By Linda Rex
April 2, 2021, GOOD FRIDAY—It is easy for us to get swept up into feeling frustrated or sorry for ourselves because life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We can look at others and wonder why their lives are going so well when ours isn’t. This is especially true when we look at social media, and all we see are everyone else’s efforts to paint the best picture possible of their life.
Nicodemus was a Jewish leader who came to Jesus at night to ask him some questions. When Jesus began explaining to Nicodemus about the kingdom of God, he used an illustration from the history of his people. As the ancient Israelites traversed the wilderness, he explained, being carefully led by the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and sustained by bread from heaven (manna) they struggled to deal with the difficulties they faced.
Like all of us, when faced with things not going the way they thought they should go, they began to complain. From there on it went downhill, for soon the people were dying from snakebite as their camp became infested with venomous vipers. Finally, they begged Moses to intercede for them with God, and he did. God’s response was rather interesting, considering the covenant he had made with them.
In spite of the fact that God had told them not to make graven images, he told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to place it on a pole. When a person who had been bitten by a snake looked up at the bronze serpent in faith, they would not die—they would get well. Those who refused to look up at the serpent, of course, would die of snakebite. As Moses and the people followed God’s instruction, the Israelites’ camp was soon free from death.
In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus used this example to illustrate the importance of his ministry and why he had come. He pointed out that his purpose was to be lifted up in the same way as the serpent was lifted up, thereby drawing all humanity to himself. What would be meant for evil, for his destruction, would be turned to good, to the deliverance of all from evil, sin, and death.
To create a bronze serpent, the craftsman would place metal into a crucible, bring it to an intense heat to melt it. He would purify the metal by increasing or maintaining this intense heat, and working to bring all the impurities to the top to be scooped off until the surface was fully reflective. At the height of its purity, the craftsman would see his own face reflected in the molten metal. Then the metal would be poured into a mold or fashioned over the heat by hammering, twisting, and so on, into the desired form. Over and over the craftsman would work to forge the piece, until he was satisfied that it was exactly right, smoothing and polishing the surface, and finally, adding the details that were desired.
To say that he would be lifted up like the bronze serpent shows how Jesus used powerful but simple imagery to explain something with great depth and meaning. God as a craftsman began the process of the redemption of his creation by forging for himself a people from which his Messiah would come. This people, Israel, was taken on a wilderness journey, then across the Jordan River, and on into the promised land. They journeyed with God, struggling against and within their covenant relationship with the Creator, not realizing the magnitude and wonder of what God intended to do through them. God even took them into the crucible of the exile where they began to understand that their relationship with their Adonai was not solely dependent upon the temple and its sacrifices.
In the dark years of prophetic silence following the exile, when their descendants wrestled with their various overlords, we find the remnant of the people of ancient Israel, the Jews, yearning for their Messiah to come and deliver them. They sought a deliverer to set them free to be their own kingdom again, to be able to worship their Adonai, God, freely and to enjoy the prosperity and security of the age of the Spirit.
It is at this time that the Word of God, Son of our heavenly Father, took on our human flesh in the incarnation. This was an unexpected event, for this Messiah was not intent on a political, military redemption, but a redemption of our humanity from its slavery to evil, sin, and death. He fulfilled the prophetic testimony of Isaiah, who predicted that he would suffer on behalf of his people, redeeming and restoring them (Isaiah 52:13–53:12). This Messiah, Jesus Christ, throughout his life on this earth, forged into our humanity the capacity to be truly human, to be the proper image-bearers God meant each of us to be. The crucible in which God in Christ took our humanity—his flesh, was placed into the flame of the crucifixion, taking our human flesh into death itself, and in three days, Jesus rose again, bringing all humanity into a new existence as refined by the fire.
Jesus’ people played a significant role in the redemption of all humanity and even all creation, albeit an unpleasant one. God knew from the beginning what it would take to forge within our humanity the capacity to live eternally in union and communion with the divine. He created a womb, Israel, in which the Savior would be formed and an instrument by which he would be crucified, all for the sake of every human being sharing in the life and love of God in Christ by the Spirit. The disciples and Jesus were clear in their day about the sins of God’s people, but recognized that the Jews are still, as they are today, God’s covenant people and the Savior’s human family.
It is instructive for us that when God, the divine craftsman, goes to work in our lives, he doesn’t always bring us to pleasant, happy places. There are times when he allows us to wander through difficulties—not to harm us or do us evil, but to forge within us a new way of being which more deeply reflects his image.
We turn to Christ in these moments, for he was lifted up in the crucifixion and entered into death itself for our sake. He stands eternally as our high priest even now, interceding for us as Moses did but also standing in our place on our behalf, having taken upon himself all that is ours and reforming it into what God always meant it to be. As the eternal Son of the Father, he brings humanity by faith into God’s intimate union and communion in the Spirit, enabling us to participate in the divine life and love now and forever.
On this Good Friday, as we reflect upon the sobering experience Jesus went through on the cross, let us be reminded of the faithfulness and goodness of our God. May we sit silently in the shadow of the cross, weeping for the price that was paid but being filled with the joy for which Jesus did it, for he saw beyond the crucifixion into the redemption of all humanity and the restoration of all things. As refined in the fire, he was lifted up, to draw all to himself, so all may truly live. Praise Adonai!
Our heavenly Father, thank you. Thank you for the gift of your one unique Son, Jesus the Messiah. Thank you, Jesus, for setting aside the privileges of divinity for a time, so that we might be freed from the snakebite of evil, sin, and death, and be brought up into life eternal in the presence of the Father by the Spirit. We praise you for your faithfulness and goodness, one holy God in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.
“Pilate came out again and said to them, ‘Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.’ Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold, the Man!’ So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out saying, ‘Crucify, crucify!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.’ Therefore when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid; and he entered into the Praetorium again and said to Jesus, ‘Where are You from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to Him, ‘You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.’ As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, ‘If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.’… “And he said to the Jews, ‘Behold, your King!’ So they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified. They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, ‘JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’” John 19:4-12, 14b-19 NASB
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
There are some things in life we just don’t like doing, and not everyone shares the same dislike of doing certain things. For much of my life I haven’t liked washing dishes, probably because it was a household chore forced on me as a child and it involved washing an entire counter’s worth of dirty dishes. Today washing dishes is something I’ve learned to tolerate, and I thank God for my dishwasher all the time because it is such a blessing to me. I doubt I will ever grow to love the task of cleaning the grime off dishes, but I do remember on occasion to thank God I even have the dishes to wash and the food to wash off of them.
And that’s what got me to thinking. What about those things in life we just don’t like doing, but we know doing them is the right thing to do—something God wants us to do? We run up against these things all the time—it’s a part of our human existence. Sometimes we feel we don’t have the heart to do what we know we need to do. But maybe we’re wrong.
The Israelites stood on the shores of the Jordan River and Moses began to talk with them about the journey they had been on with their God, how he had created them and then redeemed them by bringing them out of slavery, and how he would bring them into their new land. And Moses gave them the directive God had placed in his mouth: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5)
The evidence of Israel’s travels through the wilderness show they did not and didn’t seem to be capable of truly loving the God who created and redeemed them. They seemed to always drift back towards their days in slavery or over into the idolatry of the nations they encountered. They definitely did not have the heart to obey God, much less love him wholeheartedly. If anything, their heart was turned away from God and not towards him.
There were times in my life where I felt it was monstrously unfair for God to expect Israel to love him with their whole heart when they weren’t capable of doing it. It seemed horribly unjust.
But as time has gone by, I have come to know God a little better. I have learned to look at these stories from a different perspective. In the context of this directive to Israel we hear Moses describing all the ways in which God had shown his love and faithfulness to them, and how he was going to continue to faithfully fulfill his covenant love relationship with them as they moved on into the promised land.
The basis of God’s request Israel love him wholeheartedly was within himself, in his love and faithfulness. It was not something they had to drum up on their own—which is what they kept trying to do. God had called them into relationship with himself, had given them all the ways in which they needed to live to fully and joyfully participate in that relationship. By his love and grace he would ensure their relationship with him would last and they would indeed love him with all their heart and soul and might.
As time went by, God sent prophets to Israel to call them back into their covenant relationship of love. We read in Hosea and other places of the heartache this nation continually caused God by their infidelities and indifference and outright rebellion against him. But God was faithful to them in spite of their unfaithfulness. God was loving and gracious to them in spite of their ingratitude and rejection of him. The prophets told the people one day God would give them a new heart and a new mind which would enable them to love their Redeemer with their whole hearts. He would make it possible for them to do what they were created to do—to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another.
This should be a comfort to you and to me. We know in our heart of hearts we are incapable of truly loving God and each other as we ought. All we have to do is listen to the daily news to understand how true it is—people cannot and do not love God wholeheartedly, much less love one another. Even the ones we expect to be truly loving people—pastors, preachers, teachers, caregivers—turn out to be just as selfish, greedy and cruel as the next person. And we see within ourselves the reality of our own inability to love God or others as we should. And it scares us.
It is important for us to see our capacity and desire to love God wholeheartedly comes from God himself and is not something we do under our own power or by our own efforts. It is all of grace.
The reason God came to earth in human form was so each of us could one day share in God’s very own capacity to love and be loved. In Jesus Christ we are each taken up through his life, death, resurrection and ascension into the very life and love of God himself. When the Father, through Jesus, sent the Spirit to humanity, he gave each of us the capacity to love with God’s love. He gave us the heart to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another. We have a new heart, a new mind and a new soul—we share in Christ’s capacity to truly love.
God is gracious and allows us to choose for ourselves what we will live out of—the broken and diseased heart which died with Christ, or the new heart bought and paid for and given to us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and in the gift of the Spirit. The evil one likes to keep us focused on the old dead, evil heart, and does his best to destroy the heart God created within us in Christ. He likes to distract us with all the old ways of being and doing, making us think we are incapable of loving God or others.
But nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ—in God we live and move and have our being. (Rom. 8:38-39; Acts 17:28) God’s love is as much a part of us as Christ is, for he shares fully in our humanity even now. The Spirit awakens us to faith in Christ. He gives us the capacity to be the loving people we are in Christ. He grows us up into Christ and enables us to love God wholeheartedly and to love others with Christ’s love. He works to change us, to transform our hearts by faith.
God does not ask us to do what he does not give us the capacity to do. He continually is the basis of our relationship with him, and he pours himself into us through Jesus in the Spirit so we can grow in our love for him and our love for one another. Our freedom to resist and reject his work within us is also a part of his gracious loving act, for he will not have robots in his family—only adopted, loving children who love him wholeheartedly out of a love which has its roots within himself, in the perfect perichoretic love which exists between the Father, Son and Spirit.
So this whole thing of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength is not a matter of our efforts, but rather a matter of faith—of trusting in the love and faithfulness of God and relying upon his gracious work in us through Jesus and by the Spirit to create within us a desire and willingness, and even a passion, to love God completely and entirely with a deep, everlasting love.
In a way, I suppose, it’s kind of like me putting the dishes in the dishwasher, throwing in the detergent and turning the dial to “normal”. All I’m doing is participating with the dishwasher in getting the dishes done. I don’t have to do them, I just have to bring them to the dishwasher and allow the dishwasher to do its work.
Thank God that he is not like a machine which breaks down and does only what I tell it to do. Instead he is a loving, compassionate Being who is faithful and has already taken care of everything through his Son and by his Spirit. I just get to be a part of what he’s doing. I can rest fully in him and trust he will give me the heart to love him wholeheartedly, and when I don’t, I can trust I’m already forgiven and accepted in Christ. Isn’t that just great? I just love that about him!
Thank you, God, that you never give us anything to do which you do not give us the capacity to do through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Do finish what you have begun in us—we trust you will enable us to love you wholeheartedly and follow you wherever you lead. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray, amen.
“And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’” Luke 10:27 NASB
“They shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. I will rejoice over them to do them good and will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul.” Jeremiah 32:38–41 NASB
By Linda Rex
It’s been interesting to watch companies alter their advertising strategies to accommodate public concerns about body image and eating disorders. It’s good to see positive changes about these things. Helping young people have a healthy view of themselves as they grow up, and treating everyone, no matter their appearance, with respect and dignity is a worthy cause.
But there is another change I’d like to see in our media and advertising strategies. Unfortunately, sex sells, and so often it is used to sell even the most mundane products. Sometimes I’m appalled at how often the word “love” is used to refer to having sex with someone. Selling sex and calling it love seems to be the media strategy of the day.
As I sit impatiently through another lengthy ad about some pharmaceutical product, I am appalled by our addiction to pleasure filled, pain-free, hedonistic living. It seems like we are in general as a culture addicted to sex for its own sake. Sex is no longer experienced as a sacred event in which two people in the real presence of God share a deep intimacy unique to themselves alone within a covenanted relationship.
This isn’t a condemnation of sex outside of marriage. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of a lack of knowledge and discernment about love, what it is and what it is not. It is an expression of my grief that we are missing out on something beautiful, precious and divine. It is a realization that we are not living in the truth of who we are and who we were meant to reflect in our love and sexual relationships.
How we treat sex and sexual relationships says a lot about us as human beings. So does how we view love and love relationships.
There is a substantial brokenness at the heart of each one of us that causes us to run from a deep, committed relationship with God. And in running from intimacy with God, we also run from intimacy with one another.
We are happy to experience physical intimacy, because for a while it feels a lot like real intimacy. But real intimacy demands so much more from us—vulnerability, commitment, sacrifice, humility, submission, surrender—all the things we’d prefer to have to live without. We are happy to live with the counterfeit because the real is so demanding. And when a real relationship fractures or ends in death, the pain is excruciating. And we don’t want to deal with the pain.
Living in intimacy with God goes right along with this. We can be content with a superficial relationship with God—he makes no demands, we’re free to set our own limits. Or we can go deeper—surrendering all of ourselves, making ourselves fully vulnerable to God and others, sacrificing for his sake, living in commitment to him and his will in full submission to him—this is a real and deep relationship of love. But that means that God calls the shots in everything, including our sex and love life.
We can compartmentalize our relationship with God. We’ll be at church on Sunday or watch the evangelist on TV, send in a few bucks here and there for a worthy cause—and we’ve done what God expects, we think. Then we can go on about the rest of our life anyway we want. And God allows us to do that.
But this is so much like having a casual, physical relationship with someone and then walking away whenever we decide we’re done. We can have an occasional feel-good relationship with God, say that we love him, and then go on with our lives. We can dismiss him as someone we use and discard as the situation requires.
God meant for all of life, all that we are, to be a part of our relationship with him. That includes love and sex. As King David wrote in Psalm 139, God is present at all times in the Spirit. There is no part of our lives that is lived outside of God’s presence and power. And as Jesus bears our human flesh in the presence of the Father, all of our humanity is deeply and completely open to and known by God.
Love and sex are meant to be outward- and upward-focused rather than inward-focused. There is a sacredness to our relationships and our sexuality that precludes casual expression. Our bodies, souls and spirits, as well as those of others around us, are held as precious, to be respected, cherished and honored, not just used for self-fulfillment or self-indulgence. Love is something so much deeper than a casual sexual encounter—it is an expression of the divine.
In giving us his Son Jesus, God calls each of us to go deeper with him in a relationship of love—to love him with all that we are. And he calls each of us to love one another in the same self-sacrificing way Jesus demonstrated for us as he lived, died and rose again as a human being. We called out of darkness into God’s light, to take the path of transparency, integrity, sincerity and purity.
Taking this path in no way diminishes the pleasure and beauty of sex or love, but rather it concentrates it, giving it an intensity, freedom and power it would not otherwise have. And because sex and love are expressed by human beings in broken ways, we should accept that they are only glimpses of the divine. They were never meant to be the ultimate experience in themselves, but to create in us a thirst for something beyond this life that only God can satisfy.
I hope and pray that at some point, we as human beings, made in God’s image, born to be in relationship with God and one another, will draw the line and stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated, used and controlled via our sexuality. And when someone talks about love, it will not just be about sex, but will also be about commitment, compassion, service, giving, sharing, understanding and sacrifice. May God hasten that day!
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Holy Father, forgive us for not understanding or appreciating the precious gifts of love and sex you have given us as human beings. Open our eyes to see that in Jesus and through your Spirit we live moment by moment in your presence, that all of our life is taken up in you, including our sexuality. Grant us the grace to live in true intimacy with you and one another as you intended from the beginning. Through Jesus our Lord, and in your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“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