By Linda Rex
PROPER 9—This morning the thought came to me that perhaps we as human beings expend way too much energy trying to fix ourselves or even other people. It’s interesting how many books can be found under the self-help and psychology signs at a big bookstore. So many ways to straighten ourselves out!
Indeed, as Christians we can easily be tempted to turn our walk of faith into a self-help program or a means by which we make ourselves good enough that we will be fit for heaven. So often, people speak of their eternal future in question marks, wondering if they will qualify or overcome enough that God will let them in when the time comes.
And even when it comes to our relationship with God, we often believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we can only approach God in prayer if we are on his good side, having behaved properly and not having anything in our lives which might be cause for criticism or condemnation. So much of our lives may be lived by the rule book and living by the rules makes it easy for us to discern whether or not we are on God’s good side or bad side, so we know whether or not it is safe to approach him when we are in trouble. The only problem is, if we are honest with ourselves, no matter how hard we try to keep all the rules, we fail.
The struggle with guilt and shame is real. Some therapists and counselors teach methods of getting rid of guilt and shame as though it weren’t real, while others realize that these are symptoms of something deeper which needs healing and renewal. The truth is, God never meant for us to live oppressed by guilt or shame or any other negative, destructive emotion. God meant for us to live at peace with him and the other people in our lives, and at peace within ourselves. This is why he sent Jesus.
As the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus was full of grace and truth. In Jesus, we see God’s very Word written into our humanity—our way of being lived out in a tangible way here on earth, in a way which we could hear, see, touch, and experience. If we want rules to live by, we need only the Person of Jesus Christ, the law expressed in his very being written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In Christ, the truth of our being was accompanied by grace though, and was expressed fully as Jesus took our humanity with him through the crucifixion into the grave and out the other side in glory.
The problem we have with Jesus is often the reality that trusting in him and in his completed work means we lose control over the final outcome for ourselves and for others. In other words, it becomes a work of faith rather than a work of our flesh. Our acceptance by God is not won by our merit or our efforts, but solely by the Son of God who stood and stands in our place and on our behalf. We cannot boast about anything, as the apostle Paul points out, except “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).
You may remember the story of Naaman, the captain of the army of the king of Aram who was afflicted with leprosy. A captive Israelite girl told his wife he should go to the prophet in Samaria so he could be healed. Eventually Naaman made his way to Elisha’s house. The prophet didn’t talk with him face to face, but rather sent a messenger to tell him if he went and washed seven times in the Jordan River, he would be restored and made clean.
This made Naaman furious. He assumed Elisha would do some great miracle-working action or would speak some fancy words over him. He knew in his mind what it was going to take to get well. Feeling insulted, he reminded himself that his nation’s rivers were better than the Jordan River. It seems he thought his healing should be on his terms—he believed this Israelite prophet was insulting and demeaning him by asking this simple request of him. So he began to head for home.
Thankfully, he listened to his servants when they reminded him that if he had been asked to do something big, he would have done it—why not do this little thing? So Naaman humbled himself and went to the Jordan River and washed himself seven times. In the end he was healed, but only because of this simple act of trusting obedience.
So often we refuse God’s simple instruction to us—wash and be cleansed. We want to follow a difficult plan or program to make ourselves better. It is good to practice spiritual disciplines, but not to make ourselves right with God and not to fix ourselves or anyone else. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, fasting, and worship are ways in which we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. In other words, they are ways in which we simply come and are cleansed in Christ’s perfect work and participate in an ongoing relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit.
God calls us to renewal and says to you and me—wash and be clean. Christ’s blood and broken body are the place where we experience renewal and transformation, healing and freedom from guilt and shame. We can keep trying to free ourselves by our own efforts and in our own way, or we can simply be washed in Christ. In baptism we acknowledge that we died with Christ and rose with Christ—we are made new in him. The Spirit is at work in us bringing this reality to fruition within our beings.
Our efforts do not accomplish this. Rather, they are a participation in what Jesus has already done in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Healing, renewal, and transformation are a gift from God, as the Spirit makes the finished work of Jesus a reality in each of us individually. As we trust in Christ and respond to the indwelling Spirit of God—sowing to the Spirit, not to the flesh—we reap eternal life. We participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba in the Spirit, and find we are cleansed, healed, and made new. And the only thing left for us to do is to give our gratitude and praise to God.
Abba, we thank you for the gift of new life, of healing, renewal, and transformation in Jesus. Thank you for your Spirit, your presence and power at work in us, with us, and for us. We praise you, for you are worthy. Finish what you have begun, even as you have promised. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
“Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, ‘My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, “Wash, and be clean”?’” 2 Kings 5:13 NASB
by Linda Rex
Often we read the sermons of Jesus in which he advocates doing good to our enemies rather than giving them what they deserve (Matt. 5:39). Our natural response may be to say how ridiculous it is to even think of trying to do this in real life. What we experience in the normal course of events is most often the exact opposite.
A story I came across the other day in the Old Testament popped out at me, because it actually illustrated this specific principle at work. Of course, it was many millenia ago, and involved two kings who were at war with one another, and a prophet who was diligently doing the will of God.
The story goes like this. The nation of Aram was at war with the nation of Israel. Every time the king of Aram went to attack the nation of Israel, the prophet Elisha would warn the king of Israel about the ambush. This kept the Israelites safe from attack.
After a while, the king of Aram got ticked off, and began searching for a traitor among his officers. Apparently their military intelligence was working properly this time, because one of the officers told him about the prophet Elisha and what he was doing to inform the king of Israel about their plans of attack.
So early the next morning, Elisha’s servant woke up to find his beloved city of Dothan surrounded by the Aramean army with its soldiers, horses and chariots. Needless to say, he was terrified, and anxiously asked Elisha what they should do.
Elisha first asked God to give his servant an assurance of his presence in the midst of this terrifying situation. So God enabled Elisha’s servant to see that God’s army with its horses and chariots covered the hills around the city. They were perfectly safe in the midst of this danger.
Then Elisha asked God to cause the soldiers of Aram to be blinded so they couldn’t see where they were or where they would be going. Then he proceeded to tell the commander that he would lead them to the city and person they were looking for. And off they went to Israel’s capital city of Samaria.
There in the middle of Samaria with the Israelite army surrounding them, Elisha asked God to give the Arameans back their sight. Now they saw that they were totally at the mercy of the Israelites, their enemies! At that point the king of Israel asked if he should kill them.
How simple it would have been to kill all of those enemy soldiers! They had no hope of escaping, and they were guilty of harassing the Israelites with their constant attacks. It certainly would have been just, if looked at from that point of view.
But Elisha pulled out the “do good to your enemies” principle and told the king of Israel he should give them food and water and send them back to their master. So the king held a great feast, made sure they were all well supplied and then sent them home.
What’s interesting is the small statement at the end of this story—the soldiers from Aram quit raiding the Israelite territory. Now if the king of Israel had gone ahead and killed all those soldiers from Aram, it would have probably been the “just” thing to do, but it would have only escalated the tension between the two countries. It would have initiated real war. But in doing good to their enemies, the Israelites, guided by God through Elisha the prophet, invoked the power of grace and service. And hearts were changed, at least, for the time being. So how is it possible to really do this in real life?
First, we see that Elisha was living in a relationship with God in which he was in tune with God’s heart and mind, and he was trusting in God’s love, grace and protection. He was living in obedience to God, doing as God asked, even when it was difficult or dangerous.
Secondly, we need to see beyond the physical into the realm of God’s kingdom life. There is a spiritual reality that exists beyond our humanity. We participate in the spiritual realm through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. God is with us, in us and for us. We have no reason to be afraid.
Thirdly, we need to follow God’s lead, and allow him to take us wherever he wishes us to go. He will give us the ability to see what’s really going on when the time is right. He will help us to know what to do to best resolve the situation without revenge or violence.
Lastly, we need to choose grace and service rather than revenge or cold justice. Looking at the situation through the eyes of Christ, we can ask, what would be the most gracious, hospitable thing to do? How can I offer this person God’s love in the midst of this?
The reality is that even our efforts to do good in response to evil may end in suffering, loss and abuse. Christ called us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. There is a need for caution, wisdom, and seeking counsel and help from others in the midst of dangerous or potentially harmful circumstances. But at the same time we can apply God’s principle of grace and service in the midst of it all, and experience God’s blessings as a result.
Father, thank you that you are faithful in the midst of difficult and dangerous circumstances. Grant us the heart, wisdom and strength to do good to others, no matter their response to us. Grant us courage, faith, and obedience so we will follow you wherever you lead. Show us how best to love others with Christ’s love through the Spirit in the midst of adversity. In Jesus’ name, by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:20–21 NASB
(You can find the story in 2 Kings 6:8-23.)