By Linda Rex
SUNDAY, MARCH 1, 2020, ASH WEDNESDAY/1ST SUNDAY IN EASTER PREP—Recently, I was chatting with someone about current events and they were telling me about a program they heard on the radio. The person they were listening to was saying that the current issue with child abuse imagery has multiplied into millions of cases worldwide since the time of Clinton’s presidency. The implication was that his moral failure with Monica Lewinsky was the root of this alarming increase in the use of pornography. Personally, I would be more inclined to believe that this extreme numerical increase is more directly related to the use the internet as well as the ability to track the use of pornographic material on the internet. But that is not the point I feel led to make.
Over the decades our nation has been at certain times more concerned with particular sins than with others. I was reading a historical novel the other day which was set in the time of this nation when temperance and prohibition were promoted as the solution to all of the ills besetting the nation. I agree that the misuse and abuse of alcohol and/or drugs leads to many other sins, but there is so much more at stake. It is a greater issue that we can become so obsessed with a certain sin that we lose sight of our proclivity for living as though we are in charge and able to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil.
The story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden eating the forbidden fruit cuts down to the root of all human behavior from that time to today. We are all created for an intimate relationship with the God who made us and we can, at any time, walk and talk with God if we so desire. We may not experience this relationship with God in the same way they did, but it is what we were created for. However, we often trade this direct relationship with God we were given in Jesus Christ for a substitute relationship—dependency upon and reveling in the things of this human existence. Or as followers of Christ, we may even substitute church attendance, rule-keeping, moral purity, and community service for an intimate walk with our living Lord.
The truth is that we often are more concerned about repenting our mistakes or moral failures than we are repenting the bent we have toward rejecting God himself. What we need to do is to acknowledge the reality that we wish to live as though we are self-sustaining individuals, as little gods who run the universe the way we want it to be run. Let’s be honest with ourselves—we don’t want to have to answer to anyone for what we say or do—we want to create our own rules to live by and not have any consequences for our choices or behaviors.
So we come to the time on the Christian calendar called Lent (or Easter preparation) which begins on Ash Wednesday. This is the time when we honestly assess and confess our genuine and deep need for the Lord Jesus Christ. For, if he did not stand in our stead and on our behalf, we would have no interest in or desire for, nor the ability to have, a relationship with the God who made us and who cares for us. We don’t just draw up a list of sins and tell God about them. No, we go much deeper—down to the core of our being—down to the heart which turns away from God toward the things and people of this human existence.
God calls us to return to him. To return is to go back to the place where we started. We began at a place in which we were fully included in God’s life and love. And then we turned away. When God as the Word took on our humanity, he turned us back to his heavenly Father.
As Jesus stood in the waters of the Jordan River with the baptismal waters dripping off his frame, he heard the Father’s words of love—“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased (Matt. 3:17 NASB).” On the mountain where he was transfigured, we again hear the affirmation of his heavenly Father—“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him (Matt. 17:5 NASB)!” In Christ, we are beloved children. We are God’s pleasure and joy. God calls us to rend our hearts—to quit with all the religious externals and to get down to the core of our being: What drives us? What is the focus of our inner conversation? What directs our decisions and choices? Where does God fit in our lives? Does he even have a place in our heart?
The process of examining our hearts is not meant to be discouraging or depressing. Rather, as we take God’s hand and walk down the corridors of our inner sanctuary, we begin to see in a greater way our need for deliverance, redemption, and forgiveness. We see our need for a Savior. We begin to put God back in his rightful place as Lord of our existence. And most of all, the closer we get to the heart, we discover that waiting there all this time has been Christ himself by the Spirit.
For Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save us. He entered our human existence, not to destroy us, but to reconstruct us back into the image-bearers of God we were created to be. We do not look to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday with dread or to Holy Saturday with sorrow, but to Resurrection Sunday with anticipation and joy. What was meant for our evil, the destruction of our souls, God turned to good—the deliverance of all people. Jesus came to live our life, die our death, and rise so that the Spirit would be sent—so we would receive the very life of God within ourselves.
When we are called to return—to turn about, we are called back into the relationship which was ours from before time began. God has always meant to include us in his life and love, and even though we managed to turn away from this to the things of this world and ourselves, God has in Christ turned us back to himself. Receive the gift which has been given. Come to yourself, your true self. For Abba loves you dearly and is pacing on the porch, looking down the road, anticipating your return. Run to him!
Dearest Abba, thank you for not rejecting us because of our rejection of you, but giving us your Son in our place and on our behalf. Turn our hearts back to you again. Renew in us a desire for your will and your ways, but more importantly, for your very presence—to affectionately tend to your heart as you tend to ours. We praise you that this is all possible through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, | And with fasting, weeping and mourning; | And rend your heart and not your garments.’ | Now return to the LORD your God, |For He is gracious and compassionate, | Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness | And relenting of evil.” Joel 2:12-13 NASB
“For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:17-19 NASB
By Linda Rex
RESURRECTION SUNDAY/EASTER—I’ve been noticing how often we act as though Jesus is still hanging on the cross or laying dead in the tomb. As Christians we can talk a lot about how Jesus died on the cross for us and our sins and how he rose from the grave, but do we live and speak as though this is actually true?
As I was sitting in the last session of a recent GCI women’s leadership forum, I was invited to write myself a permission slip. We had written one on the opening session, and now we were going to write one as we prepared to leave. I closed my eyes and asked the Lord what he wanted me to write on my slip. The still small voice said, “Be free.”
As I wrote this down on my yellow post-it note, I thought about this statement. Why would God ask me to give myself permission to be free when in Christ I already was free? I was struck by the reality that I could know quite well that I am made free from evil, sin, and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and yet be thinking, feeling, and living as though this were not true.
This is similar to Paul’s direction to us to be reconciled to God because we are reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20). There is the spiritual reality of our reconciliation with God on his side and spiritual reality of our freedom from evil, sin, and death in Jesus. And then, on the other side, there is our personal experience of and participation in these spiritual realities through Jesus in the Spirit.
The apostle Peter had told Jesus he believed he was the Messiah, his Lord. He had refused to believe that he would ever betray Jesus. But standing in the courtyard trying to stay warm the night Jesus was taken and was being tried, Peter denied vehemently that he knew him. When the rooster crowed and Jesus caught his eye, Peter was devastated. He was caught between the two parts of himself—what he meant to do and what he did, what he believed and how he acted—and subsequently found himself in a place he never meant to be and experienced sorrow and deep remorse as a result.
As we read the Easter story in Luke 24:1-12, we find Peter again caught between what actually had happened, and what his human reasoning would have him believe and do—Jesus was not in his tomb. Were the women right? Had he indeed risen from the grave? How could that be? Peter saw the empty tomb and went away marveling—but apparently, not believing.
All of these experiences including his subsequent encounters with the risen Jesus, and his calling to be a shepherd to God’s people, helped to form and shape Peter. It was this Peter, the one who not only knew Jesus had died and risen again, but who had personally experienced Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa when the men sent by a centurion stopped at the gate and asked for him.
In the companion scripture for this Sunday in Acts 10:34-43, Luke tells us about the sermon Peter preached to these Gentiles. He began by saying that it was obvious to him that God was not someone who showed partiality. He could say this confidently because not only had God given him a repeated vision which told him he was not to differentiate between people, but also because he had been directed to treat these Gentiles as though they were brothers. What Peter had learned at the feet of Jesus, he was now experiencing in the midst of his own ministry—Jesus had torn down those divisions held near and dear by the Jewish people and had made all people one in himself.
As Peter preached and told of his experience of the life, death, and resurrection of his Lord, the Spirit came upon these people. What was true in Jesus Christ was now true for each person there. They were included—they were God’s people not just as a spiritual reality, but now by personal experience. They were baptized, showing their participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, by participating in the baptism Jesus did on all humanity’s behalf.
But even Peter struggled with what he knew to be true and making it a reality in his life. At one point the apostle Paul took Peter to task for not acting in accordance with the truth about the Gentiles being included in table fellowship through Jesus. Peter got caught up with some Jewish members’ refusing to eat with Gentiles, and even Barnabas was led astray (Gal. 2:11-14). Didn’t he know better? Obviously, yes, he did. But in that moment, he missed the mark.
The spiritual reality is that all are included in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. As Paul wrote: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-21 NASB) Because of our inclusion, Paul calls us to lay aside the old self and be renewed—put on the new self which has been through Christ created in the image of God (Eph. 4:22-24). Yes, we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive together with Christ, seating us in his presence in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7).
Our flesh calls to us to live in the old ways—to act like dead people. But we have been given new life, and God is calling us to act like the new creations we are. Paul says, keep seeking the things above, since that is where you (according to the spiritual realities) really are right now; keep thinking about the heavenly realities instead of obsessing on the fleshly realities of our old human existence.
Let all that is not of God continue hanging on the cross where Jesus hung. Leave the sin, evil, guilt and shame in the tomb with Jesus. Walk in the newness of life which is yours in Jesus. Cease living for yourself alone, for your own pleasure and personal indulgence and begin living as a member of God’s body—fulfilling that special place you were created to fill with your gifts, talents, knowledge, and experiences in love and service to God and others.
The truth is that, like Peter, we can be confident of the spiritual realities but fall far short in our personal experience of or participation in them. This is why we turn to Jesus and trust solely in him, and in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t count on our own ability or strength, but rather on the resurrection power which raised Jesus from the dead. It is God’s life at work in us which enables us to live in newness of life.
We trust, not in the empty cross, but in the risen Lord who died on the cross. He isn’t still in the tomb—the tomb is empty and his body has been glorified. Jesus is both seated at God’s right hand bearing our humanity in his presence and is present and near to us moment by moment by the Holy Spirit. We are reconciled to God, so by the Spirit we respond to God’s call to be reconciled to him and others. We are freed from sin, evil, and death—so we live through Jesus by the Spirit in the true freedom by which we love God and our neighbor as we were created to. By the Spirit, Abba’s resurrection power, we live, act and speak as though Jesus Christ is risen indeed.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of new life given us in your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for making Jesus’ gift our very own, enabling us to participate fully in all Christ has done. Dear Abba, enable us to walk in the life which is ours in Christ, living reconciled and free, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.
“While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.’ “ Luke 24:4-6a NASB