God

Rending the Heavens

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By Linda Rex

November 29, 2020, ADVENT | HOPE—Last night I was watching a report by Nashville’s mayor in which he was describing the latest spike in COVID-19 cases and an upcoming mandated reduction in the size of gatherings. As you can imagine, my heart turned over. I’m not looking forward to the isolation and health problems this will bring about for so many, nor am I thrilled about the loss of income, business and other difficulties it will create for those already struggling.

In some ways, I can identify with the prophet Isaiah when he wrote:

“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,
That the mountains might quake at Your presence—
As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-9 NASB)

What is interesting about the rest of this passage, though, is how Isaiah didn’t focus on the glorious entry of God into the human sphere to exact his fiery judgment, but rather on God’s deliverance for us from our human proclivity to sin and our futile efforts to do the right thing. This one-of-a-kind God, who Isaiah describes as the potter, is called upon to do the work only he can do for and in us as his clay (Isaiah 64:1–9).

The psalmist in Psalm 80 acknowledges that the only hope for any of us is for him to smile upon us and restore us. This request is repeated three times—emphasizing a passionate desire for God’s grace and good will to be showered upon us. At the end of this psalm, he writes:

“Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
Then we shall not turn back from You;
Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
O LORD God of hosts, restore us;
Cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”
(Psalm 80:(1-7) 17-19 NASB)

Do you see it? Here is a hint of how God is going to save his people—something related to a “son of man” whom God places his hand on and makes strong. Our only hope for God’s grace, restoration and renewal begins with God himself and his desire for and accomplishment of our transformation and healing through the Son of Man.

In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, when the apostle Paul speaks of the final revealing of Jesus Christ, he affirms that we are found blameless not by our own efforts, but because God is faithful. God’s faithfulness is expressed to us in his gift of grace through Jesus Christ which enriched us in speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts, and in the testimony of Christ being confirmed in us. He has called us into and has ensured we can participate in Christ’s fellowship by the Spirit with his Father.

So often we look into passages regarding the coming of Christ in glory and begin to impress upon them our private expectations and opinions rather than seeing them from God’s point of view. We see the world around us as very messy, filled with evil and sin, and right away call for God to rend the heavens and come down in a dramatic deliverance. We can easily diminish the incredible reality of what God has already done for us in the entrance of his Son into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.

We’re entering into the Advent season, and I am reminded of that beautiful night when the shepherds were quietly tending their flocks on the Judean hillsides. Suddenly an angel appeared—“rending the heavens”—with an incredible message that would change the world forever—the Messiah had come in the person of an infant lying in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem. The angels gathered around and celebrated this good news, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).

Later on, this Savior, as he faced his upcoming death on the cross and resurrection, spoke of the transition which would occur between the kingdom of God which he was inaugurating in his passion and that glorious day when he would come in power, ushering in the new heavens and the new earth. He knew there would be a substantial time lapse between his ascension and the day of his final arrival, and he wanted his followers to stay in a state of continual readiness and diligence, especially with regards to sharing the good news of what Christ did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

What Jesus forged for us in our humanity tore open our cosmos and set it upon a new footing—in the all-ready/not-yet of God’s kingdom, he has made all things new. We have an incredible hope that bursts into our gloomy sin-laden world and lays bare all our futile efforts at being good and forces us to a crisis—where will we put our faith? Will we continue to trust in our human efforts to rule ourselves—to count on our 201 ways to solve our own problems and save ourselves? Will we keep to our own agenda or will we submit ourselves to God’s plan for our lives? Is Christ—the way he really is—good enough for us? Or do we need to add something to the simple reality of his grace and truth?

Our attention does not need to be on some particular plan or outline of end-time events, but solely on Jesus. Christ is our life. We participate through baptism in his death and resurrection, renewing this covenant relation as we take the bread and the wine in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith. We live each day in attentiveness to Jesus’ coming and presence—both in his presence here and now by the Spirit at work in this world, but also in anticipation of his coming glorious presence at the renewal of all things. As things grow more difficult for us, as we struggle to stay the course, we can hold ever more tightly to the reality that Christ has come, he is come now by the Spirit, and one day he will come in glory. We have every reason to hope. Maranatha—even so come, Lord Jesus!

Father, thank you for the grace you have given us in your Son, for the work you already accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and are working out in this world even now by your Holy Spirit. Keep us ever diligent, ever faithful, attentive to the end to our precious Lord Jesus by your Spirit. Amen.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 NASB

See also Mark 13:24–37.

And So He Reigns

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By Linda Rex

November 22, 2020, Christ the King or the Reign of Christ— I think we may all agree that the year 2020 has been one of a kind. If it were true that there was no God and that we were merely highly evolved creatures hanging out here in the middle of empty space on a planet that will one day burn up and drop back into the sun, how hopeless and meaningless this whole experience has been!

The blessing of the Christian faith is that it points us beyond all that is occurring, and reminds us of the love and grace of God out of which all of this was birthed and by which all of this was redeemed and is sustained, and gives us great hope in the midst our messes and disasters. Even though evil happens—and it often does—we don’t need to lose hope. We have an anchor which holds us, the very presence of God in the middle of whatever may be going on. It is God’s presence through Christ in the Spirit which carries us through every circumstance, offering wisdom, strength, comfort and guidance when all we see is destruction, despair, and suffering. It is the ascending, triumphant Lord who gives us hope that this isn’t the end—that there is something so much more wonderful and amazing ahead of us!

God knew that when we made the choice to turn away from him to the things of our flesh and this world that the spiral down into death and nothingness would begin. He set our destiny in motion way before then, as God the Word was elected to one day enter our human flesh to rescue us from this fate and to bring us into union and communion with the Triune God so we might live with him forever. Evil, sin and death were destined to be destroyed, conquered on the cross and in the finished work of Christ as he rose from the grave and ascended to the Father carrying our glorified humanity with him into Abba’s presence.

On this Sunday we celebrate the culmination of all the days on the Christian calendar, having begun during Advent with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, moved through Epiphany and Lent to Easter week with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and on into Ascension Sunday and subsequently Pentecost with the sending of the Holy Spirit. We’ve gotten through the ordinary days, during which we have learned about how to live out this faith we have been given by expressing God’s love to those around us and holding fast to the hope we have in Christ. The summation today then, is Christ coming in his glory, sitting as King of Kings and Lord of all.

In the parable of the sheep and goats, we see the King Jesus sitting on his throne, passing judgment on all the nations. In spite of the Jewish expectation that Israel would be the nation of the kingdom of God, Jesus has included in his person those of every nation and people group. The line that our Lord draws between people who are in and those who are out does not have to do as much with our bad or good behavior, but more with our perception of and participation in who Jesus Christ is as our Savior and Lord. We are brought up against our identity as the image-bearers of God who are created to love him and each other. We are reminded of the reality that our brother or sister is made in the same image as ourselves and that the humanity Jesus took upon himself in the incarnation was our very own as he fully identified with us as human beings in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

In this parable we see King Jesus say that the sheep on his right hand are those who perceived in the people who were poor, needy, imprisoned, thirsty and hungry, the person of Christ. To care for another person in a tangible way, especially those who are followers of Christ, is to care for Jesus himself. When we treat others with indifference, oppression, neglect and injustice, we are doing those very things to Jesus. We are pouring out once again all the evil, sin, and violence of the cross onto the innocent, humble and holy Lamb of God. In doing so we deny our need for Christ and his sacrifice, placing ourselves in his stead as lords of our cosmos and our world. It is no wonder that God’s judgment upon such a choice is that we will experience the reality of eternity without the grace of God since we have determined for ourself we have no need or desire for it.

So what is God’s heart toward humanity in the midst of all that is happening right now? It is the same that it has always been—he wants us to enjoy all the benefits and blessings of life in union and communion with our Creator, in joyful fellowship with one another, and in happy harmony with all he has created. This is what we were created for and destined for. In Christ, this is the future God has planned for us.

In Christ, we have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into this kingdom of light. By faith we can begin to participate in this heavenly kingdom even now, living each moment in the presence of the King by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Lord of all means that he sits on the throne of our heart and has the final say in our lives right now. By faith, we participate in Christ’s face to face relationship with the Father in the Spirit, and enjoy moment by moment spiritual fellowship with God himself. We participate with King Jesus in what he is doing in this world, and by the power of the risen Lord, we overcome evil, sin and death in this world as we wait for Christ’s return in glory.

Just as King Jesus reigns even now over all, he will come one day in all his glory to eradicate once and for all the evil, sin, and death he conquered on the cross and will establish his throne forever in the new heavens and new earth. When that day comes, will we still be reigning over our own hearts and lives, thinking we are the supreme lords over creation and all that is in it? Will we be treating one another with indifference, oppression, neglect and injustice, or with the honor and respect and love due our risen Lord and Savior? Will we be trusting in ourselves and our goodness, or humbly acknowledging our desperate need for the grace and love of our Lord and King Jesus Christ, and so offering that same love and grace to our fellow human? These are questions worth wrestling with on this Sunday, as we reflect on the reign of Jesus Christ, soon to be established in glory, but at work even now in us and in this world.

Heavenly God—Holy Father, Son and Spirit—thank you for loving us so much that you did not want to spend eternity without us. Thank you for sending Jesus so we could be with you forever. Holy Spirit, enable us to love one another as you, God, have loved us. We acknowledge our desperate need for your grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. We receive this precious gift with gratitude and praise, through our Lord Jesus Christ, he who is King of all. Amen.

“For thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.” Ezekiel 34:11-16 NASB

“Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth.
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the LORD Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.”
Psalm 100:1-3 NASB

“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.”
Psalm 95:6-7 NASB

See also Matthew 25:31–46 and Ephesians 1:15–23.

Entrusted with What’s His

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By Linda Rex

November 15, 2020, Proper 28—It can be easy to believe that God has a funny way of running the universe. He makes these creatures who have intelligent minds, the ability to make decisions and to create things. He gives them the ability to reproduce themselves. And then he gives them the capacity to ignore him, reject him, and even turn against him. And to top it all off, he gives them the responsibility to care for all he has made!

What was God thinking? Perhaps I’m being a little too humorous about this, but I believe we can take this in two ways—1) we can believe that God is loving and good and believes in the creatures he has made and is working for their good, or 2) we can believe that he is a hard, cruel God who is setting up humanity from the beginning for failure. How we respond as human beings to our call to care for and steward all God made and to love one another is essentially grounded in what kind of God we believe in, if any.

Moving forward, then. What kind of God would take on a human body and live in it, allowing himself to be ridiculed, rejected, and even crucified? And even after all that, entrust to his followers the Holy Spirit, sharing the good news of God’s love, and the responsibility of building the church and equipping the saints? The track record of the believers and the church over the millennia hasn’t always been the best, but knowing this would happen didn’t keep Christ from charging his followers with this responsibility.

It seems that too often, we as human beings have spent our time playing video games when we could have been washing the dog, cleaning our rooms or having friends over for a play date. Rather than creating a Play-Doh masterpiece for mom, we’ve been battling virtual ninjas, ending up with nothing to show for it but a great score on the leaderboard. Believe me, I love a great video game, but my point is that too often we as human beings have missed the boat when it comes to understanding who we are and what we are meant to do with our time here on earth. Too often we have taken the overflowing sack of God’s love and grace and buried it in the ground.

When we look at Jesus’ parable about the talents, we tend to narrow it down to believers needing to use their spiritual gifts in his service. I think there is a whole lot more at stake than simply that. The context is the kingdom of heaven—Jesus is describing the kingdom he was inaugurating in himself, in his presence as the Creator within his creation. As God in human flesh, he was seizing back what humanity had lost by turning away from God to the things of this world and Satan.

What every human being needs to come to terms with is that God loved him or her enough to set aside temporarily the benefits of his divinity, to come and live in our humanity, for each person’s sake. He sought to raise humanity up out of the spiritual poverty and death we had fallen into so that we could live now and forever in right relationship with him and one another. He freed us from evil, sin, and death, not so we could party however we wanted, but so that we could be a part of his heavenly celebration now and for all eternity. He sent his Spirit so we would be empowered with his very presence and person to enable us to live as we were meant to live—in other-centered love with God and each other.

What would happen if we came to terms with the reality that God loves each of us, immensely, completely, and forever? What if we understood that God has entrusted us with his Son, his Spirit, and all he has made—offering life in union and communion with him now and forever? What are we doing with this grace God has given us?

God gives us his creation to steward. God gives us himself in his Son and in his Spirit. Repentance and faith, with baptism into the body of Christ, are the immediate response he seeks. We’ve been given a huge bonus check of grace—do we go to the bank and open up an account so we can put the grace to work? Or do we cash the check and then hide the bills in the wall of our house? What do we do with the grace and love God lavishes on us?

Grace put to work opens the door for others to experience and share in God’s grace. This is our participation in the life of Christ. He is at work in this world, bringing others to the knowledge of himself and enabling them to participate as well in what he is doing in the world. By faith and through baptism, new believers are welcomed into the body of Christ, and included in our participation in the mission of Jesus to spread the gospel (the good news of God’s love expressed to us in Christ) throughout the world.

And yes, the Spirit showers spiritual gifts on believers, enabling them to play particular roles within the body of Christ—teaching, preaching, administrating, sharing, helping, and serving for example. These gifts are meant to enable believers to participate more fully in stewarding all God has given. Some are meant to equip others to do ministry and to build up the body of Christ. Some are meant to demonstrate God’s love in tangible ways in this world so that others can experience God’s love and grace in their lives.

The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just a story we tell. It is a life which we live. It is a person we reflect. As image-bearers of Christ, we bear his name, his Suffering Servant nature, by his Spirit in our person. As we respond to God’s love and grace expressed to us in his Son Jesus, we recognize that we are merely stewards of what belongs to the God who is the Lord over all and who dwells in perichoretic love. This reminds us to responsibly care for the world and cosmos we live in as our participation in his life and love—we seek his best interests, not our own. It reminds us to love our neighbor as ourself rather than being self-seeking, self-willed, and self-indulgent. And all of this we do empowered by and infused with the very presence and person of Jesus Christ in the Spirit.

God has lavished his love and grace on us as creatures meant to reflect his nature and way of being. He has entrusted this world to us and in Jesus has enabled us to be faithful and obedient children who serve him diligently. What are we going to do with the great big sack of God’s love and grace we have been given? What have we been doing with it? Is it time to make a change?

Father, thank you for the generous love and grace you have lavished upon as your creatures, for this amazing creation you have given us, and the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for doing for us in our place what we could not do for ourselves. We trust in your perfect stewardship that we may be by your Spirit good stewards of all we have been given. Amen.

“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
You turn man back into dust …
You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep;
In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew.
In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew;
Toward evening it fades and withers away. …
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
Psalm 90:1–3a, 5b–6, 12 NASB

See also Matthew 25:14–30; 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11.

In Christ We All Lead

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By Linda Rex

October 25, 2020, Proper 25—What is your sphere of influence? Is it merely your toddler and four-year-old? Is it the annoying neighbor who never cleans up the trash in his backyard? Is it the guy at the next desk who likes to tell funny stories but doesn’t follow through on his assignments? Perhaps it is simply the boss who comes by your desk each morning to wish you a great day.

We may only have a small number of people we affect each day. But there are some people in this world who have been given a much larger sphere of influence—that of leading towns, cities, states, nations and large organizations or companies. The effect their decisions have on large numbers of people shows the great extent of their influence. Sometimes this influence is for the better and others for the worst. There are people from the past whose lives and choices still affect the world today—we remember them with gratitude or anger, depending on how we have been affected by the decisions they made.

Our spheres of influence, great or small, are places where we have the privilege, even the responsibility, to participate with Christ in furthering his work of healing, wholeness and renewal in this cosmos. We can abdicate this task to others, or we can embrace it as part our identity as humans created to reflect the image of God and to follow Jesus Christ. To be an influencer of those around us by living out the gospel is a way we participate in Christ’s leadership in this world.

Christ first came as a suffering servant, laying down his life for each and every person on earth. He calls each of us to the same type of servant leadership—in whatever sphere of influence we may have. As followers of Christ, we share the gospel with those people who are close to us and we share our lives with them as well. It is our participation in Christ—our dying and rising in him—that gives others evidence of the miracle of grace and makes the gospel come alive, drawing them into the triune life.

As we live in face to face relationship with God as Moses did, we receive wisdom and God’s grace for our lives. Our active participation in the triune life is reflected in the way we live, the choices we make, and how these decisions impact the people in our sphere of influence. Do they see the radiance of God’s glory reflected in our faces, in our attitudes, words, and conduct? When all of these reflect God’s holy, loving nature, then the people around us are influenced to do the same, maybe even to seek the source of our Christlikeness.

Our participation in Christ resembles the other-centered perichoretic giving and receiving of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In the triune life, each pours into the other and receives from the other, as participants in the divine dance. Likewise, every human being has been given a place in this dance in and through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the giving of the Spirit, each may personally join in by faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ. As we trust in Jesus, centering our lives and faith in him, we find the faith, hope and love to effectively influence our family, our community, our nation and all of creation for the better.

In an ideal world, as in the kingdom of God, our leaders would be Christ-centered, seeking the heavenly realities rather than the power, authority, wealth, and popularity of this broken world. They would be seeking the benefit and best of those they served rather than their own pleasure and desire. Even though they are faulty and frail, our human leaders today still can choose to lead out of God’s Spirit of wisdom and love rather than the fleshly values of greed, lust, indifference, and selfishness. But will they?

Our effort, as we make decisions regarding electing our leaders, is to seek out and choose those who will most likely exemplify and support that which is good, true, and holy. This is a challenging task, for we must accept that we are dealing with people who are just as broken and faulty as we are. This is why we seek God’s direction and instruction, and take into consideration the issues and complications involved in electing leaders.

And as we think of our own spheres of influence, how we are we doing in providing leadership which reflects the nature of Christ? Are we holy, as God is holy, living in that loving unity of equal yet different persons we were created to reflect? Do we love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves?

Any change in government, in society, and even in our world, has its roots in the finished work of Christ. For us to experience it within our own sphere of influence, we turn to Jesus and receive his gift of the Holy Spirit. Turning our face away from the values and idols of this world and back towards God is an important start. As our Lord did, laying down our life for the sake of those nearest and dearest to us is another. Accepting that choosing the high road of holiness, service, and obedience to God is going to require a cost, even a sacrifice on our part, is another step. And following Christ in spite of all that may distract or afflict us needs to be our constant decision.

There is a price to pay to have the world we wish we could have. Resisting evil requires effort. Choosing a different path is a great challenge. Continuing in persevering effort is tough. But as we do this individually and collectively, we will find that the people in our spheres of influence will be affected and slowly begin to change. There may be resistance, even severe resistance to any effort on our part to be reflections of God’s goodness, love, and grace in this broken world. But if we hold on to Jesus as he holds onto us, walk in the Spirit and trust in his love and grace, we will find that ultimately the world around us will begin to change for the better.

Holy Father, in our world today, it seems we are too often influenced by evil, sin, and death rather than by your love and grace. We are grateful Jesus, that not only did you come and stand in our stead, offering your life for our life, your death for our death, but you also sent your Spirit to enable us to share even now in your divine life and love. Thank you for forgiving us our sins. Thank you for turning our faces back to yours, Abba. Spirit, thank you that you transform our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses. Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Deuteronomy 34:9-12 NASB

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” … you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.’ ” Leviticus 19:1-2, 19b NASB

“…just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. … Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 8 NASB

See also Matthew 22:34-46 NASB.

Don’t Vote in a Vacuum

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By Linda Rex

October 18, 2020, Proper 24—In truth, today’s political scene seems rampant with misinformation, suspicion, and a host of other ills. We are not given truth—we are given biased opinions. We’re not given clear goals and objectives—we’re given nebulous promises that vary depending upon which audience is spoken to. It seems that we are unable to simply elect honest, capable leaders who are seeking the best for their constituents no matter the cost to themselves.

This really isn’t a new situation, though. I recall many election seasons when I felt we spent the entire time ducking all the mud being slung at one another by the candidates. I’ve forgotten all the unkept promises that have been made during my lifetime by different people who had hoped they would say just the right thing that would convince people to elect them.

The real issue in all this is that too often we live as though this physical world is the only reality there is. We make our decisions and form our opinions based on tangible evidence—things we touch, hear, or see. The way in which we determine the future of our children and our country lacks a significant foundation—an understanding that we are not alone in this cosmos—that we do not make our decisions in a vacuum.

We may believe that it is all up to us to determine who ends up being president, senator, or mayor. Yes, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the candidates and the issues, and to make an intelligent, informed decision about whom to vote for. And yes, in this country, we have a responsibility to cast our vote when the election arrives. This is the part we have been given to play in the process of governing ourselves.

But we must never assume that it’s all up to us, because it is not. We want to be fully self-governing—but in reality, there is a form of government which undergirds and supersedes all human government. We can’t see it, but it is very real, and must be taken into account at all times, especially if we are in any position of power, authority, or popular influence.

The prophet Isaiah predicted a ruler named Cyrus would be given power and would be instrumental in rebuilding the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (Isa. 44:28; 45:1-7). This ruler, he said, would not know God or even acknowledge him, but would be anointed by God to accomplish an important task in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. His title, authority, and power were a gift of the divine One, given for the sole purpose of fulfilling the will and purposes of the only One who truly rules on earth, God himself.

In due time, there was a king named Cyrus who came into power in Persia. The priest Ezra records how he made a decree encouraging the exiled Jewish people to go back to Judah and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Later, his decree was honored by King Darius, who ensured that the project was completed in spite of the efforts of those who opposed the rebuilding. Human efforts sought to accomplish two opposing goals, but what God had in mind was what ultimately happened, even when it required working through two rulers who did not know or worship him.

When the nation of Israel was in its time of formation, Moses and his brother Aaron the priest were its leaders. They were the ones criticized when there were problems, accused of neglect or worse when people were hungry or thirsty, and blamed when things didn’t turn out as planned. What the people didn’t seem to grasp was that Moses and Aaron were simply stewards, servants of God who were answerable to him for every decision they made.

Moses seemed to have an understanding of this. He would meet with God, and then bring to the people the word he was given. When Israel created and worshiped a gold calf instead of worshiping the unseen God who had delivered them from Egypt, Moses interceded on their behalf. When the thought of leading Israel to the promised land seemed overwhelming to him, Moses told God that if he didn’t go with them, he wasn’t going at all. God promised to be present with Israel as they traveled. It would be God’s presence with them that distinguished them as God’s people. (Exodus 33:12–23)

We have fallen far as human beings when we cannot and do not recognize that what distinguishes us as God’s people is his living presence in us and among us. When we vote for our leaders, do we consider what party they are a member of or what kind of people they are? Do we consider their personality and popularity, or do we focus on what they value and on what they base their decisions? Today these things may be difficult to discern due to faulty media coverage of their campaigns, but we do have the presence and power of God to give us discernment, wisdom, and understanding when making these decisions.

Jesus was approached by two opposing groups who sought to catch him in a political snare. The Pharisees fiercely opposed the Roman government while the Herodians, who supported King Herod, were content with the status quo. But they both were opposed to want-to-be messiahs coming in to upset their house of power, authority and popularity. They didn’t want to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah because he didn’t agree with their agendas. These two groups came up with a well-considered question by which they thought they could force Jesus to take one side or the other, therefore enabling them to get rid of him once and for all.

They asked Jesus whether or not it was lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar. They failed to recognize their opponent in this discussion—they were talking to the One who was present in the flesh while at the same time sustaining all things by his word. Even though Jesus at that moment held all power and authority in heaven and on earth, he chose to humble himself, limiting himself to our human existence, and allowing himself to be questioned in this way.

His answer, though, speaks volumes for our political arena today. He asked for a denarius, something any pious Jew would not carry, due to its idolatrous portrait of the emperor—he was handed this coin used to pay Roman taxes. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” he asked. They told him it was Caesar’s. He replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” At this, they left amazed.

Jesus touched them at the core of their belief system—their piety was a fraud, their hypocrisy was obvious, and their values were not where they belonged. Jesus acknowledged that human government is to be respected, taxes paid, laws observed. But there will always be a law superior, an authority greater, and a power more supreme. Jesus did not need power, authority, or popularity in order to rule—he needed only to be who he was, God in human flesh, the One who alone is king of kings and lord of lords.

We do have a responsibility, as I mentioned earlier, to our nation and to one another. We need to make informed, wise decisions and vote. But we want to remember to do so prayerfully, humbly, and obediently, understanding that the One who elevates and removes leaders is still in charge. We are encouraged to ask God for leaders who will enable us to continue to follow Christ peacefully, free to share the good news with others in our lives. As believers in Christ, the presence of God is still in us and with us, for we are God’s people. We do not trust in human government—we trust solely in the living Lord. We live as citizens of heaven, ambassadors of the kingdom of God, shining the light of his love and grace in the midst of a very human, dark and broken world.

Heavenly Father, in your majesty and glory, you rule with compassion, mercy, and justice. Thank you, holy Word of God, for taking on our human flesh, living our life, dying, and rising again, so that we might be now and forever in your presence. Holy Spirit, enlighten us with a glimpse of the glory and majesty of our risen Lord. Empower us with wisdom, insight, and discernment as we vote. Abba, you determine who should rule—you guide the election, accomplishing your divine purpose as ever, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Thus says the LORD to Cyrus His anointed, | Whom I have taken by the right hand, | To subdue nations before him | And to loose the loins of kings; | To open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: … | For the sake of Jacob My servant, | And Israel My chosen one, | I have also called you by your name; | I have given you a title of honor | Though you have not known Me. | I am the LORD, and there is no other; | Besides Me there is no God. | I will gird you, though you have not known Me; | That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun | That there is no one besides Me. | I am the LORD, and there is no other, …” Isaiah 45:1, 4-6 NASB

See also Matthew 22:15–22.

The Gods We Make

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By Linda Rex

October 11, 2020, Proper 23—Right now, the political climate here in America, I believe, is very unhealthy. Unfortunately, the spiritual enemies of God are fanning the flames of divisiveness, hatred, corruption, and deception. In the process, we are finding ourselves once again facing the reality of our human proclivity to choose to make our own gods rather than simply receiving God for who he is, the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of all, King of kings and Lord of lords. We are so much like the people who, when Moses delayed on the mountain as he conversed with God, told Aaron to make them a god who would go before them.

They tore off their rings of gold and handed them to Aaron, and he fashioned the gold into a molten calf. He told them that this was the god who had delivered them from Egypt. How incredible that they, humans who were created to be the only image-bearers of God, traded in that image for a metal animal which had no sentient life but that which was given it by the evil one. They preferred to worship a tangible object than to worship an invisible, but real, deity (Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1–6, 19–23).

The distinction between the two types of worship is found in the factor of real relationship. To worship an object, concept, or even an ideology, is to worship something inanimate which we can control and define, whereas to worship a divine being means to be in a relationship where there is uncertainty and the need for trust. Being in a relationship of humility, love and service with a God and loving Being who is greater than us, who has created us and sustains us, means we are not rulers of ourselves but are beloved creatures who are dependent upon him for all that we are, all that we have and all that we need.

The profound wonder of this good and loving God is that he never meant for us to denigrate ourselves by idolatry in this way. He created all things out of nothing. He made Adam out of the dust of the earth and took Eve from his side—both were intended to have great dignity as reflections of his likeness and stewards of his creation. But human beings seem to prefer, as God told Moses, to “corrupt themselves”—to ruin, blemish, or destroy themselves. Sadly, we so often choose the path back to the place from which we came. The anger God expressed in that moment on Mount Sinai was intense, but his anger was that sin was corrupting and destroying the glory and beauty he had given the human race and specifically his covenant people.

When Jesus stood before the chief priests and Pharisees and told them the parables of the kingdom of heaven, he was faced with this same problem. This time, however, rather than creating a golden calf and telling the people to worship it, the rulers of his people had created a system of rules and traditions that enslaved the people and they were rejecting the Son whom God had sent, saying that he was not the Messiah but a demon-possessed fraud. Accusing the true image-bearer of God of being a fraud was these leaders’ death knell. They rejected the true messiah, Jesus Christ, while accepting instead several others, and this ultimately led the Roman government to destroy their temple and beloved Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Jesus’ parable for this Sunday is about a king’s marriage feast, in celebration of the wedding of his son. Such a feast would normally last for about a week and it was assumed that those invited would attend this wonderful event out of respect for the king. But in Jesus’ story, those invited didn’t really care anything about the king, his son, or his feast. They were indifferent to what really mattered—just like the Jewish leaders Jesus was talking to were indifferent to the nearness and presence of the kingdom in the person of the Son of God. In the end, these chief priests and Pharisees would, like the people in the story, kill John and then Jesus just as they had killed the other prophets sent by God.

Jesus said the king then sent out his servants to invite everyone off the street—all the people, both good and evil, to the banquet. In the same way, Jesus includes all humanity in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, giving each of us a free ticket to the marriage supper of the Lamb. In Christ, everyone has a place at the banqueting table. We see that those originally invited, these leaders who believed they were already righteous and included, refused to show up, while those who realized their unworthiness were thrilled to be included in the great event, so they made sure they were there.

Then Jesus described the king at the banquet enjoying the fellowship of all of these guests. But the king saw one man who did not show him the courtesy of dressing in the appropriate wedding attire. How sad that even when we are given the grace of the garments of salvation in Jesus, we refuse to put them on by faith. So often, we insist on doing things on our own, under our own power, rather than simply walking by faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ. Rather than clothing ourselves with Jesus, we wear our comfortable but dirty, tattered garments of law-keeping, Pharisaical legalism, and stubborn self-will, self-reliance and pride. This is an insult to and causes great grief for our heavenly Father.

It is our refusal to trust in God’s infinite love and grace, to count on his faithfulness and goodness, that gets us into trouble every time. How different might things have been if Aaron and Israel had seen past Moses to the divine I Am, understanding just who he was as their compassionate, gracious, and forbearing covenant God? What if they had simply trusted in his faithful love and goodness while they waited for Moses to come down off the mountain?

What Aaron did in redirecting the people away from the living God to an idol became a fatal flaw in the character of the nation. They fell prey to this sin over and over again, even when God sent them his Son. They were unable or unwilling to see past the tangible into the spiritual realities—to be the image-bearers of the divine One instead of worshipers of idols. They trusted in what they could see and feel instead of in the living Lord, their Redeemer.

While those who knew they were sinners were beginning by faith to enjoy the fruits of the kingdom of God inaugurated in Christ, these Jewish leaders who were hearing Jesus’ parable were caught in the darkness of unbelief. The bright Light, the Son of God, had dawned upon them, but they turned away, preferring to hide in the darkness instead. They refused to let God be the God he was, the living Word in human flesh, the true image-bearer of Abba, their Redeemer and Savior.

We need to be careful today that we are keeping Jesus in the center of all things. This includes our approach to what is going on in the political arena. In whom are we placing our faith? On what or whom are we counting to save us, to resolve our issues? What or who defines our values, our goals, and our expectations for ourselves and for our nation? Are we caught up in the physical and tangible or are we focusing our hearts and minds on the heavenly realities?

Let us be reminded of who we are as image-bearers of God and temples of the divine Spirit. Let us trust in the love of our Abba, who gave us his very own Son and Spirit so we could celebrate with him in fellowship now and forever as his adopted children. May we, as followers of Christ, adorn ourselves by faith in the garments of salvation he has provided, rejoicing gratefully in God’s bountiful love and grace. Let us humbly seek his wisdom, guidance and provision as we go through this season of uncertainty and unrest.

Dear Abba, our heavenly Father, thank you for your love and grace as expressed to us in the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Forgive us our idolatries and our stubborn resistance to your will. Grant us the humility to acknowledge you as Lord and King over all. Keep our hearts and minds on you. Enable us to fully trust in your goodness, faithfulness, mercy and love, in and through Jesus, the Light of all. Amen.

“The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; | A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, | And refined, aged wine. | And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, | Even the veil which is stretched over all nations. | He will swallow up death for all time, | And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, | And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; | For the LORD has spoken. | And it will be said in that day, | ‘Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. | This is the LORD for whom we have waited; | Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.’ ” Isaiah 25:6-9 NASB

See also Matthew 22:1-14.

The Productive Vineyard

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By Linda Rex

October 4, 2020, Proper 22—This week fall begins, the time of year when farmers head out to the fields to see if the crops are ready for harvest. Traveling through the countryside this time of year can be a little tricky, with large combines, trucks and other equipment competing for road space. Looking across the fields as we travel, we may see the dust rising from the equipment as the corn or beans are harvested.

When a farmer comes to his field at harvesttime, he expects to find lots of ripe produce to reap. Whether corn, beans, sorghum, cotton, wheat, or any other crop, his hope is that his efforts to cultivate, plant, and tend the field were not in vain. To have invested so much only to find no return on that investment is a cause for great disappointment, not to mention steep financial loss.

When God drew the ancient nation of Israel out of Egypt and planted her in the promised land, he intended that she become a godly nation through whom the other nations of the world might come to know and obey him. He gave Israel all that she needed to live in covenant relationship with him, providing her with a law, sacrifices, and a place of worship by which she could love, serve, and obey God.

Like all of us as human beings, this nation turned away from God and sought her value, significance, and relational satisfaction from idols, other nations, and materialistic gain. She practiced injustice, greed, immorality, and every other ungodly behavior, rather than simply being the people God created her to be—holy, faithful, obedient, and just. God’s harvest from his beloved people was unfaithfulness, injustice, disobedience, and ungodliness—all ways in which they turned away from God and alienated themselves from him in their minds and hearts. (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15)

In sending his Son Jesus to Israel, God meant for him to take their place—to do for them and in them what they could not and did not do. All peoples had turned away from their Creator and Sustainer, so God the Word took on our humanity and turned us all back to God. In Christ we find that we are restored as image-bearers of God and are able to live in ways that produce good spiritual fruit. In dying our death, rising from the grave and ascending to the Father, Jesus brought us into our true humanity—and sent the Spirit so we by faith could begin to participate in it.

The way that we produce good spiritual fruit is by participating in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The life of Christ lived out in our human flesh by the Spirit is evidence that God is at work in us. The Spirit enables us both to will and do what reflects the image and nature of God. As I have said before, this is not by our human efforts at keeping God’s law—that’s external fleshly work, but solely by the grace and mystery of God, Christ in us by the Spirit—that’s internal spiritual transformation moving outward by faith into action.

As members of Christ Jesus, participants in his body, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are meant to produce kingdom fruit—spiritual fruit such as outgoing love, peace, joy, gentleness, and any other spirit, attitude and behavior which reflects the divine nature. A good description of what the kingdom of God looks like when it is lived out here on earth may be found in Exodus 20—and yes, that is what is commonly called the ten commandments. Let’s look at them properly—through the lens of Jesus Christ and his finished work, through which God gives us life, life in relationship with himself both now and forever.

When we live in loving relationship with God, we acknowledge that he is the only God there is. There is no other person, being, thing, passion, goal in our lives we count on other than him. The one God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is the God who is equal and unique in personhood, and fully one in being. We were created to be image-bearers of this God, to live in the truth of who we are as those made in his likeness to live now and forever bound in covenant love relationship with him.

For this reason, we have no other person, thing, or objective which commands our full attention or allegiance. We live in the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God—this is the focus of our existence. Living in covenant relationship with God comes first—we depend upon him and him alone. All other things in our lives come in second position.

As those made in God’s image, after his likeness, we acknowledge that he is our Father and we are his adopted children. We bear the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. We bear the name of Jesus, the only name under heaven and earth by which we may be saved. For this reason, we honor and respect this name—it is our own family name.

God created us to be stewards of all he has made, to live in the unforced rhythms of grace which involve times of work and times of intimate fellowship with God and one another. All that God has done for us in Jesus and is doing for us today by the Spirit brings us into a place of rest in him. We don’t depend on our own ability to get ourselves right with God or to save ourselves, but trust completely in the finished work of Jesus. Christ is at work in this world by the Spirit making all things new—we participate with him in what he is doing in this world by resting in him.

As image-bearers of God, we were created for relationship—relationship with God and with one another. God created family—a loving bond which reflects the nature and other-centered love of Father and the Son in the Spirit. Parents are meant to reflect the image of the Trinity to their children, teaching them what it means to live in loving relationship with God and one another. As Jesus the Son of God honors his heavenly Father, we honor our human parents. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who gives us the heart to honor our parents.

In God we live and move and have our being. From the beginning God told us to choose life, not death. Every human being is made in the image of the God who is the Source of life, the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For this reason, we walk in life, not in death. God is not willing that any should die—neither are we.

Binding himself to humanity in an unbreakable bond in Jesus Christ, God has declared his covenant love for all of us. What God bound together, let no human being annul—Jesus Christ is God’s pledge to us that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what. In the same way, when a man and woman declare their covenant love for one another in marriage, they bind themselves together in an unbreakable bond which only death can annul. This images what God has done for us in Christ, how God brought us who are creatures into intimate relationship with him who is Creator—two different but made one through Christ in the Spirit, bound together in covenant love.

As we grow in our knowledge of God and in relationship with him, we realize that everything here on earth and even our own lives belong to him. We realize he is Lord of all and we are not. We recognize that whatever we have was given to us as stewards to care for and share with others, not to indulge ourselves or fulfill our own lusts. Indeed, everything belongs to God, even what others have—so we protect, defend, honor, and guard what someone else has rather than stealing it from them.

We understand that we are made in the image of the God of truth, the One who sent his Son Jesus, who is the Truth. When we look at Jesus, we see the truth of who we are—and we know that God has never lied to us nor will he. He sends the Spirit of truth so that each of us may live and walk in truth. As image bearers of Truth, we live truthfully, honestly and with integrity. We are able to live authentically and transparently because we have nothing to hide.

When we see things clearly, we recognize that all we have, all we see around us, even our own selves belong to God. Whatever there may be on earth that we could desire loses its attraction when we stay focused on God and his love for us as expressed in Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. We find that as we set our hearts and minds on the things of heaven rather than on the things of earth, we already have everything we really need. Everything else we simply receive as a gift from his hand in gratitude and praise.

As you can see, when Jesus is the center as he is meant to be and that we are walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh, we find that we begin to reflect the image and nature of God. We become a picture of life in the kingdom of God as we were meant to reflect, showing the world we are Jesus’ disciples by the way we love one another. The body of Christ, which exists in many nations and peoples all over the world, is meant to be the place where human beings can see what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God.

Today, the body of Christ may need to reconsider, what does it mean to live in relationship with God, in other-centered love? Are we as the body of Christ, producing this kind of spiritual harvest which is healthy and abundant? Is our Father delighted with the produce which is being borne in his vineyard? One thing we can be sure of—God is faithful, and he loves us unconditionally. He will finish what he has begun in us. Let us continue to trust him and to participate with Jesus in what he is doing in this world to bring about an abundant spiritual harvest.

Dear Abba, thank you for giving us all we need for life and godliness, for giving us your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for your grace and love, your faithfulness and forbearance. Forgive our resistance to your indwelling Spirit, your efforts to grow us up into Christlikeness. We trust you will finish what you have begun in us so that we will bear an abundant spiritual harvest which will bring you great joy and pleasure, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” Matthew 21:43-44 NASB; see also Matthew 21:33–46; Philippians 3:4b–14.

Living Water From the Rock

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By Linda Rex

September 27, 2020, Proper 21—As human beings, we cannot escape the reality that our existence is dependent upon water—whether clean water to drink, rain for our crops, water for everyday uses such as cleaning and bathing, or many other needs. Today in America, many are experiencing the lack of water—fires out of control, or too much water—flooding in the southeast with the impact of hurricane Sally. Whether too much, too little, or just enough—water is an integral part of our human existence.

The story of humanity begins with the Spirit brooding over the waters, and then responding to the Word of God by bringing into existence the cosmos, the earth and all that lives on it. The earth was originally watered by streams coming up from the ground. From the garden in Eden flowed a river which separated into four headwaters, flowing into areas nearby. We may recognize some of the names—the Euphrates, Tigris, Gihon, and Pishon rivers.

After Adam and Eve turned away from God to the things of their flesh, choosing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity declined into a place where even God regretted that what he had made had come to such depravity. When he chose to eradicate evil, he sent a flood—an inundation of water that swept away broken humanity and wiped the earth clean. But it was not God’s heart for human beings to die—he desires life for us. So he made the covenant of the rainbow with us as his pledge he will never flood the earth in that way ever again.

When God brought his people out of Egypt from slavery, he brought them through the Red Sea. Moving the large body of water aside, he dried out the riverbed and made a passage for Israel to get to the other side. When they were safely to shore, he allowed the river to flow freely again, wiping out the Egyptian army which had pursued them into the water. Water, for God, is both a means of redemption and a means of cleansing, healing, and renewal.

Sadly, the Israelites did not seem to grasp the significance of what God was doing in their lives. They did not know God well, and did not believe that he loved them and wanted what was best for them. They did not believe, even though they had witnessed such a mighty deliverance. When they were in the wilderness on the way to Sinai, they grew thirsty. They did not simply trust God or turn to him when they grew thirsty, but rather they complained to Moses and demanded that he solve their problem by providing water. By demanding water from Moses, they were demanding proof of God’s presence among them, something he had already made clear to them.

This continual refusal to believe, to trust in the living God as the Source of all that is good and right, marked Israel’s and then Judah’s relationship with God from then on. Even as their refusal to obey and serve God brought them into exile, they still worshiped idols and refused to submit themselves to the ways and covenant love of their Lord and Redeemer.

The prophet Ezekiel warned them to turn away from their rebellion and sin:

“ ‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore, repent and live’ ” (Ezekiel 18:30-32 NASB).

God did not desire their destruction. He sought their repentance—a turning around, a change of mind and heart—something which they could never achieve on their own. They needed to be saved from their hearts made of stone.

The living Word took on our human flesh to be for us the Rock from whom living water would flow. Jesus Christ lived our life, died our death, and rose again, ascending into the presence of the Father to send the Spirit on all flesh. The Rock, the cornerstone on which God would build his church, was struck in the crucifixion, and from him flowed the living stream of grace and mercy we all needed to be freed from evil, sin and death. And beyond that, through Christ and from the Father, came the living stream of God’s very presence and power, the Holy Spirit, who by faith would come to us individually, to begin the process of transforming and renewing us into the image of Jesus Christ.

One of the remarkable things about water is its ability to alter hard objects like rocks. Place a sharp, jagged stone in running water and over a long enough period of time, it will become smooth. Large amounts of water flowing swiftly over land and rock will dig deep caverns and riverbeds, given time. Moving water in an extremely narrow stream at a very rapid speed can be used to clean or cut certain objects. There is great power in water—and the water of God’s love and grace, His Spirit, does mighty things when it goes to work in us and in our lives. As we respond to God in faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ, the Spirit works in us to heal, restore and renew, to reform us into the image-bearers of God we were created to be.

It is fitting that the final image in Revelation is of the presence of God with man on the new earth. From the temple of God’s presence flows a mighty river which provides healing for the nations. What a fitting picture of what God is doing even now beginning with the body of Christ, working in this world to bring about healing, renewal, and wholeness. Washed in the water of God’s love and grace, the body of Christ in which God dwells is to be fullest expression of Jesus possible in this world, being a temple of living stones from which the living Water flows freely to bring healing to all people. We look forward anticipating the day when Jesus Christ will bring the kingdom of heaven into its fullness. Meanwhile, we participate with Jesus today in expressing by the Spirit God’s faith, hope, and love to everyone around us.

Dear Abba, forgive us our hard-heartedness and stubborn resistance to your loving will and purposes. Thank you for offering us yourself, Jesus, as the Rock to be broken on our behalf so that we might be given a new heart and spirit, and turn to you in trust and obedience. Holy Spirit, please finish what you have begun, transforming our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord all for Abba’s glory. Amen.

“ ‘Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.’ And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ ” Exodus 17:6-7 NASB

“He split the rocks in the wilderness
And gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths.
He brought forth streams also from the rock
And caused waters to run down like rivers.”
Psalm 78:15-16 NASB

See also Matthew 21:23–32 and Philippians 2:1–13.

The Scandal of God’s Compassion

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By Linda Rex

September 20, 2020, Proper 20—Historically, we as human beings have nearly always been good at getting upset when people don’t get what we think they deserve. Some of us take such difficulties as a challenge to ensure that such people do get what they deserve, while others of us either ignore or explain away their offenses, or spend our time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves instead.

The reading for this Sunday from the Old Testament is the passage where the Israelites began to complain to Moses that they didn’t have any decent food anymore. They even would have preferred to go back into slavery in Egypt just to have something good to eat now and then. Here God had just done a great deliverance for them in bringing them safely through the Red Sea and now they were complaining because they were having to struggle a little.

God’s compassion was not appreciated nor was it understood by them. That he was tenderly seeing to their every need didn’t seem to make a difference—when things weren’t how they wanted them to be, they made a big stink about it and made life really hard for Moses. God would constantly have to remind them about who he was—their Provider, Protector, and Deliverer. In this instance, he gave them quail that evening, and in the morning began to provide them with bread from heaven, manna.

What we need to be reminded of, daily it seems, is just who God is. Do we believe he is the God who is compassionate, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness? These are ways in which God describes himself (Ex. 34:6-7), along with being just and full of truth. How does this impact the way we look at ourselves and others? What are our expectations of God, especially when it comes to how he deals with other people and uncomfortable situations?

Another passage from this weekend is from the book of Jonah. Rather than obeying God’s instruction to warn Nineveh of their impending destruction and their need to repent, this prophet took a ship going the opposite direction. He knew God was compassionate and forgiving, and didn’t want to risk that he might forgive this enemy of his people.

Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward others of a different people group prevented him from simple obedience. And God did not allow him to continue in his path of resistance to God’s compassion and grace—he even used a large sea creature and a plant to get his point across to Jonah. He reminded the prophet that he should have been just as compassionate as God was in wanting to see the Ninevites not be destroyed—Jonah needed an attitude adjustment about wanting to God annihilate them. He needed to repent and have a change of heart.

Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner who owns a vineyard goes to find laborers to help gather in the harvest. He agreed with this first group of laborers to pay a day’s wage. Later in the day, he hired other laborers, agreeing to give them what was right. All the way up to about an hour before quitting time, he hired people to help with the harvest.

When it came time to pay these people, he began with those he hired last. Giving each of them a day’s wage, he paid the last, the next to the last, and on down the line until those he hired first. These hot and exhausted workers he gave the same amount as he gave the people he hired last—a day’s wage. This infuriated them.

The problem wasn’t in what the landowner did, though, but in their expectations. They believed that since they had worked the longest, they should have received the most. Those who worked a short period of time didn’t expect to get paid as much as they did, but they no doubt, appreciated the benefit they received. Here is the crux of the story—the day’s wage which each person received was a result of the landowner’s kindness and compassion, not due to their diligent performance.

For the kingdom of heaven comes to us not due to our adequate performance as people doing good deeds, but solely as a gift from God. The wages of sin is death, we read, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). Once again, we need to move away from our debit/credit thinking about the kingdom of God into the place of God’s generosity and compassion. We need to not be scandalized by God’s compassionate inclusion of all of humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, including those people who we believe don’t deserve God’s grace.

As image-bearers of the God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, we are called to reflect his nature. We are to have the same compassion for those around us as God has for us. What he did for the 120,000 persons who lived in the city of Nineveh, God wants to do even more so for every human being who has ever lived. In Christ, we find that grace and salvation are available to each person. By faith in Christ each can participate in the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit both now and forever.

Jesus was always stepping on toes with his discussion of doing good to those who do us wrong, praying for those who persecute us, and caring for those whom society considers untouchable and unworthy. His scandalous compassion put him at the same table with sinners, touching the leprous and unclean, and raising the dead. What we see in Jesus, God plants in us by the Spirit—we open our hearts up to the compassion for others that comes from God himself. Why should we resist the Spirit’s longing to care for those who are lost and broken, bound by evil and sin?

Perhaps we should take some time in quiet contemplation of the nature of our compassionate and gracious God. And in doing so, invite him to change our heart towards those who are in need of his grace. How can we pray for them, help them, speak loving truth into their lives? In what way would God want us to express his compassion and concern for them?

Thank you, Abba, that you are compassionate, gracious, and understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you know what it means to be human, to struggle as we do against temptation and the sin which so easily distracts us from loving you and the other people in our lives. Grant us the grace to let you be the God you are and to stop trying to form you into our own image. Form us instead more fully into Christlikeness through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.”
Psalm 145:8 NASB

“Then the LORD said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” Jonah 3:10–11 NASB

See also Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2–15, Jonah 3:10–4:11.

The Boundary of Grace

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By Linda Rex

September 13, 2020, Proper 19—Last night I decided to microwave some fresh green beans for dinner that I had received from one of our members in Cookeville who likes to garden. I washed them and broke them up into a microwavable bowl and cooked them. As I was eating them, my mouth began to burn. It wasn’t until I had eaten several of the green beans that I realized that I had inadvertently cooked a hot pepper with them and made the green beans inedible in the process!

As I sought something to help to relieve the intense burning in my mouth, I thought about how easy it was to go about doing what we believe is the right thing to do and find ourselves in a place where we are broken and hurting instead. This happens so often in our relationships, because we are broken people—we live as self-centered persons rather than as the other-centered persons God created us to be. This includes our understanding of what it means to be forgiving of those who wound us.

The disciples knew what the rabbis said about being forgiving—forgiving someone three times was being very generous and understanding, they said. So, when Peter asked Jesus how many times a person should forgive an offender, he thought he was being excessively generous in suggesting that he should forgive someone seven times.

Jesus took forgiveness to the next level by suggesting that a person should forgive someone “seventy times seven” times—in other words, a ridiculously large amount of times. We should not hold grudges, but be generous in our offering of grace. Then he told a story in which he described what forgiveness looks like within the kingdom of heaven—what it means that God forgives us.

He began with a king who brings his vassals before him to account for his portion of their tax assessments. He is a generous king, apparently, for this one particular vassal owed him the equivalent of twelve million dollars—a sum he could never repay in his lifetime. The king concludes that maybe the only way to get his money back from this man was to throw him and his family into prison (a common practice then) with the possibility that one of his friends might pay his debt.

This vassal begs and pleads for the king to have compassion on him. And the king does. He forgives this huge debt—lets the man completely off the hook. The king writes the debt off the books—he no longer expects any payment from this man. As far as the king was concerned, there was no longer any need for the man to do anything except from that point on, to do a better job at collecting the king’s share of the funds and turning them in.

Apparently, the king’s vassal totally misses the point of what his master had done. He does not admit to nor accept the reality of the immense debt of which he had been forgiven. He doesn’t receive the grace and compassion shown him. He is still, in his mind’s eye, living in the place of collecting on debts and debts needing to be repaid.

So, when the man encounters one of his debtors who owed him about twenty bucks, he grabs him by the throat and drags him off to prison until he paid him back. Do you see the vast comparison in the two debts? The vassal had just been released from a debt of about twelve million dollars, but would not release his debtor for the mere sum of twenty dollars. Jesus was using hyperbole, an exaggeration, to make a point.

This is the type of thing we do to one another in the face of what God does for us. Think about the nation of Israel, who God lived in covenant relationship with. How often had he forgiven them for idolatry, injustice, and trusting in other nations rather than trusting in him? Even when Israel justly ended up in exile, losing their temple and nationhood, God had restored them, giving them a new temple and a new space in which to live, albeit under Roman rule. Even so, they repeatedly rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which he had sent them. In due time, Jesus knew they would even crucify that Messiah, at which point he would pronounce the most gracious words ever given to humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live in the reality of our need for grace and God’s overwhelming generosity in offering it to us. Abba offers us unfailingly the opportunity to start anew, giving us ample opportunity to change by wiping the slate clean and allowing us to begin again. The problem is that we as human beings prefer to live in the debit-credit mode. We may enjoy receiving God’s grace, but we prefer not to have to make the changes which go along with having been forgiven. By necessity, living in the truth of the immense debt we have been forgiven, we must admit our need for that grace, repent of the ways we incurred that debt, and in living out the truth of that repentance and forgiveness, we begin to be equally forgiving toward others.

So often in the gospels, Jesus offers forgiveness prior to repentance. We see the lame man lowered down through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then he tells the man to take up his mat and walk. The lame man hadn’t even asked to be forgiven—but no doubt, he felt he needed it. He probably had been told over and over during his lifetime that the reason he couldn’t walk was because he or his parents had sinned. Jesus affirmed that this was not the case, but that even those sins he had committed were removed. And that he needed to move forward in his life from then on.

In the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ends the encounter by saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ forgiveness was obvious, but he didn’t let anyone off the hook. The accusers needed to repent and so did she. And Jesus did not leave her at that place—he told her to go and do the next right thing, to leave her life of sin. Would Jesus have forgiven her again if she sinned? No doubt, but what he was seeking was not retribution, but repentance and faith—a life change—wholeness and healing, not punishment.

In the story about the king and the debtor, the vassal missed the whole point. He had been forgiven an incredible debt—so he needed to repent, to change the way he did business. He needed a change of heart and mind—to have a heart of compassion and forbearance like his master’s. But instead, he continued on the path of self-deliverance. He was going to work out his own salvation—paying back the debt himself by collecting what others owed him.

The only boundary on God’s grace is the one we set by refusing to see our need for it and to receive it as an undeserved gift. We are the ones who make forgiveness something which needs to be earned instead of receiving it humbly and then offering it to others. We are the ones who ignore the reality of the huge debt to God we could never repay and focus on the petty inconveniences or miserable pains those around create in our lives. If God could forgive us for an unpayable debt, shouldn’t we do that for others?

Maybe there is some hurt or grudge that’s been festering in your heart lately. Or perhaps you are holding something against yourself that seems unforgiveable. Why don’t you bring these to Jesus right now and ask him to give you his heart of forgiveness instead. Allow him to provide you with a willingness to forgive that is grounded in him and his sacrificial offering, and to move you and the forgiven one into a new place of wholeness and restoration. May you find true freedom living in this place of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord in the Spirit.

Abba, thank you for your limitless forgiveness and grace which is expressed to us in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for your patience with us when we are not forgiving, but are judgmental, condemning, and punitive. Grant us the grace to ever participate in Christ’s forgiving Spirit that we might forgive as you forgive us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, | Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. | He will not always strive with us, | Nor will He keep His anger forever. | He has not dealt with us according to our sins, | Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. | For as high as the heavens are above the earth, | So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. | As far as the east is from the west, | So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:8-12 NASB

See also Matthew 18:21–35.