By Linda Rex
September 20, 2020, Proper 20—Historically, we as human beings have nearly always been good at getting upset when people don’t get what we think they deserve. Some of us take such difficulties as a challenge to ensure that such people do get what they deserve, while others of us either ignore or explain away their offenses, or spend our time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves instead.
The reading for this Sunday from the Old Testament is the passage where the Israelites began to complain to Moses that they didn’t have any decent food anymore. They even would have preferred to go back into slavery in Egypt just to have something good to eat now and then. Here God had just done a great deliverance for them in bringing them safely through the Red Sea and now they were complaining because they were having to struggle a little.
God’s compassion was not appreciated nor was it understood by them. That he was tenderly seeing to their every need didn’t seem to make a difference—when things weren’t how they wanted them to be, they made a big stink about it and made life really hard for Moses. God would constantly have to remind them about who he was—their Provider, Protector, and Deliverer. In this instance, he gave them quail that evening, and in the morning began to provide them with bread from heaven, manna.
What we need to be reminded of, daily it seems, is just who God is. Do we believe he is the God who is compassionate, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness? These are ways in which God describes himself (Ex. 34:6-7), along with being just and full of truth. How does this impact the way we look at ourselves and others? What are our expectations of God, especially when it comes to how he deals with other people and uncomfortable situations?
Another passage from this weekend is from the book of Jonah. Rather than obeying God’s instruction to warn Nineveh of their impending destruction and their need to repent, this prophet took a ship going the opposite direction. He knew God was compassionate and forgiving, and didn’t want to risk that he might forgive this enemy of his people.
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward others of a different people group prevented him from simple obedience. And God did not allow him to continue in his path of resistance to God’s compassion and grace—he even used a large sea creature and a plant to get his point across to Jonah. He reminded the prophet that he should have been just as compassionate as God was in wanting to see the Ninevites not be destroyed—Jonah needed an attitude adjustment about wanting to God annihilate them. He needed to repent and have a change of heart.
Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner who owns a vineyard goes to find laborers to help gather in the harvest. He agreed with this first group of laborers to pay a day’s wage. Later in the day, he hired other laborers, agreeing to give them what was right. All the way up to about an hour before quitting time, he hired people to help with the harvest.
When it came time to pay these people, he began with those he hired last. Giving each of them a day’s wage, he paid the last, the next to the last, and on down the line until those he hired first. These hot and exhausted workers he gave the same amount as he gave the people he hired last—a day’s wage. This infuriated them.
The problem wasn’t in what the landowner did, though, but in their expectations. They believed that since they had worked the longest, they should have received the most. Those who worked a short period of time didn’t expect to get paid as much as they did, but they no doubt, appreciated the benefit they received. Here is the crux of the story—the day’s wage which each person received was a result of the landowner’s kindness and compassion, not due to their diligent performance.
For the kingdom of heaven comes to us not due to our adequate performance as people doing good deeds, but solely as a gift from God. The wages of sin is death, we read, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). Once again, we need to move away from our debit/credit thinking about the kingdom of God into the place of God’s generosity and compassion. We need to not be scandalized by God’s compassionate inclusion of all of humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, including those people who we believe don’t deserve God’s grace.
As image-bearers of the God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, we are called to reflect his nature. We are to have the same compassion for those around us as God has for us. What he did for the 120,000 persons who lived in the city of Nineveh, God wants to do even more so for every human being who has ever lived. In Christ, we find that grace and salvation are available to each person. By faith in Christ each can participate in the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit both now and forever.
Jesus was always stepping on toes with his discussion of doing good to those who do us wrong, praying for those who persecute us, and caring for those whom society considers untouchable and unworthy. His scandalous compassion put him at the same table with sinners, touching the leprous and unclean, and raising the dead. What we see in Jesus, God plants in us by the Spirit—we open our hearts up to the compassion for others that comes from God himself. Why should we resist the Spirit’s longing to care for those who are lost and broken, bound by evil and sin?
Perhaps we should take some time in quiet contemplation of the nature of our compassionate and gracious God. And in doing so, invite him to change our heart towards those who are in need of his grace. How can we pray for them, help them, speak loving truth into their lives? In what way would God want us to express his compassion and concern for them?
Thank you, Abba, that you are compassionate, gracious, and understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you know what it means to be human, to struggle as we do against temptation and the sin which so easily distracts us from loving you and the other people in our lives. Grant us the grace to let you be the God you are and to stop trying to form you into our own image. Form us instead more fully into Christlikeness through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.” Psalm 145:8 NASB
“Then the LORD said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” Jonah 3:10–11 NASB
See also Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2–15, Jonah 3:10–4:11.
By Linda Rex
September 13, 2020, Proper 19—Last night I decided to microwave some fresh green beans for dinner that I had received from one of our members in Cookeville who likes to garden. I washed them and broke them up into a microwavable bowl and cooked them. As I was eating them, my mouth began to burn. It wasn’t until I had eaten several of the green beans that I realized that I had inadvertently cooked a hot pepper with them and made the green beans inedible in the process!
As I sought something to help to relieve the intense burning in my mouth, I thought about how easy it was to go about doing what we believe is the right thing to do and find ourselves in a place where we are broken and hurting instead. This happens so often in our relationships, because we are broken people—we live as self-centered persons rather than as the other-centered persons God created us to be. This includes our understanding of what it means to be forgiving of those who wound us.
The disciples knew what the rabbis said about being forgiving—forgiving someone three times was being very generous and understanding, they said. So, when Peter asked Jesus how many times a person should forgive an offender, he thought he was being excessively generous in suggesting that he should forgive someone seven times.
Jesus took forgiveness to the next level by suggesting that a person should forgive someone “seventy times seven” times—in other words, a ridiculously large amount of times. We should not hold grudges, but be generous in our offering of grace. Then he told a story in which he described what forgiveness looks like within the kingdom of heaven—what it means that God forgives us.
He began with a king who brings his vassals before him to account for his portion of their tax assessments. He is a generous king, apparently, for this one particular vassal owed him the equivalent of twelve million dollars—a sum he could never repay in his lifetime. The king concludes that maybe the only way to get his money back from this man was to throw him and his family into prison (a common practice then) with the possibility that one of his friends might pay his debt.
This vassal begs and pleads for the king to have compassion on him. And the king does. He forgives this huge debt—lets the man completely off the hook. The king writes the debt off the books—he no longer expects any payment from this man. As far as the king was concerned, there was no longer any need for the man to do anything except from that point on, to do a better job at collecting the king’s share of the funds and turning them in.
Apparently, the king’s vassal totally misses the point of what his master had done. He does not admit to nor accept the reality of the immense debt of which he had been forgiven. He doesn’t receive the grace and compassion shown him. He is still, in his mind’s eye, living in the place of collecting on debts and debts needing to be repaid.
So, when the man encounters one of his debtors who owed him about twenty bucks, he grabs him by the throat and drags him off to prison until he paid him back. Do you see the vast comparison in the two debts? The vassal had just been released from a debt of about twelve million dollars, but would not release his debtor for the mere sum of twenty dollars. Jesus was using hyperbole, an exaggeration, to make a point.
This is the type of thing we do to one another in the face of what God does for us. Think about the nation of Israel, who God lived in covenant relationship with. How often had he forgiven them for idolatry, injustice, and trusting in other nations rather than trusting in him? Even when Israel justly ended up in exile, losing their temple and nationhood, God had restored them, giving them a new temple and a new space in which to live, albeit under Roman rule. Even so, they repeatedly rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which he had sent them. In due time, Jesus knew they would even crucify that Messiah, at which point he would pronounce the most gracious words ever given to humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live in the reality of our need for grace and God’s overwhelming generosity in offering it to us. Abba offers us unfailingly the opportunity to start anew, giving us ample opportunity to change by wiping the slate clean and allowing us to begin again. The problem is that we as human beings prefer to live in the debit-credit mode. We may enjoy receiving God’s grace, but we prefer not to have to make the changes which go along with having been forgiven. By necessity, living in the truth of the immense debt we have been forgiven, we must admit our need for that grace, repent of the ways we incurred that debt, and in living out the truth of that repentance and forgiveness, we begin to be equally forgiving toward others.
So often in the gospels, Jesus offers forgiveness prior to repentance. We see the lame man lowered down through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then he tells the man to take up his mat and walk. The lame man hadn’t even asked to be forgiven—but no doubt, he felt he needed it. He probably had been told over and over during his lifetime that the reason he couldn’t walk was because he or his parents had sinned. Jesus affirmed that this was not the case, but that even those sins he had committed were removed. And that he needed to move forward in his life from then on.
In the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ends the encounter by saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ forgiveness was obvious, but he didn’t let anyone off the hook. The accusers needed to repent and so did she. And Jesus did not leave her at that place—he told her to go and do the next right thing, to leave her life of sin. Would Jesus have forgiven her again if she sinned? No doubt, but what he was seeking was not retribution, but repentance and faith—a life change—wholeness and healing, not punishment.
In the story about the king and the debtor, the vassal missed the whole point. He had been forgiven an incredible debt—so he needed to repent, to change the way he did business. He needed a change of heart and mind—to have a heart of compassion and forbearance like his master’s. But instead, he continued on the path of self-deliverance. He was going to work out his own salvation—paying back the debt himself by collecting what others owed him.
The only boundary on God’s grace is the one we set by refusing to see our need for it and to receive it as an undeserved gift. We are the ones who make forgiveness something which needs to be earned instead of receiving it humbly and then offering it to others. We are the ones who ignore the reality of the huge debt to God we could never repay and focus on the petty inconveniences or miserable pains those around create in our lives. If God could forgive us for an unpayable debt, shouldn’t we do that for others?
Maybe there is some hurt or grudge that’s been festering in your heart lately. Or perhaps you are holding something against yourself that seems unforgiveable. Why don’t you bring these to Jesus right now and ask him to give you his heart of forgiveness instead. Allow him to provide you with a willingness to forgive that is grounded in him and his sacrificial offering, and to move you and the forgiven one into a new place of wholeness and restoration. May you find true freedom living in this place of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord in the Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your limitless forgiveness and grace which is expressed to us in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for your patience with us when we are not forgiving, but are judgmental, condemning, and punitive. Grant us the grace to ever participate in Christ’s forgiving Spirit that we might forgive as you forgive us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, | Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. | He will not always strive with us, | Nor will He keep His anger forever. | He has not dealt with us according to our sins, | Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. | For as high as the heavens are above the earth, | So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. | As far as the east is from the west, | So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:8-12 NASB
See also Matthew 18:21–35.
By Linda Rex
August 16, 2020, Proper 15—If there is one thing we are good at as human beings, it is finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other people. We seem to find ways to elevate ourselves while demeaning others, or including ourselves while excluding others. One of the worst things we as Christians do so often is to use the Word of God and our religious faith to create unhealthy boundaries between ourselves and other people.
The one place where we as followers of Christ should find common ground is at the table of thanksgiving—communion. Here we each acknowledge anew with gratitude that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we find our true life in him. Here every person who trusts in him is bound to the community of faith, no matter his or her race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social status, or any other type of differentiation we might come up with.
The gospel passage for August 16th tells the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. Unfortunately for her, orthodox Jewish people of that day believed they had to separate themselves from the Gentiles. This meant she was excluded from any connection with the Jewish rabbis or synagogues. The fact that she sought help from Jesus showed an understanding and appreciation for who Jesus was that the Jewish authorities had denied. They ridiculed any possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Messiah.
Previous to his encounter with this woman, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees. They had criticized Jesus’ disciples for not observing careful ceremonial washing before they ate. Jesus pointed out their nitpicking observation of their traditions actually prevented people from obeying God and loving others as they were supposed to. For example, they said if a person gave to the temple coffers the support which was meant for the care of their dependent parents, that it was acceptable. But Jesus said that doing so broke God’s command that parents be honored and cared for by their children.
Later Jesus explained to his disciples when they were alone that it wasn’t what a person put into their bodies that made them unclean, but what came out of their hearts. Whatever we eat eventually gets used or discarded by our bodies. But what comes out of us in what we say and do is often what defiles us. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”
Matthew, in his gospel, says that after this conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and made his way into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Was he trying to avoid more of these provocative conversations so he could focus on teaching his disciples? Perhaps. But what is interesting is that their next experience was meeting this Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on my daughter, Son of David!”
Here we have someone who is excluded from the Jewish fellowship who is calling Jesus “Son of David”, a title only appropriate for the Messiah. Why did she call him this? Was she a Gentile proselyte? In any case, she seemed to be much more in agreement with who Jesus was than the Pharisees were.
The disciples, though, seemed not to have learned much from their previous experience with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish scriptures spoke of the day God’s salvation would be known among all nations. A foreigner coming to Jesus and asking for mercy was welcome—it said so in the writings they read in the synagogue. But it was their traditions regarding the Gentiles which created the barrier between them and caused them to resist including this woman in what they were doing.
Yes, Jesus was sent first to his people, Israel or the Jews, but not to the total exclusion of others. Jesus came to his people first so that when all was said and done, every human being would have a place at his table—all could come to him in faith and be received.
Jesus’ comment to the woman about taking the table food and feeding the dogs could have been an insult. But she knew that in a family, even the pet dogs had a place at the table, picking up the scraps off the floor. Even today, we often consider our pets to be part of our family, included in our life and worthy of at least a few choice leftovers after the meal. Speaking in this way, the woman touched Jesus’ heart, and so, in compassion, he healed her daughter.
Jesus remarked on her faith. While the disciples were busy trying to avoid having her bother the Messiah, the Messiah was busy being who he was—the bringer of salvation to all people, both Jew and Gentile. She trusted him to be compassionate and gracious, and so he was. She asked for mercy and she received it, because she trusted him to provide it.
What joy there must have been as this woman’s daughter was finally free from what had brought such chaos, pain, and suffering in her family! What Satan had meant to steal, kill, and destroy was replaced by the love, healing, and mercy of God—the renewal of the family bonds. This was but a small reflection of Jesus’ eternal intimate bond of love with his heavenly Father in the Spirit.
Perhaps it would be helpful to take a few moments to reflect on what barriers we may have at work in our lives which need to be replaced by love, compassion, and mercy. Who do we know who needs the tender touch of our Savior? Perhaps instead of criticism, condemnation, or isolation, today we may offer prayer, understanding, and a kind word or smile. What barrier can we replace today with God’s love and grace?
Holy Spirit, grant us the heart of Jesus towards each and every person we encounter in our lives. Enable us to see them as you do—one whom you came for, Jesus—one whom you love, Abba. Grant us the grace to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us ill, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is only possible through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. In your Name we ask this. Amen.
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, | To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, | To be His servants, ‘every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath | And holds fast My covenant; | Even those I will bring to My holy mountain | And make them joyful in My house of prayer. | Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; | For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ | The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB
“That Your way may be known on the earth, | Your salvation among all nations. | Let the peoples praise You, O God; | Let all the peoples praise You. | 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; | For You will judge the peoples with uprightness | And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.” Psalm 67:2-4 NASB
See also Matthew 15:21–28.
By Linda Rex
August 2, 2020, PROPER 13—So many news reports today focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the related economic and unemployment troubles, as well as the ongoing racial tensions around this country. We have experienced powerful emotional responses to the news and social media coverage of these situations—fear, anger, frustration, sadness. It seems that we are being bombarded on all sides with every reason to lose hope and give ourselves over to fear and anxiety.
I have no doubt that this is encouraged and inspired by the father of lies who seeks only to kill, steal, and destroy. And whether we want to admit it or not, we are responsible for our choices to walk apart from the One who would gladly intervene to heal, restore, and help. Whether we like to hear it or not, blaming God for all this isn’t truthful, nor is it helpful. If anything, we need to believe that underneath all of our messy lives still lies the everlasting arms of a loving Savior.
It would be healing, I believe, to take the time to contemplate the manner of Savior we do have. If we had a God who understood what it means to suffer and grieve, and who cares about us, that would provide some comfort and encouragement when life gets tough. We read the testimony of witnesses in the Bible who say that the Word of God was sent to us, to live in our humanity and experience life as we do. This God/man Jesus Christ walked the dusty roads of Palestine, ate and drank with people from all walks of life, and bore the rejection and ridicule of those who should have welcomed him.
He had a relative named John, who was called by God to prepare the way for his coming. John preached in the wilderness, and baptized those who responded to his call to repent and be baptized. Jesus himself came to him to be baptized for the sake of all humanity, and John, under protest, did as Jesus asked. Later, John had the courage to speak the truth about the king’s immoral behavior, and ended up in prison.
Both men were obedient to the call of God on their lives. When Jesus heard that John had been beheaded by the king, he was profoundly impacted by the news. His heart was filled with compassion and grief for John, possibly some concern about his own path towards a tragic death, and he knew the only way he could deal with any of this was by taking it to his heavenly Father. He went to find a secluded place to spend time with his Abba.
But the people followed him. They were looking for a savior, a deliverer—someone to help them and heal them. When Jesus saw them, his heart went out to them. He was filled with compassion, and healed the sick people who came to him. Even though what he needed as a human was time alone with God to heal and prepare for his future, he took time to help those who sought him out. He ministered to others even though he desired to be ministered to by his Father.
In Jesus we see a deep compassion—an other-centered love which placed the needs of those around him above his own needs. Jesus knew the Source of his strength, wisdom, and power, and was wanting to be renewed and refreshed in his Father’s presence. But he also understood the cry of those about him who needed love, healing, and forgiveness. He knew this was the Father’s heart that he was expressing toward them. Every act of healing and love came straight from his Father’s hands by the Spirit to those who were in need.
As the day drew to a close, the disciples came to Jesus and suggested that he send the people away so they could get food before the shops in the distant towns were closed for the day. Jesus challenged his disciples by telling them, “You give them something to eat.” No doubt their jaws dropped in surprise. “You can’t be serious, Jesus!” Right away they began explaining their limitations—there was no way they could feed over five thousand people!
So often this is my own response to that twinge in my heart which calls me to help someone! Here the disciples couldn’t see any way to do what was needed in the situation—they only had five loaves of bread and two fish. How far could that go? It wouldn’t even feed the disciples themselves. Why would Jesus ask them to do something they could not realistically do? What was he thinking?
What Jesus did next is instructive to us as his followers. He took the little that was available and lifted it up to his Father in prayer. Jesus knew from personal experience that what little he had, when given to the Father, would be more than what was needed in the situation. Hadn’t he experienced this that very day, when he had sought time alone with the Father to regain his spiritual strength and peace, and found himself doing ministry instead? And hadn’t his Father been faithful to carry him through as he needed the presence and power of the Spirit to do ministry?
So Jesus lifted up the fish and bread to his Father and blessed them. Then he gave them to the disciples, who then gave them to the crowd of people. Jesus was not directly involved in this miracle—he left the grunt work to the disciples. It was as they distributed the bread and fish that it was multiplied to the point that everyone ate and was satisfied. Remarkably, there was so much food left over, that each of the twelve disciples picked up a basketful of the remnants of the meal when everyone was done eating.
What happened when Jesus offered the little that the disciples had to his Father? It was multiplied to meet the present need. This was a lesson that they needed to learn—to trust God for all that they needed in order to serve those they were sent to.
Maybe today would be a good time to pause and consider, what have we been anxious and concerned about lately? Is there anything we feel totally inadequate to deal with or to take care of? What are we lacking that we know we cannot provide for ourselves? Is there some ministry task Jesus has given us that we believe we cannot do because we think we don’t have what is needed to do it?
The reality is that so often we depend upon ourselves, or others, or money or our government for what we need. This life is filled with experiences and circumstances where we cannot do for ourselves or for others what is needed. This means life so often can be fearful, frustrating, infuriating, and full of anxiety, sorrow and grief.
What we need to remember is the compassion and understanding of the God who made us, who is willing to do for us what we cannot do. He is the God who can stretch things way beyond the limits we think they have. He can also help us to see things in a new way and discover that what we thought we needed isn’t what is really important—he may have something much better in mind.
Our Abba is the compassionate One who is Healer, Restorer, and Provider. Relying upon ourselves places us in the middle of the wilderness with only a bit of fish and bread to take care of our needs. What God wants us to do is to offer all that we do have up to him, and then to take it and do those things he would have us do with what we are given. Then as we trust, as we walk in obedience, he will ensure we have everything we need and maybe even more than we can ask or imagine.
Thank you, Father, for your faithfulness, love, and grace. We offer ourselves again, all we are and all we have up to you. Please stretch it, replenish it, renew it—make it abundantly sufficient for all you give us to do. Grant us the grace to trust you, to walk in obedience to your Spirit, and to express your heart of compassion to each and every person you bring before us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; |And you who have no money come, buy and eat. | Come, buy wine and milk | Without money and without cost. | Why do you spend money for what is not bread, | And your wages for what does not satisfy? | Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, | And delight yourself in abundance.” Isaiah 55:1-2 NASB
See also Matthew 14:13–21.
By Linda Rex
June 14, 2020, Proper 6—One of the things that has come out of the most recent events, alongside the killing of George Floyd and others, is a reminder that we as human beings have a tendency to be blind to that which we prefer not to look at. Sad to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we do this all the time, preferring to keep our attention on what interests us or gives us pleasure, or what we are most comfortable experiencing.
A while ago I had the privilege of attending a GCI event in Ohio. During this weekend event, our group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located downtown near the river in Cincinnati, Ohio (https://www.freedomcenter.org/). While most of the museum is dedicated to the history of slavery and its abolition here in America, there is an exhibit on the third floor which I found to be especially moving.
This area was filled with exhibits meant to educate visitors about the current issues in the world today regarding the slavery of men, women, and children. It was hard to see, to accept the reality that so many still live in bondage, but I found I could not turn away from the sights and sounds of those whose voices were seeking yet to be heard. It was almost as if, just by this exhibition being there with people visiting it, those people held in slavery today were given a tiny ability to speak their pain and suffering.
My personal struggle is then, having seen and heard their cries, what am I to do about it? Can I continue to live indifferent to their suffering and their need? But their need is so great, and the work required is so difficult, even beyond my ability! And therein lies the struggle—how do I personally address the needs of those who are still experiencing oppression at the hands of those around them.
The gospel of Matthew tells of how Jesus was going through all the cities and villages in Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. “Seeing the people,” it says, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NASB). That phrase “seeing the people” just leapt out at me today—he didn’t pass by indifferent to their suffering. No, he saw them.
Really seeing these people is what awoke a deep sense of compassion within Jesus and led to him offering them hope and healing. The NIV says these people were “harassed and helpless”. There is a picture created of people who had no one to look after them, to defend or protect them, or to make sure they had what they needed—water, forage, and a safe place to rest. This was the job of the shepherd, and those shepherds they did have were not caring for them, but were preying upon them and oppressing them instead.
Even though Jesus was going about healing and speaking life and hope into these people, he realized the magnitude of what was needed was beyond the capacity of one human being. Even though he was God in human flesh, his purpose was not to do everything by himself—he was mentoring disciples who were learning what it meant to live in other-centered love and service. He meant for his disciples to make other disciples who would make other disciples, and so begin to fill the earth with his compassion, care, and healing, and the good news of God’s love and grace.
As Jesus truly sees the people he is ministering to, he turns to his disciples and says to them that even though there is a great harvest of souls for the kingdom, there were insufficient workers available to do the task. He tells his disciples to pray that God would provide laborers who would participate in this ministry with him. Having truly seen the people in their distress, he longed to set them free and give them new life—Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to help with the harvest.
Jesus himself turned his disciples to the Father as the source of laborers for his spiritual harvest. The heart of the Father toward those who were suffering was expressed by Jesus himself, and he knew the Father’s answer was to bring others to the place where they would be willing and able to help with this task.
And so, in the next scene, we see Jesus sending out twelve disciples in pairs, equipping them with the authority to cast out demons and to heal people, and instructing them to proclaim the kingdom of God. What in the beginning appeared to be a general request to God for helpers ended up being a personal mission for each of these disciples. They were sent out by Jesus and they began to participate in the ministry of God’s love and grace to these struggling people.
In Romans 5:1-8, the apostle Paul tells us that “Jesus is God’s grace embrace of the entire human race” (Rom. 5:2 MB). God saw us while we were still helpless, still sinners, and Jesus died for us. In Christ we find the inspiration to involve ourselves in situations where there are people who seem to be harassed, helpless, confused, aimless, and distressed. There are many more than we can possibly serve ourselves, so we pray God will provide others to come alongside and help. And then we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are the ones God is sending, and we do what we can to offer healing, renewal, and the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to those he places in front of us.
We find in Jesus our own calling as human beings to “see” our fellowman, to hear the voices so often left unheard, and to open our hearts to those who we in the past have preferred to leave our hearts closed to. We draw close to those whom we have pushed aside or ignored, and we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering and need. We have the strength to speak the truth of God’s love and grace into that which is sinful and wretched, and offer the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
These are high ideals. And the bar was set high by our Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ. But he sent his Spirit to infuse us with not only the capacity, but the heart, to meet this challenge. We have a long way to go before every human being is able to live with the plenty and dignity they ought to experience, but we can and must be working to that end. We begin with prayer—that God would send laborers—and then listen to hear God’s call upon our own hearts and lives to participate where we are with his strength and resources to make a difference in this world.
Father, forgive us for not seeing our brothers and sisters who are suffering, harassed, and helpless. Forgive us for diminishing one another, for not speaking life and hope into the lives of those without hope. Forgive us for not living out the truth and grace of Jesus in our relationships with one another. Lord, please send laborers to help with this great spiritual harvest. And if there is a role we are to play in the healing of our family, our city, our state, our nation, our world, please reveal it to us. Send us forth with urgency to heal, bring renewal and to proclaim your kingdom life, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 MSG
“God’s timing was absolutely perfect; humanity was at their weakest when Christ died their death. … Herein is the extremity of God’s love gift: mankind was rotten to the core when Christ died their death.” Romans 5:6, 8 MB
By Linda Rex
August 25th, Proper 16—There are hazards to being kind. We may open the door and find ourselves face to face with a stranger who needs help. Should we help them? Would we be unkind if we didn’t?
I remember years ago when I lived in a small duplex cottage in southern California, my roommate and I faced this question. At three in the morning, someone knocked on our door asking for help. I didn’t want to answer the door, but my roommate (who was much braver than I) did. This person wanted to come in and use our phone so he could get help with his car.
I’d like to believe that my roommate and I were both kind people. But opening the door at three in the morning to a perfect stranger under these circumstances was non-negotiable. We offered to make a call for him, but he wanted to come in and do it himself. We refused and sent him on his way.
I’m pretty sure we made the right decision, considering the situation, the neighborhood, and the time of day. But it’s really hard to be kind under those conditions. Our instinct of self-preservation kicks in. We realize it is easy for someone to take advantage of us, to harm us or steal from us. We realize we make ourselves vulnerable when we are kind, so we keep our guard up and resist the urge to be kind in some situations.
Yet kindness is a part of God’s nature, and we are designed to be kind as creatures made in his image. It was God’s intention to form in each of us as human beings his own way of being which includes lovingkindness. The lovingkindness which is a part of God’s nature is hesed, a kindness which includes loyal love, mercy, and favor. It is a gracious kindness which endures suffering, rejection, and a failure to love by the one God is in relationship with.
In Exodus 34:6-7, the God of Israel described himself to Moses:
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
When we read the story of God’s people Israel, we find that they spent more time wandering away from their covenant relationship with God than they did living within it as they should have. They were easily distracted by the nations around them and how they lived their lives. They sought fulfillment in the pleasures of this life rather than in growing closer to the God who loved them and had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and had given them the land they lived in.
But God was kind—going out of his way to forgive and be gracious to them. Early on, when Moses had been on the mountain with God receiving his instructions, Aaron and the people made an idol. As Moses returned down the mountain, he found the nation had succumbed to idolatrous worship of a golden calf. Was God upset? Absolutely. He was more than willing to end the nation and start over with Moses and his children. But Moses reminded God of his nature, his lovingkindness, of how God had described himself (Numbers 14:11-19)—this was the truth of God’s being. And God relented, and was kind.
Over the centuries as his people turned away from him, God sent prophets to remind his beloved people to return—to turn back to him in devotion and obedience. It took quite a bit before God would say to them, since this is what you want, then you may have it and the consequences which go with having it. And the nation would go into slavery or subjection to another nation. But whenever the nation would experience the pain that went with turning from their Redeemer, the people would turn back and God would renew his covenant with them. This covenant relationship was tested over and over, but on God’s side, there was always faithfulness and lovingkindness.
God’s kindness to Israel has never ended, though the nation has been through many crucifixions over the millennia. God’s nature does not change, and he is faithful to his covenant even when his people are not. The greatest expression of God’s kindness to us is expressed to us in the incarnation of the Word. The coming of God into human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ expresses God’s lovingkindness in a powerful way, as Israel’s Redeemer put himself fully at the mercy of the humans he had created.
Jesus, while here on this earth, allowed human beings to do as they wished with him. But never to the point that his divine will was thwarted or his plan of salvation was diverted. Jesus was always kind, except when he needed to resist evil. There were times when Jesus, in his love for his people, spoke the truth directly to their hearts, calling them back to a right relationship with his Abba. This is when the greatest kindness he could show them was to point out their need to turn back to their God and to accept the One he had sent to save them.
Sometimes genuine kindness involves taking a risk and telling someone the truth. Sometimes it means drawing a line and saying, “You may not hurt me or my family, because that is not how God meant us to treat one another.” There is a time when kindness must be lovingkindness—a loyal love which shows favor, faithfulness, and takes godly action. A true kindness is the kindness of covenant love and grace, of refusing to be pushed away from our grounding in Jesus Christ and who we are as God’s beloved adopted children.
Today, is there someone you can be truly kind to? What shape will that kindness take? Is it time for you to take the risk of true kindness, of genuine lovingkindness?
Dear Abba, thank you for your heart of lovingkindness and grace. Thank you for being filled with compassion and concern for each of us. And thank you that the greatest kindness you showed us was in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for pouring your lovingkindness into human hearts by the Holy Spirit. Make us open to receive your heart of kindness and to truly be kind to those around us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, / Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.” Psalm 103:8 NASB
By Linda Rex
I remember sitting in our living room as a child reading or putting together a puzzle with one eye on the screen door. From my seat I could see the metal mailbox which was attached to the white post on the front porch. I loved the sense of expectation that came with waiting for the postal employee to put something in it—there was always some hope that a letter was there for me, with my name written on it.
Letters and packages received in the mail have a unique capacity to create a feeling of relational connection. As a child I had a pen pal who lived in Germany and I waited with special anticipation for her response to my letters. I had a cousin who was kind enough to include me in her letter-writing, and since I knew very few of my cousins, it was a delight to get a letter from her as well.
For me, writing a letter to someone provides a way of sharing what I would not ordinarily take the time to say. In other words, for an introvert like myself, it provides a way of thoughtfully putting down on paper (or nowadays in digital type) what is going on in my head. Instead of this creative person struggling to get her words together, I can take the time to sort them out and put them down in an organized fashion.
Letters for millennia have brought people together. I think about the couriers in the Roman empire who carried letters across long distances. We would not have the New Testament epistles if it hadn’t been for the apostles’ efforts to connect relationally with people in other cities and to share the gospel message and spiritual encouragement and teaching with them. In America, we had many brave people who risked life and limb to carry letters in pouches on horseback across the frontier. How sweet it must have been for a mother to receive a long-awaited letter from a son or daughter who had moved clear across the country!
It takes a certain level of commitment to sit down and write a real, personal letter to another person. It’s easy for me to make a standardized letter and use MS Word mail merge to create fifty similar letters addressed to fifty different people. These are not personal in the same way as a letter created with intentional focus on one certain relationship, which attends to the particular nuances of that relational connection.
And there is nothing quite like receiving a letter written from the heart from a friend or a lover—the words on the page are like a conduit of love and grace. There is a beauty in a well-written expression of affection and concern. Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. Sometimes the cruelest words are those written on a page, or today, in an email.
The freedom, though, to send and receive private letters and packages is an important freedom for us to have. In many nations, letters and packages are opened and examined, and the privacy of such communication is not respected. We have in this country taken for granted our ability to receive and send private communication—it is a privilege and a blessing we surely would not want to live without.
So, when a news flash goes out about pipe bombs being received in the mail by certain high-profile people, I get concerned. This news brought a flash back to more than one scare involving a deadly poison being mailed to the president and others in leadership. The insidious effort by evil to create fear and suspicion and thereby destroy relational connection is obvious. What better to create mistrust between people than to ruin their methods of private communication?
And when fear breeds mistrust and suspicion, then the installation of more controls over private communication seems to be the answer. But in reality, it destroys our ability to live in community. I hope in our efforts to create a safe letter and package handling system that we don’t lose our freedom for private communication. It would be a shame to for our college students to never be able to receive a care package because someone else would see the contents first and decide to eat all the cookies and candy. This is a serious issue!
Seriously, though, there is one thing the evil one has done from the beginning and that is to cause us to question our relational connection with God and one another. He is always making this insidious effort to create mistrust and unbelief. And we listen to it and allow it to influence us. And some of us participate in the evil one’s methods and madness. This is how we can end up in a broken world where people do insane things like mailing pipe bombs.
This is not what freedom is for. Freedom is not for us to be able to do whatever we want whenever and however we want. But rather, freedom is for us to be able to live together in the midst of our differences in equality and unity. The purpose of our redemption is so that we quit questioning God and his love, and begin trusting him. We are given the freedom to love and respect one another such that we can trust one another and care for one another as we ought. And our redemption through Jesus enables us to live at peace and in harmony with one another because it brings us all to the same place—to the cross.
Our freedom is not so we can harm and injure one another, but so we can live together in harmony and love, in a world in which each person respects and loves the other, in spite of differences in relationship or personhood. We must beware of any system of government which creates separation and fear, or which sets us against one another rather than working together for the best interests of all those involved.
And we need to be reminded there is a power at work in this cosmos which is greater than any other power. This power underlies everything which is at work in our universe, even down to the minute details of each molecule. This power is beyond our comprehension, and is not intimidated by the arrogant boastful words and actions of any leader of government or industry. This power has all the wealth of the cosmos at its disposal, and can never be opposed without great damage to its opponent. We often live as though this were not the case—but this power is at work in our world in spite of our belief that we are in charge or that certain people are in control due to their financial or political prowess.
This power is a Person, and his name is Jesus Christ. He is that divine Letter sent to us from Abba, to tell us of his love and grace. This Person was not afraid of any method of delivery, but was willing to put himself completely at the mercy of us as human beings, coming in the form of an infant, born and placed in a manger. It was this Person who was willing to risk it all so we would be included in Abba’s love as his adopted children. This Person allowed us to crucify him, knowing that within three days he would walk out of the tomb, having transformed our humanity in the process. The Person sent his Spirit so we could all live together in the harmony and oneness of the Trinity here in our broken world.
Whatever may happen now or in the future, we have this certainty at the root of all things—we are held. We will make it through this, whatever this is, because we are beloved and we are graced by the presence and power of God in his Son Jesus by his Holy Spirit. The Spirit is still at work in this world creating community, tearing down walls, dissolving fear and suspicion, and drawing us together.
Our hearts resonate with the Christ within, enabling us to trust, to believe once more there is hope and there is love at work in this world. The Letter we have received by God’s divine delivery system will accomplish his perfect work in his good time. His explosion of love and grace is at work in this cosmos and will in his good time fill all things and drive out all that is dark and evil, reducing it to chaff blown away by the wind. We have nothing to fear and everything to hope for, because we are holding within ourselves the special delivery we have received from our heavenly Father—the Letter of grace, the indwelling Christ by the Spirit.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for loving us so much! We are so blessed! Do not allow the seeds of mistrust, suspicion, and fear to grow, Abba, but blow them away with your divine Breath, replacing them with seeds of kindness, compassion, and trust. Remove from this nation and others those leaders who would participate with the evil one, and replace them with men and women who embrace and live in the truth of who they are as your children. We are so often at the mercy of those more powerful and wealthy than ourselves, Lord, so show yourself to be the One who is the divine Power at work in this cosmos, the One who holds all things in his hand. Lord Jesus, fill us anew with your Spirit of harmony, grace, and love. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” Job 42:2 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
Last night my daughter and I crammed ourselves into the bathroom under the stairs along with our disaster essentials. Every time we left the room thinking the danger was past we would hear the tornado siren go off again. So back into the bathroom we would go.
The air conditioning went out earlier this week so we were getting pretty hot and steamy in our little cramped place. While I tried to cram some more from the commentaries for Sunday’s sermon, Eva started watching “Man from Snowy River” on her laptop. I love the scenery and music on the movie like she does, so I had a hard time concentrating on what I was doing. The movie then prompted conversation on all sorts of topics, even leading us to watch and listen to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” (Yes, I just looked it up to make sure I spelled it correctly.)
Even though I was pretty tired from lack of sleep, I was super grateful this morning to find we came away from the storm without any damage to our property. But I was sorry to see others were not quite so fortunate.
As I was reflecting on all this, I realized I don’t want anyone to have to struggle or suffer yet these are golden opportunities for the beauty of God’s love and grace to shine through. When these dangerous and difficult times come into our lives, they have a tremendous potential for building interdependence and for fostering deeper relationships with the people in our lives.
I remember many years ago up in Iowa when an ice storm shut down our power for over 24 hours. Yes, we were cold—it was in the teens outside. But we were blessed with a propane furnace in the basement from which the heat rose to the first floor, keeping the house about 50 degrees. We snuggled in blankets in the warmest place we could find in the house and played Monopoly by candlelight. The fun and sharing in the midst of our struggle is what I remember most about that disaster.
Now, I can think of other disasters which were devastating to me and my family financially or otherwise which we did not handle as well. What I have found is the difference lies in our ability to realize and believe the presence and power of God is with us in the midst of whatever is happening. When we have the peace of knowing and believing we are held in God’s love and care, there is a sense of rest and freedom which accompanies our trust in him.
It’s as though the Holy Spirit just pours over us a deep sense of calmness and even joy in the midst of the pressing circumstances. This doesn’t mean we are floating around on some false fairy cloud, but rather, in the midst of this place where evil is occurring, we have a sense there is a deeper mystery at work—one in which the Spirit is in the process of taking all this and turning it into something worthwhile, meaningful, and worthy of praise. And we can join in this mystery by trusting in the faithful love and grace of our God who is mightier than any evil force which may come against us.
Granted, sometimes the disasters which strike us are so evil and so devastating we are left numb and immobilized. We are so deeply wounded in these moments our response is anything but trusting and hopeful—especially when we are hit repeatedly by overwhelming events.
In these moments, it is important to lean on those in our lives who can lift us up by trusting in our place. They can pray when we have no words left. They can help us through one more day when we don’t know what we’re going to do next. And this is the calling of the body of Christ in Jesus’ command we love one another. This is the work the Spirit does in and through community in the midst of disaster and suffering.
Too many of us shut ourselves off from, or live and act in ways which destroy, meaningful relationships in our lives. And then we are left high and dry when we need someone to come alongside and help us. Sometimes merely circumstances which are out of our control cut us off from relationships which would normally offer us support, help and encouragement in the midst of suffering. In either of these situations, it would be helpful to know there are people willing and able to come alongside us to offer their assistance in spite of our failures or our circumstances.
I was looking at some of the reports on what was happening in Texas and Louisiana, and soon I was seeing pictures of people helping one another. Such physical acts of mercy and kindness crossed all relational borders. The compassion and caring of one human being for another and for animals and the environment was wonderful to see. This is the heart of Abba expressed in and by these people whether they realize it or not.
No matter how powerful evil and evildoers may get, I do not believe they can ever surpass the power of God’s presence and love expressed through human beings for one another and for the environment in which we live. Sometimes it may seem as though evil is winning. But I have learned we tend to see most clearly what we look for. If we only pay attention to the evil going on around us, I believe we may miss the kindness and goodness of God which is at work all around us in this world, especially since it often takes a different form from what we expect and it often works behind the scenes in invisible ways.
My heart and prayers go out to all those carrying an unbearable burden today. May you find in the midst of your suffering and difficulty the resilience to try one more time and to take one more step. May you be surrounded with caring, supportive people. And may you know beyond a shadow of doubt, you are loved and you are held in the unsurpassable love and grace of God.
Abba, thank you for remembering each and every person who is struggling today. Thank you for opening doors for them. Thank you for providing for their needs. Thank you for healing their wounds. And thank you for surrounding them with people who will protect them, love them, comfort them, help them, and challenge them. We know you hold each and every one of them in your love and grace through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple. For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle; in the secret place of His tent He will hide me; he will lift me up on a rock. And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me, and I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord.” Psalm 27:4–6 NASB
By Linda Rex
I think the story of St. Patrick is a fascinating one. I never knew until a few years ago I could read his writings and learn quite a bit about this man in the process (for example, go to: https://archive.org/details/writingsofsaintp00patr). In his writings, we see a man just like you and me, who struggled in his relationship with God, in his own personal life, and in coming to know what it meant to follow Christ and to live this out in a pagan culture in which his life and well-being were always at risk.
In my life, years ago, the March 17th holiday celebrating his life was lumped, along with many others, into the category of pagan holidays. I have since made the effort to learn the story behind the observation of this day, and most specifically, the story of St. Patrick’s life and service to God in spreading the Trinitarian gospel of love. I’ve come to see there is something to be said for pausing in the midst of our life to reflect on the beauty of the Trinity, and to once again embrace our calling to lay it all down so others may know God as he really is.
What struck me about St. Patrick’s life was not just the suffering he went through as a slave among the Celtic people who stole him from his home. Rather, what really hit home was the choice he made later in life when he was free and at home with his family, to leave it all behind and go back to the Celtic people who had so disrupted his life, so they could hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This resembles so much what the apostle Paul wrote when describing the ministry of God to us in his Son:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5–8 NASB)
When we think about the Word of God, who was God and who was With God, who lived eternally in this inner relation of interpenetrating love and mutual submission, we must realize at some point, God had all he needed—he was at perfect peace, in perfect joy, in such glory and splendor there was no reason for the Word of God to come to this far country, to enter our darkness and blackness, except—love. There is no other possible motivation for doing such a thing—but this is what Jesus said he did: “For God so loved the world he gave…” The Father’s love was so great, even the Father was part of the coming of the Word into our broken, fallen cosmos.
I remember as I first read the story of St. Patrick, I was horrified by the experiences he went through in his simple effort to love God and to share the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus. Why would anyone choose to go through such experiences? Apart from the love of God placed in their hearts, they wouldn’t. It is only the love of God himself which could enable us to give so freely in the midst of such danger, hostility and abuse. The freedom to give one’s life completely in this way is a participation in the freedom of God to give himself completely to us, to humanity, even when he knew it meant he would experience suffering and death at our hands.
This has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks—just how much do we as comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed, well-employed people of any nation, creed or language, express this same willingness to set aside the benefits and comforts of our lives for the sake of sharing the love of God in Christ with those who are caught in the darkness of evil, poverty, suffering and grief? Does it break our hearts that others around us do not know who God really is, and that he loves them just as much as he loves us? Do we care enough to do as Jesus did—leave all the blessings for a time so others might experience God’s love?
And yet, this is a struggle for me. What does it mean to truly love another human being? Is it best to just give a hungry person money? Or is it better to help them find a way to feed themselves? Is it best to give someone money for a place to stay for the night? Or is it better to let them experience the consequences of refusing to get sober so they could stay at the mission at night and eventually get a job and own their own home?
Really, what does it mean to leave our comforts so others may find comfort? What does it mean to show and teach our neighbor the love of God in Christ?
We cannot fix other people, but we can sure bring them to Christ and participate with Christ in what he is doing to heal, restore, and renew them. We cannot, and should not, do for others what they should be and could be doing for themselves. Carrying other people’s loads in their place is not healthy for them or for us (Gal. 6:5). And yet, God calls us to be available to help others who are overburdened beyond their ability to bear up (Gal. 6:2), for this reflects God’s heart of love.
Loving others should not arise out of a sense of guilt or shame, but out of a genuine concern and compassion which comes straight from the heart of the Father, through Jesus in the Spirit. It is best to be discerning in our loving of others as ourselves. Loving another person doesn’t automatically mean we give them what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. Loving another person may mean saying no, or telling them the truth in love, or asking them to get the help they need so they can heal, grow or change.
This brings to mind the apostle Paul’s prayer: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9–11 NASB) Prayer and listening to God’s Word to us via the Holy Spirit and the written Word are important parts of knowing what we need to do to love others as ourselves.
We need the grace of God, God’s wisdom, insight and discernment to know how best to share God’s love with others. God gave St. Patrick a call to go to Ireland and he did—but then God also gave him the grace to do the ministry he called him to. We walk by faith, trusting God to guide our footsteps, to give us wisdom in how we love others and tell them the truth about who God is and who they are in Christ. As we keep in tune with the Spirit, God will guide us and teach us how to love each unique person he puts in our path.
Abba, may we each be filled with your heart of love toward those who are caught in darkness, suffering and difficulty. May we be willing to leave our blessings behind as you ask us to and be willing to struggle and suffer and lay down our lives, so others may share in the Triune life and love with us, through Jesus our Lord and by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” Galatians 6:7–10 NASB