By Linda Rex
LENT—As we move into the season of Lent, I have been wrestling with the call Jesus has on my life right now to live in his grace and love in each moment. Letting go of old, incomplete, or inaccurate ways of thinking or believing regarding what has happened in the past is a struggle. The father of lies loves to blur the boundaries between what is true and what is false, so much so that it is hard to live and walk in the truth sometimes. Indeed, it is much easier to hold on to wrong and unhealthy ways of thinking about things than it is to embrace the reality that I may have misunderstood or may have (perish the thought!) been wrong.
Ooch! How much easier it is to wallow in my pride and self-defensive self-justification than it is to admit that I messed up and need a big dose of forgiveness! It is much easier to point the finger elsewhere or to blame someone else for what happened. But no, I must embrace the integrity and humility of Jesus which calls me to agree with the truth and to walk with him through his death and resurrection into the new life he bought for me and gave me in the Spirit.
Even though this season of Lent is an opportunity to reexamine the reality of our need for Christ, it is also an opportunity to see more clearly the spiritual reality of our inclusion in Christ. As we stand in front of the mirror, Jesus Christ, who is the exact representation of the Father, and see ourselves mirrored in him, we cannot help but see how far short we fall from being the perfect image-bearers of God. This can, at times, feel overwhelming and can lead to feelings of guilt and shame.
First, we need to ask ourselves—is this genuine guilt I feel? Or is it that imitation guilt and shame which the father of lies and his companions like to dish out to make us feel unworthy, unloved, and separated from God’s love and grace? Sometimes the events of our childhood or the way we’ve been treated by significant people in our lives create in us constant feelings of guilt and shame that aren’t in any way related to the truth of our actions or thoughts. When we tell the truth about these feelings, that their root is in a lie, we often find freedom and peace. But we may find ourselves wrestling with them for a time until that root is completely eradicated and replaced in our hearts and minds with the truth of our inclusion in Christ.
True guilt though is meant not to tear us down, but to bring us to the realization that we have moved away from our center in Christ. Because of Christ’s finished work, there really is no reason to wallow in guilt nor is there any reason to feel ashamed. Jesus has drawn us up into his intimate relationship with the Father, covered all our guilt with his righteousness, and given us a new life in himself by the Holy Spirit.
We need to view ourselves and those around us in accordance with the truth—we are included in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We have been given the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ—in and through the gift of the Holy Spirit—in us and with us. We need to stay focused on the reality that our life in Christ is a life of grace. God already knows the sin we are capable of and has covered it all in his Son. There is nothing so bad that God has not, cannot, and will not redeem and restore us. Rather than continuing to muddle around in the pig slop, we might as well run on home into his waiting arms. There’s no point in waiting around thinking if we tried a little harder, we could clean ourselves up on our own.
What about these “messies” we carry around with us and never seem to be able to get free of? What about the dark places we don’t want anyone to see? We like to keep our dark places dark. Bringing them into the light, letting others into the closet with us, is something we avoid like the plague. We prefer the darkness to the light. But Jesus tells us to bring the darkness into the light since God already sees it anyway. There’s no point in hiding what God has already seen, taken up in Christ, and freed us from. (John 3:18-21) Embracing the truth, living in this painful but liberating honesty and transparency on an ongoing basis, is the healthiest place for us to be.
Really, this is all summed up in the realization that Christ is the center. We live in him, for him, and by him. As we are assaulted by the lies Satan and others speak into our souls, we need to turn to Christ who is the truth of our personhood and our existence. We will be tempted to resolve our failures on our own—we need to turn to Christ who already has resolved our failures in his finished work and in his very person. Satan will call out our shortcomings, sins, and weaknesses, but we need to listen instead to what the Father says to us through Jesus by the Spirit: “You are my beloved child. You are forgiven, accepted, and forever included in my perfect relationship with my Son in the Spirit.”
The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to embrace fully the reality that now and forever, we need Jesus. Daily we need the Spirit poured into us afresh so we can more fully live out the truth of who we were created to be—the image-bearers of God himself. Indeed, what Paul said is so true—in him we do live, and move, and have our being. Apart from Christ, we are a mess. We are preoccupied, indifferent, greedy, broken, hurting, self-absorbed, self-centered—you name it. We can live life pretty comfortably on our own for quite some time, but inevitably we will come face to face with the truth—we need Jesus.
I hope during this Lenten season we will come to that place in a new way. I hope we will see our need for the love of God and the redeeming grace we have in Jesus as well as how empty we are without the indwelling presence and Person of the Holy Spirit. We can be sober and realistic, but I believe we can also rejoice—for we know what happened after the cross. We know the end of the story, and we’re included in it. Spoiler alert! … We rose with Christ—and we are new in him. Praise God!
Our dear Abba, thank you. Thank you that we can run home to you because you are waiting. Thank you, Jesus, for doing all that is needed so we are welcome at home with Abba. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for making this real to each of us individually, for enabling us to know we are God’s beloved children, forgiven and beloved. Holy Spirit, enable us to see our need for Christ as well as the reality of our inclusion in Christ. Enable us to turn away from ourselves and to turn to Christ. Thank you, Holy Trinity, for your love and grace through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days.” Luke 4:1-2a NLT
By Linda Rex
Yesterday, as the sun peeked out occasionally from storm clouds and a cool breeze kept us wishing for a jacket, we sat outside the church and talked. Good News Fellowship was stepping out of our comfort zone and had invited the community to stop by for the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Although no one from the community joined us for this event, or for the Community Ash Wednesday service which followed, it was still a good opportunity for us to reflect on the reality of what Christ has done and is doing in our lives.
As a denomination, in the past we have not celebrated this particular day or tradition. But our pastoral team felt it was an opportunity for us to open our doors and begin to step outside of them, offering others an opportunity to share with us the good news of what God has done and is doing in our lives.
As I studied the common practices for the observation of Ash Wednesday, I was struck by the focus on our humanity—“from dust you came, and to dust you will return”—and by the emphasis on repentance and penitence. As we move into the Lenten season, a season of fasting, prayer and repentance, Ash Wednesday provides a good marker and way of getting us focused on and looking forward to the events of Holy Week and the resurrection of Jesus.
It is a good thing to be reminded we are made from dust and will return to dust. There is a sense of humility which comes from realizing apart from the grace of God, we would have no existence at all. In fact, we only exist because of the love and grace of a God who determined before time began we would share in his glory.
I was reminded, though, that any thought of repentance or penitence needs to be kept within the reality of who God is, who Christ is, and who we are in him. We begin not by gazing at ourselves, our faults and failures, but first at the God who created us and made us his own. This God isn’t focused on our limitations or our weaknesses, but on the relationships he created us for, and on the love he has for us.
One of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday this year was Joel 2:1–2, 12–17. These particular verses leapt out at me: “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) The prophet Joel placed the call to repentance within the framework of who God is, just as God had described himself to Moses so many centuries before, a God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Exodus 34:6-7).
God indeed wants us to own our stuff, to face up to the truth of how we fall short as human beings. But he more importantly, wants us to face up to the truth of who he is—the kind of God who is loving and forgiving, not cruel, condemning and rejecting. In giving us his Son Jesus Christ, God didn’t push us away in our brokenness, but rather brought us close, joining with us in our sin and shame, washing it away, and drawing us into deeper relationship with himself.
In fact, one of the first things which occurred in Jesus’ life after his baptism, when he heard the words of blessing from his Father “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, was being, in effect, “cast out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted of the devil. This forty days of fasting and testing, this penitence, was done on our behalf, for our sake. Jesus took the road of repentance we need to take, where we own our stuff and we choose to turn to God in faith rather than make our own way to glory.
As we enter this season of penitence, this Lenten season of reflection on our need for deliverance and salvation, I feel it is essential we begin with the reality of God’s love and mercy rather than just ending with it. Start with owning what is ours—the gift of forgiveness, and love which comes from the heart of our loving Father—as well as his Spirit who works in us our transformation and healing. And in the light of that, we look at our fallenness and need for grace.
When we keep these things in that order, then repentance is not a move toward despair and despondency, but rather a move toward joyful gratitude. We are compelled to say, “Thank you, Lord, for your mercy.” This is why I could not bring myself just to tell people as I administered the ashes “You came from dust and you will return to dust.” For me, it seemed to leave them in the dust in despair—that doesn’t seem to be what God had in mind. Why else would we have Christ at all?
To me repentance is an essential part of our walk as followers of Jesus Christ. We confess our fallenness, our brokenness, our ungodly ways of living and being. But we do it all in the context of the forgiveness which is already ours and available to us in Jesus Christ. We act as if we are forgiven and act as if we are healed. This is why I felt compelled to use these words in the administration of the ashes this year, “You came from dust, and you will return to dust. So thank the Lord Jesus for joining you in your dust and lifting you up to glory.”
Perhaps I will see things differently in the future—God is always working to heal, transform and renew. But in owning our stuff, I believe we not only need to own our fallen and broken ways of living and being, but also the heart of our loving Father who in Christ and by his Spirit says to us, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Owning our stuff means owning the reality we are forgiven, accepted and cherished by the God who calls us his own, and living and acting as though it were true.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the great love which compelled you to not only create us out of the dust of the earth and to breathe your life into us, but to also send your Son to join us in our humanity and to raise us up to live with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace of true repentance and faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
A psalm of David.
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time, that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment. For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory.
The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”
Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the LORD. So rejoice in the LORD and be glad, all you who obey him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” (NLT)