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
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.
By Linda Rex
Many years ago, I attended a mega church for a while. It was located a little distance from me but provided some important counseling resources which were not available in my neighborhood, nor with the other church I normally attended.
One of the first things I noticed about this church was that nearly every car in the parking lot was only two to three years old and in good condition. I was a little embarrassed to have to park my old clunker next to the shiny minivans and SUV’s, but I did it anyway. As I walked inside the building, the people around me seemed friendly, though preoccupied. They were good folks, and I found it quite easy to melt into the crowd and not have to engage anyone in conversation.
After a few weeks, I became more and more aware of the subtle difference in financial status between me and the other people in the church. Most of the conversations between the people in the study group I joined involved decisions about a second or third car, a summer home, or a long vacation in Hawaii. I did not feel able to contribute anything to these conversations because I was still wondering how on minimum pay I would handle all the bills I had coming due in the next week. It was rather awkward for me, but I was there to study the Word of God with fellow believers, not to wrestle with financial inequities. So I let it go.
As the years have passed I have on occasion experienced more of this disparity between the wealthy church, and the broken community within and without the church who needs helped and healed. I have met and grown to love some pretty amazing people for whom the distress of suffering financially or physically is a foreign concept, or one they have experienced only briefly in their lives.
These people are compassionate and generous, but they can sometimes be completely out of touch with the everyday struggles of the needy. It’s not that they don’t care or are indifferent, but that it’s either not a part of their everyday experience, or they feel it would not be genuinely helpful for them to take on responsibilities which belong to the people who are struggling. And they have a valid point.
The culture we live in today often looks perplexedly at the Christian church, wondering why we are not more helpful to those who are suffering. I have no doubt there is room for us to grow in our generosity and helpfulness towards the poor and needy. But it may be that those who are being critical of us have a skewed view of what it means to have life and to have it abundantly. In other words, it’s possible we value different things than they do.
Historically the church understood that divine abundance doesn’t necessarily involve monetary wealth. The kind of abundance Jesus spoke of has a whole lot more to do with the generous outflowing of love and grace from the God who made us and redeemed us than with physical wealth, popularity, and material goods. True abundance involves growing in our relationship with the God who made us and growing in Christlikeness, which involves struggle and sometimes suffering. It involves our participation in a spiritual community which has Christ at the center.
Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor is it a sin to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood where everyone has large homes, big yards, and a swimming pool in the backyard. These blessings provide ample opportunities which would not exist otherwise, and include their own unique set of dangers and temptations. There are benefits and potholes in every walk of life.
Throughout the centuries the church as a whole and individually has at times fallen prey to the subtle deceit of greed in all of its forms. The financial well-being of churches and their leaders sometimes preempts the care of the poor and needy. The health-and-wealth gospel distorts the truth about the Word of God, equating financial and material success and abundance with proof of goodness, success, and godliness. It’s easy for well-blessed Christians to slide into a place of spiritual apathy or an unconscious desire for more and more when all their needs are supplied and they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Because of all this, those who are critical of Christians have been well-supplied with ammunition to find fault with us.
But the calling to the Christian church, whether wealthy or poor, still is to preach the gospel to those we encounter on the roads of life. We are to share with others the good news about Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, or in what situation we may find them.
In some ways it can seem easy to preach a meaningful gospel to someone who is starving or homeless. We can offer them what they are needing at the moment and then tell them about Jesus and his love for them. I would imagine it must be much easier to see God’s love in a real way when you are in real trouble and someone offers you love and grace in the midst of it.
It also seems to be much more difficult to preach the gospel and be heard by those who really have no need for God in their lives. When a person is reasonably content with their life, and is able to handle everything they face day by day, God is extraneous to them. In their lives, he really serves no purpose except perhaps to limit them in some way. Or their faith may just be something that is part of their family heritage and really has no personal impact upon their lives.
This is why as I see the material abundance in this country and encounter financially successful people in every walk of life, the question arises in my mind: How in the world do you share the gospel with people who feel no need for it? What do you offer to those who believe they already have all they need or can earn enough to supply it themselves? What if these people are much more generous to the needy and poor than those worshipping in your own church down the street? Why should they care about becoming a Christian when Jesus or those who represent him seem indifferent to them, as well as to those who are suffering or doing without?
The gospel we need to tell must offer something much deeper than just relief from suffering or freedom from sin. The gospel must touch at the core of our humanity. We need to help people personally encounter in Jesus Christ the amazing God who created us and sustains us and who calls us into relationship with himself.
The gospel we offer has great power. It is such good news! In Jesus Christ, we are given the real presence of God in our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and raising us to new life, a life which is at this moment hidden with Christ in God and offered to us right now in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely, there is a deep hunger hidden somewhere in the human heart, longing to hear this good news, no matter how distracted a person may be by their abundance and blessings.
And so, we pray. We serve. We love. We pray and care for each and every person we meet, helping them see God is offering them the same gift which was given to us. And we trust in God’s good time, he will enable them to encounter the truth of their need for him, and the wonder of his precious gift of life in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and for all the abundant blessings we receive from you. Thank you for the gift of both prosperity and poverty, for in the midst of each of these we can come to know you and learn to trust you more. May we always be on guard against greed and indifference, and freely share with others all you have provided for us, through Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“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
“For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 NASB
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
The house is quiet tonight. All I hear at the moment is the sound of the concentrator as it pulls oxygen out of the air and pumps it through the line into my mother’s lungs. She’s been sleeping for hours now, and I’ve been unable to coax her to eat anything since lunchtime yesterday. Although I am sad about all that’s going on, I am happy that I can be here for her. Right now, being by her side is more important to me than the sleep I sorely need.
How I wish that rest were so easy for me at this moment! It would certainly help me to feel better, and to have more energy when I get up in the morning. But it doesn’t look like sleep is going to happen any time soon.
I read a devotional yesterday that spoke about rest as being a way in which we worship God. Now that is a spiritual discipline I could really get into at the moment—a true, deep rest would be really nice.
But such a rest isn’t going to happen unless and until I am ready to fully let go of all my concerns and give them all up to my heavenly Father. There is a rest that is mine that I have in Jesus, but I can’t participate in it until I’m willing to let go of my insistence upon handling everything myself. God calls each of us to take Christ’s yoke on and to learn from him—this is how we find rest.
Even in the midst of heavy, weighty issues in our life, we can feel light-hearted and at peace when we are fully trusting in the love and faithfulness of the Father, and are turning to Jesus Christ for all we need. Somehow, through his Spirit and by his living Son Jesus, God gives us the ability to weather catastrophes and griefs, and to come out the better for having experienced them.
It is this redemption I am counting on. I do not understand the why or how, but I know that God does. All he asks of me is to trust him and to rely on him in the midst of this journey through the dark valley. And I don’t do that alone—Jesus is present with me, in me and is for me as I go through it all. He is my peace.
And the other blessing that comes with this struggle is the nearness of others who are helping to carry the weight with me. The peace and rest that I find in dark times is often best experienced in the midst of loving, caring relationships with others who pray for me and lift me up even when I don’t ask them to. This creates gratitude which quickly turns to praise to God who so blesses me with and surrounds me with such love, compassion and grace. I am truly grateful for all of you who are lifting us up in prayer. May God bless you abundantly in return.
Dearest Lord God, thank you for offering each of us the rest that comes when we lay down our burdens at your feet and take on what you want us to carry instead. Grant grace and peace to those who are struggling even now, and pour out on them the strength they need to walk through the dark valley with you. May we each faithfully trust in you to work all things for our best benefit. We know you are a faithful God and you will do this through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28–30 NASB
by Linda Rex
Lately I’ve been starting out my day reading a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament. Today I was reading Chapter 27 in the book of Deuteronomy. Here Moses instructed the people about something they were to do when they entered the Promised Land. They were to divide the people up, with six tribes standing on Mount Gerizim and six tribes standing on Mount Ebal. Then the Levites were to recite curses and all the people were to respond with “Amen” to each curse.
Something occurred to me as I was reading this. It was something I never played close attention to when I read it before. And it really bugged me—enough that I had to stop and think seriously about it for a while.
If I were to ask you what many traditional and fundamentalist Christians have posted in their house or office somewhere, what would you say? I was in someone’s office the other day, and there it was, in bold print, so everyone who came in couldn’t miss it. Many Christians insist that the Ten Commandments are the trademark measurement of goodness and badness and what matters most to God in our relationship with him. So they post them where they and others can see them.
That being the case, I was stunned to see that nowhere in this list of sins these curses were for, were the Ten Commandments specifically listed. There wasn’t mention of a single commandment in relation to God and how the people were to relate to him. The others were related to some of the other six commandments, but they didn’t at all appear in the form you would see in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 where the Ten Commandments are listed.
If the Ten Commandments were so important for the people to be keeping, why weren’t they listed with the curses? And I found that it is interesting in the same respect that each of these things listed had to do with proper relationships between people, both in the family and in the community. The last one in the list was a summary statement pronouncing a curse on anyone who did not uphold the words of the law.
Then a blessing is pronounced in Chapter 28 and it has everything to do with Israel’s relationship with God and how they participated in their covenant of love with him. The blessings and cursings described in Chapter 28 are related to the way Israel behaved in their relationship with God and whether or not they lived in communion with him as the law instructed them to. The blessings and curses had to do with whether or not Israel as a nation trusted in God alone and was faithful to their covenant relationship with him.
In both of these cases, the Ten Commandments was supplanted to some extent, or shall I say, surpassed by, the greater law of covenant love. Our relationships with God and with each other are what really matter in the end. The consequence of living for ourselves and not living in communion and godly love with one another and God is well described in this listing of curses. And the blessings that come with living in the communion of the Holy Spirit with one another is clear to see as well. It explains why Jesus, when asked, said the most important commandment is to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and being, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Instead of seeing the law as a list of do’s and don’t’s that separate good people from bad people, we can see the law as an expression of what it looks like to live in loving relationship with God and each other. The simplicity of this is expressed in the NASB when it says that the people were to confirm the words of the law by the way in which they lived. We confirm our love relationship with God and each other by the way we treat God and each other, and by what goes on in our hearts and minds in each moment of each day as we interact with the world around us.
Going on beyond this, we are told by the Apostle Paul that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us…” (Gal. 3:13) So even our shortcomings in living out a relationship of love with God and each other are covered by our Savior. The prophetic word of Isaiah to Israel was that God would author a new covenant in which he said he would “put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer. 31:33). This is reflected on by the author of Hebrews, who explains the gift of God is the internal eternal Law of God, Jesus Christ, who has joined himself with humanity and who stands in our place as both the Lawgiver and the Lawkeeper.
Now I’m not against people posting the Ten Commandments places as a reminder of how to treat God and each other. That can be a good thing. But it is easy to hold to this external expression of goodness and badness by which we judge one another and to totally miss the mystery of godliness—Christ in us, the hope of glory. It is Christ who defines us, who lives his life in us and through us by his Holy Spirit. It is God who plants within us the heart, soul and mind to love him and each other from the core of our being with his own very own love, planted within us through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
How often I have encountered people who are very busy with the externals of Christianity, but who are also vindictive, hateful, spiteful and even cruel—because the law has become to them a dividing point between goodness and badness between them and other people, and they have missed the One who gives Life and offers us an intimate relationship with himself through Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
They are eating of the tree of good and evil and have missed entirely the tree of life offered us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. This seems to me to be the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone. And all these curses described in Deuteronomy cannot begin to describe what it’s like to live out one’s life in rejection of the One who is our life, our love, our obedience, our peace. That seems to me to describe in many ways what a personal hell looks like.
Dearest God, Thank you for giving us your Son so that we can live in loving relationship with you and each other. Thank you for your precious Spirit who opens our eyes and minds and hearts to see Jesus Christ living within, and who makes us receptive to the Truth and Life he is. Grant us the grace to seek Life in Jesus Christ instead of seeking to be our own gods and to live independently of you and each other. We trust you will finish your work in our hearts, minds and lives, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
“’Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Deut. 27:26 NASB
“Jesus answered, ‘The foremost is, “HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.” The second is this, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” Mark 12:29–31 NASB
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