By Linda Rex
March 29, 2020, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT—Tuesday, as my son and I made our normal every-other-week trip to the grocery store to update our pantry, we found many of the shelves empty. Things which you and I take for granted were not available and I discovered I would have to buy brands of food I wouldn’t normally buy just so we had what we needed. I also realized after looking in more than one store that there was no hope of taking any toilet tissue home that day.
As we did our best to honor the social distancing cues, I felt an atmosphere in the store of a quiet bustle mixed with anxiety. As people went about looking for items to purchase, it seemed as though there was a common effort to keep things as normal as possible in a setting which was anything but normal. There really wasn’t any conversation, and even the cashier seemed a little distracted.
It’s hard to keep track of all the details regarding the COVID-19 outbreak since they are constantly changing and people express such a wide variety of opinions on what is going on and what our response should be to the crisis. When faced with the possibility of an extreme number of deaths resulting from this virus, it is instructive that for the most part, the average person doesn’t want to die, nor do they necessarily want others to die.
I found myself asking the question this week—do I really, sincerely care whether other people around me live or die? Whether we like it or not, how we act in this crisis tells a lot about us and whether or not our love for others is genuine and real. Who is our neighbor? Truly our neighbor is that person we have never met who is vulnerable and could easily catch the disease and die. She is also that person who just lost their job or business because their place could no longer stay open due to quarantine restrictions.
My neighbor, whoever he or she may be, is a person who like myself, is facing the reality of death, whether actual death, or death to a business, or financial stability, or the comfort of family and friends. Each of us is walking step by step through “the valley of the shadow of death”, not knowing what the next month or two may bring. Our life may never be the same again. We may never be blessed in the same way we were blessed before this all began. Death is an evil which so often brings about traumatic change and leaves us wounded and broken.
Whatever may happen in the next few months, we can be certain of this—death does not have the last word. Our faith in Christ teaches us that death is not an end—it is a beginning. It is the place where Jesus meets us and brings his resurrection life to replace our death. We can look at death as a welcome birth into new life, both now through our spiritual rebirth and one day in a glorified body in the age to come.
In the Christian faith, baptism and communion are expressions of the spiritual reality that we died with Christ and are risen with Christ—he is the determining factor of our existence. He is our life. Our eternal life—the intimate knowing and being known which exists between the Father and the Son in the Spirit in which we participate in Christ—has been solidly established in Jesus Christ and been given to us by the gift of the Spirit. God’s presence in us and with us affirms that we are alive in Christ—death no longer has any hold over us.
In Ezekiel 37:1–14, a companion passage to this week’s lectionary pericope, we read about the prophet’s encounter with God in the middle of a valley filled with dry bones. These bones represented a morally bankrupt and alienated nation who had rejected their covenant relationship with God and who had, like so many of us, found themselves spiritually dead, with no hope at all of any life in or connection with God.
Standing in the middle of death in this way, Ezekiel must have felt overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the situation. But God said to him that he was going to cover the bones with sinews and flesh—and he did. Then God breathed his life into these lifeless pieces of human flesh—a simple reflection on what God did in the beginning when he first gave life to humankind. Without God’s breath in us, without the zōē life, we are but lifeless pieces of flesh, with no ability to know or be known. It is God’s Breath or Spirit breathed into us through our Lord Jesus Christ (who is the resurrection and the life), who gives us the capacity for intimate relationship with our God and one another.
Another companion passage (Romans 8:6–11) tells us that apart from the Spirit at work in us, we cannot please God. As long as we continue to focus on our fleshly human existence, we reap the consequences of that existence—death—and we are unable to live in loving relationship with the God who formed us to love and be loved. The apostle Paul says, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace”. He goes on to say that apart from the Spirit we will not live in godly ways. In fact, we cannot.
Our natural proclivity is to choose those ways which lead to death. So Jesus came and lived our human life in such a way as to transform our humanity—to reform our human existence into one which resembles the divine life and love. Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the reality of what it means to truly live, as he is intimately connected with the Father and compassionately connected with his human brothers and sisters in the Spirit.
We read how closely Jesus connected himself with us in many stories told by the gospel writers. John tells us of one such story, when Jesus was notified that a very dear friend was seriously ill. After hearing the news, Jesus surprised his disciples by not immediately leaving to go heal him, but remaining where he was. Later, when he prepared to go to Bethany, he was asked about Lazarus, and he told them Lazarus was dead. On face value, it would seem as though Jesus was indifferent to the suffering of these close friends. But we need to look closer at what really was going on.
What is Jesus’ response to death and dying? In this case, Jesus was setting in motion a plan to bring many people, including his disciples, into a deeper understanding of and belief in his person as their Messiah. Mary and Martha both implied their disappointment in Jesus delaying his coming by reminding him he could have healed Lazarus and prevented his death. But Jesus had greater things in mind—he was focused not on death, but on resurrection.
In his conversation with these beloved sisters, Jesus reminded them of who he was—the resurrection and the life. Life was found in him—a life unbounded by the limits of our human existence. Jesus pointed them beyond the moment of loss and grief to another of hope and joy, reminding them that death is not the end. In this case, death was only a temporary problem which was going to be superseded by the resurrection of Lazarus to his former human existence.
Jesus had the opportunity, because of Lazarus’ death, to glorify his Father by raising Lazarus from the dead—thereby demonstrating the reality of his personhood as the One with power over death, the One who gave life to all things. This would set in motion a series of events, due to the fear and hatred of the Jewish leaders, which would culminate in Jesus’ own death on the cross. He knew he must die, so that all humanity might live—and he was willing to start the process by raising Lazarus from the grave.
Who is our neighbor? According to Jesus, every human being was his neighbor—someone he was willing to die for so that they could live. As it has been written, “God didn’t want to be God without us”, so he came and joined us in our humanity, lived our life and died our death, rising again to bring our humanity into the presence of Abba forever. In the sending of the Spirit, we participate in that divine life by faith in Jesus Christ.
In the midst of this time of uncertainty, while facing the reality of illness and death, we can be sure of one thing—we are not alone. As the shepherd king David wrote, we have no reason in the midst of this “valley of the shadow death” to fear evil—for God is with us. Immanuel—our Lord—has traversed this path before us and is walking this path with us. In the Spirit he is present, sharing our sorrow, grieving our losses, carrying us into a new place of healing, renewal, and restoration. It may be dark and difficult for a while, but he promised never to leave us or forsake us—and he will keep that promise. For he is faithful.
Blessed Lord, thank you for walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” before us in your death and resurrection, but also for walking with us through this difficult time of uncertainty, suffering, and death. Pour on us anew your life-giving Spirit. Give us healing. Refresh us in your Zōē—your very life, your being Jesus, for your name’s sake. Amen.
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’” John 11:25–26 NASB
By Linda Rex
One of the prophecies in the Old Testament which I find to be most interesting is in the book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah wrote about Cyrus years before he became the conquering king written about in the history books.
Ironically, even though he played a type of messianic role for the Jewish people, he was not a Jew. It speaks volumes that God would work through and with a non-Jewish king to rescue his people. In Isaiah’s prophecy, God says through Isaiah that even though Cyrus didn’t even know God, God still singled him out, called him by name, and gave him a special job to do. And it wasn’t for Cyrus’ sake God did this, but for the sake of God’s relationship with his covenant people, the Israelites.
Even though Cyrus was not acquainted with the God of Israel and worshiped gods who were not real gods, he was still equipped by God for this special mission and blessed by God as he performed it.
Cyrus was indeed responsible for conquering and killing a lot of people as he took power and invaded nations. I’m sure such bloodshed was not in God’s heart—it was something in Cyrus’ heart and was his way of doing things. Yet God chose to work in and through Cyrus in the midst of all this so that he, the God of Israel, would be made known as the one and only true God, who creates and sustains all there is in heaven and on earth, and his people would be returned to their promised land to prepare the way for the real messiah.
A lot of times we differentiate between good people and bad people, assuming God only works with, in, and through good people. We figure if God is going to do something significant in this world, he’s going to do it through people who are moral, righteous people or who are people who share a particular faith or belief system.
God is a Being who can and will work out his plans to love and care for his covenant people and to accomplish his purposes in the world by whatever means he feels are necessary. He can do and sometimes does do this all on his own. But it seems more often than not he includes human beings in the process. He likes to have us participate with him in what he’s doing in the world.
Our participation in what God is doing in the world often looks much different than what we assume it should look like. Sometimes humans do evil and horrible things. But God takes these things and in spite of them, or by transforming and redeeming them, he draws us all deeper into real relationship in and with him, into life eternal within the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.
And those of us who participate with him in his work in this world are not always aware of the significance of how we are participating with God while he works out what he is trying to do. Many times, we go through life like little children, believing it is all about us, about what we are trying to accomplish, and what we are wanting to do or what we believe is important. We can be quite narcissistic in how we approach life and living. But that doesn’t keep God from finding ways to include us in what he is doing.
I don’t know how many times in my life I have realized after the fact something I said or did turned out to be a significant event in another person’s life. It may have been to me a simple, unimportant thing I did. It may have actually been a thoughtless word or deed. It could have just been an offhand comment. But in some way, it impacted another person or impacted some situation in such a way it completely altered the direction it was headed. And really, I was unaware of it at the time—I was just doing what I was doing, being me, and this amazing thing happened in spite of me.
For those of us who are trying to live good Christian lives it may be a challenge to take our focus off our efforts to do good and be good. It is easy to get caught up in whether or not we are being good people, and whether or not we are pleasing God. We can get so focused on how well we are living our lives we miss the real point of it all—that God knows us and loves us completely and thoroughly, and calls us into relationship with himself in and through Jesus Christ. God wants us to know him and love him, and to come to the place we really know and love one another as well. There is a relational focus to life in Christ which is a far cry above just being good, moral people.
Instead of being focused on how well we are performing, or whether or not we are achieving success in some enterprise or conquering some country, maybe we need to be focused on getting to know the real God—the One who made all things and sustains all things by the Word of his power. Maybe this has more to do with growing in our relationships of love and grace with God and our fellow human beings than about exactly what we are doing in a specific moment. Maybe what is really significant is living each moment of our lives in the presence of and in real relationship with our God, and acknowledging the truth of who he is and who we are in Christ.
I don’t think any of us truly understand the significance of Jesus sharing in our humanity. There is something about him as God being here in human flesh which is important to our day to day existence. He shares in our particular profession or human activity, and we can participate in some way in what God is doing in the world while we are doing it.
Yes, we need to consider whether or not it is a real participation in what God is doing in the world. Is Jesus in the midst of it and does it reflect his nature and way of being? Is it life-giving and life-sustaining? What does it mean to have real life in and with the Father, Son, and Spirit—and how is doing this particular thing a sharing in God’s life?
But we also need to remember it’s always more about our relationship with God and with those around us than it is a matter of perfect behavior, abundant production, and material success. It’s learning to walk through life knowing and believing God is in you and with you in the midst of whatever you are doing in every moment.
We live in and with our God, and he is always at work in us and in our world, and he invites us to come along and participate in what he’s doing. We may not know him fully yet, but he knows us thoroughly and completely, and loves us, and calls us to live in and with him both now and forever, and we can do this in and through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit.
Dear Abba, thank you for inviting us to share life with you in and through your Son Jesus Christ and by the gift of your Holy Spirit. Enable us to focus less on our material success and physical accomplishments and more on living in loving, gracious relationships with you and all those we encounter day to day. Enable us to do all things in a way which is a real participation in your love and life through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“God’s Message to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he took by the hand to give the task of taming the nations, of terrifying their kings—He gave him free rein, no restrictions: “I’ll go ahead of you, clearing and paving the road. I’ll break down bronze city gates, smash padlocks, kick down barred entrances. I’ll lead you to buried treasures, secret caches of valuables—confirmations that it is, in fact, I, God, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. It’s because of my dear servant Jacob, Israel my chosen, that I’ve singled you out, called you by name, and given you this privileged work. And you don’t even know me! I am God, the only God there is. Besides me there are no real gods. I’m the one who armed you for this work, though you don’t even know me, so that everyone, from east to west, will know that I have no god-rivals. I am God, the only God there is. I form light and create darkness, I make harmonies and create discords. I, God, do all these things. Open up, heavens, and rain. Clouds, pour out buckets of my goodness! Loosen up, earth, and bloom salvation; sprout right living. I, God, generate all this.” Isaiah 45:1-8 MSG
By Linda Rex
A late night, early morning and little sleep is par for the course lately. Anxious questions and urgent concerns that have already been addressed and readdressed try my patience. A prayer wafts from my heart that I will have the grace to cherish the moments rather than ruin them with self-pity or frustration.
Another concern is raised. What can I answer other than the truth—we don’t know the day or the hour. We just know that the end is near. You will be going home to Jesus and I will be staying.
Out of my mouth, the Spirit speaks the words of comfort: “Mom, this is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” She nods with a smile and says, “Yes, we will.”
After a while it is time to take the dog out back, so I wander out, my bare feet in the cold, wet grass. I feel for a moment as though I’m walking in the Garden of Eden, with the presence of God near me, offering me his comfort and peace. I hear the echo in my mind and heart of the Spirit’s word, “This is the day the Lord has made…” and I feel a sense of gratitude for God’s comfort and encouragement.
Sitting again at her side, we talk about life and death, family and the things that really matter. We make sure there’s no unfinished business between us. These are precious moments—sacred moments, really. I choose to drink them in rather than just let them pass me by.
After an hour or so I go to my room to take care of something and pause to read today’s devotion out of a book on my desk. I smile as I read the familiar words: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I think I know what God’s word is for me today.
Thank you, Lord, for another moment and another day with the people who mean the most to us. Thank you for the relationships you have given us in which we know others and they know us. We are especially grateful that you know us down to the core of our beings and have brought us to this place of knowing you. There is an indescribable joy in this knowing and being known. We anticipate the time our time in eternity with you through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24 NASB
In the Midst of Dying audio by Linda Rex
by Linda Rex
I’m seeing more and more that what we unconsciously say and do often reflects a belief about who God is and who we are in relation to him that is unhealthy and even wrong. Even our language as followers of Christ is often filled with a deep anxiety that God’s not going to come through for us. Deep down we believe that if we don’t get things exactly right, the outcome is not going to be good.
I hear this a lot of times when people are talking about the growth and development of things they believe God wants them to be doing, such as ministries or churches, or even families. There is an underlying belief that if they just get all their ducks in a row, so to speak, then everything will turn out wonderful. If they follow this particular plan or complete these specific tasks in the correct order, then something awesome is going to happen. And if they don’t, all hell will break loose.
This God-concept also shows up when I talk with people about the darkness or chaos in their lives. And truly, how can I blame someone for seeing God in this way, when everything they are experiencing or have experienced in their life tells them it is true? What could I say that would convince them otherwise?
I know what it feels like to have everything you believe in fall into pieces at your feet. I know the pain of deep betrayal by those you trusted and counted on, including God. I know how it feels to be surrounded with mountains of problems that can’t be climbed. The despair that goes with such hopelessness can be overwhelming.
Whether we like it or not, we are faced with these ultimate questions over and over in life: Is God trustworthy and good? Does he really love me? Will God come through for me when I need him? Can I count on him? Does he really forgive sinners?
For whatever reason, we are never fully satisfied with the truth about who God is and who we are in relation to him, no matter how many times we are told it. It seems as though we have to experience the truth before we allow it to shape us and transform us. God spends our lifetimes bringing us through one circumstance after another, showing us the truth of his goodness, mercy and love.
It is refreshing to come to the realization that the whole issue about the success or failure of anything isn’t whether I’m doing it right, or someone else is doing it correctly, or whether we’re just letting God do it all himself. The real foundational paradigm is participation—sharing in relationship—doing it together. It’s not really about what you’re doing, but about doing it together, in relationship with God.
We get worried about the goodness and badness of things, and are agitated about having everything fulfill the perfect plan (whoever the architect may be). But God is interested in the process and in sharing life with us. It’s the conversations we have with him as we are doing this, the building of intimacy with him, that he cares about. It’s the knowing and being known that matters.
I read somewhere that what children remember most about their childhoods is not necessarily the gifts they were given, but the special times they spent with certain people doing things that were meaningful. It was the relational sharing, the sacrifices made, the unconditional love and grace in the midst of brokenness that was most significant.
Likewise, it is the abusive and harmful significant relationships that are so devastating to children. When authority figures or trusted people do not image God’s love and grace, but the brokenness of our humanity to children, it causes them to question these very core beliefs about God and who they are in the midst of such a dangerous, chaotic world.
We find ourselves then, as grownups, faced with all the same stuff, and our response hinges upon these fundamental beliefs about God, ourselves, and each other. William Paul Young said recently at Grace Communion International’s Converge 2015 conference that it took him 55 years to get the face of his father off the face of God. Personally, it has taken me much of my own life to see God in some way other than how I believed a father was, since my only experience with a father was with my own dad.
Thankfully, as we grow in our relationship with God, he works to change how we think and feel about him as Father, Son and Spirit. That’s what’s involved in repentance—changing our minds and hearts about God, who he is and who we are in relationship with him. We begin to see how we were totally wrong and we turn around and go the other way.
It takes great faith to be caught in the midst of devastating circumstances and still be able to say to God, “I trust you.” It takes a deep assurance of God’s love to stand strong in our relationship with God when it looks by all appearances as though he has turned and walked away. It takes great humility to allow God to work out circumstances in whatever way he thinks is best, when we would rather take the easy road, or go our own way.
This Holy Week teaches us that Jesus paved the way in all these areas. Even though he asked his Father to find a way different than the cross, Jesus yielded to his Father’s will and wisdom and took the high road to the cross. His final words to God, even when he was experiencing the silence of our humanity, was that he entrusted his Spirit to the Father. He knew his Father well enough to know that he was not leaving him or going away. Nothing can or will divide the Trinity.
There is a deep rest that Jesus created for us in his relationship with the Father by the Spirit. He proved that even in the midst of dying and death, there is resurrection. Our God can be completely and totally trusted. His love never fails. However bleak things may look or feel, the truth is that God’s got it. He’s going all the way with us, to and through the cross and tomb, to the glory of the resurrection. In the end, all that matters is that he was with us through it all and will be with us forever.
Thank you, Father, that you are indeed who Jesus showed us you are, and that your Spirit never stops working to show us the truth about who you are. Thank you that we are held each moment in life and in death in your loving embrace, and that you have given us the hope of the resurrection. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us, just as you finished what you planned before time began through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.” Ps 22:24 NASB