The Productive Vineyard

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By Linda Rex

October 4, 2020, Proper 22—This week fall begins, the time of year when farmers head out to the fields to see if the crops are ready for harvest. Traveling through the countryside this time of year can be a little tricky, with large combines, trucks and other equipment competing for road space. Looking across the fields as we travel, we may see the dust rising from the equipment as the corn or beans are harvested.

When a farmer comes to his field at harvesttime, he expects to find lots of ripe produce to reap. Whether corn, beans, sorghum, cotton, wheat, or any other crop, his hope is that his efforts to cultivate, plant, and tend the field were not in vain. To have invested so much only to find no return on that investment is a cause for great disappointment, not to mention steep financial loss.

When God drew the ancient nation of Israel out of Egypt and planted her in the promised land, he intended that she become a godly nation through whom the other nations of the world might come to know and obey him. He gave Israel all that she needed to live in covenant relationship with him, providing her with a law, sacrifices, and a place of worship by which she could love, serve, and obey God.

Like all of us as human beings, this nation turned away from God and sought her value, significance, and relational satisfaction from idols, other nations, and materialistic gain. She practiced injustice, greed, immorality, and every other ungodly behavior, rather than simply being the people God created her to be—holy, faithful, obedient, and just. God’s harvest from his beloved people was unfaithfulness, injustice, disobedience, and ungodliness—all ways in which they turned away from God and alienated themselves from him in their minds and hearts. (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15)

In sending his Son Jesus to Israel, God meant for him to take their place—to do for them and in them what they could not and did not do. All peoples had turned away from their Creator and Sustainer, so God the Word took on our humanity and turned us all back to God. In Christ we find that we are restored as image-bearers of God and are able to live in ways that produce good spiritual fruit. In dying our death, rising from the grave and ascending to the Father, Jesus brought us into our true humanity—and sent the Spirit so we by faith could begin to participate in it.

The way that we produce good spiritual fruit is by participating in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The life of Christ lived out in our human flesh by the Spirit is evidence that God is at work in us. The Spirit enables us both to will and do what reflects the image and nature of God. As I have said before, this is not by our human efforts at keeping God’s law—that’s external fleshly work, but solely by the grace and mystery of God, Christ in us by the Spirit—that’s internal spiritual transformation moving outward by faith into action.

As members of Christ Jesus, participants in his body, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are meant to produce kingdom fruit—spiritual fruit such as outgoing love, peace, joy, gentleness, and any other spirit, attitude and behavior which reflects the divine nature. A good description of what the kingdom of God looks like when it is lived out here on earth may be found in Exodus 20—and yes, that is what is commonly called the ten commandments. Let’s look at them properly—through the lens of Jesus Christ and his finished work, through which God gives us life, life in relationship with himself both now and forever.

When we live in loving relationship with God, we acknowledge that he is the only God there is. There is no other person, being, thing, passion, goal in our lives we count on other than him. The one God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is the God who is equal and unique in personhood, and fully one in being. We were created to be image-bearers of this God, to live in the truth of who we are as those made in his likeness to live now and forever bound in covenant love relationship with him.

For this reason, we have no other person, thing, or objective which commands our full attention or allegiance. We live in the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God—this is the focus of our existence. Living in covenant relationship with God comes first—we depend upon him and him alone. All other things in our lives come in second position.

As those made in God’s image, after his likeness, we acknowledge that he is our Father and we are his adopted children. We bear the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. We bear the name of Jesus, the only name under heaven and earth by which we may be saved. For this reason, we honor and respect this name—it is our own family name.

God created us to be stewards of all he has made, to live in the unforced rhythms of grace which involve times of work and times of intimate fellowship with God and one another. All that God has done for us in Jesus and is doing for us today by the Spirit brings us into a place of rest in him. We don’t depend on our own ability to get ourselves right with God or to save ourselves, but trust completely in the finished work of Jesus. Christ is at work in this world by the Spirit making all things new—we participate with him in what he is doing in this world by resting in him.

As image-bearers of God, we were created for relationship—relationship with God and with one another. God created family—a loving bond which reflects the nature and other-centered love of Father and the Son in the Spirit. Parents are meant to reflect the image of the Trinity to their children, teaching them what it means to live in loving relationship with God and one another. As Jesus the Son of God honors his heavenly Father, we honor our human parents. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who gives us the heart to honor our parents.

In God we live and move and have our being. From the beginning God told us to choose life, not death. Every human being is made in the image of the God who is the Source of life, the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For this reason, we walk in life, not in death. God is not willing that any should die—neither are we.

Binding himself to humanity in an unbreakable bond in Jesus Christ, God has declared his covenant love for all of us. What God bound together, let no human being annul—Jesus Christ is God’s pledge to us that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what. In the same way, when a man and woman declare their covenant love for one another in marriage, they bind themselves together in an unbreakable bond which only death can annul. This images what God has done for us in Christ, how God brought us who are creatures into intimate relationship with him who is Creator—two different but made one through Christ in the Spirit, bound together in covenant love.

As we grow in our knowledge of God and in relationship with him, we realize that everything here on earth and even our own lives belong to him. We realize he is Lord of all and we are not. We recognize that whatever we have was given to us as stewards to care for and share with others, not to indulge ourselves or fulfill our own lusts. Indeed, everything belongs to God, even what others have—so we protect, defend, honor, and guard what someone else has rather than stealing it from them.

We understand that we are made in the image of the God of truth, the One who sent his Son Jesus, who is the Truth. When we look at Jesus, we see the truth of who we are—and we know that God has never lied to us nor will he. He sends the Spirit of truth so that each of us may live and walk in truth. As image bearers of Truth, we live truthfully, honestly and with integrity. We are able to live authentically and transparently because we have nothing to hide.

When we see things clearly, we recognize that all we have, all we see around us, even our own selves belong to God. Whatever there may be on earth that we could desire loses its attraction when we stay focused on God and his love for us as expressed in Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. We find that as we set our hearts and minds on the things of heaven rather than on the things of earth, we already have everything we really need. Everything else we simply receive as a gift from his hand in gratitude and praise.

As you can see, when Jesus is the center as he is meant to be and that we are walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh, we find that we begin to reflect the image and nature of God. We become a picture of life in the kingdom of God as we were meant to reflect, showing the world we are Jesus’ disciples by the way we love one another. The body of Christ, which exists in many nations and peoples all over the world, is meant to be the place where human beings can see what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God.

Today, the body of Christ may need to reconsider, what does it mean to live in relationship with God, in other-centered love? Are we as the body of Christ, producing this kind of spiritual harvest which is healthy and abundant? Is our Father delighted with the produce which is being borne in his vineyard? One thing we can be sure of—God is faithful, and he loves us unconditionally. He will finish what he has begun in us. Let us continue to trust him and to participate with Jesus in what he is doing in this world to bring about an abundant spiritual harvest.

Dear Abba, thank you for giving us all we need for life and godliness, for giving us your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for your grace and love, your faithfulness and forbearance. Forgive our resistance to your indwelling Spirit, your efforts to grow us up into Christlikeness. We trust you will finish what you have begun in us so that we will bear an abundant spiritual harvest which will bring you great joy and pleasure, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” Matthew 21:43-44 NASB; see also Matthew 21:33–46; Philippians 3:4b–14.

Living Water From the Rock

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By Linda Rex

September 27, 2020, Proper 21—As human beings, we cannot escape the reality that our existence is dependent upon water—whether clean water to drink, rain for our crops, water for everyday uses such as cleaning and bathing, or many other needs. Today in America, many are experiencing the lack of water—fires out of control, or too much water—flooding in the southeast with the impact of hurricane Sally. Whether too much, too little, or just enough—water is an integral part of our human existence.

The story of humanity begins with the Spirit brooding over the waters, and then responding to the Word of God by bringing into existence the cosmos, the earth and all that lives on it. The earth was originally watered by streams coming up from the ground. From the garden in Eden flowed a river which separated into four headwaters, flowing into areas nearby. We may recognize some of the names—the Euphrates, Tigris, Gihon, and Pishon rivers.

After Adam and Eve turned away from God to the things of their flesh, choosing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity declined into a place where even God regretted that what he had made had come to such depravity. When he chose to eradicate evil, he sent a flood—an inundation of water that swept away broken humanity and wiped the earth clean. But it was not God’s heart for human beings to die—he desires life for us. So he made the covenant of the rainbow with us as his pledge he will never flood the earth in that way ever again.

When God brought his people out of Egypt from slavery, he brought them through the Red Sea. Moving the large body of water aside, he dried out the riverbed and made a passage for Israel to get to the other side. When they were safely to shore, he allowed the river to flow freely again, wiping out the Egyptian army which had pursued them into the water. Water, for God, is both a means of redemption and a means of cleansing, healing, and renewal.

Sadly, the Israelites did not seem to grasp the significance of what God was doing in their lives. They did not know God well, and did not believe that he loved them and wanted what was best for them. They did not believe, even though they had witnessed such a mighty deliverance. When they were in the wilderness on the way to Sinai, they grew thirsty. They did not simply trust God or turn to him when they grew thirsty, but rather they complained to Moses and demanded that he solve their problem by providing water. By demanding water from Moses, they were demanding proof of God’s presence among them, something he had already made clear to them.

This continual refusal to believe, to trust in the living God as the Source of all that is good and right, marked Israel’s and then Judah’s relationship with God from then on. Even as their refusal to obey and serve God brought them into exile, they still worshiped idols and refused to submit themselves to the ways and covenant love of their Lord and Redeemer.

The prophet Ezekiel warned them to turn away from their rebellion and sin:

“ ‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore, repent and live’ ” (Ezekiel 18:30-32 NASB).

God did not desire their destruction. He sought their repentance—a turning around, a change of mind and heart—something which they could never achieve on their own. They needed to be saved from their hearts made of stone.

The living Word took on our human flesh to be for us the Rock from whom living water would flow. Jesus Christ lived our life, died our death, and rose again, ascending into the presence of the Father to send the Spirit on all flesh. The Rock, the cornerstone on which God would build his church, was struck in the crucifixion, and from him flowed the living stream of grace and mercy we all needed to be freed from evil, sin and death. And beyond that, through Christ and from the Father, came the living stream of God’s very presence and power, the Holy Spirit, who by faith would come to us individually, to begin the process of transforming and renewing us into the image of Jesus Christ.

One of the remarkable things about water is its ability to alter hard objects like rocks. Place a sharp, jagged stone in running water and over a long enough period of time, it will become smooth. Large amounts of water flowing swiftly over land and rock will dig deep caverns and riverbeds, given time. Moving water in an extremely narrow stream at a very rapid speed can be used to clean or cut certain objects. There is great power in water—and the water of God’s love and grace, His Spirit, does mighty things when it goes to work in us and in our lives. As we respond to God in faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ, the Spirit works in us to heal, restore and renew, to reform us into the image-bearers of God we were created to be.

It is fitting that the final image in Revelation is of the presence of God with man on the new earth. From the temple of God’s presence flows a mighty river which provides healing for the nations. What a fitting picture of what God is doing even now beginning with the body of Christ, working in this world to bring about healing, renewal, and wholeness. Washed in the water of God’s love and grace, the body of Christ in which God dwells is to be fullest expression of Jesus possible in this world, being a temple of living stones from which the living Water flows freely to bring healing to all people. We look forward anticipating the day when Jesus Christ will bring the kingdom of heaven into its fullness. Meanwhile, we participate with Jesus today in expressing by the Spirit God’s faith, hope, and love to everyone around us.

Dear Abba, forgive us our hard-heartedness and stubborn resistance to your loving will and purposes. Thank you for offering us yourself, Jesus, as the Rock to be broken on our behalf so that we might be given a new heart and spirit, and turn to you in trust and obedience. Holy Spirit, please finish what you have begun, transforming our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord all for Abba’s glory. Amen.

“ ‘Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.’ And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ ” Exodus 17:6-7 NASB

“He split the rocks in the wilderness
And gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths.
He brought forth streams also from the rock
And caused waters to run down like rivers.”
Psalm 78:15-16 NASB

See also Matthew 21:23–32 and Philippians 2:1–13.

The Scandal of God’s Compassion

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By Linda Rex

September 20, 2020, Proper 20—Historically, we as human beings have nearly always been good at getting upset when people don’t get what we think they deserve. Some of us take such difficulties as a challenge to ensure that such people do get what they deserve, while others of us either ignore or explain away their offenses, or spend our time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves instead.

The reading for this Sunday from the Old Testament is the passage where the Israelites began to complain to Moses that they didn’t have any decent food anymore. They even would have preferred to go back into slavery in Egypt just to have something good to eat now and then. Here God had just done a great deliverance for them in bringing them safely through the Red Sea and now they were complaining because they were having to struggle a little.

God’s compassion was not appreciated nor was it understood by them. That he was tenderly seeing to their every need didn’t seem to make a difference—when things weren’t how they wanted them to be, they made a big stink about it and made life really hard for Moses. God would constantly have to remind them about who he was—their Provider, Protector, and Deliverer. In this instance, he gave them quail that evening, and in the morning began to provide them with bread from heaven, manna.

What we need to be reminded of, daily it seems, is just who God is. Do we believe he is the God who is compassionate, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness? These are ways in which God describes himself (Ex. 34:6-7), along with being just and full of truth. How does this impact the way we look at ourselves and others? What are our expectations of God, especially when it comes to how he deals with other people and uncomfortable situations?

Another passage from this weekend is from the book of Jonah. Rather than obeying God’s instruction to warn Nineveh of their impending destruction and their need to repent, this prophet took a ship going the opposite direction. He knew God was compassionate and forgiving, and didn’t want to risk that he might forgive this enemy of his people.

Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward others of a different people group prevented him from simple obedience. And God did not allow him to continue in his path of resistance to God’s compassion and grace—he even used a large sea creature and a plant to get his point across to Jonah. He reminded the prophet that he should have been just as compassionate as God was in wanting to see the Ninevites not be destroyed—Jonah needed an attitude adjustment about wanting to God annihilate them. He needed to repent and have a change of heart.

Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner who owns a vineyard goes to find laborers to help gather in the harvest. He agreed with this first group of laborers to pay a day’s wage. Later in the day, he hired other laborers, agreeing to give them what was right. All the way up to about an hour before quitting time, he hired people to help with the harvest.

When it came time to pay these people, he began with those he hired last. Giving each of them a day’s wage, he paid the last, the next to the last, and on down the line until those he hired first. These hot and exhausted workers he gave the same amount as he gave the people he hired last—a day’s wage. This infuriated them.

The problem wasn’t in what the landowner did, though, but in their expectations. They believed that since they had worked the longest, they should have received the most. Those who worked a short period of time didn’t expect to get paid as much as they did, but they no doubt, appreciated the benefit they received. Here is the crux of the story—the day’s wage which each person received was a result of the landowner’s kindness and compassion, not due to their diligent performance.

For the kingdom of heaven comes to us not due to our adequate performance as people doing good deeds, but solely as a gift from God. The wages of sin is death, we read, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). Once again, we need to move away from our debit/credit thinking about the kingdom of God into the place of God’s generosity and compassion. We need to not be scandalized by God’s compassionate inclusion of all of humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, including those people who we believe don’t deserve God’s grace.

As image-bearers of the God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, we are called to reflect his nature. We are to have the same compassion for those around us as God has for us. What he did for the 120,000 persons who lived in the city of Nineveh, God wants to do even more so for every human being who has ever lived. In Christ, we find that grace and salvation are available to each person. By faith in Christ each can participate in the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit both now and forever.

Jesus was always stepping on toes with his discussion of doing good to those who do us wrong, praying for those who persecute us, and caring for those whom society considers untouchable and unworthy. His scandalous compassion put him at the same table with sinners, touching the leprous and unclean, and raising the dead. What we see in Jesus, God plants in us by the Spirit—we open our hearts up to the compassion for others that comes from God himself. Why should we resist the Spirit’s longing to care for those who are lost and broken, bound by evil and sin?

Perhaps we should take some time in quiet contemplation of the nature of our compassionate and gracious God. And in doing so, invite him to change our heart towards those who are in need of his grace. How can we pray for them, help them, speak loving truth into their lives? In what way would God want us to express his compassion and concern for them?

Thank you, Abba, that you are compassionate, gracious, and understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you know what it means to be human, to struggle as we do against temptation and the sin which so easily distracts us from loving you and the other people in our lives. Grant us the grace to let you be the God you are and to stop trying to form you into our own image. Form us instead more fully into Christlikeness through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.”
Psalm 145:8 NASB

“Then the LORD said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” Jonah 3:10–11 NASB

See also Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2–15, Jonah 3:10–4:11.

The Boundary of Grace

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By Linda Rex

September 13, 2020, Proper 19—Last night I decided to microwave some fresh green beans for dinner that I had received from one of our members in Cookeville who likes to garden. I washed them and broke them up into a microwavable bowl and cooked them. As I was eating them, my mouth began to burn. It wasn’t until I had eaten several of the green beans that I realized that I had inadvertently cooked a hot pepper with them and made the green beans inedible in the process!

As I sought something to help to relieve the intense burning in my mouth, I thought about how easy it was to go about doing what we believe is the right thing to do and find ourselves in a place where we are broken and hurting instead. This happens so often in our relationships, because we are broken people—we live as self-centered persons rather than as the other-centered persons God created us to be. This includes our understanding of what it means to be forgiving of those who wound us.

The disciples knew what the rabbis said about being forgiving—forgiving someone three times was being very generous and understanding, they said. So, when Peter asked Jesus how many times a person should forgive an offender, he thought he was being excessively generous in suggesting that he should forgive someone seven times.

Jesus took forgiveness to the next level by suggesting that a person should forgive someone “seventy times seven” times—in other words, a ridiculously large amount of times. We should not hold grudges, but be generous in our offering of grace. Then he told a story in which he described what forgiveness looks like within the kingdom of heaven—what it means that God forgives us.

He began with a king who brings his vassals before him to account for his portion of their tax assessments. He is a generous king, apparently, for this one particular vassal owed him the equivalent of twelve million dollars—a sum he could never repay in his lifetime. The king concludes that maybe the only way to get his money back from this man was to throw him and his family into prison (a common practice then) with the possibility that one of his friends might pay his debt.

This vassal begs and pleads for the king to have compassion on him. And the king does. He forgives this huge debt—lets the man completely off the hook. The king writes the debt off the books—he no longer expects any payment from this man. As far as the king was concerned, there was no longer any need for the man to do anything except from that point on, to do a better job at collecting the king’s share of the funds and turning them in.

Apparently, the king’s vassal totally misses the point of what his master had done. He does not admit to nor accept the reality of the immense debt of which he had been forgiven. He doesn’t receive the grace and compassion shown him. He is still, in his mind’s eye, living in the place of collecting on debts and debts needing to be repaid.

So, when the man encounters one of his debtors who owed him about twenty bucks, he grabs him by the throat and drags him off to prison until he paid him back. Do you see the vast comparison in the two debts? The vassal had just been released from a debt of about twelve million dollars, but would not release his debtor for the mere sum of twenty dollars. Jesus was using hyperbole, an exaggeration, to make a point.

This is the type of thing we do to one another in the face of what God does for us. Think about the nation of Israel, who God lived in covenant relationship with. How often had he forgiven them for idolatry, injustice, and trusting in other nations rather than trusting in him? Even when Israel justly ended up in exile, losing their temple and nationhood, God had restored them, giving them a new temple and a new space in which to live, albeit under Roman rule. Even so, they repeatedly rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which he had sent them. In due time, Jesus knew they would even crucify that Messiah, at which point he would pronounce the most gracious words ever given to humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live in the reality of our need for grace and God’s overwhelming generosity in offering it to us. Abba offers us unfailingly the opportunity to start anew, giving us ample opportunity to change by wiping the slate clean and allowing us to begin again. The problem is that we as human beings prefer to live in the debit-credit mode. We may enjoy receiving God’s grace, but we prefer not to have to make the changes which go along with having been forgiven. By necessity, living in the truth of the immense debt we have been forgiven, we must admit our need for that grace, repent of the ways we incurred that debt, and in living out the truth of that repentance and forgiveness, we begin to be equally forgiving toward others.

So often in the gospels, Jesus offers forgiveness prior to repentance. We see the lame man lowered down through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then he tells the man to take up his mat and walk. The lame man hadn’t even asked to be forgiven—but no doubt, he felt he needed it. He probably had been told over and over during his lifetime that the reason he couldn’t walk was because he or his parents had sinned. Jesus affirmed that this was not the case, but that even those sins he had committed were removed. And that he needed to move forward in his life from then on.

In the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ends the encounter by saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ forgiveness was obvious, but he didn’t let anyone off the hook. The accusers needed to repent and so did she. And Jesus did not leave her at that place—he told her to go and do the next right thing, to leave her life of sin. Would Jesus have forgiven her again if she sinned? No doubt, but what he was seeking was not retribution, but repentance and faith—a life change—wholeness and healing, not punishment.

In the story about the king and the debtor, the vassal missed the whole point. He had been forgiven an incredible debt—so he needed to repent, to change the way he did business. He needed a change of heart and mind—to have a heart of compassion and forbearance like his master’s. But instead, he continued on the path of self-deliverance. He was going to work out his own salvation—paying back the debt himself by collecting what others owed him.

The only boundary on God’s grace is the one we set by refusing to see our need for it and to receive it as an undeserved gift. We are the ones who make forgiveness something which needs to be earned instead of receiving it humbly and then offering it to others. We are the ones who ignore the reality of the huge debt to God we could never repay and focus on the petty inconveniences or miserable pains those around create in our lives. If God could forgive us for an unpayable debt, shouldn’t we do that for others?

Maybe there is some hurt or grudge that’s been festering in your heart lately. Or perhaps you are holding something against yourself that seems unforgiveable. Why don’t you bring these to Jesus right now and ask him to give you his heart of forgiveness instead. Allow him to provide you with a willingness to forgive that is grounded in him and his sacrificial offering, and to move you and the forgiven one into a new place of wholeness and restoration. May you find true freedom living in this place of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord in the Spirit.

Abba, thank you for your limitless forgiveness and grace which is expressed to us in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for your patience with us when we are not forgiving, but are judgmental, condemning, and punitive. Grant us the grace to ever participate in Christ’s forgiving Spirit that we might forgive as you forgive us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, | Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. | He will not always strive with us, | Nor will He keep His anger forever. | He has not dealt with us according to our sins, | Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. | For as high as the heavens are above the earth, | So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. | As far as the east is from the west, | So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:8-12 NASB

See also Matthew 18:21–35.

Owing Others the Loving Truth

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By Linda Rex

September 6, 2020, Proper 18—Lately I have been thinking a lot about how hard it can be sometimes to speak the truth in love to someone I am close to. In fact, as someone who learned painfully the desperate need I personally have for grace, I experienced in relationships the pain and destruction which come from truth applied without compassion or love.

It is important for us as human beings to get our minds readjusted to the reality that God loves us. And he loves us so much that he did everything he could to free us from the chains of evil, sin, and death we so often give ourselves over to. Our loving Abba could not bear to see us diminished into brute beasts enslaved by our passions and lusts. He created us for something so much more wonderful than this! So, whatever it cost him he did—even to the place of giving us his beloved Son in our place on our behalf.

When we talk about loving our neighbor or being good to others or showing compassion to the suffering, it is easy to assume wrongly that love permits unacceptable or abusive behavior. Love “bears all things” we read and so we let the people we love do whatever they want, even if it hurts us and others or is destructive or demeaning. We allow people to take advantage of us over and over and we show them infinite grace, not realizing that we are not genuinely loving them by doing so.

It is in view of this that we need to look at Jesus’ conversation with his disciples about going to one’s brother. To live in relationship is to open oneself up to the possibility of being hurt or offended. When people interact, they will inevitably do or say something that will create difficulties between themselves and another person. It is our human propensity to err that causes chaos and havoc in our relationships.

When we are in a relationship with another human being—any kind of relationship, whether business, friendship, marriage, companionship—we often are tempted to isolate ourselves and hide parts of ourselves away. We do this because we know that if the other person knew the truth about us, they would reject us or wound us, or shame us in some say. Not all people have our best interests at heart, so out of self-preservation, we learn to skillfully hide parts of ourselves away.

Our hiding is something we as human beings have been doing since the garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they knew they had done what God had asked them not to do. So, when God showed up in the garden, looking forward to spending time with them, they did what we as humans do—they hid. When faced with the reality of what we are and what we’ve done, we as humans find a way to hide from God and each other.

But notice what God did. He did not allow them to continue to hide. He gently sought them out, confronted them, and told them that he knew the truth. He told them the consequences of their choice and the pain it would bring to themselves and others. Then he tenderly covered them with skins and sent them on their way. God used truth to call them back into relationship with himself, and then did what he could to get them pointed in a new direction.

This brings to mind the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who was brought to Jesus by her accusers. They believed she was worthy of being stoned and that Jesus was soft on sin because he was gracious. It is interesting that Jesus did not let either the woman or her accusers off scot-free.

The men who were interested in her destruction were told, “You who are without sin may cast the first stone.” At this, each man began to see in his own mind’s eye the truth—convicted of his own error by the Spirit of truth, he walked away. When all the men were gone and only the woman was left, Jesus asked where her accusers were. She said they were all gone. Then Jesus applied the truth gently to her as well, “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” She was not allowed to continue in her way of self-destructive relationship—she was told the truth in love and instructed to begin moving in a new direction.

In Ezekiel 33, the prophet wrote how God made him a watchman over the people of Israel, to give them a warning. The prophet was reminded that when someone is sinning and we don’t warn them about it, we are equally guilty of their sin. If we warn them and they do it anyway, then that’s on them. But we are to do what we can to help people see the truth about their destructive, disobedient behavior—this is an expression of divine love.

What we must do is difficult and can be painful—and it can result in severed relationships. But it must be done—and done in love. Jesus gave a template by which we can introduce a measure of God’s truth into our relationships, enabling a loving environment of grace and truth to help grow people into greater Christlikeness.

We begin first with a humble estimation of our own need for grace. Then we approach the person by themselves, speaking the truth in love and calling them back to what is right and true. If they refuse to hear us, then we take two or three others who know the truth, and bring them into the conversation to help this person see the truth for themselves. It sometimes requires someone other than us to say what needs to be said in order for someone to hear a difficult truth about themselves.

The worst-case scenario is when someone refuses to hear even under these circumstances. In this case, Jesus encourages us to create a protective boundary around ourselves as a church body, family, or other group until this person sees their fault and repents. It is unfortunate, but sometimes a person is so deeply entrenched in sin that it takes the loss of his or her significant relationships before he or she will repent and change.

To refuse to engage someone in this process is to enable them to continue in their sin, and in the destructive cycle that goes with it. We express love by speaking the truth in love, gathering others when necessary to lovingly share with truth along with us, and if necessary, call the church together as a body to call this person back to themselves so they might once again live in the truth of who they are as God’s beloved child.

This is a gift we can give one another if we are willing. It is so easy to be hurtful with the truth—to gossip, to tell everyone on social media what’s going on, to be demeaning and insulting with it. But God means us to use truth to create unity, to bring about healing and restoration, and to create a healthy environment in which people can grow into the fullness of the image of Christ. He means for us to speak the truth in love, to build the person up, not tear them down.

Today, then, what truth have we neglected to tell someone in our life? How are we going to lovingly approach them and talk with them about it? What would Jesus have us say? May God grant us the grace to lovingly build relationship and not destroy it in the process of speaking the truth in love. May we prayerfully and humbly work toward unity, healing, and restoration, by God’s grace and power, through Jesus Christ.

Abba, forgive us that so often we neglect to balance effectively truth and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you brought truth and grace to us, and that you work to grow each of us more fully into your likeness by your precious Spirit. Enable us today to speak the truth in love to those you have brought us into relationship with. Give us the boldness to love people well by enabling them to grow up into all you meant for them to be. In your name we pray, amen.

“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB

Minding What Matters Most

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By Linda Rex

August 30, 2020, Proper 17—The pandemic and its associated quarantine have complicated our lives in so many ways. We are bombarded with new distractions, frustrations, and limitations. Some of us are way out of our comfort zone as we attempt new tasks or abandon comfortable routines. It may seem as though we are caught in the midst of a cyclone of mini-crises with no visible means of escape.

Perhaps it would be helpful to see ourselves on a journey where suddenly we are faced with a desolate mountainside to climb—struggling to carry ourselves forward, navigating dangerous outcroppings and unforeseen chasms in our effort to reach the other side. This journey is never made alone, but with the One who has made himself our companion—Jesus Christ. He says to you and to me, “Follow me.” He already knows the way and intends to take us safely to the other side, no matter what may we may face on the way.

The reality is that when Jesus calls us to follow him he knows that life is going to be a struggle for us. To leave behind our comfortable, cozy mattress to find rest in a sleeping bag on a rocky mountainside is not an easy decision. Along the journey, we may decide we’re done with traveling and start looking for a cushy oasis to settle down into. And our adversary loves to supply us with one if it means we will stop following our Lord and Savior and return to our life of sin.

We need to be like Moses, who when the Lord spoke to him from the burning bush said simply, “Here I am.” To simply offer ourselves to God one more time in this particular moment is to follow Jesus. In the offering of ourselves to God, though, we must remember that God will come to us, reveal himself to us, and call us to join with him on a difficult task. Moses told God, “I’m here” and God told him to go lead the Israelites out of Egypt—a breathtaking task for a self-effacing shepherd on a mountainside.

Jesus had just blessed Peter for recognizing him as Messiah, the Son of God, when he began to tell his disciples what the Sanhedrin was going to do to him when he got to Jerusalem. Peter emphatically refused to believe that Jesus would be crucified and die at the hands of the Jewish leaders. Without realizing it, Peter gave in to the adversary’s effort to distract Jesus from the path he knew he had to follow for the sake of all humanity. What seemed to be loving, brotherly compassion and care in Peter’s mind turned out to be a not too subtle temptation for Jesus in complete opposition to the will and purposes of God.

Strong-willed, impulsive Peter seemed to be struggling with the idea that God calls the shots in this world and that sometimes those decisions God makes are not what we think should happen. What is most important to us is not always what is most important to God. He lives in the realm of eternity—we live in the everyday of the temporary.

It seems that if we were to design the Christian life on our terms, it might look like this: A person comes to faith, says the right words, gets baptized, goes to church, everything in their life begins to start working out properly now, they never get sick, and they start making all kinds of money since now they are giving God his portion. Do you see the issue? Throughout this whole life experience—nothing goes wrong, no one gets hurt, and there is no suffering. But it’s not reality.

Jesus knew the human experience. He knew that the minute any of us stepped foot in one of his footprints, the adversary would be on top of them immediately. He knew how easy it would be for us to return to our old ways of thinking and acting instead of embracing our new life in him. He knew that the only path to true transformation of our humanity would be the one through death into resurrection.

So Jesus says to us that we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. There is a cost to following Jesus and it involves dying to our old ways of living and being, and embracing the reality that there will be suffering and struggle in the process. We need to realize that just as the crowds ridiculed and taunted Jesus, there will be those who oppose our choosing to follow him down the path to the cross. There will be tough decisions to make and difficult struggles to end unhealthy relationships and begin new Christ-centered ones.

And there will be circumstances which come up in our lives where we struggle to make sense of what God has done or is doing. Why does God allow some people to die when others who do so much evil continue to live and cause such destruction in this world? There are so many difficult questions for which we have no answers.

We must come back to that place where we simply recognize the holy ground of God’s presence, take off our shoes, and humbly say to him, “Here I am.” We are but creatures and he is the loving Creator, and he has joined us on our journey, shared our pain and suffering, died our death, and sent his Spirit to be present with us in every moment. We are not alone on this journey—and he will bring us safely to the other side. And that is enough.

When the apostle Paul describes the Christian life, he gives some examples of what it looks like. In Romans 12:9–21, he tells the followers of Jesus to love without hypocrisy, to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good. He encourages them to be diligent and fervent in their service to the Lord. He reminds them to persevere in the midst of life’s trials and to devote themselves to prayer and providing for the needs of their spiritual brothers and sisters. Then he gets to the really difficult things—blessing those who persecute them, associating with the poverty-stricken and needy, and never exacting revenge on those who do evil or harm them.

The life of a follower of Jesus is never intended to always be convenient, simple, and comfortable. If anything, it is an arduous struggle. But it’s never done alone. We have the companionship of our spiritual brothers and sisters to lift us up, encourage, and strengthen us. And we have the intimate companionship of our Lord and Savior who indwells us by the Spirit. On our journey, he is present in every moment as we listen, heed, and yield ourselves to him, to give us direction, encouragement, inspiration, and correction.

The life of faith in Jesus is full of moments of joy, peace, hope, and fellowship. We do not walk alone, but have fellow travelers with us on our journey. Yes, there will be difficulties, struggles, and disappointments. But in the midst of whatever may be occurring, we can know that we need only say, “Here I am” and we will find ourselves encountering the living Lord. He is as near as his name on our lips— “Jesus.” He is as close as the breath we breathe—the Spirit who dwells in us. Take a moment right now to feel his presence in you and with you—and commit once again to following him wherever he leads.

Heavenly Father, you are the source of all things—our life and our existence are in you. Jesus, you went before us, living our life and dying our death so that we might rise with you into new life. Spirit, remind us again that we are not alone on this journey, but we have God’s real presence in us and with us as we follow Jesus wherever he leads. We are here, Lord—bring us to where us want us to be. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’” Matthew 16:21–26 NASB

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

Feeding on the Crumbs

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By Linda Rex

August 16, 2020, Proper 15—If there is one thing we are good at as human beings, it is finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other people. We seem to find ways to elevate ourselves while demeaning others, or including ourselves while excluding others. One of the worst things we as Christians do so often is to use the Word of God and our religious faith to create unhealthy boundaries between ourselves and other people.

The one place where we as followers of Christ should find common ground is at the table of thanksgiving—communion. Here we each acknowledge anew with gratitude that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we find our true life in him. Here every person who trusts in him is bound to the community of faith, no matter his or her race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social status, or any other type of differentiation we might come up with.

The gospel passage for August 16th tells the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. Unfortunately for her, orthodox Jewish people of that day believed they had to separate themselves from the Gentiles. This meant she was excluded from any connection with the Jewish rabbis or synagogues. The fact that she sought help from Jesus showed an understanding and appreciation for who Jesus was that the Jewish authorities had denied. They ridiculed any possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Messiah.

Previous to his encounter with this woman, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees. They had criticized Jesus’ disciples for not observing careful ceremonial washing before they ate. Jesus pointed out their nitpicking observation of their traditions actually prevented people from obeying God and loving others as they were supposed to. For example, they said if a person gave to the temple coffers the support which was meant for the care of their dependent parents, that it was acceptable. But Jesus said that doing so broke God’s command that parents be honored and cared for by their children.

Later Jesus explained to his disciples when they were alone that it wasn’t what a person put into their bodies that made them unclean, but what came out of their hearts. Whatever we eat eventually gets used or discarded by our bodies. But what comes out of us in what we say and do is often what defiles us. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”

Matthew, in his gospel, says that after this conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and made his way into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Was he trying to avoid more of these provocative conversations so he could focus on teaching his disciples? Perhaps. But what is interesting is that their next experience was meeting this Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on my daughter, Son of David!”

Here we have someone who is excluded from the Jewish fellowship who is calling Jesus “Son of David”, a title only appropriate for the Messiah. Why did she call him this? Was she a Gentile proselyte? In any case, she seemed to be much more in agreement with who Jesus was than the Pharisees were.

The disciples, though, seemed not to have learned much from their previous experience with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish scriptures spoke of the day God’s salvation would be known among all nations. A foreigner coming to Jesus and asking for mercy was welcome—it said so in the writings they read in the synagogue. But it was their traditions regarding the Gentiles which created the barrier between them and caused them to resist including this woman in what they were doing.

Yes, Jesus was sent first to his people, Israel or the Jews, but not to the total exclusion of others. Jesus came to his people first so that when all was said and done, every human being would have a place at his table—all could come to him in faith and be received.

Jesus’ comment to the woman about taking the table food and feeding the dogs could have been an insult. But she knew that in a family, even the pet dogs had a place at the table, picking up the scraps off the floor. Even today, we often consider our pets to be part of our family, included in our life and worthy of at least a few choice leftovers after the meal. Speaking in this way, the woman touched Jesus’ heart, and so, in compassion, he healed her daughter.

Jesus remarked on her faith. While the disciples were busy trying to avoid having her bother the Messiah, the Messiah was busy being who he was—the bringer of salvation to all people, both Jew and Gentile. She trusted him to be compassionate and gracious, and so he was. She asked for mercy and she received it, because she trusted him to provide it.

What joy there must have been as this woman’s daughter was finally free from what had brought such chaos, pain, and suffering in her family! What Satan had meant to steal, kill, and destroy was replaced by the love, healing, and mercy of God—the renewal of the family bonds. This was but a small reflection of Jesus’ eternal intimate bond of love with his heavenly Father in the Spirit.

Perhaps it would be helpful to take a few moments to reflect on what barriers we may have at work in our lives which need to be replaced by love, compassion, and mercy. Who do we know who needs the tender touch of our Savior? Perhaps instead of criticism, condemnation, or isolation, today we may offer prayer, understanding, and a kind word or smile. What barrier can we replace today with God’s love and grace?

Holy Spirit, grant us the heart of Jesus towards each and every person we encounter in our lives. Enable us to see them as you do—one whom you came for, Jesus—one whom you love, Abba. Grant us the grace to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us ill, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is only possible through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. In your Name we ask this. Amen.

“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, | To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, | To be His servants, ‘every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath | And holds fast My covenant; | Even those I will bring to My holy mountain | And make them joyful in My house of prayer. | Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; | For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ | The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB

“That Your way may be known on the earth, | Your salvation among all nations. | Let the peoples praise You, O God; | Let all the peoples praise You. | 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; | For You will judge the peoples with uprightness | And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.”
Psalm 67:2-4 NASB

See also Matthew 15:21–28.

When Battered by the Waves

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By Linda Rex

August 9, 2020, PROPER 14—When the disciples finished feeding the five thousand and walked about gathering up what was leftover of the bread and fish, they must have felt a sense of elation and maybe even triumph. The miracle Jesus had just done was so much like the manna that came through Moses—surely he was the Prophet spoken of! But there was a significant problem with the thoughts going through everyone’s mind right then.

Jesus never meant to establish a powerful political human government at that time. His purpose was not to become solely the provider of physical bread and physical healing. His life and ministry had a much deeper purpose—to be, as he already was, the Savior of all humankind.

As Jesus practically pushed his disciples into a boat to cross the lake, he sought to stop the momentum of the crowd’s passionate appeal to make him king. As the disciples left, he disbursed the crowd and made his way up the mountain to have time alone with his heavenly Father.

Jesus was in grave need of his Abba’s strength, power, and wisdom in the face of this human temptation to take matters into his own hands and rule under his own power. During his wilderness wandering the evil one had tempted him with this very thing. And he knew, after what had happened to John his cousin, what the most likely outcome of his ministry would be if he continued on this path of humility, compassion and service. He needed to keep himself in tune with his Father, in the oneness of the Spirit so he could finish what God had set out to do.

The communion of the Father and the Son was apparent as Jesus spent hours up on the mountain with his Abba. Meanwhile the disciples were making their way across the lake. A powerful storm blew up and the disciples were afraid for their lives. Great waves rose and fell, filling the boat with water. The wind blew harshly, tossing the boat about and making forward progress impossible.

Somewhere between three and six o’clock in the morning while it was pitch black out on the choppy water, they saw a figure walking across the lake. All of their superstitious fears arose—they thought they were seeing a ghost. People at that time believed that unembodied spirits haunted the deep waters late at night, and here one had found them. They were terrified.

Jesus must have sensed their terror for he called out, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” In the other gospels we learn that Jesus intended to pass by them and go on to the other side of the lake by himself. But when he saw their distress, he had compassion on them and came to them in the midst of the battering waves.

Many times, when life gets complicated, when we feel like we are in danger of drowning in debt, in relational quicksand, in depression, or other struggles in life, we feel as though there is no hope to continue on. What efforts we make might be like those of these disciples in the boat, fruitless, powerless against the force of the storm. In the darkness it may be difficult to see where we are going or how we ever are going to get safely home. We may be endlessly going in circles, finding ourselves right back where we started from—or worse.

What we must remember at times like these is that what we may believe is a ghost or phantom, someone who has forsaken us, is actually our Lord coming to us in the midst of the battering waves. There is a genuine, real Savior who is master of the storm, who can still the wind and waves simply with a word.

Impulsive Peter wanted Jesus to prove who he was by inviting him out to walk on the water too. And he did. Peter and Jesus were the only humans to ever do this—but there was a difference between them. The minute Peter took his eyes off Jesus and began to focus on the wind and the waves, he began to sink into the water. He was completely dependent upon Jesus saving him. He had no power over the storm. It was when Jesus entered the boat with Peter that the storm ceased—and this drove the disciples to their knees in worship.

The reality we must come to terms with is that our existence is dependent upon God. We are at the mercy of our creation in ways we don’t want to admit to. For millennia we have worked to master this world and all its intricacies. But there are still things we don’t have control over—earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes—other natural occurrences. We have made great progress in dealing with COVID-19, but we have at no point come up with the power to stop the disease simply with a word. Only one human has ever had that power—and he was God in human flesh, Jesus Christ.

Nor do we have the power of redemption that Jesus has. There is a way where God can, and does, take the horrific experiences of our lives and redeem them—turn them into good, in spite of the harm they have done. The storm created havoc in the lives of the disciples, but Jesus turned it into an opportunity for them to grow in faith and in their knowledge of him as Lord and Savior. The storms in our lives, if we are willing, are opportunities for us to grow in our ability and desire to trust in Christ and to come to a deeper appreciation of our need for him and his love and provision. As we turn to Christ in faith, he can take these storms and use them as opportunities to refine us, to transform and heal us.

Coming to a realistic affirmation of who we are as God’s children is a great place to be, for there we find comfort, peace, assurance and hope. Today, are you feeling battered by the waves in your life? Do you feel tossed about, forsaken, hopeless? Perhaps you need to look up, to hear Jesus’ words to you, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” Ask Jesus to awaken you to his presence in you and with you in the midst of the battering waves. Fasten your eyes on him, walk with him, and ignore the storm—he’ll take care of it in his good time. Thank him for his faithful love and grace as master of the storm. Worship him in gratitude and praise.

Dear Jesus, this world’s storms toss us about, blow us around in circles, and steal our hope. We know you are the Lord of all, our Savior and Deliverer. Grant us the faith to keep our eyes on you, no matter how bad the storms get. Speak your word of life and hope—carry us through these storms and silence them all in your good time. May your Spirit breathe life, peace, and hope to calm the battering waves in our lives and in this world. Keep us in our Abba’s hand and bring us safely to shore. Amen.

“Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” Matthew 14:22–33 NASB

A Heart of Compassion

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By Linda Rex

August 2, 2020, PROPER 13—So many news reports today focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the related economic and unemployment troubles, as well as the ongoing racial tensions around this country. We have experienced powerful emotional responses to the news and social media coverage of these situations—fear, anger, frustration, sadness. It seems that we are being bombarded on all sides with every reason to lose hope and give ourselves over to fear and anxiety.

I have no doubt that this is encouraged and inspired by the father of lies who seeks only to kill, steal, and destroy. And whether we want to admit it or not, we are responsible for our choices to walk apart from the One who would gladly intervene to heal, restore, and help. Whether we like to hear it or not, blaming God for all this isn’t truthful, nor is it helpful. If anything, we need to believe that underneath all of our messy lives still lies the everlasting arms of a loving Savior.

It would be healing, I believe, to take the time to contemplate the manner of Savior we do have. If we had a God who understood what it means to suffer and grieve, and who cares about us, that would provide some comfort and encouragement when life gets tough. We read the testimony of witnesses in the Bible who say that the Word of God was sent to us, to live in our humanity and experience life as we do. This God/man Jesus Christ walked the dusty roads of Palestine, ate and drank with people from all walks of life, and bore the rejection and ridicule of those who should have welcomed him.

He had a relative named John, who was called by God to prepare the way for his coming. John preached in the wilderness, and baptized those who responded to his call to repent and be baptized. Jesus himself came to him to be baptized for the sake of all humanity, and John, under protest, did as Jesus asked. Later, John had the courage to speak the truth about the king’s immoral behavior, and ended up in prison.

Both men were obedient to the call of God on their lives. When Jesus heard that John had been beheaded by the king, he was profoundly impacted by the news. His heart was filled with compassion and grief for John, possibly some concern about his own path towards a tragic death, and he knew the only way he could deal with any of this was by taking it to his heavenly Father. He went to find a secluded place to spend time with his Abba.

But the people followed him. They were looking for a savior, a deliverer—someone to help them and heal them. When Jesus saw them, his heart went out to them. He was filled with compassion, and healed the sick people who came to him. Even though what he needed as a human was time alone with God to heal and prepare for his future, he took time to help those who sought him out. He ministered to others even though he desired to be ministered to by his Father.

In Jesus we see a deep compassion—an other-centered love which placed the needs of those around him above his own needs. Jesus knew the Source of his strength, wisdom, and power, and was wanting to be renewed and refreshed in his Father’s presence. But he also understood the cry of those about him who needed love, healing, and forgiveness. He knew this was the Father’s heart that he was expressing toward them. Every act of healing and love came straight from his Father’s hands by the Spirit to those who were in need.

As the day drew to a close, the disciples came to Jesus and suggested that he send the people away so they could get food before the shops in the distant towns were closed for the day. Jesus challenged his disciples by telling them, “You give them something to eat.” No doubt their jaws dropped in surprise. “You can’t be serious, Jesus!” Right away they began explaining their limitations—there was no way they could feed over five thousand people!

So often this is my own response to that twinge in my heart which calls me to help someone! Here the disciples couldn’t see any way to do what was needed in the situation—they only had five loaves of bread and two fish. How far could that go? It wouldn’t even feed the disciples themselves. Why would Jesus ask them to do something they could not realistically do? What was he thinking?

What Jesus did next is instructive to us as his followers. He took the little that was available and lifted it up to his Father in prayer. Jesus knew from personal experience that what little he had, when given to the Father, would be more than what was needed in the situation. Hadn’t he experienced this that very day, when he had sought time alone with the Father to regain his spiritual strength and peace, and found himself doing ministry instead? And hadn’t his Father been faithful to carry him through as he needed the presence and power of the Spirit to do ministry?

So Jesus lifted up the fish and bread to his Father and blessed them. Then he gave them to the disciples, who then gave them to the crowd of people. Jesus was not directly involved in this miracle—he left the grunt work to the disciples. It was as they distributed the bread and fish that it was multiplied to the point that everyone ate and was satisfied. Remarkably, there was so much food left over, that each of the twelve disciples picked up a basketful of the remnants of the meal when everyone was done eating.

What happened when Jesus offered the little that the disciples had to his Father? It was multiplied to meet the present need. This was a lesson that they needed to learn—to trust God for all that they needed in order to serve those they were sent to.

Maybe today would be a good time to pause and consider, what have we been anxious and concerned about lately? Is there anything we feel totally inadequate to deal with or to take care of? What are we lacking that we know we cannot provide for ourselves? Is there some ministry task Jesus has given us that we believe we cannot do because we think we don’t have what is needed to do it?

The reality is that so often we depend upon ourselves, or others, or money or our government for what we need. This life is filled with experiences and circumstances where we cannot do for ourselves or for others what is needed. This means life so often can be fearful, frustrating, infuriating, and full of anxiety, sorrow and grief.

What we need to remember is the compassion and understanding of the God who made us, who is willing to do for us what we cannot do. He is the God who can stretch things way beyond the limits we think they have. He can also help us to see things in a new way and discover that what we thought we needed isn’t what is really important—he may have something much better in mind.

Our Abba is the compassionate One who is Healer, Restorer, and Provider. Relying upon ourselves places us in the middle of the wilderness with only a bit of fish and bread to take care of our needs. What God wants us to do is to offer all that we do have up to him, and then to take it and do those things he would have us do with what we are given. Then as we trust, as we walk in obedience, he will ensure we have everything we need and maybe even more than we can ask or imagine.

Thank you, Father, for your faithfulness, love, and grace. We offer ourselves again, all we are and all we have up to you. Please stretch it, replenish it, renew it—make it abundantly sufficient for all you give us to do. Grant us the grace to trust you, to walk in obedience to your Spirit, and to express your heart of compassion to each and every person you bring before us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

“Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; |And you who have no money come, buy and eat. | Come, buy wine and milk | Without money and without cost. | Why do you spend money for what is not bread, | And your wages for what does not satisfy? | Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, | And delight yourself in abundance.” Isaiah 55:1-2 NASB

See also Matthew 14:13–21.