worship to an idol—construct a house, bring offerings, say the right words, sing the right song. We believe that if we do this, the idol will do that, with such appeasement giving an illusion of control over the situation. But in all of this, there is no real relationship. Give us an ark we can put in a building and do nice things for—don’t make us have to interact with an intangible God we cannot predict or control, and who may ask us to change or do things his way!

It’s as though we are at the end of a long line of kids and we’re having to remember the entire nursery rhyme. We’re stuck somewhere between the house that Jack built and the farmer who has a crowing rooster. At this point we may be wondering why Jack even built the house at all. We’re not sure where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, but we’re not about to acknowledge defeat. What we don’t want to admit is, we’ll never be able to get the whole thing right on our own, no matter how hard we try.

The reality is that we cannot build a house for God to dwell in because, as the apostle Paul said: “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) Rather than us building a temple for God to dwell in, God came into our human flesh in Jesus Christ to create a space for himself within our humanity where he could dwell by the Spirit. In that place, our broken humanity, which we had filled with evil, sin, rebellion and disobedience, God in Christ forged a space for God’s presence by the Spirit, cleansing us and freeing us from evil, sin, and death.

As mobile dwellings of God himself by the Spirit, gathered together into the body of Christ—the spiritual temple of God, the church—we bring God’s kingdom into relation with the broken world around us, touching it with his presence and power by his Spirit. The church and its members are not a perfected temple yet, but are a place where sinners are being healed, transformed, and renewed as they walk in humble relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit. Even though the Spirit is present to all people at all times, not everyone opens themselves up by faith to the living presence of God in Christ—so the church participates with Christ in calling all people to the new life which is theirs in Jesus.

The reading from Luke for this Sunday describes when the angel Gabriel told Mary she was to have a baby who would be the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. Mary was chosen to give birth to the Christ child, not because of her worthiness or goodness, but simply because of God’s grace and favor. She would carry in her womb the One who was both God and man—she would be a mobile temple for the presence of God in human flesh as an unborn infant.

What was Mary’s response to this announcement? It is the same response God longs to hear from each of us as he births Christ in us by his Holy Spirit: “…may it be done to me according to your word.” Humble surrender to the will and wishes of our mighty God as he forms Christ in us—this is our best response. What will we do with the house God has forged for himself in us? Will we echo Mary’s response? Or will we continue the merry-go-round of our nursery rhyme life of godlessness?

Heavenly Father, Creator and Sustainer of all, thank you for not abandoning us when we abandoned you. Thank you for sending your Son into our human flesh to forge a dwelling place for your presence. Forgive our rebellion and disobedience. Grant us a humble surrender to your will and wishes. Dear God, by your Spirit come and dwell in our hearts and lives, forming Christ in us and transforming our hearts by faith. May it be done to us according to your Word by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

“My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.”
Luke 1:46b–49 NASB

See also Luke 1:28–33.
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1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song) (accessed 12/11/2020)
2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Is_the_House_That_Jack_Built (accessed 12/11/2020)

A Little Heaven on Earth

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By Linda Rex

Here I am in palm-tree laden Orlando, Florida where water and sunbathers can be found just about anywhere. The beauty of fellowship between people of a multitude of nations and backgrounds can be seen and experienced at this gathering I am attending of Grace Communion International.

Yesterday I was in a workshop session, and a pastor from Bermuda introduced himself to me. I ate breakfast this morning with people from California and West Virginia, while yesterday had breakfast with a friend from Wisconsin. I have lost track of all the places the people I have talked with have been from—Canada, Wyoming, Illinois, places in Africa, Europe and even Asia.

I have seen classmates from my elementary school, college, and Grace Communion Seminary where I finished my master’s degree. I have listened to and seen young people from Florida and elsewhere share their heart for Jesus through music and art, and a lovely lady from the Carolinas share the love of God in Christ through a devotional.

What is so beautiful to watch is the way people from clear across the world from each other will embrace and with excited voices share with their delight in seeing one another. Yesterday we watched videos and looked at pictures of the ministry which is being done now in Africa, and today we will learn about other work God is doing in this world to bring healing, renewal and grace to people’s lives.

As I sat in the rear of the room (I have sensitive ears), I bore witness to this wonderful sight of a wide variety of people all worshiping together, and participating in the joy of the Lord through praise. The presence of God in the Spirit was very near, as I could sense Abba’s delight in the praises of his people in which we participate with Jesus in giving.

Indeed, if there were a picture of the perichoretic life of God with his people, this would be as close as we can get to it in this life. To me, this is what God has in mind for all of us—to love God and love one another deeply and whole-heartedly, as equals yet uniquely ourselves in a unity and harmony of the grace and love of Abba, Jesus and the Spirit. All of life is centered in Christ and is lived in worship and praise to our Creator and Redeemer. Our sharing in Christ by the Spirit and with one another demonstrates to all those around us we are God’s beloved children.

Yes, as God has shown me, we have our struggles to live in the truth of this love and grace. We rub up against one another in our everyday life in ways which can cause irritation, frustration and even anger. But if we are open to it, God can use these situations and experiences to refine us and heal us and transform us. The Spirit, when we respond to his leading and prompting can use these conflicts to actually build stronger, healthier and more real bonds between us. As we grow up in Christ, we become more and more bound together in a oneness which can only be divine in its origin and reality.

As I listened to Cathy Deddo speak this morning, I was reminded again all our lives are held in the midst of this relationship with God in Christ, and we awaken each new day in the reality we are fully and necessarily dependent upon God for everything. And our purpose here on earth is to point one another to, and to share in the truth of, this reality—we are Christ’s and he is ours. Our life, truly and in its entirety, is in him in and by his Spirit, and not in anything else.

This day of grace, which through Jesus is ours, is a day of joy, peace, and fellowship through the Holy Spirit. May we all enjoy every one of the blessings of life in Christ Jesus by responding to this work of harmony, oneness and unity the Spirit is calling us into to be lived out both now and forever in the presence of Abba, Jesus and the Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, that in you, all this is real and possible by your Spirit.

Dearest Abba, thank you. Thank you for all you’ve done particularly in our fellowship to bring healing, renewal and growth in spite of, rather in the midst of, our failures, struggles and losses. May you finish the marvelous thing you are doing in Grace Communion International and through us in the world around us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“…that they may be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. …I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:21, 23 NASB

The Foolish Wisdom of Christmas

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by Linda Rex

One of the things I can’t help but reflect on as I go through the Christmas season is how at one point in my life I totally misunderstood the celebration of Christmas. It did not make sense to me why everyone made such a big deal about a baby being born and laid in a manger. Sure, he was the Lord of all, but why worship him as a baby? He was human after all.

I believe a lot of people go through the holidays and do not have any foundation for the celebration of them. This, obviously, may be why Thanksgiving has lost its luster, and Christmas has become a major marketing tool rather than the celebration it was meant to be. We can celebrate the solstice if we wish, we can light candles for Hanukkah if we wish, and observe whatever festival we wish. But there is no reason to celebrate Christmas if we remove Christ from it. Why?

The celebration of the “Christ mass” (Christmas) was set at the same time as an old pagan holiday, because of the Christian tradition of replacing the pagan with Christ. Replacing the pagan with Christ is fundamental to the whole Christmas story and the Christ child.

In the Christian Scriptures the apostle Paul talks about the foolishness of God that is in reality wiser than any human wisdom. This wisdom, or foolishness, however you wish to look at it, is found in the Person of Jesus Christ. For in him, God has made possible and real the perfection, redemption, and restoration of each and every one of us. For Christ has taken our place: he stands in for us, being our goodness, holiness and purity, in our place. (Gal. 2:20) It is Christ who makes us new creatures.

He did this, as the apostle John wrote, by coming as the Word of God, God’s one and unique Son, and taking on our human flesh. (Jn. 1:14; 3:16) The baby in the manger we read about in the Christmas story was God and yet was at the same time fully human. It seems foolish that God would put himself at risk in this way—but in order to bring us as humans in with the union and communion of the Father, Son and Spirit, he sent his only Son to live in human flesh—to go through all the human experiences we go through, living in the Spirit as we are called to do, dying a horrific death in our place—so that one day we could dwell with God.

God risked it all for us—even the eternal fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit—the love that God lives in. As Jesus hung on the cross and cried out in pain, feeling the separation caused by the evil we as humans embrace, all of that oneness and love hung in the balance. All of us and our relationship with God hung in the balance at that moment—as God said ‘No!’ to evil and ‘Yes!’ to us being with him forever. It is in Christ’s life, death and resurrection that we have hope. For Jesus did in our place what none of us could do. His perfect response to the Father on our behalf in the Spirit made possible a future that otherwise could never have happened.

So the foolishness of a little baby in a manger which we celebrate at Christmas actually shows God’s tremendous and loving wisdom. Reject it, ridicule it, mock it if we wish. But it is still true. It is still there for us. The perfect gift, from a perfect God—a life filled with love in his presence forever. It is through the miracle of Christmas and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who once was a baby in a manger, that we enter into a new day—the Lord’s Day—and a new life in fellowship with God forever.

May you find comfort, peace and healing as you believe and receive God’s perfect ‘foolish’ gift of Jesus Christ, his Son, to stand in your place. And may God bless you with his hope, peace, joy and love throughout this New Year!

Thank you so much, Lord, that you are so much wiser than we are, and that you were willing to be ‘foolish’ so that we can participate in your holy fellowship of love and eternal life. Thank you for giving us a place at your table. We celebrate you and thank you for your precious gift. Bless us throughout this New Year with a deeper appreciation for all you have given and do give, as you pour out on us every heavenly blessing in Christ Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” 1 Cor. 1:30-31 (NASB)