death

Abandoned or Beloved and Held?

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By Linda Rex

April 10, 2020, GOOD FRIDAY, HOLY WEEK—Lately, nothing has turned out as I had planned earlier in the year and none of what I had expected to occur has occurred. I’m watching the unravelling of everyday life as new patterns of living are being created day by day as we try to live in the middle of these unique circumstances. Pastoring my congregations has become challenging in new ways as I work to find ways for us to stay connected while being apart.

This season of preparation for Easter has been full of opportunities to examine the inner workings of my heart and mind as I deal with this uncomfortable reality of so many things being beyond my control. Not that they haven’t always been that way, but in these days so much is not by choice but by necessity. Simply choosing between products at the supermarket has become a new experience now that my options are reduced to buying what’s left on the shelf or not buying the item at all.

I’m sure that my grandparents, were they still alive, would be able to tell me stories about how they had to ration items, reuse and recycle things, and do without much in order to survive the Depression years ago. I think of my own parents and how they handled anticipating 2000 by stockpiling dry goods in aluminum trash cans and have a more tender understanding heart than I did when I first had to find a way to dispose of pounds of moth-laden flour and grains.

We can sometimes get a sense that things will never change—that we will be stuck in this place forever. That is really hard on those of us who are always in motion—this fast-paced world doesn’t favor slowing down to a snail’s pace. We must produce, succeed, move forward, press on—doing any less is to fail, to lose all that one has. Right now, we are in a place in our society where so many of the things we used to be able to control are out of our ability to manage. And this can make many of us very uncomfortable.

As I read John 18-19, the gospel reading for Good Friday, I find myself immersed in a story in which the main character finds himself in a place where it seems he has no control over what was happening to himself. He may have been the Messiah, but he voluntarily surrendered himself to the will and wishes of a group of people who had only in mind his death by crucifixion.

What about the disciples who were walking this road with Jesus? Can you imagine how upset and probably even confused Peter was when, trying to protect his rabbi and friend from arrest, Jesus told him to put his sword away? Here Peter is trying to do the right thing and he gets in trouble instead, and then Jesus heals the man he injured? What’s going on? It was no wonder, that when he was asked if he was one of Jesus’ followers later that night, Peter vehemently denied him three times.

In time, Jesus found himself in the presence of Annias, somebody who was a powerful Jewish religious leader, who acted as though he were God’s gift to his people. The truth is, however, that God never meant any high priest to be a political leader. Nor did he mean for the Romans to choose the Jews’ high priest. God ordained the lineage of the high priest, who was responsible for tending to the nation’s relationship with their Creator and Redeemer.

How poignant it is that Jesus was illegally interrogated by a man who was more interested in his being able to market products on the temple grounds than he was ensuring that he and the people were welcoming their Messiah. Was he seeking revenge for Jesus upsetting the tables and casting out his moneychangers?

It is remarkable to me that these particular leaders were more intent on getting rid of Jesus than they were genuinely loving and serving God. They were so intent on having him cursed by Roman crucifixion that they broke their own rules and even, when pushed, said that they had no king but Caesar. Their emphatic denial of who Jesus was as the Son of God caused them to, whether they would have admitted or not, deny the very God they so piously served.

When Pilate sought to find the reason for their efforts to kill Jesus, he could not find any fault in Jesus. John records three times that Pilate said Christ wasn’t guilty. The Roman leader even sought to find a way to let Jesus go, but eventually succumbed to the will of the Jews. Jesus, yielding himself to the course of these events, told Pilate that if he as the king of the Jews had wanted to, Jesus could have stopped the whole process immediately. But he didn’t.

I have a hard time getting my mind around the voluntary surrendering of oneself to the will of those who wish to destroy you when you have the ability to stop it. We do this sometimes when we are in toxic relationships and don’t have the life skills to oppose controlling people. But this was something entirely different. Jesus was intentionally walking down a road that had been planned out before the beginning of time and he knew this was the only way that he could accomplish what God intended from the beginning—to unite our humanity with his divinity and take it through death into resurrection, purchasing for us an eternal bond of oneness with God that nothing could break.

We may think that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was something the Father did to Jesus, but in reality, the fault lies with us as human beings. It is our turning away from God that required Jesus turning us back in his sacrifice. The alienation we feel in our relationship with God was keenly felt by Jesus in his humanity, expressed in his cry during his last moments, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But as the rest of Psalm 22 shows, he had every reason to trust his faithful Abba—to know that he was present with him in that agonizing moment on the cross. As Jesus breathed his last, he entrusted his spirit into his Abba’s care—nothing, not rejection, not abuse, not crucifixion, and not even death, could separate Jesus from the love and unity which existed between the three Persons of the Trinity.

Jesus is well-versed in what it feels like to have people and circumstances impacting his life, bringing it to a place he would prefer not to go. Jesus told Abba he wanted to avoid “the cup” if at all possible—but relinquishment is what he chose. We don’t go through these times of crisis well if we are unwilling to relinquish control to Jesus and allow him to do for us what we could not otherwise do. We need to remember that we are not alone, but are held in the grip of grace, in the love and life of God himself—included in his embrace. As we trust in Christ and receive by faith the never-ending love and grace of God, we will experience the reality that we are not abandoned—we are beloved and held.

As we go through this time of crisis, of change and loss of control, let’s remember to pause for a time with Jesus on the cross, knowing that we are held in the love of God and nothing can separate us from that love. On this Good Friday, we can celebrate with gratitude the incredible gift Jesus gave in his surrendering to the cross and the grave so that we could share in his resurrection. May this give us great comfort and peace in these difficult times.

Dear Abba, thank you that your love never fails. Thank you, Jesus, for walking the road to crucifixion and death so lovingly and faithfully, humbly willing to give all for our sakes. Grant us the grace to walk this road with you, offering grace and love to our fellow travelers as we go, for your sake, Jesus. Amen.

“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, | And our sorrows He carried; | Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, | Smitten of God, and afflicted. | But He was pierced through for our transgressions, | He was crushed for our iniquities; | The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, | And by His scourging we are healed. | All of us like sheep have gone astray, | Each of us has turned to his own way; | But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all | To fall on Him.” Isaiah 53:4-6 NASB

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest. Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel. In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.” Psalm 22:1-4 NASB

“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.” Hebrews 4:7 NASB

Loving Others, While Being Betrayed

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By Linda Rex

April 9, 2020, MAUNDY THURSDAY, HOLY WEEK—As our local government steps up its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a concern by many that some people are still not observing the guidelines for staying safe at home. Apparently, the need for most people to restrict the space between themselves and others to prevent the spread of this disease is not being taken seriously.

My husband, who works as a truck driver, recently watched as many travelers entering Florida were being stopped at the border—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut already have travel advisories in place. Even though this coronavirus’ deadly effect is becoming more and more well known, these people still felt the need to travel and vacation in another state.

Since I have inherited my mother’s weak lungs and pulmonary system, and wrestle at times with fibromyalgia (which is an autoimmune disorder), I am one who is in the at-risk population. But there are many in my congregation and extended family who are even more vulnerable than myself. How can I say that continuing to act as though nothing is wrong and allowing myself to be around many other people without restrictions is an act of faith? I find it difficult to do so. I believe I would be testing God.

Nor do I believe it is the best expression of God’s love. I personally feel there is a need to use the wisdom God has given us to create a healthy space around ourselves and others so we do not spread this disease. Even our human bodies and the cells within it teach us the wisdom of having healthy boundaries in these situations.

We’re coming up to Holy Week, and the passage I am writing about today is where Jesus and his disciples sat down to eat the Passover meal together. Jesus interrupted the meal because he wanted to demonstrate to his disciples what it means to express love for others. When we have our own agenda in mind, we often ignore the things which really matter. We may not intend to do so, but it is easy to get so focused on moving forward in life that we lose sight of the true realities.

Earlier Jesus had caught the men disputing as to who was the greatest, and it was imperative that they came to understand that life wasn’t about social position or personal promotion or one’s own personal agenda. The disciples, in their wrestling for power and position, were doing the very thing that Jesus had pointed out over and over as flaws in the Jewish leadership. The disciples knew better, but there they were, acting just like the others—seeking the glories of this human society while dismissing as unimportant, the real glory they were created for. There was a deeper, underlying purpose at work in life and Jesus needed them to see it and understand it so they could participate in it.

Jesus’ love for the disciples was not deterred by their failures. When he rose from the table, he girded himself with a towel, got a basin of water, and began washing their feet. Appalling as this may have been to the disciples—it was work only the lowliest servant would do—they watched Jesus do it for each of them. Peter told Jesus that he wasn’t going to allow him to stoop to that level. Jesus merely replied that then Peter would not belong to him. At this, Peter jumped to the other extreme, telling Jesus to wash all of him.

Jesus’ point was not so much the washing as it was the act of what he was doing. He was willing to stoop to whatever level was necessary to include the disciples in his life and ministry. He girded himself with a towel and took on the task of cleaning their feet. What Jesus would do in the following hours after this meal would involve a task of cleaning which would be even more degrading than washing dusty feet—he would cleanse our humanity once and for all from the dirt and grime of evil, sin, and death. This was a much more serious cleansing, one which only he could do. And he was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve it, even going all the way through death on the cross into the grave.

I believe that it is significant that Jesus washed every disciples’ feet. This means that Judas Iscariot most likely was present and received the gift of grace in the wiping of his feet. But Jesus knew that the washing of Judas’ feet would not wash his heart—he had already given himself over to the evil one by making the decision to betray Jesus to those who were seeking to kill him. This is why Christ said, “Not all of you are clean.”

In the offering of himself in sacrifice, Jesus did not leave anyone out. He included every human being in his offering on the cross, but the truth is, not everyone receives the gift he gives in his humble sacrifice. Humility is a gift we give to others and shows our willingness to stoop to the lowest level necessary to include others in our love and life. Jesus taught us in this simple act that we need to be willing to love one other in humility, service, and sacrifice. It is in this way that we express in the deepest way our love for God and one another.

Jesus faced the crisis of his human life on this evening, knowing he would shortly be hanging on a Roman cross, by stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. He was willing to do even the most menial task so that others could one day share in his intimate relationship with his Father. No greater love can be shown than that of laying down one’s life for another and Jesus began this laying down of his life by humbly washing the feet of his disciples.

The truest expression we have of genuine humanity is to love one another—to care enough about the other people in our lives that we do not unnecessarily put them at risk. We set aside our own agenda on behalf of the needs of others. We are willing to serve even if it means losing the approval and acceptance of those around us or it inconveniences us. We are open to giving of ourselves when others would not deign to dirty their fingers for fear of contracting the disease. We are willing to work at tasks which we would not ordinarily do so that others may be helped and cared for.

There is a wideness to the love and mercy of God which includes the broad spectrum of human kindness we are called to express during this difficult time in our history, in the midst of our own crisis. As human beings, the truest expression of our humanity is to love one another. Some of us will do this by treating those sick with this disease, putting themselves at risk for our sakes. Others will do this by continuing to provide essential services, risking the loss of their interaction with their loved ones during this time. And all the rest of us can do this by being careful of each other’s space, and by seeing that those who are most vulnerable have what they need when they are unable to get it themselves.

What is most beautiful about a crisis as is before us today is that we can see the face of Jesus in each of us as we humble ourselves to serve, love, and sacrifice for one another. The Spirit of God’s love and grace flowing through people all over the world is evident as we rise to the occasion of battling this coronavirus and do so in such a way that we set aside our own personal agenda for the sake of those more vulnerable and less fortunate than ourselves. May God’s grace through Jesus and by his Spirit continue to enable us to truly love one another.

Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take the humblest place so that we might rise with you, sharing in your eternal glory through your death and resurrection. Grant us the grace to truly love one another as you have loved us, to humble ourselves to serve and sacrifice, and to be willing as we need to, to lay down our lives for one another in your Name. Amen.

“Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. … ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’” John 13:1-4, 34-35 NASB

In Death, Coming to Life

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By Linda Rex

March 29, 2020, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT—Tuesday, as my son and I made our normal every-other-week trip to the grocery store to update our pantry, we found many of the shelves empty. Things which you and I take for granted were not available and I discovered I would have to buy brands of food I wouldn’t normally buy just so we had what we needed. I also realized after looking in more than one store that there was no hope of taking any toilet tissue home that day.

As we did our best to honor the social distancing cues, I felt an atmosphere in the store of a quiet bustle mixed with anxiety. As people went about looking for items to purchase, it seemed as though there was a common effort to keep things as normal as possible in a setting which was anything but normal. There really wasn’t any conversation, and even the cashier seemed a little distracted.

It’s hard to keep track of all the details regarding the COVID-19 outbreak since they are constantly changing and people express such a wide variety of opinions on what is going on and what our response should be to the crisis. When faced with the possibility of an extreme number of deaths resulting from this virus, it is instructive that for the most part, the average person doesn’t want to die, nor do they necessarily want others to die.

I found myself asking the question this week—do I really, sincerely care whether other people around me live or die? Whether we like it or not, how we act in this crisis tells a lot about us and whether or not our love for others is genuine and real. Who is our neighbor? Truly our neighbor is that person we have never met who is vulnerable and could easily catch the disease and die. She is also that person who just lost their job or business because their place could no longer stay open due to quarantine restrictions.

My neighbor, whoever he or she may be, is a person who like myself, is facing the reality of death, whether actual death, or death to a business, or financial stability, or the comfort of family and friends. Each of us is walking step by step through “the valley of the shadow of death”, not knowing what the next month or two may bring. Our life may never be the same again. We may never be blessed in the same way we were blessed before this all began. Death is an evil which so often brings about traumatic change and leaves us wounded and broken.

Whatever may happen in the next few months, we can be certain of this—death does not have the last word. Our faith in Christ teaches us that death is not an end—it is a beginning. It is the place where Jesus meets us and brings his resurrection life to replace our death. We can look at death as a welcome birth into new life, both now through our spiritual rebirth and one day in a glorified body in the age to come.

In the Christian faith, baptism and communion are expressions of the spiritual reality that we died with Christ and are risen with Christ—he is the determining factor of our existence. He is our life. Our eternal life—the intimate knowing and being known which exists between the Father and the Son in the Spirit in which we participate in Christ—has been solidly established in Jesus Christ and been given to us by the gift of the Spirit. God’s presence in us and with us affirms that we are alive in Christ—death no longer has any hold over us.

In Ezekiel 37:1–14, a companion passage to this week’s lectionary pericope, we read about the prophet’s encounter with God in the middle of a valley filled with dry bones. These bones represented a morally bankrupt and alienated nation who had rejected their covenant relationship with God and who had, like so many of us, found themselves spiritually dead, with no hope at all of any life in or connection with God.

Standing in the middle of death in this way, Ezekiel must have felt overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the situation. But God said to him that he was going to cover the bones with sinews and flesh—and he did. Then God breathed his life into these lifeless pieces of human flesh—a simple reflection on what God did in the beginning when he first gave life to humankind. Without God’s breath in us, without the zōē life, we are but lifeless pieces of flesh, with no ability to know or be known. It is God’s Breath or Spirit breathed into us through our Lord Jesus Christ (who is the resurrection and the life), who gives us the capacity for intimate relationship with our God and one another.

Another companion passage (Romans 8:6–11) tells us that apart from the Spirit at work in us, we cannot please God. As long as we continue to focus on our fleshly human existence, we reap the consequences of that existence—death—and we are unable to live in loving relationship with the God who formed us to love and be loved. The apostle Paul says, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace”. He goes on to say that apart from the Spirit we will not live in godly ways. In fact, we cannot.

Our natural proclivity is to choose those ways which lead to death. So Jesus came and lived our human life in such a way as to transform our humanity—to reform our human existence into one which resembles the divine life and love. Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the reality of what it means to truly live, as he is intimately connected with the Father and compassionately connected with his human brothers and sisters in the Spirit.

We read how closely Jesus connected himself with us in many stories told by the gospel writers. John tells us of one such story, when Jesus was notified that a very dear friend was seriously ill. After hearing the news, Jesus surprised his disciples by not immediately leaving to go heal him, but remaining where he was. Later, when he prepared to go to Bethany, he was asked about Lazarus, and he told them Lazarus was dead. On face value, it would seem as though Jesus was indifferent to the suffering of these close friends. But we need to look closer at what really was going on.

What is Jesus’ response to death and dying? In this case, Jesus was setting in motion a plan to bring many people, including his disciples, into a deeper understanding of and belief in his person as their Messiah. Mary and Martha both implied their disappointment in Jesus delaying his coming by reminding him he could have healed Lazarus and prevented his death. But Jesus had greater things in mind—he was focused not on death, but on resurrection.

In his conversation with these beloved sisters, Jesus reminded them of who he was—the resurrection and the life. Life was found in him—a life unbounded by the limits of our human existence. Jesus pointed them beyond the moment of loss and grief to another of hope and joy, reminding them that death is not the end. In this case, death was only a temporary problem which was going to be superseded by the resurrection of Lazarus to his former human existence.

Jesus had the opportunity, because of Lazarus’ death, to glorify his Father by raising Lazarus from the dead—thereby demonstrating the reality of his personhood as the One with power over death, the One who gave life to all things. This would set in motion a series of events, due to the fear and hatred of the Jewish leaders, which would culminate in Jesus’ own death on the cross. He knew he must die, so that all humanity might live—and he was willing to start the process by raising Lazarus from the grave.

Who is our neighbor? According to Jesus, every human being was his neighbor—someone he was willing to die for so that they could live. As it has been written, “God didn’t want to be God without us”, so he came and joined us in our humanity, lived our life and died our death, rising again to bring our humanity into the presence of Abba forever. In the sending of the Spirit, we participate in that divine life by faith in Jesus Christ.

In the midst of this time of uncertainty, while facing the reality of illness and death, we can be sure of one thing—we are not alone. As the shepherd king David wrote, we have no reason in the midst of this “valley of the shadow death” to fear evil—for God is with us. Immanuel—our Lord—has traversed this path before us and is walking this path with us. In the Spirit he is present, sharing our sorrow, grieving our losses, carrying us into a new place of healing, renewal, and restoration. It may be dark and difficult for a while, but he promised never to leave us or forsake us—and he will keep that promise. For he is faithful.

Blessed Lord, thank you for walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” before us in your death and resurrection, but also for walking with us through this difficult time of uncertainty, suffering, and death. Pour on us anew your life-giving Spirit. Give us healing. Refresh us in your Zōē—your very life, your being Jesus, for your name’s sake. Amen.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’” John 11:25–26 NASB

The Simplicity of Grace and Truth

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By Linda Rex

FEBRUARY 16, 2020, 6th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—Lost in the midst of our current political scene, with its polarizing rhetoric and maneuvering of people into places of influence and power, is the quiet transforming simplicity of grace and truth. As I was reading the gospel reading for this particular Sunday, I was struck by the reality that even though we may have dogmatic opinions, emphatic assertions of right vs. wrong, or clear expectations of how things are or ought to be, we are never at the place where we can, with authority, say we are right and everyone else is wrong.

There is only one person who did this, and was right in doing it, because of who he was. The fundamental groundwork of the gospel message is that this person had the capacity to know exactly what to do and say in every situation, and was able to do and say it, because he was the One who created all things and held them together by his word of power. He could, and did, say to those around him, “It is written…” or “You say…” and overturned what had been said or written by simply affirming, “But I say…”.

When human beings talk in this manner, all our red flags go up. Immediately, we grow concerned, because such language overthrows any authority other than the one who is speaking. For Jesus to say, “What you may have been told or taught has no relevance anymore—what I say is what really matters now,” is to put Christ on a plane above everyone else, even to the point of him being God himself. We would never accept a human being having the arrogance to place themselves in that position of authority….or would we?

The problem we are running into today is the loss of our understanding of who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is—the One who is both fully God and fully human. I was driving in downtown Nashville yesterday, and was amazed at the vast amount of construction and renovation that is going on in this city. As I looked about me, I saw towers of glass and metal rising high into the sky, many of them only partially built. Apartment buildings that were dozens of stories tall gave evidence of the thousands of people moving into Nashville needing places to live.

Years ago, the tallest buildings in the skyscape would have been the cathedrals and churches with towering steeples. Today, such buildings are dwarfed by the immensity of other places where people live, work, and play. In some ways, this is a metaphor for the attention we give today to the spiritual realities, and to the God who sent his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to transform our hearts by faith.

What we have lost is not so much a creed or a certain religion or belief system as it is the simple understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to him. To even assert that there is a God and that we are his creatures, formed to live in relationship with him, is offensive to many people today. We do not want to surrender ourselves to the reality that there is someone to whom we owe our existence and our ability to live and work in this world. And we most certainly do not want anyone other than ourselves to have the ability to tell us what to say or do.

This is not a new problem. In reality, it is one we have been manifesting since the days when Adam and Eve walked in the Garden of Eden. They too wrestled with the choice between life, and deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil. The human tendency to choose for ourselves a way of living and being which ends in death is something fundamental to our humanity—it is our sinful nature at work within us. We just have a natural proclivity to choose death over life, and then to blame God when things don’t turn out the way we want them to.

It is ironic that the nation God called his very own, ancient Israel, whom he joined himself to in covenant love, would take the descriptions of life in his presence and turn them into prescriptions for living. They added many words to the 613 rules in the old covenant, creating an even more difficult path for the average person to follow, should they decide to obey the God of the Jewish people. Over the centuries, as the Jews interacted with God, for many of them, the law and its observation supplanted the covenant relationship it was designed to lead people into and to participate in.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, reminded his listeners that keeping the law in itself was insufficient—no, even impossible. He told them what the law said, and then took them farther, deeper, into the heart of his Father. He showed his hearers that God looks at our intent, our motives, and our reasoning. We can’t just go through the motions—an entire transformation of our being is needed, not just a change in our actions.

That being the case, we as human beings are in an extremely difficult place. There is no way, with our sinful nature abounding, that we can ever have the right motivation in every situation. There is no way we will ever keep our thoughts where they ought to be or our feelings and desires pure and chaste. We are helpless and can never live as we ought to in right relationship with God and others.

So we come to the simplicity of grace and truth. Truth is, we are not God—he is. Truth is, we are broken, sinful people, who will, whether we want to or not, find ourselves choosing death instead of life, and reaping the consequences of it. Truth is, we have no hope of anything being any different—in us, in this world, in our circumstances—apart from the living Lord, the One who made it all, sustains it all, and redeemed it all. So, we need grace.

And we have grace. That is the good thing. God the Word has come into our humanity, lived the life we were created for in Jesus Christ as a Son in perfect relationship with the Father, died the death we so often choose, and has risen, taking us with him into glory. Our humanity is now in a totally different place—we are free to live in right relationship with God and others because of Christ. This grace means that it’s not all up to us—it’s up to him. Whatever we say and do as humans, we say and do it in Christ, and he gives us life.

Truth—God is, and we are his, and apart from him, we have no hope. Grace—in Jesus he has come, included us in his life and death, and has sent the Spirit to make this so as we trust in him. The simplicity of grace and truth—the reception of the gift God has given—the belief that God loves us this much and will never leave or forsake us, would transform our lives, our politics, and our world, if we were willing.

Today, in the stillness of quiet reflection, consider these questions: Are my decisions leading me to a greater, fuller life in joyful relationship with God and others? Or are they leading down the path to death and destruction? What is my response to the words of Jesus to me, “But I say…”? Allow yourself to respond in the simplicity of grace and truth which is ours in Jesus Christ, receiving Abba’s gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit.

Dear God, we so desperately need healed! Thank you, Abba, for your perfect gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us grace and truth, and for leading us into life everlasting. Our life is in you alone. Holy Spirit, may you penetrate the core of our beings with the new life Jesus brought us, transforming our hearts and minds, and thereby healing our churches, our communities, our politics, this world and the earth on which we live. We long for you to finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life,…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20a NLT

See also Matthew 5:21–37.

Where Salt and Light Meet

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By Linda Rex

FEBRUARY 9, 2020, 5th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—What is the difference between being unable to see, and simply being fully blind? I realize there are different levels of blindness—some people can see the shape of large objects, but nothing else. Some can see that it is light outside, but cannot sense anything else through their eyes. But the reality is that even those of us who are blessed with sight will not see a thing if we are in a place where there is absolutely no light.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle John wrote about Jesus, that “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [overpower] it” (John 1:5-6 NASB). The original Light, which existed long before light itself was created, was present in the world in Jesus Christ when the Word came into human flesh. This Light was meant to give all of humanity an ability to know and have a right relationship with the One God who created all things.

When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world,” he meant something significant. He meant that, apart from the disciples’ active presence in the world telling the world about Jesus Christ, people around them would not be able to truly see. Jesus’ intention was that by following him, the disciples would provide the world around them with a visual perception they would not have otherwise, and communicate to the world the truth about the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit, and how each person could have a right relationship with God.

The problem we so often run into as human beings is that we have a tendency to reduce the depth and wonder of God’s love and grace down into something we have more control over and can measure and use as a means of distinction between ourselves and others. Let’s be honest with ourselves about this—we would not have so many different church denominations and congregations if this were not the case. We would not have such an issue with legalism and license within the church if this were not true.

It’s time we told the truth—we too often are guilty of taking the light God has given and hiding it under our devotion to the things of this world, or under a long list of rules, regulations, and traditions. We have denied the Lord we profess by allowing the pure salt of God’s love and grace to be tainted and corrupted by the way we reject our neighbors who are equally made in God’s image to share equally in his glory. The prophet Isaiah addressed this directly as he shared God’s word to his people (Isaiah 58:1–9a (9b–12)). He reminded them that all the sanctimonious professions of obedience and worship are worthless if they are unaccompanied by genuine love and compassion for one’s fellowman.

In many ways our efforts to make a distinction between ourselves and others are a lot like the teenage method of “being different”. We tend to make ourselves different by becoming like all those who are like us. In my teens it involved bellbottoms, disco music, and platform shoes—nowadays it’s something entirely different. But in the case of us as followers of Jesus Christ, it is too often our interpretation of God’s Word and our efforts to create our mini-kingdoms of religiosity where we get ourselves in trouble.

Salt is a necessary, though limited, part of our human diet, as well as being extremely useful in other processes including metallurgy and food preservation. There are many types of salts and not all of them are edible. Pure salt crystals are normally white or clear, so when they are a different color, this normally indicates that there are other chemicals or substances present which may or may not be edible. There is often a purifying process involved in edible salt production.

When Jesus said his disciples were salt as well as light, he meant that his followers would have the qualities of both. Not only would we be purveyors of the good news of God’s love and grace, telling the world how Jesus us brought us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light—we would also act as a preservative and cleansing agent in the world. We cannot be an effective preservative or cleansing agent when we are centered anywhere but in the midst of the love and grace of God in Christ.

Jesus said that our righteousness has to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, who loved the praise and flattery of people and the political power and prominence of being religious leaders. Jesus often called them on their public expressions of devotion to God—they were hypocrites, often saying one thing and doing another, and this quenched any light they might bring by their words and actions. They kept people enslaved to rituals and traditions, missing the whole point, which was God’s love and redemption for his people which they were to respond to in faith and devotion.

When we as followers of Jesus Christ become so adamant that right relationship with God rests in what we do and what we say, in our keeping of certain rules and regulations, and not solely in the Person and work of the living Lord, we are in serious trouble. We are denying the One through whom every human being finds salvation—we are keeping the world in darkness and losing our power of cleansing and purification—losing ourselves as being salt and light in this world.

Jesus Christ is the Light of the world—the truth of our existence as human beings, and the centre of our relationship with God and one another. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is the Salt which cleanses and preserves each of us—washing us in his blood, giving his life for our life. Whatever we say or do as followers of Jesus Christ, it is merely a participation in what he has already done and is doing, and will do, in this world to transform, heal, and renew all things.

The apostle Paul teaches how we are to live out our lives as believers—not drawing upon our own wisdom or gifted speaking, but focusing solely on the crucified One, the Lord Jesus Christ, and being filled with and led by the Spirit of God. When our focus is on Jesus and he is at work within us and through us by his Spirit, we find God’s love being expressed not only in our words but also in our actions. We find ourselves caring for those who are unable to care for themselves. We find ourselves overflowing with compassion for those in need and we act upon it, doing what we can to ease those burdens they are unable to bear on their own.

The law of Christ finds its way into the core of our being, and our actions and words rise out of the very heart of Abba within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a long way from what Isaiah and Jesus found fault with—this isn’t religiosity, but rather the true religion the apostle James wrote about in James 1:27.

Please understand: I’m not saying there isn’t any value in gathering together as the body of Christ or finding a common faith and being of one mind with other believers. It doesn’t remove our need to learn from Scripture and those called by God to preach his Word. What I am saying is we need to remove the false undergirding which lies beneath all these things—most specifically, the belief that somehow, we can be good people or please God by our own efforts or gain some merit by doing good deeds.

We, as believers, need to follow Christ and live in him in such a way that whatever kindness we show, whatever goodness we do, whatever truth we speak, is drawn out of the deep Source of light within us, the Spirit, and is purified by the One who cleanses and nourishes us, Jesus Christ. In the community of faith, the attributes of salt and light meet together, by the Spirit being poured out into the Body of Christ, so that we may participate in Christ’s mission in this world, to tell everyone of Abba’s love and grace, to free those who are enslaved by evil, sin, and death, and to bring healing and renewal to those who are broken, lost, and suffering.

Is it possible that we are not living in a dark world, but rather are living in a world where those who have been given the light have buried it? Is it possible that those who were meant to act as a cleansing and preserving agent have been so busy trying to cleanse and preserve themselves that they have become tasteless and useless?

Jesus has only one message for each of us which we are to share with the world around us: Your heavenly Father loves you, so turn and receive the gift of eternal life, sharing in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba both now and forever; receive Jesus and by his Spirit, live and walk freely in the life Christ purchased for you, loving God and loving your neighbor as the image-bearers of God he created you to be. Come with me, and let’s be salt and light together!

Dear Abba, thank you for your grace—we are guilty so often of misappropriating what you give us, and of not living in loving relationship with you and one another. Our righteousness so often is just for show or even non-existent. We have not been salt and light in this world—your forgiveness is so needed by us, but also God as you grant us grace, grant us repentance and faith as well. Grant a renewal within the body of Christ as a whole, that we may begin to live as we ought in this world, bringing through Jesus and by your Spirit, your light, your cleansing and renewal on this earth in the sharing of the good news in both word and deed arising from your own heart within us. Amen.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. … For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16, 20 NASB

Living Blessed

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By Linda Rex

FEBRUARY 2, 2020, 4TH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—This morning as I was contemplating the passages for this upcoming Sunday, it occurred to me that I live in a country where people value the pursuit of happiness but do not seem to understand what it takes to be truly happy. If I were to turn on the radio or television today, it would not take long for me to hear someone telling me those things I need in order to be happy.

They may tell me I need a relationship with the perfect lover, a properly aged bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, or an all-expense paid week at a resort in Hawaii. Maybe I need a long-sought-after promotion at work, a brand-new SUV or a time-share in Myrtle Beach. None of these are bad things, and I’m pretty sure I would enjoy some time at the seashore and driving such a nice car. The problem I see is, that apparently, according to what I read and see around me, I can only be happy if I am following my heart’s desire and enjoying the pleasure of those things I love to have or experience.

It is no wonder that we struggle so much in this modern world with depression and pain-management issues. Many of us are willing to work ourselves practically to death for the sake of having the things we want or need. But then we attempt to escape the stress, relational pain, and other ills that come with having worked so hard while having so little to show for it by doing things which may be unhealthy, risky, or even dangerous. Our concept of what it means to be happy distorts our ability to balance work, play, and our significant relationships.

We may be one of those people who find themselves due to disability, age, illness, or even a refusal to be responsible for what is ours, in the position of having other people do all the work to provide for and care for us. We may struggle with low self-esteem, guilt and shame as a result. Or we may get frustrated by people in our lives telling us what to do and how to do it because we don’t have the control we prefer to have over our circumstances. Struggling with all these things may cause us to give up on hope of ever being happy because we always seem to end up back in the place we were before, without any hope of things getting any better.

Our expectations of what it means to be happy affects how we respond to what is going on in our lives. I’m a firm believer that we were created to live happily within all that God has made and given us for life and godliness. But so often our struggle is not with all the great things around us—it is with our definition of what it means to be happy and blessed. Is it possible for us to be truly happy, to be truly blessed?

In 1 Tim. 1:11, the apostle Paul calls the Lord “the blessed God.” The word “blessed” in the Greek is “happy” (μακαριοι [makarioi]), and it is where we get the word “beatitudes,” the word often used to describe these “blessed” verses in Matthew 5. Since we were created in the image of God after his likeness, it is important that we consider first what it means that our God is the happy God, or blessed God. When we know what this means, we will have a better idea of how to go about being blessed or happy ourselves.

In Hebrews 1:3 we learn that Jesus Christ is “exact representation” of God’s nature or being. If we want to know what it means that our God is the blessed God, then let’s look at Jesus Christ. Jesus, in sharing what it means to be blessed or happy, took it to a new level, one which was in agreement with his nature as the Son of God in human flesh. To be happy, or blessed, is to have the qualities which God values, to have kingdom of God characteristics—to be radiating with the very nature of God himself—something which only Jesus Christ himself can do.

For example, in the Beatitudes Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” First off, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of the God who is three Persons in one Being. The Son of God, who has always lived in oneness with his Father in the Spirit, lived here on earth in humble dependence upon his heavenly Father, not doing anything he did not see his Father doing and not trusting in his own abilities or preferences. Jesus exemplified what it meant to be poor in spirit because he was God in human flesh, living as a Son trusting implicitly in his Father, just as each of us is meant to do.

Access to God’s kingdom is not by following the rigid rules and requirements established by the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but by being poor in spirit—by recognizing our need for God to give us access to his presence. Jesus said it is a recognition of our spiritual lack, our honest self-assessment that we do not have what it takes and that we need God to intervene on our behalf which really matters. It is our desire for and a dependence upon God’s covenant relationship with us, which gives us a free ticket into the blessed presence of God forever.

Jesus also said the “gentle” or “meek” would inherit the earth. This stood in stark contrast with the Jewish hope for a messiah who would oust the reigning Roman government using force and violence so that the Jewish people would once and for all control the earth on which they lived. The gentleness or meekness of Jesus reflected that of our blessed God, who instead of exacting retribution for our failings as human beings, sent us his own Son, allowing him to suffer and die on humanity’s behalf so that we could be freed from our captivity to evil, sin, and death. This type of gentleness in the face of all that we as humans conspire to do to harm, kill, or injure one another is a characteristic of the blessed God himself. Apart from God’s nature at work within us, we are not capable of true gentleness or meekness.

Those who make peace, Jesus said as well, would be called sons of God. There is only one Son who was able to make genuine, lasting peace between God and man, and between each of us as human beings. Jesus’ way of making peace, of being a peacemaker, was not by giving people what they wanted in order to get them to stop causing problems. He didn’t create peace by allowing evil, sin, and death to continue. No, he took evil, sin, and death upon himself, living our life, dying our death, and rising again, so we could be freed completely from any of their claims upon us.

As we read the Beatitudes, we can see that Jesus is the embodiment of all of these attributes. He is truly the blessed and happy God present in our humanity. Our ability to shine with these same attributes comes through his presence in us by the Holy Spirit. To be truly happy or blessed comes through living in the truth of who we are as the beloved adopted children of our happy God, who sent his Son, the blessed Savior, and through him the blessed Holy Spirit. It is as we respond to God in faith that the Spirit unites us with him, enabling us to participate in his way of being—the way which is blessed, or happy.

Being truly happy, then, is not something exterior to us nor is it created by things we do or experience. To be truly blessed, or happy, begins in the very nature of God himself which he places within us through Jesus by the Spirit. It is God at work within us, creating a nature which is poor in spirit, which grieves our spiritual losses or sins, and hungers and thirsts for a right relationship with him. It is the indwelling Spirit who is gentle, merciful, and pure in heart, placing within us this nature Jesus forged for us as he lived on earth.

This type of blessedness or happiness is not transient because it is not based within our circumstances or experiences, nor is it based within our flesh. It has its true foundation in Jesus Christ himself, who dwells in us by the Holy Spirit as we trust in him. As we follow Christ, or pursue the happy, blessed One, we will begin to experience genuine happiness—a deep inner joy and sense of blessedness which will hold us and carry us through difficulties, struggles, and all the changing experiences of our transient human existence, even when we are persecuted for the sake of our faith in Jesus. It is our blessed God’s heart that all of us share forever with him in his glory and blessedness. In what way will you choose today to live blessed, pursuing genuine happiness by pursuing the blessed Lord himself?

Dear God of glory, our blessed Creator and Sustainer, forgive us for pursuing everything and everyone but you. Turn our hearts back to you—cause us to follow you alone, Jesus, our blessed and only Savior. Fill us anew with your blessed Presence by your Spirit of love and grace that we may be truly happy and blessed, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 NASB

Living in the Light

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By Linda Rex

JANUARY 26, 2020, 3RD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—This morning I was reading an article by Stephon Alexander, a theoretical physicist whose aim is to unite quantum theory with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. His article in Nautilus spoke about how he was struck by the way light was used in a drawing by the Oakes twins, two artists who use innovative technique and inventions in their works.(1) In the struggle to understand how our universe works, scientists often must take into account what role light plays in their theories.

My first introduction to the essential nature of light in both science and theology came in my classwork with the late Dr. John McKenna. He, on more than one occasion, pointed out how light was often used in the scriptures, especially in relation to the original Light, the Lord himself. It seems that we, as image-bearers of God, were always meant to live and walk in the light—in the light of the sun and in the Light of God, as his adopted and beloved children. And often, in our brokenness, we choose to live and walk in the darkness of evil, sin, and death instead.

When Matthew speaks of how Jesus, after the death of John the Baptizer, settled in Capernaum in Galilee, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying that upon those people a light had dawned. The dawning of light upon a dark world is often a glorious sight. One of the most beautiful experiences I believe, is sitting in the quiet darkness of the early morning waiting for the sun to rise. As it barely hits the horizon, a lone bird begins to sing and the shapes of the trees, houses, and other objects start to take form. As the sun rises, the sky begins to grow lighter, the shapes begin to have color and depth, and the song of the lone bird becomes a joyful chorus of all varieties of birds. Soon the bright light of the sun brings out the full glory of each tree, flower, and bush, and the world is fully awake in a brand new day.

The entry of light of the sun into a darkened world is so much like Jesus’ entry into the darkness of our broken humanity. The earth does not make the sun shine on it—it has no control over whether the sun shines or not. It merely turns itself and the light touches it in new places. In many ways this is what it means for us to turn to Christ, to receive the light he brings to us. He is the Light of the world—what he brings to us is meant to illuminate the darkness within, transforming and healing it and bringing out the full glory of who God created us to be.

Our struggle as human beings is that, as Jesus told Nicodemus, “the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:19-21 NASB). Light has the discomfiting ability to expose truth, and even though that truth may offer us real freedom, we prefer to remain in darkness, in control of our own destiny.

What we seem to forget is that we as human beings are incapable of providing light for ourselves. Try this sometime: Walk into a cave and you will be surrounded completely by a darkness so deep, you can almost feel it. Now, light the cave up. No, don’t use matches. Don’t use candles. Don’t use a flashlight, or your phone. No—you light it up yourself, without the help of anything else. I have to ask–how’s that working for you?

It is in situations such as this where we come face to face with the reality that we are not the light. We are utterly dependent upon something outside ourselves to provide light in dark places. We will sit in the darkness forever unless the earth turns enough that the sun begins to shine where we live. We will sit in the darkness of the cave or a dark room until someone turns on a flashlight or a table lamp. In the same way, we as humans remained in the darkness of our evil, sin, and death until the One who made the light-givers—the sun, moon, and stars, and fire—came to bring us into his Light.

This brings us to the concept of discipleship and making disciples. This Jesus, who is the Light, called Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him. Later he called John and James as well. Jesus called them into the Light, to live and walk in the light of his presence. These men walked with Jesus day by day, being truly themselves within the context of a mentoring relationship. Jesus saw them at their best and at their worst, and spoke both grace and truth into them.

This is what discipleship looks like. Often, we want our relationship with God to be on our terms, where we follow him when it is comfortable to do so and we are able to keep a good image up in front of those around us. True spiritual community, though, allows for the capacity to make mistakes, own our failures, and seek to make amends or to work at making better choices. There must be room for both grace and truth within the body of Christ, in the spiritual communities in which we live, work, and play.

Inner healing, the transformation Christ began in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and is working out here below in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in individual hearts and minds, is something which best happens within the context of healthy spiritual community. There must be room to be transparent, authentic and honest, while also allowing ourselves to be held accountable for the unhealthy and inappropriate choices we make which wound ourselves and others. There must be an ability to feel safe, loved, and accepted as we turn ourselves more fully to the Light.

Most of us do not want to be connected with others at this deep level. We don’t want this much exposure to the Light. We prefer to live and walk in darkness—with the ability to call our own shots and do things our own way without consequences. But living and walking in this deep connectedness is what we are created for. This is the nature of eternal life, of knowing and being known by God and others—true fellowship. And this is why Jesus came—to include us in the genuine fellowship or communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.

What we as the body of Christ so often fail to do is to create true Christian community, where people are able to expose themselves fully to the Light of God and still receive his love, grace and truth. We, as followers of Christ, must be willing to leave behind all that we cling to, all that we lean on for light, and turn to the One Light, Jesus Christ, and be as that Light to those around us. At the same time, the moon above reminds us of our calling to reflect the living Light Jesus Christ to those who are caught in the darkness. We are not meant to keep the Light to ourselves but to be bringing others into the Light.

How comfortable are we with people who are still absorbed with living in the darkness? How do we respond to those who are still hiding behind their mask of good behavior and words while remaining in the darkness of evil, sin, and death? Who can we begin to pray for and start including in our life, bringing them along the road to the Light of God? Perhaps today we can have that conversation or make that phone call—and encourage them to turn to the light of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, and join us as we live in the Light.

Dear Abba, forgive us for our preference for darkness so we can hide our evil thoughts and deeds. We turn ourselves to your Light, to your Son Jesus, and receive the Light of your presence and power in the Holy Spirit. Move in and through us to bring others into your Light as well, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness | Will see a great light; | Those who live in a dark land, | The light will shine on them.” Isaiah 9:1-2 NASB

“The LORD is my light and my salvation; | Whom shall I fear? | The LORD is the defense of my life; | Whom shall I dread?” Psalm 27:1 NASB

See also Matthew 4:12–23.

(1) Accessed at https://getpocket.com/explore/item/what-this-drawing-taught-me-about-four-dimensional-spacetime?utm_source=pocket-newtab on 1/17/2020.