By Linda Rex
July 11, 2021, PROPER 10—Here in Nashville, it’s becoming pretty obvious that the cost of everything is rising. My heart goes out to those who are already struggling to make ends meet. Businesses who are simply trying to weather this economic storm are doing what they have to do—it has been hard for them too and now it is hard for those of us who are their customers. Whether or not we like it, there is a cost we pay to have the things we want in life, and sometimes that cost goes up.
This is especially true when it comes to the things of the Spirit. There is a cost to following Jesus. And what we may struggle with is that the closer we get to Jesus, the higher this price goes. This may be why so often we do not attend to the spiritual realities—they come at too high of a price.
Coming to faith in Jesus doesn’t mean everything in our life suddenly goes well or we become prosperous, popular people. Following Christ actually involves death—death to our old ways of being, to our selfish and self-centered ways of living, to habits which hurt us and hurt others. This price goes up as we may lose relationships or jobs as we begin to follow Christ instead of following our old ways of living. And this can be hard and painful. None of us easily gives up what is most pleasant and comfortable to us. We prefer to continue in paths that our feet easily trod without having to struggle or climb.
But Jesus provided a way for us, walking ahead of us into death on the cross, and through it into resurrection. Hidden with Christ in God is our true humanity—that person you and I were created to be as image-bearers of God himself. What we struggle with is living today in the already-not yet of our humanity, where what our broken sinful flesh wants us to be and what Jesus created us to be live in conflict with one another. Thankfully, in Christ, we receive the life of God by the Spirit who enables to live out the truth of who we are as adopted children of God, image-bearers of the divine in spite of all the inward and outward pressures not to.
In 2 Samuel 6 we read the story of when David was going to bring the ark of God to its resting place in Jerusalem. The first attempt to move the ark ended in death, because of the irreverent treatment of the ark of God’s presence. David was wiser the second time around. He found out what the word of God said about how the ark was to be handled and moved, and followed what he learned there. This time the occasion was filled with joyful praise, offering of sacrifices, and giving of gifts. But sadly, his wife Michal, as she watched David dancing uninhibitedly before the Lord, despised him in her heart. The king’s passionate worship of God became a barrier in their relationship, separating them from that day forward (2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19).
Our obedience to God and following his call upon our lives will not always be met with gladness and appreciation. Many times, it will be met with resistance or rejection. Amos was a herdsman and grower of sycamore figs in Israel. He obeyed God’s command to warn the nation of Israel about the consequences it was facing due to its rejection of God and his ways. His efforts were not met with joy or gratitude. Rather, he was accused of treason. His humble efforts to be obedient to God’s instructions and to help his people ended in rejection, not in praise and celebration (Amos 7:7–15).
In last week’s sermon, we saw that in Jesus’ own hometown, he was not believed. He was met with criticism and suspicion rather than with praise and gratitude. Jesus was amazed at the people’s unbelief. And then Jesus sent out his disciples into the communities around, empowering them to heal the sick and to cast out demons. His ministry, which occurred through their hands and efforts, began to create talk. Who was this man? In Mark’s gospel, we find even the tetrarch Herod Antipas began to be a bit concerned about this miracle worker. But his concern was rooted in guilt. He had previously beheaded John the Baptizer. His conscience was working overtime, giving him concern that maybe John had risen from the dead and was now empowered to do miracles.
We find the backstory to this event inserted here. John had followed God’s call upon his life, and had warned Herod and Herodias that their relationship was illicit and incestuous. This infuriated Herodias and she began to plan John’s execution. Herod held John in prison, listening to him and being intrigued by his preaching, but wanting to thwart his wife Herodias’ attempts to kill John. Herodias, in the end, was able to find a way to trap Herod into having John beheaded, since he was more concerned about what others would say about him than about what was right and holy.
As leaders of the people, these two followed their own passions and desires rather than obeying God’s instructions on living. What we see in this story is the profound cost of following God’s call upon one’s life rather than simply doing what is culturally and politically expedient. When John did what he believed God wanted him to do, he ended up in prison. When Herod and Herodias did as they pleased, John ended up beheaded. The price John paid for following God’s will, and being the Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, was death.
In his death, though, we see foreshadowed what would happen to Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus was also following the will of the Father, and speaking truth to the multitudes. When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he sought time alone with the Father. He knew that he was next. There was no other path for him, for he was seeking, for our sakes, to go all the way to the cross to raise all humanity up into new life.
Although Jesus had a large following, what those followers needed to understand was that there is a cost to following him. And the closer you get to Jesus, the higher that cost will go. In today’s cultural and political climate, to take a stand for what is just, right, and holy, is to open oneself up to criticism, condemnation, and death. Saying death here may seem extreme, but it isn’t at all when you consider how many people lately have experienced death to their businesses, their relationships, and their involvement in community because they have stood up for what is honest and true, what is good and godly.
To say that there is one way in which we are all called to live is to take an extreme risk. How can we say there is only one way when everyone is free to decide for themselves? The reality is that we are all free to choose, but there is only one way to live that brings genuine freedom, genuine joy and peace, that truly brings life. The way you and I were created to live as image-bearers of the divine, is to live as unique persons in equality and unity just as God lives.
The Father, Son, and Spirit, who lavished upon us such great grace in Christ, are calling each of us into relationship, to live together even now and forever in the oneness and love in which we were created to live (Ephesians 1:3–14). There is no other way but this one way of being, of truly being ourselves, that will bring genuine fulfillment and real life. But there is a price to pay, and that price goes up as we draw closer to Jesus. Are we willing to pay it and go all the way with him into death and resurrection? Or will we choose the cheaper, easy path that requires nothing of us?
Heavenly Father, thank you for lavishing on each and every one of us your grace and love through your Son Jesus. Thank you, Christ, for living our life, dying our death, and bringing us up into new life, by faith into eternal union and communion with God in the Spirit now and forever. Grant us the grace to willingly pay the price to follow wherever you may lead us, in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
“And King Herod heard of it, for His name had become well known; and people were saying, ‘John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.’But others were saying, ‘He is Elijah.’ And others were saying, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has risen!’” Mark 6:14–16 (17–29) NASB
By Linda Rex
August 30, 2020, Proper 17—The pandemic and its associated quarantine have complicated our lives in so many ways. We are bombarded with new distractions, frustrations, and limitations. Some of us are way out of our comfort zone as we attempt new tasks or abandon comfortable routines. It may seem as though we are caught in the midst of a cyclone of mini-crises with no visible means of escape.
Perhaps it would be helpful to see ourselves on a journey where suddenly we are faced with a desolate mountainside to climb—struggling to carry ourselves forward, navigating dangerous outcroppings and unforeseen chasms in our effort to reach the other side. This journey is never made alone, but with the One who has made himself our companion—Jesus Christ. He says to you and to me, “Follow me.” He already knows the way and intends to take us safely to the other side, no matter what may we may face on the way.
The reality is that when Jesus calls us to follow him he knows that life is going to be a struggle for us. To leave behind our comfortable, cozy mattress to find rest in a sleeping bag on a rocky mountainside is not an easy decision. Along the journey, we may decide we’re done with traveling and start looking for a cushy oasis to settle down into. And our adversary loves to supply us with one if it means we will stop following our Lord and Savior and return to our life of sin.
We need to be like Moses, who when the Lord spoke to him from the burning bush said simply, “Here I am.” To simply offer ourselves to God one more time in this particular moment is to follow Jesus. In the offering of ourselves to God, though, we must remember that God will come to us, reveal himself to us, and call us to join with him on a difficult task. Moses told God, “I’m here” and God told him to go lead the Israelites out of Egypt—a breathtaking task for a self-effacing shepherd on a mountainside.
Jesus had just blessed Peter for recognizing him as Messiah, the Son of God, when he began to tell his disciples what the Sanhedrin was going to do to him when he got to Jerusalem. Peter emphatically refused to believe that Jesus would be crucified and die at the hands of the Jewish leaders. Without realizing it, Peter gave in to the adversary’s effort to distract Jesus from the path he knew he had to follow for the sake of all humanity. What seemed to be loving, brotherly compassion and care in Peter’s mind turned out to be a not too subtle temptation for Jesus in complete opposition to the will and purposes of God.
Strong-willed, impulsive Peter seemed to be struggling with the idea that God calls the shots in this world and that sometimes those decisions God makes are not what we think should happen. What is most important to us is not always what is most important to God. He lives in the realm of eternity—we live in the everyday of the temporary.
It seems that if we were to design the Christian life on our terms, it might look like this: A person comes to faith, says the right words, gets baptized, goes to church, everything in their life begins to start working out properly now, they never get sick, and they start making all kinds of money since now they are giving God his portion. Do you see the issue? Throughout this whole life experience—nothing goes wrong, no one gets hurt, and there is no suffering. But it’s not reality.
Jesus knew the human experience. He knew that the minute any of us stepped foot in one of his footprints, the adversary would be on top of them immediately. He knew how easy it would be for us to return to our old ways of thinking and acting instead of embracing our new life in him. He knew that the only path to true transformation of our humanity would be the one through death into resurrection.
So Jesus says to us that we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. There is a cost to following Jesus and it involves dying to our old ways of living and being, and embracing the reality that there will be suffering and struggle in the process. We need to realize that just as the crowds ridiculed and taunted Jesus, there will be those who oppose our choosing to follow him down the path to the cross. There will be tough decisions to make and difficult struggles to end unhealthy relationships and begin new Christ-centered ones.
And there will be circumstances which come up in our lives where we struggle to make sense of what God has done or is doing. Why does God allow some people to die when others who do so much evil continue to live and cause such destruction in this world? There are so many difficult questions for which we have no answers.
We must come back to that place where we simply recognize the holy ground of God’s presence, take off our shoes, and humbly say to him, “Here I am.” We are but creatures and he is the loving Creator, and he has joined us on our journey, shared our pain and suffering, died our death, and sent his Spirit to be present with us in every moment. We are not alone on this journey—and he will bring us safely to the other side. And that is enough.
When the apostle Paul describes the Christian life, he gives some examples of what it looks like. In Romans 12:9–21, he tells the followers of Jesus to love without hypocrisy, to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good. He encourages them to be diligent and fervent in their service to the Lord. He reminds them to persevere in the midst of life’s trials and to devote themselves to prayer and providing for the needs of their spiritual brothers and sisters. Then he gets to the really difficult things—blessing those who persecute them, associating with the poverty-stricken and needy, and never exacting revenge on those who do evil or harm them.
The life of a follower of Jesus is never intended to always be convenient, simple, and comfortable. If anything, it is an arduous struggle. But it’s never done alone. We have the companionship of our spiritual brothers and sisters to lift us up, encourage, and strengthen us. And we have the intimate companionship of our Lord and Savior who indwells us by the Spirit. On our journey, he is present in every moment as we listen, heed, and yield ourselves to him, to give us direction, encouragement, inspiration, and correction.
The life of faith in Jesus is full of moments of joy, peace, hope, and fellowship. We do not walk alone, but have fellow travelers with us on our journey. Yes, there will be difficulties, struggles, and disappointments. But in the midst of whatever may be occurring, we can know that we need only say, “Here I am” and we will find ourselves encountering the living Lord. He is as near as his name on our lips— “Jesus.” He is as close as the breath we breathe—the Spirit who dwells in us. Take a moment right now to feel his presence in you and with you—and commit once again to following him wherever he leads.
Heavenly Father, you are the source of all things—our life and our existence are in you. Jesus, you went before us, living our life and dying our death so that we might rise with you into new life. Spirit, remind us again that we are not alone on this journey, but we have God’s real presence in us and with us as we follow Jesus wherever he leads. We are here, Lord—bring us to where us want us to be. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’” Matthew 16:21–26 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 17, 2019, Proper 28—Many years ago, I was faced with the reality that I was going to be on my own with two children to provide for. It was a hard thing to face because up to that point, it had been my commitment to be at home with my children so I could be fully involved in their lives. Reality is not always pleasant but it must be dealt with, and being a single mom meant I needed to find a job as well as hire a caregiver for my kids.
Life as a single mom was difficult for me, but many of the people around me struggled with even harder situations than what I had to deal with. Many of my co-workers juggled two jobs in order to be able to pay for childcare and their monthly expenses. Jobs in that farming community for the most part didn’t pay enough for single income families to make ends meet.
When life was hardest and the mountains around me seemed to grow taller and taller, I wrestled with fear, despair, and depression. The gracious God taught me during that extensive time of wrestling that all I needed to do was to hold his hand and take the next step and do that next right thing. Every month when the bills came due and I wasn’t sure if I would have enough to cover them, I would end up thanking God—he seemed to always come through for me.
During those years I learned that God was faithful and could be counted on, in spite of what I might be going through at the moment. As a follower of Jesus, I discovered that even if people around me ridiculed me and rejected me for living honestly, chastely, and responsibly, God was still present and at work in my life. Over time, as I intentionally began to build healthier relationships with other believers of many different faiths, he surrounded me with loving people who became our extended family, providing emotional and spiritual support through a very painful and difficult time.
Following Jesus is a life lived in the reality that God is our loving Father and we are his beloved children in his Son. When we follow Jesus, we begin to discover that even though each and every person around us is included in the Father’s love, not everyone knows nor do they believe this is the case. This means that as we live in the truth of being God’s beloved, living in agreement with our identity in Christ as image-bearers of God, we will come up against those who live in opposition to him and to us.
Some of the most painful experiences we have as believers are when our own family members and dear friends ridicule us, shame us, or even reject us because we have begun to follow Christ. We may long for these dear ones to share the joy of transformation we are experiencing, but find instead that they will have nothing to do with the truth of God’s love and grace. Life gets really tough when those we love refuse to participate with us in Christ.
Jesus often tried to help his disciples understand the cost of discipleship, of following him all the way through death and resurrection. They couldn’t quite get their minds around the reality that Jesus was not there to be the conquering king messiah—he was anointed by his Abba to be the Suffering Servant messiah, an entirely different concept. The entrance of his people into the kingdom was not going to come about by him waging war on the Romans, but by offering himself up to humanity as a lamb for the slaughter.
The people of Israel had worked so hard to get their temple rebuilt and adorned as an appropriate dwelling for God. But Jesus told them it would be torn down and destroyed. And that it would be okay, because Abba was creating a new temple, a dwelling place for himself—the body of Christ, the church, where individually and collectively God would dwell by the Holy Spirit. In order for this to happen, Jesus would need to experience suffering and death, followed by resurrection.
In the same way, the process of redemption and sanctification for us individually includes our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion as an expression of our inclusion in the death and resurrection of Christ. But we also participate as we experience the consequences of following Christ, of living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh—by sharing in the sufferings of Christ as we find ourselves opposed, resisted, and even rejected by those for whom Christ is offensive.
Our participation in Christ, following Jesus through every experience of life, is a journey, one in which we may experience both joy and sorrow, blessing and suffering. The key is that we are indwelt by God himself and whatever may be occurring in our lives at the moment, he is present and involved and aware. He upholds us in the midst of our struggles, and celebrates with us when we experience the triumphs of life.
Jesus Christ didn’t promise his followers a pain-free life. But he did promise that he would be with them to the end—that in their endurance, they would find true life. The life Abba has given us through Jesus in the Spirit is an intimate knowing and being known. Our knowledge and understanding of who God is grows as we wrestle with hardship and pain, and the other difficulties of life in relationship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.
We, in Christ, are the beloved children of God—and we are to act like it from now on, no matter how difficult it may be to do so. But, remember, we are not alone as we do this—Christ is present and active, participating with us in everything we are going through, keeping us in the midst of God’s life and love, and enabling us to endure to the end. And when we feel we just can’t hold on any longer, as we turn to him in faith, we will find he’s been there all along, holding on to us.
Father, thank you for being present in every circumstance of life. Thank you, Jesus, that we are privileged to share in your sufferings, your life and your death. And thank you, Holy Spirit, that we never do any of this on our own, but always and ever through you in the loving embrace of the Father and the Son. Enable us this day to face the pain and difficulty one more time. Give us the courage to do the difficult thing we don’t want to do, and the faith to trust you when everything around us tells us not to. Grant us the grace to endure, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. Yet not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Luke 21:16–19 NASB
“For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10–13 NASB