bless

Seeking Life Above

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By Linda Rex

August 4th, PROPER 13—This week the TV caught my eye at the veterinarian’s office where my daughter was having her cat given her yearly checkup. I saw people taking old furniture and revamping it, giving it a more modern feel. Some of the results I liked, some I didn’t like.

Usually this channel is full of stories of how people take an old fixer-upper house and renovate it, selling it for more than what it was worth originally. The process of “flipping” a home seems very challenging to me because there is always the danger of hidden problems such as asbestos removal, an unstable foundation, or damage to critical structural elements. But I feel there is something ultimately satisfying about taking something broken and dirty and turning it into a masterpiece. Maybe this is because this is what God does with us.

The thing is, we can be so focused on the externals of our existence that we don’t tend to the internals as we ought. What I mean by that is, God wants us to attend to the internals of our souls more than the externals of our human existence. We are responsible to do what work is necessary to provide for ourselves and to care for what belongings are ours. But the God who takes care of the birds and the flowers is quite capable of caring for us when we allow him to, trusting him to help us meet our obligations and to provide for our needs (Matt 10:29-31; Luke 12:6).

Indeed, there may be some of us who want to live free from any responsibilities or effort and yet have every luxury at our fingertips—our culture encourages this. We may pursue a carefree life without responsibilities or the need to work or provide for anyone but ourselves—this is especially true for those who have parents or others who are willing to carry the responsibilities we should be carrying. However, the apostle Paul writes that if a person isn’t willing to work, then he or she shouldn’t eat. This is a reminder to carry our own load, to be responsible for ourselves—to do our part. (2 Thess. 3:10-11)

Even though some people seem to have all they need with no financial or personal struggles, some of us may be constantly in motion, working every moment to create our perfect world as we envision it to be. We may work very hard just to get ahead only to find ourselves bound by debt or health problems or broken relationships. Wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able do what the rich man Jesus talked about wanted to do? He had a bumper crop, and decided to put everything up into storage, and to tell himself, “You have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” (Luke 12:16-21)

But Jesus had words to say about such a life philosophy. He reminded his listeners and the man who was focused on getting his share of his family’s property that what really matters in life becomes truly evident when we are faced with death. Death brings everything in our lives into focus—showing us our humanity and the transience of our existence. We can make all the plans we want, we can save up all the money we want, and it just takes an instant or an event out of our control and it is all over. Everything we worked for goes to someone else—and we can’t even control who gets it all after we are gone.

Ultimately, each of us must humble ourselves under a recognition that God is God and we are not. Even as Christians we can be pretty arrogant and atheistic when it comes to money and providing for ourselves. Life can go well for quite a long time, and our diligent efforts can bring us great success and abundant wealth. But the externals of our human existence are transient and one day they will disappear. If we depend upon them or count on them, we are placing our life on an uncertain foundation.

As followers of Jesus, we can even embrace the idea that if we live good lives and do everything right God has to bless us and make everything go right in our lives. This sets us up for great disappointment and tests our faith when bad, unexplainable things occur in our lives. We may try to, but we cannot control the decisions others make nor can we protect our loved ones or ourselves from the evil or brokenness of the world we live in.

Stuff happens. Death occurs. Illness breaks our health. People steal our money. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes destroy our homes. And all our precious plans go out the window. Then we start asking the tough questions: What am I going to do? Where is God in all this? Doesn’t he care? Why did this happen to me?

Here in the middle of the brokenness, death, and destruction we are meant to find new life. God wants to meet us in the middle of this place and show us what we should have known all along—the life we are seeking is above, hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). The real peace, joy, and comfort is found in Jesus, in the One who took on our humanity, joined us in our broken, sinful human existence, and brought us through death into resurrection and ascension into life with God both now and forever. Jesus redeemed our broken existence—God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21 NASB).

Our real existence, the one which will last, is in knowing and being known by our Abba and his Son Jesus Christ in the Spirit. What we have in this life is passing away—what we have in Christ is everlasting. This is why Paul says to keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, not the things on earth (Col. 3:1-2)

We are to consider ourselves dead to greed, which is a form of idolatry. Greed and covetousness, along with the other passions of our flesh, are a way in which we go about life focused on and drawing our life from the things which are transient and will one day disappear. Like worshipping idols made of gold and silver, our worship of our human efforts or goals or the physical trappings of our existence—nice home, good job, wealth, power, fame, ease and pleasure—is an insult to the God who made us and called us into relationship with himself, and who came for us and redeemed us in Jesus Christ. All of this idolatry hung with Christ on the cross—in Christ we are dead to our idols, so we might live in the newness which is ours in him.

God created the earth and all its abundance for our enjoyment and pleasure. God means for us to work and to take pleasure in the fruit of our efforts. God wants us to work hard and be responsible for ourselves. But nowhere in all of this are any of these gifts meant to replace the Giver. Nothing is to take the place of the One who took our place and stands in our stead on our behalf as our Redeemer and Savior and Lord—Jesus Christ. The spirit of greed, lust, envy, selfishness, or any other demonic or fleshly spirit is never meant to replace the living Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is meant to fill us with God’s love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, and so on—to be the dominant Spirit in our being, to rule our existence both now and forever.

We have been given the greatest gift of all, life in Christ by the Spirit. We are called to live humble lives, in all godliness and honesty, sharing with others all we have been given, so that as one, we are joined together in the body of Christ as Abba’s children, together living in the new lives forged for us by Jesus out of our broken human existence and poured into us by the Holy Spirit.

When we have been given something by God, perhaps it is so that we can share it with others, or maybe he means for us to use it in furthering the scope of the Kingdom of God. God’s gifts are meant to create gratitude and praise, to move us to rejoice in the gift of our blessed hope and to live as the adopted children we were created to be, loving God and one another both now and forever as true image-bearers of the God who is love.

Dear God, thank you for all the gifts you have for us in our everyday existence—food, clothing, shelter, friendship, companionship, work, and so many other things. Keep us focused in the midst of all our blessings on you, the Blessed One, who blesses us with everything we need for life and godliness. Fill our hearts with gratitude and praise, for you are more than worthy. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen

“Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. … Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him…” Colossians 3:1-3, 9-10 NASB

“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” Luke 12:15 NASB

Poor as I Am

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By Linda Rex

Yesterday I found myself humming and whistling a tune as I was using Adobe InDesign® to create a brochure where I work. The tune just kept popping back into my head. When I finally paid attention to what it was, I realized it was the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” I was amused that this particular song was running around in my head, but I decided the intense summer heat made caroling quite appropriate—anything to stay cool!

It’s not unusual, though, for the Spirit to spark a hymn or spiritual song in my thoughts—many times this happens when I wake up in the morning, and it usually is an indication of what’s on God’s mind and/or my mind at the moment. I believe this is what the apostle Paul was talking about when he told the Ephesians, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; …” (Eph. 5:18b-19 NASB)

This carol has several stories associated with it, but just taken at face value, it tells how a king and his page determine to aid a poor man by bringing him food and wood for fuel during a severe winter snowstorm. The conclusion of the song tells us that those who bless people in need will themselves be blessed.

When I look back at my life, I did have times when life was very difficult for me and my family. We struggled to make ends meet, and I would have been very happy at times to have had someone to simply bring me food and fuel. But the truth is, if I am very honest with myself, no matter how bad things got, we were still very well off and blessed. We were not really in need the way people in other countries or even in certain places here in America struggle just to find their next meal or to have a place to live.

I believe there were very good reasons we were extremely blessed. First, we had a support system. We had family, friends, and church members who were willing to come alongside us and offer a helping hand, often without us even asking for help. They were not ashamed of our poverty but were willing to lend a hand as they saw a need.

On the other hand, they kept their distance when they knew it would not have been to our benefit or theirs for them to help us. I struggled with my attitude at times because we were left to struggle when we could have been helped. But as time when by, I began to see that I had things to learn which I would not have learned if someone had stepped in and taken care of things for me in those particular situations.

The other reason I believed we were so blessed and did not have to struggle as much as I know others struggle was because of God’s mercy. He was very gracious to us and answered prayers when I turned to him in total dependency upon him. So often a need which I believed was impossible to meet was taken care of when I brought it to him in prayer. And many of those times I knew I didn’t deserve God’s help because I had to admit the struggle was usually due to my own mismanagement or neglect. It was solely because of God’s gracious provision that we were blessed.

To struggle in life in some way, though, is to open a space for God to work—if we are willing—and to prepare us to be able to lift up and help others who are struggling. Because we have borne heavy burdens, we find we have the strength to come alongside those who are overburdened and to help ease their load. God doesn’t mean for us to carry every burden of every person—they need to be responsible for what is theirs. But we are to be there to help ease the burdens of those who cannot carry their own load by themselves. (Gal. 6:2, 5)

The real story inside the story I find in this Christmas carol may be something of my own creation—I don’t know. But what I see is Jesus inviting you and me to participate with him in his care of the poor and needy. Sometimes the storms in people’s lives are powerful and dangerous, and they may drive us away and sap our strength as we try to help. But as we walk in Christ by the Spirit, allowing him to walk in front of us and carry the weight of the storm, we will find the heart, strength, and endurance to continue in our service to others in spite of the difficulty and danger.

What’s been on my mind a lot lately is what Greg Williams wrote in his article “Mind the Gap.” He wrote: “We say we value being a healthy expression of church, actively following the Spirit in participating with Jesus in seeking the lost and making new disciples, but that is not what we always do. There is a gap between our aspirational values (what we say we value) and our actual actions. We need to close the gap…” It is so easy to have great intentions but not to actually live out the truth of what we believe.

For me, personally, this last couple years has been a reawakening to God’s call upon my life in a lot of areas. As a pastor it is easy to slip into a way of living in which there are gaps between what we believe and teach, and how we live out our daily lives. I certainly do not want to be a hypocrite, but if I am honest with myself, I have to admit in many areas how I live doesn’t necessarily match up with what I believe about who God is and who I am in Christ. And that grieves me deeply. It is not how I want to be. The good news is, though, that very grief shows the Spirit at work within me through Jesus Christ.

In other words, before we see ourselves as the page following in the king’s footsteps, we must first see ourselves as the poor man gathering sticks in the storm for a little fuel. Our own efforts are feeble at best—we do pretty well for a while, but when the storms of life come, we find ourselves inadequate to the task. Or we find that gathering sticks when we already have sticks is empty and fruitless work. Either way, we need to recognize that our poverty is poverty of spirit and heart, not always of physical provision. Receiving help for the moment is good, but we need help which will last into eternity.

This is why we need Jesus. We need to lay aside the old garments which are of no use to us any longer and put on Christ. The old ways which sustained us for so long need to be replaced by our new life in Christ. The poor man gathering fuel might have refused to receive the blessing offered him. If he had, he would have continued to suffer, not only going without food and fuel, but now also without companionship on his journey of suffering. In refusing the new life offered to him, his poverty would have increased all the more.

God does not mean for any of us to stay in our poverty-ridden state of unbelief and disobedience. We have been given all the heavenly blessings in Christ Jesus—this is our new life. We are included in God’s life and love and are encouraged to participate in all God is doing in this world to bring about healing, renewal, and wholeness. We are blessed by God with all these gifts not so we can keep them to ourselves, but so we can share them with others. So, this is what we need to be actively doing—blessing others as we have been blessed. This is the perichoretic life.

Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and your boundless grace in your Son Jesus. We pray by your Spirit that we will begin more and more to actually live out the truth of who we are in you and what Christ has forged for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. May we each and every day acknowledge our poverty of spirit and heart is fully supplied in Jesus, and freely share all these spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus with others. In your Name, we pray. Amen.

“Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. …You were running superbly! Who cut in on you, deflecting you from the true course of obedience?” Galatians 5:1, 7 MSG

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. …You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” Galatians 5:1, 7 NASB

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’

‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither.’

Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.’

‘Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

(https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3674124/The-story-behind-the-carol-Good-King-Wenceslas.html: Accessed 7/12/2018)

The Irrevocable Blessing

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by Linda Rex

One of the most unbelievable and amusing Bible stories is the one about the talking donkey and Balaam the seer. As a child I would imagine what it was like for the prophet to be riding along, trying to get his donkey to go where he wanted, even striking him to force him through a narrow passage. And then, all of a sudden, the aggravated donkey started talking: “What have I ever done to you that you have beat me these three times?” What a start that must have given Balaam!

This story from Numbers 22-24 captures the imagination of children and adults alike. But by focusing on the more unbelievable aspects of the story, I think we can miss a fabulous expression of the love and devotion of God to his people and to all humanity that is hidden in these passages.

Balak, the king of Moab, was getting nervous. The huge multitude of Israelites was traveling through the plains near him. The Amorites had attacked them, but they had defeated the Amorites, taking away from them land and cities that had once belonged to the Moabites. Balak feared that his nation would soon be overwhelmed by the Israelites and be defeated as well.

So Balak sent a message to the seer Balaam and requested that he place a curse on the Israelites. Balaam’s reputation was such that the people of his day believed that whoever he cursed would be cursed and whoever he blessed would be blessed. Balaam countered this by saying he could only do what God allowed.

As the story progresses, we see that every time Balaam tried to curse Israel, he ended up pronouncing a blessing over them instead. Balak, of course, was offering Balaam great wealth to do as he asked. But Balaam was unable to curse the nation of Israel. God had determined that Israel would be blessed and not cursed. And no prophet, king or anyone else was going to reverse God’s will.

Finally, after three tries, Balak and Balaam gave up. Israel not only had a blessing declared over her three times, but in the midst of this blessing, God predicted the coming of a scepter rising from Israel—this statement we understand today to be a reference to the coming Messiah.

It was God’s will that Israel be blessed because God had chosen Israel to be his very own people. He was in covenant relationship with them. And one day all people would be blessed through them—this was a promise he made to Abraham, their forefather. God had determined that Israel would be blessed and through them in their Messiah, all humanity would be blessed. And nobody can curse what God has determined to be blessed.

Even though in the future Israel would sin over and over again, turning away from God to the local gods of the nations around them and participating in their sins, God did not revoke his commitment to send a Messiah. He did not stop loving them and working for their ultimate blessing and the blessing of all humanity in Christ.

Israel, and all of humanity for that matter, have rejected God and disobeyed him, yet none of this has annulled our eternal relationship with God in Christ. God in Jesus took on our humanity and joined himself to us forever. Our relationship with God is secure—we are “blessed … in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3 NIV) God may chasten us as sons (Heb. 12:7 NIV), but his love and blessing do not change. We are reconciled to God in Christ—we live in union with him. It is now a question of fellowship or communion, not union.

We are all God’s children, in Christ. Our badness or goodness does not alter God being for us, with us and in us. It does, however, alter our experience of this reality. When we deny who we are as God’s children, made to reflect his image, and we attempt to live outside the divine life and love, we experience alienation from God. We believe we are outside, excluded from God’s household, when in reality we are included, having been created and renewed in Christ to live in relationship with God and each other. So we experience fear and anxiety instead of God’s love, power, and self-control.

God has included all humanity by making a place for each person at the wedding supper of the Lamb. And he has handed to each person the appropriate wedding garment, Jesus Christ. We can choose to not even show up at the banquet. Or we can refuse to trust in Christ at all and depend solely upon our own ability to put together the perfect wedding ensemble to wear. Or we can choose to put on Christ instead of our old garments of self-justification and carnality and fully experience the joy of the wedding party. God has given us the freedom to choose. What will we trust in? What do we believe to be true about ourselves and about God?

God has determined to bless all humanity and not to curse us. He has determined to bless us with salvation, with an intimate relationship with himself in Christ through the Spirit. All the efforts of the evil one and his cohorts to curse you and me or to destroy that relationship are futile in the face of God’s heart toward us in Christ, which is good. We are all under God’s blessing, not his curse.

And with that being the case, shouldn’t we guard against ever cursing another human being? There ought to only be praise on our lips, for God has determined that they are his chosen ones as well, and they are under his blessing, not his curse. The evil one and our sinful nature may find many ways to lead us into sin, but none of these change the reality that we are reconciled with God in Christ and are held forever in an intimate relationship with him in the Spirit.

Holy God of Glory, God of Israel and of all humanity, I thank you that you have chosen us as your people, and you have done and are doing everything in your power to ensure that all humanity might share in your blessings forever. Renew in each of us a vision of who we are in Christ, and grant us the grace to experience for ourselves and to share with others the wonder of the intimate relationship you have given to us in Jesus Christ. In whose name we pray. Amen.

“He took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? … Then he took up his discourse and said, “Arise, O Balak, and hear; Give ear to me, O son of Zippor! “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? “Behold, I have received a command to bless; When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it.” … “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth.” Numbers 23:7–8, 18-20; 24:17

“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. James 3:9–12