By Linda Rex
May 15, 2022, 5th Sunday in Easter—Many years ago, while sitting on the banks of the Des Moines River, I chatted with a Vietnam veteran who was helping with a display of the traveling wall of honor. My memories of the war in Vietnam were very vague since I was very young when it occurred. This man, seasoned by conflict and suffering, was frank and relentless in his descriptions of the event, as he sought to acquaint me with a little of his experiences during the war.
I’m more and more convinced that the struggles our veterans face when returning from conflict are often rooted in the reality that God never meant for us to have to experience the horror and atrocities of war. Nor did he intend for us to experience betrayal, subterfuge, corruption, or destruction. The consequences of war are so great—and yet we still use war as the means by which we solve our disagreements with one another.
The war occurring currently in Ukraine is a good example of humans continuing to use unhealthy and unholy ways of resolving their differences. And what is really tragic about this conflict is what is being said with regards to the Christian beliefs of those involved. Is war ever an appropriate solution to differences between followers of Christ?
The struggle many have with following Christ is that his response to conflict and differences of opinion is often the opposite of what ours is as his followers. In the gospel reading for this Sunday, John 13:31–35, we hear Jesus telling us that the way others see God’s love is by the way followers of Christ love one another. If we resolve conflict by accelerating it and using weapons and warfare, we are not reflecting the nature of the God who is love nor are we being Christ-like, for our Lord allowed himself to be crucified by his enemies rather than sending his legions of angels to fight on his behalf.
The first reading for this Sunday, Acts 11:1–18 (NASB), describes when Peter went to Jerusalem to meet with the other believers and was accused of defiling himself by having fellowship with Gentiles, the people excluded from Jewish worship. Peter explained how the Spirit had given him a vision of unclean animals, telling him three times to kill and eat. Peter had never eaten anything unclean before, and said so. But the Spirit told him, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” Peter then discovered that what was more important than his religious rules was his relationship with God and those with whom God was calling himself into relationship.
The Jewish rules at that time regarding what a person could eat or not eat and do or not do, created a rigid wall that kept out anyone who was not of their own background and beliefs. God had called the people of ancient Israel to be witnesses to the world of who God was, but they had been isolating themselves from the world instead. For Peter to walk into the home of a Gentile required a commitment to Christ and to his Spirit that superseded his religious background and belief system. Was he willing to meet these Gentiles on the common ground of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Was he willing to be obedient to the Spirit rather than following his rigid list of rules?
As he stood before his Jewish accusers, Peter explained his reasoning for having obeyed the Spirit’s instruction to go to this Gentile’s home and preach the gospel. As soon as he spoke the words of life—the gospel of Jesus Christ—to them, the Spirit descended upon his listeners just as the Spirit descended upon the disciples on Pentecost. Peter remembered that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and said, “who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” We don’t choose our siblings in Christ—God does. And we need to learn how to live in right relationship with them, just as Jesus brought us into right relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
This is why Jesus so often stressed that we are to love one another. In his conversation with his disciples before he died, Jesus emphasized that his disciples need to love one other. Our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ is a tangible sign of God’s love expressed to all humanity in Jesus’ self-offering.
Jesus laid down his life for us, setting aside for a time the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity so that he might draw us into the circle of love between the Father, Son, and Spirit. What God has done for us in Christ, we are compelled by the love of Christ to do for one another, and to do for those who are not followers of Christ as well. To not love God and to not love one another is to be inhumane—to be not truly human as we were intended by God to be. Every one of us was created to live in loving, other-centered relationship with God and one another, no matter who we are. To not live in that way is to not truly be ourselves.
This leaves us in a difficult position as followers of Christ. Jesus tells us that the evidence of our being his followers is our love for one another. When a brother or sister is not walking in love, they are walking in darkness rather than in the light. As people of light, how do we respond in the most loving, light-bearing way possible to the deeds of darkness? What does it mean to be a peace-maker in a circumstance of war?
The evil one always seeks to divide, disrupt, kill, destroy and steal. His kingdom is not the one we are members of, so his ways must not be our ways. We must, as followers of Christ, follow the lead of the Spirit as he draws people together rather than ripping them apart. God loves us and gives us air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat even when we reject and ignore him. Can we do any less for our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are? What is the Spirit saying to you and to me today about the people in our lives? Are we building walls to keep others out, or are we welcoming them with open arms into the fellowship of Christ?
Heavenly Father, forgive us our petty squabbles and disagreements, our refusal to live with one another in peace. Forgive us for looking down on others and for refusing to make room for them in our lives. Grant us the grace to love others in the same way you have loved us, by laying down your life in your Son Jesus. Move in us by your Spirit to truly love one another, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
“Therefore when he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately. Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’ ” John 13:31–35 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/as-he-loves-us.pdf%5D
By Linda Rex
May 8, 2022, 3rd Sunday in EASTER—When we had our Community Café ministry running strong, I remember sitting at the table talking with some of our church neighbors. Around us, busily taking care of all of us, were the Martha’s of our congregation—those with the gifts of hospitality, service, and helping. How tangible was the expression of the love of God through their hands!
I believe this is the significance of the story in Acts 9:36–43 about the disciple named Tabitha (or Dorcas). Luke tells us that she was “abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did.” Apparently, she used to make clothing for people, providing a necessary service for those in her spiritual community. When she passed away, the loss was felt keenly—keenly enough that they call for Peter to immediately come.
Indeed, I think about those who are no longer with us who had this same gift of the Spirit of service and helping. It would be nice if they could have stayed awhile with us so we could continue to enjoy the blessing of their loving care. But this was not God’s best for us or them, and they have moved on.
What we can learn from them, though, is that we help to make Christ visible to others when we serve, help and care for others. These tangible expressions of God’s love enable people to not just hear about Jesus, but to feel and experience his love in a real way that can be life-changing. These expressions of God’s love testify to the truth of the good news of Jesus’ finished work. When we live out what we say we believe, then the gospel, or good news, begins to carry some weight. When we don’t live out what we believe, we dishonor and grieve the Spirit, and make all that we might say about Jesus appear to be false.
The apostle John told about a time when Jesus was walking in the temple during the Feast of Dedication, what we today call Hanukkah. The Jews there gathered around him, hoping to catch him saying or doing something they could use as an excuse to arrest him. They wanted him to plainly tell them that he was the expected Messiah. But Jesus knew their intentions were not honorable and that they did not have his best interests in mind.
Jesus reminded them that he had already clearly told them the truth about who he was. Then he said to them, “…the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me.” Jesus was saying that they should have known who he was by looking at the things he was doing. What he was doing—healing the sick, casting out demons, giving the blind sight and the deaf hearing—was all done in his Father’s name by the power of the Holy Spirit. No one else could do these things in the way he was doing them. His actions quite clearly showed who he was—the Son of the Father, the Anointed One.
Question: do our actions quite clearly show who we are—the adopted children of God? How well are we reflecting our Lord Jesus Christ? We may preach the gospel effectively with our words, but how are we doing with our actions?
This question can be quite intimidating for a pastor. I realize that I stand up each week and preach, telling people what I believe God wants us to hear and do. But it never ceases to amaze me how that very thing I preached on or planned to preach on becomes an object lesson for me personally. God doesn’t want us to just talk about Jesus and his ways. He wants everyone of us to live and walk at all times “in Christ”—so all of life is swept up into walking in the Spirit in such a way that when others look our way, they tangibly experience God’s love—Jesus Christ in us by the Spirit.
Every one of us has opportunities throughout the week to offer help, care, and service to others. When GCI talks about the Love Avenue, this is what is meant. We are each called and gifted by God to love others. God has shed his love abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Participating in the Love Avenue is what we all do, though some of us are more gifted by the Spirit for these specific types of ministries.
And those who are especially gifted in the area of helping, service, and hospitality, I encourage you to be sure to find ways to use your gifts to express God’s love. You are a blessing to this world and I am very grateful for each of you—you are the reason that we have truckdrivers, farmers, caregivers, nurses, cooks, and all of those who work in hospitality, medicine, and many other fields where having people who serve others is essential to our well-being. When you are busy and active using your gifts to serve others as to the Lord, not only are people blessed, but you become a vibrant, tangible expression of God’s love.
Some of us find serving others in this way to be challenging. For all of us, trusting in the Spirit is essential. The apostle Paul said that if we work, we work as if we are working for the Lord. All of life is lived “in Christ” now. Just as Jesus did what he did in his Father’s name, we do what we do now in Jesus’ name and for the Father’s glory. What Jesus did, he did motivated by God’s love, since he was filled with the Spirit. Paul says for us to let the Spirit fill us. And, knowing we are compelled by God’s love, we are to love one another—proving we are Christ’s disciples.
The reason Jesus did the works he did was that he lived in united with his Father in the Spirit. It is because Jesus and his Father were one in will and action that by the Spirit Jesus expressed love so powerfully and profoundly. The reason we do caring, helping, and serving things is because we are united with Christ by faith, therefore united with the Father in the Spirit. It is our unity with God through Christ in the Spirit that we receive the capacity and desire to love and serve others effectively—and God offers this to everyone. May the Lord fully express through each of us by his Spirit the love and grace of our God.
Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us people in our lives who are especially gifted to serve, help and care for others. Thank you for pouring your love into our hearts by your Spirit so each and every one of us can serve, help and care for those you place in our lives. Grant us the grace to love others even as you have loved us, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“At that time the Feast of the Dedication [Hanukkah or Festival of Lights] took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ ” John 10:22–30 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/walking-in-unity-with-god.pdf ]
By Linda Rex
May 1, 2022—3rd Sunday in EASTER—Have you ever thought about how you would respond if Jesus told you that you were going to die an excruciating death because you chose to follow him? I’d like to hope I was brave enough to cast all care to the wind and follow him anyway, but truth be told, I’m not sure I’d be that courageous and committed in the face of such dire circumstances apart from the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.
In many ways, I can identify with Simon Peter, who bravely said that he would follow Jesus no matter where he went, yet, when faced with imminent arrest, refused to acknowledge he was one of Jesus’ followers. What we say and do when times are easy and our circumstances are convenient is often a great deal different than what we say and do when faced with rejection, exclusion, violence, and death.
Initially, Peter went to the tomb with John to check out the tale that the women told about finding the gravesite empty. John and Peter’s usual rivalry was evident, for John took note that he got to the tomb first, before Peter. But Peter was the bold, brash one, for he immediately stepped in to see how things really were. John, however, was the one who believed. We don’t know for sure what Peter was thinking at this point.
After the resurrection, the disciples hid in the upper room behind locked doors, but two Sundays in a row, Jesus showed up. He offered to show them his wounds so that they could verify that it was indeed him. And he pointedly offered this to Thomas, who had refused to believe until he saw Jesus’ wounds with his own eyes. How thrilling it must have been for the disciples to see and talk with Jesus after the resurrection!
Still, we don’t see Peter’s direct response to Jesus’ resurrection until John’s story of the third Sunday following the resurrection. The disciples had returned to Galilee, and Peter took the lead by deciding he was going to go fishing, the one thing he knew how to do. The other disciples joined him. They fished all night long, without catching anything. When morning came, they began to head back to shore. Someone on the beach called out to them, asking whether they had caught anything. They told him they didn’t catch a thing. The stranger suggested that they throw the net off the right side of the boat instead.
Why in the world would they do what a stranger asked? But sure enough, they threw the net one more time as instructed and the net collected so many fish that the men were concerned that it would break. At this point, John leaned over to Peter and stated the obvious—“It’s the Lord.” This whole experience felt like déjà vu to them, since this is what happened when they were first called by Jesus to follow him. Rash Peter donned his jacket and dove into the water to swim to Jesus, while John stayed and helped with the fish.
I’m not sure what drove Peter to go back to fishing after the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus didn’t seem to mind that he had. He simply met them there on the shore and invited them to breakfast with him. Just as Peter had denied Jesus three times while gathered around a campfire, now Jesus affirmed Peter’s commitment to Christ three times.
“Peter, do you love me more than these?” Perhaps Jesus was asking, “Do you love me more than you love fishing?” Or maybe, “Do you love me more than your friends?” Peter could no longer boldly proclaim his devotion by rash promises, but finally had to confess, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” Jesus was confirming that he still had work for Peter to do: “Feed my lambs… take care of my sheep…feed my sheep….”
But Peter needed to move beyond bravado and rash promises into genuine humble commitment in the face of opposition. This time Jesus didn’t tell him he would deny Christ three times before the rooster crowed. This time, Jesus said, Peter would end his days at the mercy of those who would murder him. But he was to follow Christ anyway.
What a prediction! Jesus obviously believed that Peter would never again deny Christ in the same manner in which he had denied him at Jesus’ trial. Did Peter ever make the same mistake again? Well, in a way, he did struggle with this issue, for we read in the book of Galatians that the apostle Paul called Peter out for not standing against the Judaizers who were denying the sufficiency of Christ (Gal. 2:11-14). But ultimately, tradition tells us that Peter was crucified in Rome and he insisted that he be crucified upside down, in honor of his Lord.
Whatever we may face in our future as we follow Christ, we must trust that God will grant us the grace to go where he leads and that he will keep us faithful. We cannot count upon our own ability to do so in the face of opposition. But there also is the matter of commitment on our part. What price are we willing to pay? Jesus gave his all. Will we give ours in return?
Lord Jesus, we love you. But we humbly realize our inadequacy when it comes to devotion and faithfulness. You know us completely and love us entirely. Grant us the grace to follow wherever you lead, no matter the cost, all the way until the end, whatever that end may be, by your Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father. Amen.
“Later, Jesus appeared again to the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. This is how it happened. Several of the disciples were there—Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples. Simon Peter said, ‘I’m going fishing.’ ‘We’ll come, too,’ they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night. At dawn Jesus was standing on the beach, but the disciples couldn’t see who he was. He called out, ‘Fellows, have you caught any fish?’ ‘No,’ they replied. Then he said, ‘Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!’ So they did, and they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it. Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It’s the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and headed to shore. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yards from shore. When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread. ‘Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught,’ Jesus said. So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn’t torn. ‘Now come and have some breakfast!’ Jesus said. None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Then Jesus served them the bread and the fish. This was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples since he had been raised from the dead. After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ Peter replied, ‘you know I love you.’ ‘Then feed my lambs,’ Jesus told him. Jesus repeated the question: ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ Peter said, ‘you know I love you.’ ‘Then take care of my sheep,’ Jesus said. A third time he asked him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, ‘Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Then feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.’ Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, ‘Follow me.’” John 21:1–19 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/the-grace-to-follow.pdf%5D
By Linda Rex
April 24, 2022, 2nd Sunday in EASTER—Do you ever do that thing where when you’re expecting a visitor, you start tidying up everything in the house? Pretty soon you’re checking the bathrooms and the bedrooms to be sure there’s no clutter or dust. You’re fluffing the pillows on the couch, straightening the dining room chairs, and wiping off the kitchen counter one more time. And then the doorbell rings.
What I find interesting about social media and our online presence today is that we often do the same thing, only in a different way. I’ve been trying to go through things at home, so I can begin downsizing and packing, and I have empty boxes laying around and stuff scattered here and there. But when I was joining a Zoom meeting today, all of a sudden, I decided that the boxes had to be moved around so that my online line presence didn’t look like a stockroom.
It is rather distressing to me to realize how managed and manipulated what we see and hear online really is nowadays. It’s getting harder and harder to hear the quiet, sincere voices of the loving truth-tellers. We can’t really discern the hearts and minds of those we are listening to, or whether what they are showing us or telling us hasn’t been doctored or altered in some way. Perhaps they spent hours preparing for the “white glove” test rather than simply being real and honest with us.
There is a hunger I am beginning to sense in people for genuine, healthy community and relationship. I’m not certain that many of us know or remember what that even looks like. What does it mean to love and be loved in the way God created us to exist as image-bearers of the divine? Whatever it means, it must include the ability to see what is unseen—the heart and mind of the living God at work in us and with each of us by his heavenly Spirit. And that happens in the context of face-to-face relationship.
I think this was the cry of Thomas’ heart when the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Jesus’ death was a real event—a truly graphic and horrendous human experience. What outcome could there be from a crucifixion other than a painful, arduous death? And the body that was taken off the cross was lifeless and cold—and the tomb Jesus was laid in was sealed shut. There was an end to all that the disciples had experienced together with the Messiah.
Thomas could not wrap his mind around the possibility that there could be a different outcome from what he experienced. The disciples’ words, that they had seen Jesus alive, must have seemed like a doctored-up story created out of their vain imaginations. “I must see his hands and his side myself,” he told them, needing to have something tangible he could touch and see, so he could know for certain that Jesus was indeed alive.
We can take comfort in the way that Jesus handled Thomas’ reluctance to believe what the disciples were saying about their experience. Jesus knew Thomas well, and understood his heart, as he was the one who bravely volunteered to go with Jesus to Jerusalem to die with him, when Jesus was going there to raise Lazarus from the dead. And Thomas was the one who, when Jesus told the disciples they knew the way he was going, asked where that way was, since he didn’t think they did know where Jesus was going. Jesus’ memorable reply was, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” He understood this disciple’s inquisitive mind, which wanted to be certain about the details and to really comprehend what was going on.
We find the second Sunday after the resurrection the disciples were once again behind locked doors in the upper room of the place they were staying. All of a sudden, once again, there was Jesus in their midst. But apparently, he was there for a specific reason. He went directly to Thomas and addressed his doubts, showing him his hand and his side, and inviting him to touch the wounds he had received. Thomas, being overcome in that moment with the reality of who Jesus was, could only say, “My Lord and my God!”
Let me ask you this: Have you ever had a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you know what it is like to know for certain that he is a risen Lord—that he is real, and alive, and interested in a personal relationship with you? Do you know what it means to live your life knowing that he is present and real by the Holy Spirit, and that he is aware of everything you think, feel, say, or do—and loves you completely and entirely in the midst of it all?
I can tell you about my own experiences with the Lord Jesus Christ, but how do you know whether or not they are genuine? Perhaps it is good to have the outlook of Thomas—the willingness to ask for yourself whether or not the resurrection really did happen. “Unless I see”—I myself. I must come to terms with the reality that God has come, as God in human flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, has lived a genuinely human life, died at the hands of the people he came to save, and rose again from the grave. I need to ask the difficult question: Do I believe? What do I believe about Jesus Christ?
The good news is that Jesus is ready and willing to enable us to know the truth. He wants us to see and to believe. Now, I don’t believe he is going to show up like he did back then with Thomas, but by the Spirit, Jesus has ways of showing up that we cannot dismiss without real effort. He’s not waiting for us to prepare ourselves or our lives for the “white glove” test. He’s already cleaned house for us. He’s inviting us to open ourselves and our lives up to his presence—to tell him the truth—Lord, I need to see. Lord, I want to see. Lord, open my eyes, my mind, my heart—so I may see and believe.
Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows exactly what it will take for us to see and to believe. And he is at work right now, doing his best to meet us at that place. And he is ready to, by his Spirit, awaken us to faith, a faith that is his gift to us, as he draws us into a face-to-face relationship with God which is ours now and on into eternity.
Heavenly Father, how blessed we are in the sacred gift of your Son and your Spirit—life in relationship with you now and forever! Bless us anew with the grace to see the spiritual realities, to daily see and experience the presence of our risen Lord by your heavenly Spirit. Amen.
“So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.’ But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.’ After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then He said to Thomas, ‘Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.’ Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:19–31 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/unless-i-see.pdf%5D
By Linda Rex
April 17, 2022, Resurrection Sunday | Easter—Do you ever feel like you are just going through the motions? That life is one boring, uninteresting routine—like you are enslaved by the everyday, uninspiring demands of your existence?
I enjoy reading a good book. I found one the other day at the library I thought I might enjoy reading and I took it home to read. The upshot of the book was that someone who felt like they were going through the motions, who was living an inspired, boring existence, discovered through a chance meeting, an opportunity to turn their life around. As they followed the guidance of their mentor, their life began to change for the better, bringing them to a new place of invigorating, creative life and relationships.
What is interesting to me is how this whole book was based on one person’s ability to do what is needed to make the changes in their life. Like most self-improvement programs, it required persistence, facing challenges, and dealing with failure. It was fully based upon the law of cause and effect—that if the main character took certain steps, then certain things would happen. I felt the only true realistic positive through the whole process was the author showed that meaningful and lasting changes in the main character came about within the context of caring relationship. And that, I believe, is the key.
Like I said, I love to read. I enjoy looking at books, turning their pages, and reading the things people have been inspired to write. Often, books have been my mentor, helping me to see things about life, about myself, and about God that I would not have seen otherwise. Many times, books have inspired me to make significant life changes or have been a part of the process God put me through to change my understanding of who he is and what he is doing in me and in the world around me.
But a book can only do so much. Even Jesus told listeners that they searched the Scriptures trying to find life, but they would not come to him to actually find it. There is a profound difference between knowing about God and reading about God, and actually living life in relationship with him. It is possible to read about how to live a good life but never actually live it or experience it because we have never personally encountered the God in Christ who by the Spirit is our life.
Imagine growing up in a culture where once a week you gathered with friends and family to listen to the reading and singing of your sacred scriptures. As a child, you would be memorizing (hopefully) long passages from the psalms and maybe even the genealogical listings of your forefathers. You would observe the ancient rituals ceremonially, gathering weekly and in special seasons with family and community for the special days that recall your culture’s history, memorializing its great events.
But then, one day, you meet someone who is supposedly the fulfillment of your culture’s greatest expectations. He calls you to follow him, so you, thrilled at the privilege, drop everything to follow this messiah and to learn from him. You listen to his parables, follow his instructions even when they don’t make sense, and begin to grow attached to him. But then he begins to say that he is going to die—and he does, horribly, at the hands of those who should have honored and followed him.
What about all of those years of studying, those years of memorizing passages, or those years of following this man? Did any of that change you? If you are different, what made you different? Are you different because of all that you read, or maybe a bit different because of the days spent in relationship with that special man?
Early on that Sunday morning, the ladies gathered at the tomb where Jesus had been laid, amazed that the stone had been rolled away. They were astonished at the angels they saw there. But more amazing was what the angels said: “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” They were encouraged to remember what had they learned all those years they spent with Jesus. What had he told them? What had he said about what the Scriptures predicted would happen to him?
What we celebrate on this special day is the spiritual reality we serve a risen Lord. He is risen! (He is risen, indeed!) No matter how humdrum or routine our existence may seem at the moment, no matter how dead our life may seem to be—there is always hope for something better, because Jesus is risen! (He is risen, indeed!) Our relationship with Jesus Christ is unimpaired by anything in our world that may seek to hold us captive to old ways of thinking and behaving. Our risen Lord injects into every circumstance the potential for transformation, healing, and wholeness.
It is significant that Peter, as he denied Jesus the third time, looked across at Jesus, who caught his eye. In that moment, he was struck by the reality of the truth of what Jesus had told him. In that moment, what mattered? All those years of studying? Or that relationship in which Jesus, who knew Peter down to his soul and knew beforehand what he would do, still loved him. Christ still believed that Peter would turn around and would become what Jesus believed he could become. But it would be in relationship with Jesus—as Peter met him after the crucifixion on the shore of the lake and reminded him of his calling, and as the promised Holy Spirit fell on them all at Pentecost and Peter stood up to preach.
What changes would you like to see in your life? It is good to make the effort to learn and to grow. It is good to read the Scriptures and to memorize them. But it is even better to live and walk in the reality that Jesus is risen. (He is risen, indeed.) He is alive, right now, and you can live every moment in conversation with him and his Father in the Spirit. You don’t have to struggle against the downward pull of our dead flesh any longer—he has given us new life! Our risen Lord is alive and calling you into deeper relationship with himself—to live in and with him for all eternity.
Jesus is risen! (He is risen, indeed!) God has kept his promise to deliver us from evil, sin, and death. We look for Jesus, not among the dead, but among the living. We gather together as followers of Christ because we know that he lives in us and among us. Jesus is risen! (He is risen, indeed!) And he lives in us and among us by his heavenly Spirit. Come to his table. Eat and drink of him. Now and forever live in newness of life, because Jesus is risen! (He is risen, indeed!)
Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us life—life in relationship with you through Jesus in the Spirit. Thank you for awakening us to new life, giving us the desire and ability to live and walk in Christ, that way of being you created us for—to love you and love others. Grant us the grace to seek the living Lord, who reigns with you in the Spirit forever. Amen.
“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ And they remembered His words, and returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened.” Luke 24:1–12 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/seeking-the-living-among-the-dead.pdf%5D
By Linda Rex
April 10, 2022, Passion Sunday [or Palm Sunday]—There’s something about death and dying that causes us to want to avoid the topic like the plague. It’s so final—and it’s so disturbingly disruptive to our peace and our status quo.
The reality is, though, that before God can do something new in someone’s life or in a church’s life, he has to bring the old to an end. Jesus remarked that it doesn’t work to put new wine in old wineskins, for they will break from the strain. One can only put new wine in new wineskins, which can stretch to accommodate the stress it will place on the containers (Matt. 9:17).
This is true about our humanity as well. We were all dead in sin, unable to live in the truth of who God created us to be as his image-bearers. We were bound in the chains of unhealthy ways of living and being. Apart from God’s gracious provision, we were all bound to the consequence of sin which was death.
The gospel reading for Passion Sunday this year is extensive, including the contents of two chapters in the book of Luke, Luke 22:14–23:56. This reading takes us from the gathering in the upper room for the last meal with Jesus, through Jesus’ agonizing prayer of relinquishment in the garden, to the betrayal by Judas, Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the long vigil during Jesus’ various trials, his crucifixion, and his burial. This sequence of events was a necessary part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to free us from the shackles of evil, sin, and death.
In the midst of this reading, we find Jesus inviting his disciples to share in the Passover meal with him. Taking bread in his hands, he gave thanks, and broke it, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:20 NASB). And taking one of the cups offered during the meal, he gave thanks and said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table” Lk. 22:20b-21 NASB).
Table fellowship in that time and place was a treasured privilege. To open your home and offer your table to someone was to include them in your inner circle. Someone who shared your table was bound by the social code of that day never to betray you—it would be unthinkable that someone would dare to turn against the person who invited them in and made them feel welcome. How astonished the disciples were that Jesus would even suggest that one of them would betray him!
But, as human beings, isn’t it true that deep inside each of us is the capacity to do that very thing? It is easy for us to look back at Judas Iscariot and say to ourselves, “I would never, ever betray Jesus in that way.” But in our heart of hearts, we must know that we each are capable of giving an appearance of fidelity and loyalty, when in our hearts we are unfaithful and disloyal. This man, who thought the bottle of nard should be sold to feed the poor and needy, was in reality, a thief—one who used the common purse as his personal wallet when he felt like it. But it took a crisis—a temptation—to reveal the truth of who he really was inside.
Peter told Jesus that, even if threatened with death, he would never deny his Lord. Jesus, on the other hand, knew the capacity of the human heart for infidelity and disloyalty. He told Peter that, on the contrary, before the rooster crowed, he would deny his Lord three times. Peter was indignant at the thought, but Jesus knew him well—his impetuosity, his bravado, and his weakness. And he loved him enough to tell him the truth about himself, just as he told the betrayer he knew what he would do.
It does not hurt for us to be honest with ourselves about our capacity to be disloyal to our God or unfaithful to our commitment to him. Having humility about our human weakness is the very place we need to be for God to do his greatest work within us. It is in breathing out with Christ the last breath of our old life and finding ourselves laid with Jesus in the tomb that we awaken with the new life in his resurrection. Peter, upon his third denial, caught Jesus’ eye, and was broken—he left, weeping with remorse for his denial of his beloved Lord. It was in that moment of death to his old way that Peter was suddenly open to a new life—the one Jesus was creating for him in that moment as he was being mistreated, beaten, crucified, and laid in the tomb.
Judas, in his moment of remorse, went to the temple and the priests to return the money he had received for betraying Jesus. Rather than receiving the grace of redemption and salvation from their words and their hands, he received rejection and ridicule instead. Left holding the baggage of his old life, how could he receive a new one? He took matters into his own hands, judging himself worthy of death and executing himself, rather than receiving the death of Jesus in his stead. What he desperately needed was available in Christ, but he was blind to this reality.
Jesus understood the power of temptation, and Satan’s pull to take matters into our own hands. He knows our tendency to try to save ourselves or to play games with ourselves, believing that as long as no one truly knows the state of the internal trash heap of our soul, we are fine. He knows that what we need, only God can give. Our redemption, our transformation, and our healing can only come through the One who stands in our place, on our behalf—our Lord and Savior. Jesus faced temptation in the garden of Gethsemane by grounding himself in his personal relationship with the Father in the Spirit. He took his humanity to the feet of his God and submitted himself fully to the Father’s will, in spite of what his humanity and the adversary, were screaming at him to do.
Jesus reminded his disciples more than once that night to get up and pray rather than sleep. How many times have we been caught unaware by temptation because we were not living in close fellowship with God? How often have we been spiritually asleep when we needed to be alert to the wiles and seductions of Satan as he was seeking to break up the communion we have been given with God and with others through Christ in the Spirit? Passion Sunday is a good time to be reminded to wake up, to get up and pray.
It is also a good time to be reminded of the need to let our old life remain where it is—in the death of Jesus. Wake up to the reality that our sinful flesh is not the truth of our life in Christ—leave it there on the cross and in the tomb with Jesus. Get up—walk in the newness of life given us in the resurrected Lord—the resurrection we will celebrate next week on Resurrection Sunday. And pray—live within our dependency upon God in Christ and through the Spirit to recognize and resist temptation when it arises.
During Holy Week, may we take some time to reflect deeply upon Jesus’ self-offering, how he set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity, so that he might free us once and for all from our enslavement to evil, sin, and death. May we be reminded of our participation in Christ’s death—laying silently in the tomb as those who are dead to sin, evil, and death. And may we be reminded to wake up, get up, and pray—that we may not enter into temptation. And may we rest in the finished work of Christ as God completes in us his work of redemption and transformation.
Thank you, Father, that we can come to you as dirty, scruffy, misbehaving children and find the grace to be cleansed, restored, and healed. Thank you that in Christ, we are delivered from temptation—grant us the grace to wake up, get up and pray, that we may live freely and joyfully in fellowship with you now and forever, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him. When He arrived at the place, He said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.’ Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow, and said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ While He was still speaking, behold, a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was preceding them; and he approached Jesus to kiss Him. But Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’ When those who were around Him saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus answered and said, ‘Stop! No more of this.’ And He touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come against Him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against a robber? While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power of darkness are yours.’ Having arrested Him, they led Him away…” Luke 22:39–54a
[Printable version of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/wake-up-get-up-and-pray.pdf%5D
By Linda Rex
April 3, 2022, 5th Sunday in LENT—I love reading the book of Isaiah. This prophet has a way of writing which resonates with my current human experience while taking me into a deeper sense of God’s presence and power in the midst of all I am going through.
In the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, Isaiah 43:16–21, the prophet brings to his people’s remembrance the way in which God brought them through the horrifying experience of being pursued by Egypt’s army, and being caught up against the shores of the Red Sea, with nowhere left to go. God’s intervention on their behalf involved opening up a path for them through these waters to the other side, where they celebrated the defeat of their adversary, who had been crushed under the returning waters.
Isaiah called forth this memory for a reason. He was pointing them to the faithfulness of their God. He told them that in comparison to that great, amazing event in their history, what God was going to do next would be unforgettable. He was going to do a new thing—make a path in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
In this season of preparation for the events of Holy Week, we have been reflecting upon our need for God’s deliverance in every area of our life. Apart from God’s grace and love, we are left orphans in this broken world, and struggle to make our way forward against the mighty waters of evil, sin, and death. The opponent we are facing is intimidating—his weapons are spiritual, and he attacks us on every side. Within our human experience we struggle to fight against evil, sin, and death, but find ourselves easily losing our battle, apart from the presence and power of God at work in our circumstances.
In the gospel story this week, the apostle John describes a pleasant gathering at Jesus’ friends’ home in Bethany. Reclining at the meal, Jesus is approached by Mary, who breaks open an expensive bottle of nard, and begins anointing him with the perfume. John distinctly remembers how the fragrance filled the room, and how Mary lowered her dignity to the place where she untied her hair and began to use it to wipe Jesus’ feet.
Judas Iscariot, and the other disciples apparently, took offense at this extravagant gesture of affection for our Lord. He knew the perfume was valuable—a year’s worth of wages were needed to pay for it. Judas brought up the poor and needy as the reason for his complaint, when in reality—as the disciples were to discover later—he was pilfering from the money box. He wanted those funds for himself.
We find illustrated here two approaches to the presence of Jesus. Judas Iscariot, bent on his own avaricious agenda, is concerned about the bottom line, keeping the money available for his own personal use. And he’s not above using an appearance of righteousness and goodness in order to do it. He isn’t truly concerned about the poor, nor is he devoted to Jesus. His devotion is to himself, and his greed, lust, and avarice.
Mary, in contrast, is concerned for Jesus and his agenda. She, as it appears, is the only one who gets it—she seems to know Jesus is headed for death. So, she prepares in advance for his burial, by anointing him ahead of time. She isn’t selfish and greedy, but rather extravagant in her demonstration of devotion to Jesus. She isn’t arrogantly trying to impress everyone with how spiritual she is, but rather, she humbles herself, violating the customary conventions of her day to express her devotion to Christ.
What Mary seemed to get to some extent, and Judas didn’t, was that Jesus stood, as Israel had stood many years before, on the brink of disaster. Yes, he would march into Jerusalem, celebrated and adored—just as Israel left their slave chains behind in Egypt that fateful night, with a high hand. But within a few short days, he would be held hostage at the shores of his death, betrayed by this one who pretended to care about the poor and the needy, but who only cared about his own pocketbook.
Standing on the edge of the mighty waters of death, Jesus was prepared for his Father’s next step. He was going to do a new thing—something never done before. Already, God had entered into our human sphere to become one of us. God, in Christ, had lived a genuinely human life without sin. Now he was going to submit himself to the plots of evil human beings, and allow himself to be crucified and killed. He was doing the one thing needed to create a path in the wilderness of evil, sin and death.
Soon, he would hang on a cross, he would die, and lay in a tomb. But we know in advance that this was not the end of the story. We know that Israel made it safely to the other side of the Red Sea. And we know Jesus rose on the third day, ascending in his glorified humanity into the presence of the Father.
And we also know, as we celebrate at Pentecost, that Jesus sent the Spirit from the Father—making rivers in the desert of our human experience. What God promised through his prophet Isaiah, he accomplished. He did a new thing—God in human flesh, living our life, dying our death, and rising again to send the Spirit so we each can live in newness of life.
What a precious gift we have been given, in the gift of God’s one and only Son and the pouring out of his Spirit, bringing new life into this wilderness desert of our human existence! We do not need to remain on the shores of our dilemma, whatever it may be. We have the victory in Jesus Christ. What God promises, he does deliver.
And what he accomplished in Christ is being worked out in each of us and in this world by his Spirit, as we respond in faith. Here, in this place of impending disaster, we turn to Christ in faith—he is our divine deliverer, and he will bring us through. We trust in God’s love and grace, allowing him to finish in us individually what he has done for us all—make a path through the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Blessed Father, thank you for your faithfulness and your generosity. Thank you, Jesus, for creating a path for us through the wilderness of evil, sin, and death—we trust you to finish what you have begun. Thank you, heavenly Spirit, for drawing us deeper into relationship with our God, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?’ Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.’ ” John 12:1–8 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/anointed-for-death.pdf]
By Linda Rex
March 27, 2022, 4th Sunday in LENT—As we journey through the season in preparation for the events of Holy Week and reflect upon our own personal need for the Savior, it’s a good time to consider the many blessings we receive at the hand of God—many of which are undeserved, especially when we are more like prodigal children than faithful ones. However, the miracle of Holy Week is that God cares not only for all of the prodigals in the world, but also for all of the older sons who year after year faithfully serve God and seek to do his will.
In his book, “The Pressure’s Off”, psychologist and author Larry Crabb draws attention to our tendency to focus more on working to receive God’s blessings than we do seeking God himself and being in relationship with him. It is easy to see why he would say this—simply walk into a bookstore and you can see the many books written about ways in which we can be blessed in our lives if we just follow the authors’ guidance in getting our act together and living in a way that pleases God.
Now, I agree that we were created to love God and love one another—that this is our way of being we were created to live in. And when we don’t live in that way, we experience a lot of unnecessary heartache and suffering. But the central issue Jesus pointed us to was loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and being—i.e., all that we are—and to love our neighbor as ourself. This has more to do with a focus on right relationship and a lot less on having a good life in which we are free from pain and suffering.
As I was reading the narrative for today’s gospel reading, Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32, I was struck by the similarity of our misguided focus and the story’s ending where the older son came home from a hard day of work only to find everyone having a huge party in his absence. When he asked what was going on, he was told that they were celebrating because his younger brother had arrived safely home. This, understandably, made him livid.
Furious, he ranted at his father, “All these years I worked to the point of exhaustion, obeying every little instruction you gave me, and not once did you ever even buy me lunch or take me out to dinner! And now, this wastrel, who threw all your money away and made us almost lose the farm, shows up and you throw a party? You even killed the calf we’d been fattening up and invited the whole neighborhood over!”
If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to say that the response of this older son is not much different than our own response when we see God go to work in the life of someone we can’t stand and turn them completely around, drawing them out of their broken, shattered life into one centered in Christ. The memories of all the harm they have done, the broken promises, the losses and griefs we suffered at their hands, are hard to ignore. No, it’s just not that simple to let them off the hook, especially when we see little or no proof that they have genuinely changed.
Or, we may have spent our whole life doing our best to be a good person, going to church faithfully, donating to every good thing we thought might be worthwhile, and trying to take good care of our health and our family. But then we end up in the doctor’s office facing the reality that we are dying of cancer. Or the officer shows up at the door to tell us our teenage child was killed in a car wreck by a drunk driver. Or…the list could go on. Our best efforts at being an obedient child of God seem insignificant in the face of such loss and grief, suffering and pain.
The point we are missing, unfortunately, is that it isn’t about anyone’s performance or lack thereof. It isn’t about the fact that we have been faithful and obedient all these years and they haven’t. The point is that God is love, and that he loves them and he loves us, and that everyone of us is given, in Christ, an intimate relationship with the God who wants to live in union and communion with each and every person now and for all eternity. He does not want anyone to miss out on all that is truly theirs—life in the midst of the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit—something each and every person was created to participate in.
Notice the father’s response to the son’s tirade: “Son, you’ve always been with me. Everything I have is yours. What we’re celebrating is that your brother was dead, but now he is alive! He was lost, but now he is found! How can we do anything less than celebrate?” In every word, he reminded his son that he was near and dear to his heart and that everything he owned was at his son’s disposal at all times. In order to give the inheritance to the younger son, the father had distributed all he owned between them both. This father had held nothing back, but had given it all up—for both his sons.
We find the older son was a whole lot more concerned about the fatted calf and the party and the welcome given the prodigal child, than he was about his own personal relationship with his father. Isn’t that like many of us? We get more concerned about how someone else is or isn’t living the Christian life (as we define it) than we do about our own right relationship with God in Christ. We want to know why we aren’t being blessed by God the way they are, rather than realizing the extent God went to in Christ so that we, along with everyone else, could spend eternity in his presence. What really matters most to us?
It is so easy for us to be blind to our best blessing—life in relationship with the God who loves us and has offered us everything in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. What in this life is so very important that it is worth giving this up? Yes, there may be a prodigal God wants us to welcome home with gratitude, celebrating he or she who was dead is alive again, for the one who was lost is, in Christ, now found. But possibly, we might be the one who is blind to the true blessing God has given us in Christ, unable to see how marvelously wonderful it is to be included in God’s love and life, to be given his own precious Spirit, to be held close to the Father’s heart, with all of heaven at our disposal, now and forever, as his beloved child.
Thank you, heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness through Christ and in the Spirit. Thank you for, in Christ, becoming the prodigal one yourself and bringing us home from the far country to be welcomed now and forever in the Father’s embrace of love and grace in the Spirit. Thank you for removing our blindness and helping us to see how beloved and cherished we really are, now and forever, through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.
“Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:16–21 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/blind-to-our-best-blessing.pdf%5D
By Linda Rex
March 20, 2022, 3rd Sunday in LENT—Today our neighbor is having her fence replaced. One of the blessings that came with it was the removal of a small tree next to our shed which had been holding up her fence. It is amazing how the removal of this one misplaced tree enabled us to clean up some things next to the shed we hadn’t been able to reach, while at the same time facilitated the installation of something new which our neighbor was needing done.
As I was studying the readings for this Sunday, I was struck with how this little event in my day coincided with the Word of God for today. The gospel reading tells us about people coming to Jesus with a couple of stories of how several people lost their lives—some in a Roman bloodbath within the temple grounds, and some when a tower fell on them. The common thought of the day was that if something bad like this happened to you, it was because you were a horrific sinner and you were getting what you deserved.
Jesus told them that this wasn’t the case at all—that’s not how his Father works. Instead of worrying about the spiritual condition of the people who died in these events, Jesus’ listeners were admonished to consider their own spiritual condition. He pointed out that they needed to be sure they were right with God themselves rather than focusing on the sinfulness of others.
Isn’t this typical of us, though? I remember years ago when God woke me up to the reality that I needed to quit focusing on the faults of my spouse and others, and start looking at my own issues. You and I are unable to change another person or fix them. The only person we have any control over is ourself, and there is extreme doubt that we can even regulate ourself—we are utterly dependent upon God making us what we need to be by his Holy Spirit. For that reason, we need to do what Jesus was telling these people here to do—repent. We need to experience a change of mind and heart as well as action—a turning away from ourselves to Christ in faith.
After reminding his listeners of their need to repent, Jesus told a story about a vineyard owner who had a fig tree that, after three years, still hadn’t borne any fruit. The owner told the vineyard keeper to cut it away, removing it because it was occupying space needed for production. It was hindering the growth of everything else by blocking the sun, and was taking up resources that were needed for the other plants and trees to be fruitful. The vineyard keeper, like Christ did for all of us by the way, interceded on behalf of the fig tree. He said he would dig around the tree, fertilize it and give it another year to see if it would finally bear fruit.
The point is, there are things in our lives which may simply not be fruit-bearing. Sometimes the things we believe about God or ourselves are inaccurate, misplaced, or even toxic, and they need to be removed so that healthier patterns and beliefs may take their place, and we may begin to bear spiritual fruit. Sometimes the issues may be so small and seemingly insignificant, we miss them, and don’t realize they are symptomatic of some bigger issues—things we need to face up to and repent of so that God can bring us to a healthier, more wholesome way of living and being.
Sometimes the way we read the written Word of God is part of the problem. We may need to go a little deeper in our own personal study of God’s Word rather than just going by what other people say about it. Let me give a couple of examples, drawn from the readings for this Sunday.
First, we read in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 about how God in Christ walked with the nation of Israel through the wilderness, being the spiritual rock from which they drank and drew their life. When someone is, like I am now, going through a time of intense trial and difficulty, people have a tendency to say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” They believe they are quoting 1 Corinthians 10:13, when it actually says: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (NASB). If you look at the context of this verse, you will find that the apostle Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about difficult times or trials. Jesus is the way of escape from temptations to sin, and he taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13).
A kinder, better statement for someone going through tough times, I believe, is that Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He may not keep us from the flames of fire, but like he did with Daniel’s three friends, he will stay with us in the midst of those flames and carry us through to the other side (Dan. 3). We can be truthful with the text at the same time we are compassionate with the person who is hurting, thereby avoiding toxicity and unhealthy spirituality.
Another passage in the readings for today which leapt out at me is Isaiah 55:6–9. When we are faced with difficult or confusing situations or hard times, I often hear people quote verse 9, pointing out that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
I’m all for God being way beyond anything I could be as a human. But the context of this particular passage is about grace. It’s a call to repentance, to turn back to God. It’s about God not looking at sinful people the way that we look at them, or the way we look at ourselves and God when we fail to live the way we know we ought to. God is offering his grace, his mercy, if only we would just turn away from ourself and turn back to him.
Just like the people Jesus was talking to in the gospel passage for this Sunday, we often get focused away from where God would like our focus to be—turning away from ourself and turning to Christ in faith. I’ve been thinking about why we go to church—is it so that we can get a free meal, or help with our bills, or so that we can feel better about ourselves? Or is it part of a personal relationship with the God who has called us to himself in Christ by the Spirit and is wanting us to be a part of what he is doing in the world? Yes, we need to experience God’s love through the good deeds done for us, but shouldn’t we be going beyond that to sharing God’s love with others, once we have experienced the profound goodness and mercy of God?
God is so incredibly patient and generous with us. He continues to bury us with Christ that we might once again rise with him to new life. Christ was willing to be the fertilizer in the ground, placed in the earth so that we might be given the ability to produce lasting spiritual fruit. He offers himself to us, inviting us to turn from ourselves and to turn to him in faith, allowing him produce spiritual fruit in us by the Holy Spirit, as we open up to One who is the Light of the world. May we respond to him in faith, trusting he will finish what he has begun in us.
Thank you, Father, for not cutting us out, but allowing your Son and your Spirit to intercede for us, drawing us deeper into life with you. Grant us the grace to ever turn to you in faith, trusting in your faithful love and mercy, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ And He began telling this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” And he answered and said to him, “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.” ’ ” Luke 13:1–9 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/clearing-the-way-for-fruit.pdf%5D