By Linda Rex
FEBRUARY 2, 2020, 4TH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—This morning as I was contemplating the passages for this upcoming Sunday, it occurred to me that I live in a country where people value the pursuit of happiness but do not seem to understand what it takes to be truly happy. If I were to turn on the radio or television today, it would not take long for me to hear someone telling me those things I need in order to be happy.
They may tell me I need a relationship with the perfect lover, a properly aged bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, or an all-expense paid week at a resort in Hawaii. Maybe I need a long-sought-after promotion at work, a brand-new SUV or a time-share in Myrtle Beach. None of these are bad things, and I’m pretty sure I would enjoy some time at the seashore and driving such a nice car. The problem I see is, that apparently, according to what I read and see around me, I can only be happy if I am following my heart’s desire and enjoying the pleasure of those things I love to have or experience.
It is no wonder that we struggle so much in this modern world with depression and pain-management issues. Many of us are willing to work ourselves practically to death for the sake of having the things we want or need. But then we attempt to escape the stress, relational pain, and other ills that come with having worked so hard while having so little to show for it by doing things which may be unhealthy, risky, or even dangerous. Our concept of what it means to be happy distorts our ability to balance work, play, and our significant relationships.
We may be one of those people who find themselves due to disability, age, illness, or even a refusal to be responsible for what is ours, in the position of having other people do all the work to provide for and care for us. We may struggle with low self-esteem, guilt and shame as a result. Or we may get frustrated by people in our lives telling us what to do and how to do it because we don’t have the control we prefer to have over our circumstances. Struggling with all these things may cause us to give up on hope of ever being happy because we always seem to end up back in the place we were before, without any hope of things getting any better.
Our expectations of what it means to be happy affects how we respond to what is going on in our lives. I’m a firm believer that we were created to live happily within all that God has made and given us for life and godliness. But so often our struggle is not with all the great things around us—it is with our definition of what it means to be happy and blessed. Is it possible for us to be truly happy, to be truly blessed?
In 1 Tim. 1:11, the apostle Paul calls the Lord “the blessed God.” The word “blessed” in the Greek is “happy” (μακαριοι [makarioi]), and it is where we get the word “beatitudes,” the word often used to describe these “blessed” verses in Matthew 5. Since we were created in the image of God after his likeness, it is important that we consider first what it means that our God is the happy God, or blessed God. When we know what this means, we will have a better idea of how to go about being blessed or happy ourselves.
In Hebrews 1:3 we learn that Jesus Christ is “exact representation” of God’s nature or being. If we want to know what it means that our God is the blessed God, then let’s look at Jesus Christ. Jesus, in sharing what it means to be blessed or happy, took it to a new level, one which was in agreement with his nature as the Son of God in human flesh. To be happy, or blessed, is to have the qualities which God values, to have kingdom of God characteristics—to be radiating with the very nature of God himself—something which only Jesus Christ himself can do.
For example, in the Beatitudes Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” First off, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of the God who is three Persons in one Being. The Son of God, who has always lived in oneness with his Father in the Spirit, lived here on earth in humble dependence upon his heavenly Father, not doing anything he did not see his Father doing and not trusting in his own abilities or preferences. Jesus exemplified what it meant to be poor in spirit because he was God in human flesh, living as a Son trusting implicitly in his Father, just as each of us is meant to do.
Access to God’s kingdom is not by following the rigid rules and requirements established by the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but by being poor in spirit—by recognizing our need for God to give us access to his presence. Jesus said it is a recognition of our spiritual lack, our honest self-assessment that we do not have what it takes and that we need God to intervene on our behalf which really matters. It is our desire for and a dependence upon God’s covenant relationship with us, which gives us a free ticket into the blessed presence of God forever.
Jesus also said the “gentle” or “meek” would inherit the earth. This stood in stark contrast with the Jewish hope for a messiah who would oust the reigning Roman government using force and violence so that the Jewish people would once and for all control the earth on which they lived. The gentleness or meekness of Jesus reflected that of our blessed God, who instead of exacting retribution for our failings as human beings, sent us his own Son, allowing him to suffer and die on humanity’s behalf so that we could be freed from our captivity to evil, sin, and death. This type of gentleness in the face of all that we as humans conspire to do to harm, kill, or injure one another is a characteristic of the blessed God himself. Apart from God’s nature at work within us, we are not capable of true gentleness or meekness.
Those who make peace, Jesus said as well, would be called sons of God. There is only one Son who was able to make genuine, lasting peace between God and man, and between each of us as human beings. Jesus’ way of making peace, of being a peacemaker, was not by giving people what they wanted in order to get them to stop causing problems. He didn’t create peace by allowing evil, sin, and death to continue. No, he took evil, sin, and death upon himself, living our life, dying our death, and rising again, so we could be freed completely from any of their claims upon us.
As we read the Beatitudes, we can see that Jesus is the embodiment of all of these attributes. He is truly the blessed and happy God present in our humanity. Our ability to shine with these same attributes comes through his presence in us by the Holy Spirit. To be truly happy or blessed comes through living in the truth of who we are as the beloved adopted children of our happy God, who sent his Son, the blessed Savior, and through him the blessed Holy Spirit. It is as we respond to God in faith that the Spirit unites us with him, enabling us to participate in his way of being—the way which is blessed, or happy.
Being truly happy, then, is not something exterior to us nor is it created by things we do or experience. To be truly blessed, or happy, begins in the very nature of God himself which he places within us through Jesus by the Spirit. It is God at work within us, creating a nature which is poor in spirit, which grieves our spiritual losses or sins, and hungers and thirsts for a right relationship with him. It is the indwelling Spirit who is gentle, merciful, and pure in heart, placing within us this nature Jesus forged for us as he lived on earth.
This type of blessedness or happiness is not transient because it is not based within our circumstances or experiences, nor is it based within our flesh. It has its true foundation in Jesus Christ himself, who dwells in us by the Holy Spirit as we trust in him. As we follow Christ, or pursue the happy, blessed One, we will begin to experience genuine happiness—a deep inner joy and sense of blessedness which will hold us and carry us through difficulties, struggles, and all the changing experiences of our transient human existence, even when we are persecuted for the sake of our faith in Jesus. It is our blessed God’s heart that all of us share forever with him in his glory and blessedness. In what way will you choose today to live blessed, pursuing genuine happiness by pursuing the blessed Lord himself?
Dear God of glory, our blessed Creator and Sustainer, forgive us for pursuing everything and everyone but you. Turn our hearts back to you—cause us to follow you alone, Jesus, our blessed and only Savior. Fill us anew with your blessed Presence by your Spirit of love and grace that we may be truly happy and blessed, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 NASB
By Linda Rex
September 29, Proper 21— On the streets of Nashville I often see well-dressed people driving Mercedes, Jaguars, and BMWs at the same intersection with people in ragged clothing holding signs that say “homeless” or “help me”. At Good News Fellowship, we are often faced with the challenge, and the blessing, of helping those who cannot or will not help themselves.
One of the marks of a healthy community is the way it handles the radical difference between those who have and those who do not. The early Christian church handled these profound differences in a way which was counter to their Roman culture—a culture in which those who were wealthy were given a more elevated status than those who did not. It was not unusual for a wealthy person to sponsor or support someone less fortunate than themselves, but that person wasn’t normally elevated to a place of equal status with their benefactor. The believers in the early church, however, understood that in Christ, we are all equals, all members of one body.
God’s way of doing things is so different than ours. Today, when it comes to money and being rich, we often see extremes among people of the Christian faith. Wealth may be seen either as an evil to be rejected or as a sign of one’s favor with God because of one’s obedience and goodness. Either extreme is not how God meant us to view wealth. Wealth is given, the Word of God says, to be enjoyed, but also for the purpose of doing good and sharing with others.
Having wealth or nice things is great—it makes life pleasant and enables us to do a lot of things we could not do otherwise. But the problem with being rich is that often our focus turns away from the God who gives the wealth and blessings and turns to the riches themselves. People can get so absorbed in accumulating and maintaining their wealth, and enjoying it, that they miss the whole point of it all—they are a beloved child of a generous and loving heavenly Father, a dad who wants to share all of his blessings with them.
If we took the time to turn away from our abundance and wealth for a moment and to turn to Jesus, we would see a wealthy, abundantly blessed Son, who did not for a moment count any of his good stuff worth holding on to. We read in Philippians 2:5-11 how the Word of God, the divine Son of God, temporarily set aside the privileges of his divinity for our sake. He knew we would be and were caught in the poverty and darkness of our sin, and evil had us in its grip. Death was the result of our stubborn willfulness and pride. Because of this, he set it all aside to join us where we were to bring us to be where he was.
The one gift above all others the Son of God wished to share with us, which supersedes any physical blessing or gift he could give us, is the ability to participate in his perfect, intimate relationship with his Abba. He and the Father always have been, are, and always will be, one in the Spirit. This is the relationship we were created to participate in and which we seem to always trade in for the tangible things of this life.
In this culture, at least in this country today, we are surrounded with so much abundance, that it is hard to see beyond our human existence. We have so many human solutions to our problems that we lose site of the role God is meant to play in all of this.
We may believe we don’t really need God’s healing when we can go see a doctor, or a specialty surgeon, visit a hospital, or even see a psychotherapist. All of these are excellent ways to take care of our health, and yes, we should do them when we can, but what about starting the whole process with the one Being who has created us, given us life, and who can heal us, however others may or may not be involved in the healing process? Wouldn’t it be more important to have our heavenly Daddy with us through the whole circumstance, walking with us and guiding us, helping the doctors and nurses as they give us care?
Many people grew up in families where the only food available was eggs from the chickens, milk from the cow, and food from the garden. They survived quite well on the little that they had because they had an implicit faith in God and in his provision. Today if we don’t have our favorite foods on the table or in the fridge, we think we are starving. The blessings we have so easily become more important than our relationship with the God who provides them. What has happened to us that we have lost this simple connection between ourselves and God, and knowing that we are his beloved children and he is our loving Father?
What about filling our cupboards and refrigerators with food? I do meet people who are lucky to have one good meal a week. I rarely ever hear them say that they asked God for their daily bread—to take care of this simple need. Strangely enough, we often expect other people to take care of us rather than simply calling on and trusting in our Abba Father to provide. I’ve heard many stories from people over the years who told about how God provided for them in a variety of ways—often through other people, but without them being asked to do it—it was solely a work of the Spirit. Wouldn’t that build your trust in and love for your Abba if you saw him provide for you without you first asking other people to take care of you?
Getting back to my point, I see that we are so blessed with so much, but it is never quite enough. We experience life in this world as a glass half empty rather than half full when our focus is on what we do or don’t have rather than on the One who gives it to us to enjoy and to share. Jesus came so we could have life abundant—not with overflowing coffers of wealth, but with an abundant overflow of God’s love and grace and the ability to participate individually, and as brothers and sisters, in a personal relationship with our heavenly Father through Jesus in the Spirit.
By all means, we should enjoy those blessings God gives us. We can enjoy the benefits of living in America, experiencing an ease and pleasure so many in the world wish they could share in, and do so without guilt and shame. These are God’s gifts to us.
But God says to us that the greatest treasure of all is that which is stored up for us in heaven when we take the abundance we have and share it with those less fortunate than us. We, along with Jesus, join others in their poverty and darkness to bring them up into fellowship with us, into a place of equality and unity in our uniqueness. We share what we have been given, not because we are asked to or expected to, but because Christ is at work in us, in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, giving us a desire to share what we have been given with those around us and to share in our Abba’s generous heart toward his beloved children.
The divine life we are called into involves both receiving and giving. There is an ever-flowing pouring out and pouring into that are part of the perichoretic love of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and we are included in that life as we trust in Christ and follow the leading of the Spirit. All we have, all we are, we receive as a gift from Abba. Do we receive these gifts with joy and gratitude, as gifts from a loving Father? Do we bless our Abba with love and fellowship in response? And, today, how would Abba want us to share his abundant gifts with others? Are we being obedient to the Spirit’s promptings to share?
Dear Abba, thank you for all your many gifts and blessings, and most of all, for including us in your life with Jesus in the Spirit. Give us a heart of generosity and an understanding of the transience of physical wealth so we will hold these things loosely and freely share them with others. Keep our eyes on you and our hearts enraptured with your love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.” 1 Timothy 6:17-19 NASB
See also Luke 16:19–31.
by Linda Rex
As I was looking at some scriptures this morning, I was struck by the way the psalmists often remind us to not forget God’s benefits. It got me to asking myself how many benefits are out there for us we are not even aware of, and are we even enjoying the benefits God offers to us each and every day?
Even though I work full-time hours as a pastor, I also work part time for another organization. One of the things I do at my other job is to help sign people up for benefits. These benefits are determined by the organization, and people are eligible for them if they meet certain criteria such as working the equivalent of 30-40 hours a week.
It is important for me to determine whether or not someone who is eligible for certain benefits has actually signed up for them and is receiving them like they should. There may be some really good benefits they could be receiving, but they might not even know those benefits are available to them or that they qualify for them.
Now in the working world, benefits can be things the employer pays for, but they can also be things we pay for. But God’s benefits to us are freely given to us by him. Any cost incurred was paid in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his own Son Jesus Christ. We don’t owe him anything for these benefits other than gratitude, a gratitude which expresses itself by living in loving relationship with God and others.
So what are some of God’s free benefits? The most significant and life-transforming benefit God gives us is eternal life—a knowing and being known at an intimate level both now and for all eternity by God, because of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ, and his gift to us of his Spirit. God through Jesus and by the Spirit intervenes in our human existence and brings redemption, healing, renewal and abundant living. God’s benefits also include a deep and abiding love and compassion, and personal participation of Christ by the Spirit with us, in the midst of our suffering and daily struggles.
So, this begs a question: Do we have to sign up for these benefits in order to receive them? What if we don’t even know about these benefits? Does this mean we never receive them at all—we’re just out of luck—too bad, so sad?
The truth is, God’s giving of his benefits to us as his creatures, made in his image, is a freely given gift. God gives us all of his benefits, not because we deserve them, or we have earned them, but merely out of the abundance of his great love. He is the Benefit-giving God. It is his nature to be beneficent.
Considering all God has provided for us not only in this amazing cosmos we live in and earth we live on, but also in all he has given us in sending his Son and giving us his Spirit, we are really overflowing each moment with benefits. It may feel like our world is falling apart, or God is indifferent to our existence, but the truth is, we are held in the midst of his love and grace, and we are abundantly blessed with his benefits.
These benefits are ours just because we are God’s creatures, his beloved and redeemed children. The thing is, we have an extremely difficult time participating in and enjoying these benefits when we either don’t know about them, don’t recognize them, or refuse to embrace and receive them as a free gift from the Giver of all Benefits.
We may think we need to sign up for them in order to have them, but the reality is—they belong to us already. How we participate in, enjoy and experience these benefits has more to do with our relationship with the Benefit-Giver than in our experience of the benefits themselves or our need to do something to enjoy them. When we turn to Christ in faith, we find our eyes and hearts opened to the deeper reality of an immense array of benefits at our disposal, many of which we didn’t know existed or thought were worthless.
And God is not expecting us to pay him back for the benefits he gives us. Rather, he is inviting us to turn away from ourselves, and all our other loyalties, and to turn back to him in face-to-face relationship so we can experience the fullness of his benefits. He’s offering us what the deepest longings of our hearts cry out for—to be truly and deeply known and loved. And this comes as a free gift to us—something he has already paid the price for.
This leaves us with only one thing to do—to give thanks! And we do this out of a heart overflowing with gratitude for all God’s goodness, grace and love. Yes, there will be times when we lose sight of all God has done and is doing because life is such a struggle or so distracting. But even then, God will remind once again to live gratefully by sending his Spirit to whisper his Word into our heart: the echoes of the psalmist’s song, “forget none of His benefits.”
Abba, thank you for all your overwhelming abundance of benefits which you pour out to us moment by moment, day by day. You are so generous to us! May your Spirit ever remind us when we forget of all the benefits which are ours, and grant us the grace to live gratefully in response, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; Who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle. Psalm 103:1–5 NASB
by Linda Rex
One thing I’ve noticed since moving to the metropolis of Nashville is how common it is to find television sets in restaurants. Thoughtful restaurant managers keep the volume down but turn on the captions so customers can follow what is happening. Others don’t seem to care what’s on the television or whether or not customers can understand what is going on.
I remember sitting in a restaurant last year and counting at least ten TV’s, most of which were located in or near the bar. While customers were eating, they could watch sports events, game shows or the local news. The captions helped us to see what the story was about.
The other night I sat in a tiny restaurant with two televisions, one of which was showing the local news with the volume turned down and the captions turned off. I watched this TV for a while, trying to see what was going on with the severe weather threat I was sitting out, but I couldn’t figure it out—I don’t read lips. The other TV was showing a Marvel cartoon series and had the volume turned all the way up. But I had my back to the television, and I couldn’t see the show. Personally I would have preferred having both TV’s off so I could hear the great jazz music being played on the other side of the restaurant. But that’s just me.
Having access to televisions as well as smart phones and tablets means we are constantly being exposed to visual stimuli. No matter where we turn, we are seeing something which is impacting us in some way. This impact can be positive or negative, depending on the content of what we are seeing. And our brains and psyches are processing this massive amount of material moment by moment. It is no wonder we feel stressed out and overwhelmed at times.
I’m not against TV’s, smart phones or tablets. I think they are great tools for living when they are used with wisdom. But also I think they can distract us from taking the time and making the effort to look at so many other things which matter and which are of lasting value. We can be so busy looking at this visual content we don’t take time to look within ourselves or into the Word of God, or try to see the spiritual realities we are included in through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit.
The apostle Paul said, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). But walking by sight is a whole lot easier—it comes naturally to us. Seeing with the eyes of faith means we must stop believing everything we see. What we see, feel, touch—what our senses tell us—does not always speak the truth when it comes to things of the Spirit or the things which have to do with the person God made us to be in Jesus Christ.
Isaiah had a vision of God seated on his throne. The beauty, majesty and glory of it all overwhelmed Isaiah—in seeing God for Who God was, he saw himself for who he was. His response to this vision of God was “Woe is me, for I am ruined! … I am a man of unclean lips, …” He saw the spiritual realities for just a moment, and his unworthiness and brokenness crushed him. God sent his angel to offer him mercy and cleansing, otherwise he could not have borne the spiritual insight being given him.
I’ve often thought about Jesus’ words spoken in his Sermon on the Mount—he said the pure in heart would be blessed, for they would see God. At first glance it seems he is talking about when we all die, and is saying if we’ve been good people, then we will get to have the blessing of seeing God. But really—who among us can really say to the core of their being, they are pure in heart? I know I would like to be, but I also know I am not.
Only Jesus, when he died and when he lived on earth while sharing our humanity, was truly pure in heart, and only he has seen the Father and lived. For us as human beings, to see God and live required God to enter our humanity and become one of us. When we see God in Jesus his Son, we see ourselves as forgiven and beloved children, not as broken rejects or unworthy throw-offs. Our purity of heart comes from Jesus.
The eyes of faith enable us to see God, for Jesus was and is the perfect ikon or exact representation of God’s being (Heb. 1:3). And in seeing God in Jesus by the Spirit, we are abundantly blessed. Our relationships with the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, which we share with one another in the Spirit, are spiritual realities, which if kept in the forefront of our mind and heart, provide us with joy, peace and hope in the midst of whatever life may throw at us.
This is why it is important for us to slow down and look at these spiritual realities, which involve the eyes of faith rather than the touchy, feely visual stimuli of our technology-driven world. Taking time to look at Jesus Christ enables us to see beyond our flawed humanity into the humanity God created for us in his Son and by his Spirit in which we can see God and live. We can, in taking these moments for reflection and contemplation of the spiritual realities, begin to see ourselves and God for who we really are, and be blessed by the grace and love inherent in our relationship with the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.
When we take the time to contemplate and reflect on God and our life with him through Christ and in the Spirit, we begin to find a capacity to see the world around us and the people in it with new eyes. Our brokenness and struggles become the common brokenness and struggles of every other human being. The grace we receive through Jesus is the same grace offered to every other man, woman and child who lives in this cosmos. And the broken creation becomes a place where God is at work even now to heal, restore and renew, and in which we can participate in his work of bringing about a new way of living and being that has eternal value. May we learn to see with Jesus’ eyes of faith.
Holy Father, thank you for giving us new eyes through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Thank you for enabling us to see the true spiritual realities—may they grow more clear to us day by day, and may they fill us with joy, hope and peace. May your grace and love keep our hearts pure so we may see you in us, with us and for us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.” Isaiah 6:5–7 NASB
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Matthew 5:8 NASB