By Linda Rex
March 22, 2020, 4th SUNDAY IN LENT—Recently I spoke with someone who told me that the recent tornadoes and Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak were sent from God to wake people up and to turn them back to him. As a pastor, I am often offered this opportunity to blame God for the bad things which happen in this world, but I am reluctant to give him responsibility for what is not his and which has its roots in our own brokenness and this broken world we live in, and the evil which is always at work in it and in us.
Don’t get me wrong—there are consequences to our choices. We have made and do make decisions which affect the planet we live on and the people who live on it. In this day and age, we often prefer to believe we can control and limit the affect of most things, but truth is, there are many things we can’t contain or direct. We find ourselves often at the mercy of physical forces and natural occurrences, deadly diseases, and even just human willfulness and evil.
Our response to all this is critical. We can take the common and comfortable road to fear, and respond with a more diligent effort to control and manage our circumstances and our world. Or we can acknowledge our need for strength and wisdom beyond ourselves, drawing upon divine resources to find the faith, hope, and love we need to deal with what is beyond our capacity and power to handle.
When Jesus walked by a man who had congenital blindness, his disciples asked him who had sinned—him or his parents? In the Jewish teaching of the day, the man’s blindness was due to his parents’ sin or his own sin (though that seems far-fetched since it happened when he was in the womb). Jesus said that his blindness was not due to a specific sin or sins, but was simply providing an opportunity to demonstrate the glory of God.
Throughout the teachings of Jesus, we find that he is quite frank about the need for human beings to have their eyes opened to the light of who he was as their Lord and Savior. He had no illusions about the human condition. We are sinners, human beings with a proclivity toward rejecting God and living in fear and disobedience. The issue with our humanity goes down into the very core of our being—we walk in darkness instead of in the light of God’s grace and love.
Instead of tragedies and natural disasters, and even blindness, being some punishment poured out on people because of their sins, Jesus sees them simply as part of our broken human condition. And that broken human condition has only one way of being healed—mixing the DNA of the living Lord Jesus Christ with our human clay and washing us in the waters of his love and grace. We can only have light in our darkness if we will receive the light-bringing treatment of Jesus and be washed in the living water, the Holy Spirit.
Just as this man who was blind from birth had to receive the clay Jesus made from spit and dirt onto his eyes and had to walk to the pool of Siloam and wash himself, we need to receive Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, by allowing ourselves to be washed in the water of the living Spirit. We participate in Christ through the sacraments of baptism and communion because these are tangible ways we experience with gratitude the life-giving power and presence of the living Lord.
The man in this story who was born blind went through a process as he came to faith in Christ. At first, he was met by Jesus, who took the initiative in their relationship. Jesus offered him healing, but the man needed to participate in the healing process. The One who was sent by the Father, Jesus, sent this man to the pool of Siloam (some translate “sent”) where he was to wash and be healed. But at that point Jesus had not yet revealed himself as Messiah.
It is when this man was faced with explaining to the Pharisees what had happened that his faith in Jesus began to take form. When the miracle was brought to these leaders’ attention, they asked him what had happened, saying that since Jesus had made clay and healed someone on the Sabbath, he was a sinner, so he could not have done this miracle. The astute, formerly blind man saw the irony in the situation—he once was blind, now he could see, but the Pharisees were so set against believing Jesus was Messiah that they were willing to deny the reality of a genuine, incredible miracle of healing.
So the conversation went down the rabbit trails into the depths of the corrupt human heart, where these Pharisees, even when faced with the glorious truth of a blind man being given his sight, refused to believe, preferring instead to remain in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief. Sadly, Jesus had to tell the Pharisees that it was because they thought they saw that they were truly blind in the things which really matter, the spiritual realities. The man who was blind, however, came to see and believe who Jesus was as Messiah, and knelt down and worshiped him.
This weekend there are genuine and serious concerns at stake. Not only do we have the recent devastation with the tornadoes here in metro Nashville and in Putnam County, we now have real concerns about the coronavirus, which is making its way slowly into every part of our nation. We do not have control of any of these things, so it is easy to lapse into fear, and other unhealthy and unloving human responses such as hoarding, stigmatizing, blaming, and fear-mongering. We are being brought to the edge where we must choose between being truly human by loving and trusting God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, or being inhumane, less than who we truly are as God’s created and redeemed children, made to reflect his likeness as the God who is love.
What if we began to look at this time of crisis as an opportunity to see the glory of God? What if, instead of putting people and events into boxes, we opened our eyes to the everyday miracles of healing, transformation, and renewal which are taking place all around us? What if, instead of self-protecting, self-seeking, and self-indulging, we turned outside ourselves to help, serve, heal, comfort, and pray?
Are we going to remain in our spiritual blindness or are we going to confess the reality of our need to see what is really going on? Will we allow ourselves to be anointed in the humanity of Jesus Christ, washed in the flowing waters of the Spirit, and healed by the living Word at work in our world? Perhaps it is time to have the grace and humility to meet Jesus where he first meets us, in the middle of our darkness, offering us the light of life, the blessed gift of himself in the midst of our struggles and suffering.
Holy Father, thank you that we are not alone, but you are always with us in every circumstance of life. Hold us in our suffering, in our fear, in our loss, and in our illness. Lift us anew into life and wholeness. Rebuild, restore, renew, heal. Empower us for what we must face and carry us through. You are our life and our hope—enable us to trust in you in every circumstance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 NASB
“… for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light …” Ephesians 5:8 NASB
“Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, ‘We are not blind too, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’” John 9:40-41. See also John 9:1–41.
By Linda Rex
FEBRUARY 9, 2020, 5th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—What is the difference between being unable to see, and simply being fully blind? I realize there are different levels of blindness—some people can see the shape of large objects, but nothing else. Some can see that it is light outside, but cannot sense anything else through their eyes. But the reality is that even those of us who are blessed with sight will not see a thing if we are in a place where there is absolutely no light.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle John wrote about Jesus, that “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [overpower] it” (John 1:5-6 NASB). The original Light, which existed long before light itself was created, was present in the world in Jesus Christ when the Word came into human flesh. This Light was meant to give all of humanity an ability to know and have a right relationship with the One God who created all things.
When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world,” he meant something significant. He meant that, apart from the disciples’ active presence in the world telling the world about Jesus Christ, people around them would not be able to truly see. Jesus’ intention was that by following him, the disciples would provide the world around them with a visual perception they would not have otherwise, and communicate to the world the truth about the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit, and how each person could have a right relationship with God.
The problem we so often run into as human beings is that we have a tendency to reduce the depth and wonder of God’s love and grace down into something we have more control over and can measure and use as a means of distinction between ourselves and others. Let’s be honest with ourselves about this—we would not have so many different church denominations and congregations if this were not the case. We would not have such an issue with legalism and license within the church if this were not true.
It’s time we told the truth—we too often are guilty of taking the light God has given and hiding it under our devotion to the things of this world, or under a long list of rules, regulations, and traditions. We have denied the Lord we profess by allowing the pure salt of God’s love and grace to be tainted and corrupted by the way we reject our neighbors who are equally made in God’s image to share equally in his glory. The prophet Isaiah addressed this directly as he shared God’s word to his people (Isaiah 58:1–9a (9b–12)). He reminded them that all the sanctimonious professions of obedience and worship are worthless if they are unaccompanied by genuine love and compassion for one’s fellowman.
In many ways our efforts to make a distinction between ourselves and others are a lot like the teenage method of “being different”. We tend to make ourselves different by becoming like all those who are like us. In my teens it involved bellbottoms, disco music, and platform shoes—nowadays it’s something entirely different. But in the case of us as followers of Jesus Christ, it is too often our interpretation of God’s Word and our efforts to create our mini-kingdoms of religiosity where we get ourselves in trouble.
Salt is a necessary, though limited, part of our human diet, as well as being extremely useful in other processes including metallurgy and food preservation. There are many types of salts and not all of them are edible. Pure salt crystals are normally white or clear, so when they are a different color, this normally indicates that there are other chemicals or substances present which may or may not be edible. There is often a purifying process involved in edible salt production.
When Jesus said his disciples were salt as well as light, he meant that his followers would have the qualities of both. Not only would we be purveyors of the good news of God’s love and grace, telling the world how Jesus us brought us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light—we would also act as a preservative and cleansing agent in the world. We cannot be an effective preservative or cleansing agent when we are centered anywhere but in the midst of the love and grace of God in Christ.
Jesus said that our righteousness has to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, who loved the praise and flattery of people and the political power and prominence of being religious leaders. Jesus often called them on their public expressions of devotion to God—they were hypocrites, often saying one thing and doing another, and this quenched any light they might bring by their words and actions. They kept people enslaved to rituals and traditions, missing the whole point, which was God’s love and redemption for his people which they were to respond to in faith and devotion.
When we as followers of Jesus Christ become so adamant that right relationship with God rests in what we do and what we say, in our keeping of certain rules and regulations, and not solely in the Person and work of the living Lord, we are in serious trouble. We are denying the One through whom every human being finds salvation—we are keeping the world in darkness and losing our power of cleansing and purification—losing ourselves as being salt and light in this world.
Jesus Christ is the Light of the world—the truth of our existence as human beings, and the centre of our relationship with God and one another. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is the Salt which cleanses and preserves each of us—washing us in his blood, giving his life for our life. Whatever we say or do as followers of Jesus Christ, it is merely a participation in what he has already done and is doing, and will do, in this world to transform, heal, and renew all things.
The apostle Paul teaches how we are to live out our lives as believers—not drawing upon our own wisdom or gifted speaking, but focusing solely on the crucified One, the Lord Jesus Christ, and being filled with and led by the Spirit of God. When our focus is on Jesus and he is at work within us and through us by his Spirit, we find God’s love being expressed not only in our words but also in our actions. We find ourselves caring for those who are unable to care for themselves. We find ourselves overflowing with compassion for those in need and we act upon it, doing what we can to ease those burdens they are unable to bear on their own.
The law of Christ finds its way into the core of our being, and our actions and words rise out of the very heart of Abba within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a long way from what Isaiah and Jesus found fault with—this isn’t religiosity, but rather the true religion the apostle James wrote about in James 1:27.
Please understand: I’m not saying there isn’t any value in gathering together as the body of Christ or finding a common faith and being of one mind with other believers. It doesn’t remove our need to learn from Scripture and those called by God to preach his Word. What I am saying is we need to remove the false undergirding which lies beneath all these things—most specifically, the belief that somehow, we can be good people or please God by our own efforts or gain some merit by doing good deeds.
We, as believers, need to follow Christ and live in him in such a way that whatever kindness we show, whatever goodness we do, whatever truth we speak, is drawn out of the deep Source of light within us, the Spirit, and is purified by the One who cleanses and nourishes us, Jesus Christ. In the community of faith, the attributes of salt and light meet together, by the Spirit being poured out into the Body of Christ, so that we may participate in Christ’s mission in this world, to tell everyone of Abba’s love and grace, to free those who are enslaved by evil, sin, and death, and to bring healing and renewal to those who are broken, lost, and suffering.
Is it possible that we are not living in a dark world, but rather are living in a world where those who have been given the light have buried it? Is it possible that those who were meant to act as a cleansing and preserving agent have been so busy trying to cleanse and preserve themselves that they have become tasteless and useless?
Jesus has only one message for each of us which we are to share with the world around us: Your heavenly Father loves you, so turn and receive the gift of eternal life, sharing in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba both now and forever; receive Jesus and by his Spirit, live and walk freely in the life Christ purchased for you, loving God and loving your neighbor as the image-bearers of God he created you to be. Come with me, and let’s be salt and light together!
Dear Abba, thank you for your grace—we are guilty so often of misappropriating what you give us, and of not living in loving relationship with you and one another. Our righteousness so often is just for show or even non-existent. We have not been salt and light in this world—your forgiveness is so needed by us, but also God as you grant us grace, grant us repentance and faith as well. Grant a renewal within the body of Christ as a whole, that we may begin to live as we ought in this world, bringing through Jesus and by your Spirit, your light, your cleansing and renewal on this earth in the sharing of the good news in both word and deed arising from your own heart within us. Amen.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. … For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16, 20 NASB
By Linda Rex
There is a sawblade hanging on the wall upstairs with the picture of a goldfish swimming around in a bowl. The text I wrote on the picture when I was done drawing it with colored pencils was: “No more privacy than a goldfish.” It seemed to fit.
Over the years this sawblade has hung in various places in my different homes. It is always a reminder to me of the annoying reality that in some ways, we all live in the spotlight of others opinions and observations. Those of us in positions of leadership, whether in our home, work, or community, have to effectively handle being under the scrutiny of all sorts of people, knowing we influence others by what we say and do.
Take for example, poor Punxsutawney Phil. This famous groundhog is minding his own business, probably taking a long comfortable snooze in his den. He wakes up and wanders outside, and the next thing you know someone has grabbed him and all these photographers are taking snapshots. And whether he likes it or not, his shadow is said to forecast six more weeks of winter, the thought of which makes many people unhappy.
The truth is, no matter how hard we try to hide, we will at some point be exposed to the light of day. No matter how dark the night may be, in the end the earth will turn just enough the sun will shine on us again. No matter how gloomy our prospects, there is hope.
I believe there is a reason God ordained that the sabbath and holy days he gave his people Israel began in the evening. Each day began with rest during the darkness, which culminated with a new day of life. When the Word of God arrived on the scene, he showed up in the middle of the night, when it was dark. It was the entrance of God himself into our humanity, into our cosmos, which turned our night into a bright new morning.
Indeed, this motif is carried into Jesus’ last moments on the cross. There was some concern he would not be dead before sundown—the Jews didn’t want to be messing with anything like this when they were to be resting and observing a holy time. As the evening darkness approached, though, Jesus neared death. And then the sky darkened, and Jesus felt the full impact of our sense of our alienation and lostness.
Jesus went down into the depths of death—the blackness which has hovered over us since Adam and Eve’s missteps in the Garden of Eden. He experienced the full impact of our suffering and willingly bled and died. He was not overcome by death or darkness or evil. No, he entered into it, and then turned it on its head.
This shows the incredible love and compassion of our God who is Light. The Light entered our darkness. For him, our darkness was not a problem, because he was and is the Light—darkness does not impact him or alter him—he is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Light and dark in this world only exist in and through him. Even evil has its existence only in what some call the permissive will of God. It is only by God’s grace such things continue.
So, we see Jesus was laid in a tomb, buried just as every other human is in some way upon death. He laid in the grave—the ultimate blackness and darkness we tend to fear as humans. But the grave could not and did not hold him. The next scene of the story shows the light of a new day dawning, and the stone rolled away from the tomb. We see the living Jesus speaking to his disciples and eating with them.
Whatever darkness we may face in this life, it is swept up into this darkness which Jesus experienced. Whatever death may come about in our lives is now a sharing in Christ’s death. Whatever dark moments we find ourselves in are a participation in those dark, bleak moments Jesus experienced in Gethsemane, on the cross, and in the tomb. No doubt, Jesus experienced just about every form of darkness we as human beings experience—being rejected and forsaken by his friends and family, being hated by the people who should have welcomed and embraced him, and being abandoned in his darkest hour by those who promised to be with him.
The miracle of Jesus’ ability to see in the dark was based in his eternal perichoretic relationship with his Abba in the Spirit. Jesus had true night vision. Our darkness was not too dark for him to enter—but rather the very place he came to in order to draw us up into the Triune relationship of love and life. Jesus dove into the blackness to rescue us from “the domain of darkness” and to transfer us to his kingdom as Abba’s beloved Son. (Col. 1:13 NASB)
Often our inability to see in the darkness, in the night of our brokenness in this world of shadows is because we are spiritually blind. We need to come to Jesus, like the blind men in Matt. 20:33 and say with them, “Lord, we want our eyes to be opened.” Jesus’ compassion is great, and he wants us to be able to see—he wants us to have true sight, especially in the dark night of our soul.
Too often we think we are seeing when in reality we are blind. We need Jesus to clear our eyes up so we can truly see as we ought. We need to guard against allowing ourselves to be deceived into thinking we are living and walking in the light, filled with the light of Jesus by the Spirit, when we are actually dwelling in and soaking up the darkness of unbelief. (Luke 11:33-36) Are we walking by faith or by sight?
What we can forget sometimes is, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, God is present and aware. Whatever we are experiencing in our lives, Jesus is intimately aware of and sharing in by the Spirit. We are not alone. Like the goldfish in a bowl, God sees everything about us, in us, and with us. He knows us down to our core and has shared it all with us in Jesus. He is present by his Spirit in every moment and in every situation. We are never left alone in the dark.
Abba, thank you for not leaving us alone in our darkness. Thank you, Jesus, for coming here and penetrating our darkness, overcoming it by your marvelous light. May you by your Spirit give us perfect night vision—the ability to see what is real and true: the great and never-ending, all-encompassing love and grace of you, our glorious God, and to know you are always in us, with us, and for us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.’” Psalm 139:11-12 NIV
By Linda Rex
It’s very interesting to me the many ways in which God works in our lives in order to get our attention and help us to learn things about ourselves we would not otherwise see. Often, we go about our daily business, dealing with life as usual, never realizing there are significant issues with the way we handle certain things. We may not want to admit it, but we each have blind spots which are obvious to others, but which we cannot see.
One of the ways God brings light into these areas of blindness is by challenging our preconceived ideas regarding certain people, places, or things. By placing us through various circumstances in situations we would not have chosen for ourselves, or situations we did choose but they turned out differently than we expected, God exposes parts of our character which we are often able to hide under the glitz of performance.
Another way God pours his light into areas we are blind to is by placing people in our lives with whom we have to interact whether we like it or not. For example, an introvert such as myself may find herself forced to sit in a big circle of seventy people and have to tell how she feels about being present at that particular event at that particular moment whether she likes it or not.
Would I normally have chosen to tell such a personal feeling to that many people who are strangers to me? No. But the requirements of my situation have forced my hand—I will do it whether I want to or not. And I have to own that I would prefer to gloss over the way I really feel rather than expose myself to all those people and admit I’d just rather not be present in that situation. I’d rather be hiding somewhere else where I can just be me, away from the inspecting, critical examination of myself by people I don’t know and don’t believe are safe.
So, in just a few brief moments, I have gained insight into my own heart and mind, and into how I react in difficult and uncomfortable situations. I have learned something about my own character and my propensity to fudge the truth rather than to make other people feel bad or myself look bad. If I pay attention, then I will make note of this response and determine when faced with this situation again, I will act with boldness and integrity, and speak the truth in love.
If, however, I’m not paying attention when this happens, but ignore what is going on inside my head and my heart, I will react to the situation in a way which isn’t necessarily healthy or loving or honest. I might spend much of my life in this way, reacting to similar situations, and not realizing what is really going on. Blinded to this truth about my character, my behavior, and my responses to certain stimuli, I might go on oblivious, depriving myself and others of the opportunity to live in and experience God’s best.
But what if I took a different approach? What if I stopped in the midst of what is occurring and paused long enough to see things as they really are? What if I took the time to feel what is going on in my heart and to pay attention to what is going on in my mind, before reacting to the situation?
One of the things they told me in Christian counseling classes about bad habits is the need to place some significant distance between the stimulus or trigger and the behavior it leads into. The larger this gap is, the more distance there is between what triggers our response and the response itself, the more opportunity there is for the Holy Spirit to get in there and go to work.
I was listening to a young lady today, Kayleigh Vogel with Explore What Matters, talk about this very thing. The more they study the human brain and the psychological/physiological responses to stress stimuli, the more they realize there needs to be a proactive effort to create this distance and to enter into it in such a way we choose our response rather than just doing what comes naturally. She was saying the current studies in the neuroplasticity of the brain show over time our response can be changed as new pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced.
But there must be some effort to pay attention to what is going on inside of us. What drives our decisions? What drives our responses? Is it a gut-reaction, or is it a true expression of what we really value and believe is most important? This is worth reflecting on.
One of the things we do as we get to our adult years is to choose a career or find a job. More people are being intentional about what they choose to do for a living, while others grab what is available, just being thankful they have a job. But at some point, it would do each of us some good to consider this question: Does this job or career bring me joy? Does it really resonate with something deep inside me, with my values and what I care about most?
This is true also about what we do in our daily life, or how we respond to the stress we experience day by day. We all have choices we face. They teach us things, and we grow as we make those choices. We should not be afraid of them, but realize—these are opportunities to learn about ourselves and other people, and about this wonderful world we live in—opportunities to grow as human beings and open ourselves up to the refining, transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
As we make choices and other people make choices, and we experience the reality of life in an imperfect world, we can embrace all this as a wonderful opportunity to learn things about ourselves we would not know otherwise. And we can embrace it all as an opportunity for God to mature and refine us, and to transform us more perfectly into the nature of Jesus Christ.
And we can thank God we have new opportunities to see the blind areas of our character and lives as God’s light shines in those dark places, and opens them up to the redeeming power of God’s grace through Jesus our Lord by his Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for all the ways you bring us to see things about ourselves and our hearts we would not otherwise see, were it not for your love and grace. Thank you that by your Spirit, you continually shine your light in all our areas of blindness and bring us into a deeper understanding of who God are and who we are in you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [or overpower] it.” John 1:5 NASB