God’s love

When Love Casts Out Fear

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By Linda Rex

April 12, 2020, RESURRECTION OF THE LORD, EASTER—During this pandemic season, the one common note I have heard in the news and on social media is that of fear. The fears we have are multiple and include concerns about politics, health, and economic security. We cannot watch or listen to much in the outside world without being confronted with real concern about many things.

As we enter into the end of the season of preparation for Easter, we are confronted with a reality in which, when we embrace it and believe it, is meant to free us once and for all from fear. Our anxiety about so many things is founded in a belief that we are unloved, left alone in this universe, and that the solution to our problems is all up to us. We may even believe in God, but often, we don’t act like it—instead, we act as if he were dead, laying in the grave we have created for him in our fear, unbelief, and rebellion.

What makes us do this? We were created as image-bearers of God, and so it should be so natural for us to reflect that image. Often, we do reflect the image of our God who is love and don’t even realize it. I see this in the parents who care for an autistic child, an adult child caring for both her family and her disabled parents, a person leaving their work to care for their parent with Alzheimer’s—so many examples exist when we begin to look around us. Where is the source of such humble, self-sacrificing love? It can have no source other than in the heart of God.

Fear often arises out of our inability to connect with others, to find a common ground where two people can be of like mind and interests. Our fears about other people often come to the fore when we don’t understand or accept the ways in which we differ or have opposing viewpoints or preferences. Fear is also created when one person or group imposes its will upon another without an appropriate acknowledgement of their God-given personhood and dignity. Fear is a useful tool to those who want to enslave, control, and manipulate others.

We were never meant to fear God in this way, nor were we meant to live in fear of one another. This is not what we were created for. We were created for connection, for unity, for oneness. We were created to be in relationship with God and man that is filled with joy, peace, and respect. A mutual indwelling, a deep sharing of heart and mind borne out of God’s very nature, is what we were created for. Anything less than this is the stomping ground of fear.

So often we project onto God all of our fear, making him out to be a condemning, cruel master rather than the loving, forgiving Father he is. We believe his sole purpose of existence is to find fault with us and execute punishment which we are so sure we deserve. We know we fall short of all we were meant to be, so we deserve to be punished. This is where fear comes in and causes us to be alienated in our minds from the God who is our Abba, our loving Father.

And this is why the Word of God to us was and is the God/man Jesus Christ. We needed to be freed once and for all from our fear—our terror of God and our fear of death. It is significant on resurrection morning that the ladies who came to the tomb were, in Matthew’s account, told by the angels and by Jesus, “Don’t be afraid.” If there is one thing they needed to know beyond all else in that moment, it was that there was nothing left to fear. The ultimate expression of the love of God had once and for all cast out our fear.

What is needed is for us to wrestle with what it means to live life without fear. How is our human existence different now that Jesus is risen from the dead? What does this mean for us as we face the difficulties of life, the pandemic, our job loss, or our business failure? How do we continue to face all these things with patient courage and grace?

If we are not in tune with the spiritual realities, we can resemble the Roman guards who, at the presence of the angels, were so overcome with fear they became like dead men. They had been diligently doing their best to prevent the disciples from stealing the body of Jesus away. But they hadn’t planned on an encounter with angels, nor with the resurrection power of God himself. The insignificance of their careful grave-watching became evident in the presence of the risen Lord. Nothing could keep the stone against the tomb once God decided it needed to be moved so people could see inside and know Jesus was risen.

The angels gave the women instructions—no doubt from the mouth of Jesus himself: Don’t be afraid; come and see—Jesus is risen; go tell the others; meet Jesus in Galilee. The practicality of the instructions left no place for fear or anxiety—they had things to do! Caught between the two emotions of fear and joy, the women headed back to the city. Wait till the others heard! And then they encountered the risen Lord. Can you imagine how overwhelmed they were with the reality of what they were experiencing? They were overcome with a desire to worship him—our best response to encountering Christ.

What Jesus said to them echoed the words of the angels—don’t be afraid, go tell the others, meet me in Galilee. There was in his words a renewal of the connection he had with them, a commitment to their relationship, and hope for more time together in fellowship with one another. All of these expressions of his continuing love for them removed their fear. They could trust that he was still the Jesus they knew before the crucifixion—he was still their friend and brother—only now he was the risen Lord.

The apostle Paul reminds us to keep our mind, not on what’s going on in the world around us or on everything people are doing wrong, or on the bad things which are happening, but on the things above, where Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God in glory. We’re not to have our hearts set on what’s in this transient human society and culture, but on the eternal realities where Jesus is the risen Lord, holding in himself our real life, our true existence. Our zōē life is not in this transient, dying world, but in Christ, held in heaven for us, to one day be revealed in the new heavens and new earth.

This is how we can live each day without fear. Death is not the end, but the passage into our eternal connection with all those who are in Christ. Suffering in this life is not something to fear, but to embrace as participation in Christ’s suffering or resisted as participation in Christ’s efforts to make all things new. Every part of our existence is swept up in Christ where we participate with him in his life, sharing in his love for all humanity as the One who plumbed the depths and brought us up into the divine life and love. We are called to faith, to believe in the reality of what Christ has done in living our life, dying our death, and rising again, bringing us into the presence of Abba.

Fear is a tough taskmaster, and we easily fall prey to it. This time of year, as we celebrate the resurrection, we are reminded of the abundance of God’s love and grace, of the forgiveness which is ours in Jesus Christ. In the sending of the Spirit, God makes possible for us to share in Jesus’ resurrection life. Trusting in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, we are awakened to new life—a life freed from the fear of death and all that comes with it.

Our resurrected Lord comes to you and to me again and again in the presence and power of his Spirit to say, “Don’t be afraid. Tell others the good news. Find your home in and with me.” Live life with a focus on the risen Christ and be busy about his business. There will be no room for fear because there is nothing left in this cosmos which can ever separate us from his love, not even the grave.

Thank you, Abba, for being a God we do not need to fear but can rest in, trusting in your never-ending love. Thank you for your faithfulness, for raising up not only Jesus, but in him our humanity, enabling us to participate in his risen life in and through your Holy Spirit. Grant us the faith to believe, to trust in all that Christ is and has done, that we may share in your divine life and love both now and forever, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” Colossians 3:1–4 NASB

See also Matthew 28:1–10.

Abandoned or Beloved and Held?

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By Linda Rex

April 10, 2020, GOOD FRIDAY, HOLY WEEK—Lately, nothing has turned out as I had planned earlier in the year and none of what I had expected to occur has occurred. I’m watching the unravelling of everyday life as new patterns of living are being created day by day as we try to live in the middle of these unique circumstances. Pastoring my congregations has become challenging in new ways as I work to find ways for us to stay connected while being apart.

This season of preparation for Easter has been full of opportunities to examine the inner workings of my heart and mind as I deal with this uncomfortable reality of so many things being beyond my control. Not that they haven’t always been that way, but in these days so much is not by choice but by necessity. Simply choosing between products at the supermarket has become a new experience now that my options are reduced to buying what’s left on the shelf or not buying the item at all.

I’m sure that my grandparents, were they still alive, would be able to tell me stories about how they had to ration items, reuse and recycle things, and do without much in order to survive the Depression years ago. I think of my own parents and how they handled anticipating 2000 by stockpiling dry goods in aluminum trash cans and have a more tender understanding heart than I did when I first had to find a way to dispose of pounds of moth-laden flour and grains.

We can sometimes get a sense that things will never change—that we will be stuck in this place forever. That is really hard on those of us who are always in motion—this fast-paced world doesn’t favor slowing down to a snail’s pace. We must produce, succeed, move forward, press on—doing any less is to fail, to lose all that one has. Right now, we are in a place in our society where so many of the things we used to be able to control are out of our ability to manage. And this can make many of us very uncomfortable.

As I read John 18-19, the gospel reading for Good Friday, I find myself immersed in a story in which the main character finds himself in a place where it seems he has no control over what was happening to himself. He may have been the Messiah, but he voluntarily surrendered himself to the will and wishes of a group of people who had only in mind his death by crucifixion.

What about the disciples who were walking this road with Jesus? Can you imagine how upset and probably even confused Peter was when, trying to protect his rabbi and friend from arrest, Jesus told him to put his sword away? Here Peter is trying to do the right thing and he gets in trouble instead, and then Jesus heals the man he injured? What’s going on? It was no wonder, that when he was asked if he was one of Jesus’ followers later that night, Peter vehemently denied him three times.

In time, Jesus found himself in the presence of Annias, somebody who was a powerful Jewish religious leader, who acted as though he were God’s gift to his people. The truth is, however, that God never meant any high priest to be a political leader. Nor did he mean for the Romans to choose the Jews’ high priest. God ordained the lineage of the high priest, who was responsible for tending to the nation’s relationship with their Creator and Redeemer.

How poignant it is that Jesus was illegally interrogated by a man who was more interested in his being able to market products on the temple grounds than he was ensuring that he and the people were welcoming their Messiah. Was he seeking revenge for Jesus upsetting the tables and casting out his moneychangers?

It is remarkable to me that these particular leaders were more intent on getting rid of Jesus than they were genuinely loving and serving God. They were so intent on having him cursed by Roman crucifixion that they broke their own rules and even, when pushed, said that they had no king but Caesar. Their emphatic denial of who Jesus was as the Son of God caused them to, whether they would have admitted or not, deny the very God they so piously served.

When Pilate sought to find the reason for their efforts to kill Jesus, he could not find any fault in Jesus. John records three times that Pilate said Christ wasn’t guilty. The Roman leader even sought to find a way to let Jesus go, but eventually succumbed to the will of the Jews. Jesus, yielding himself to the course of these events, told Pilate that if he as the king of the Jews had wanted to, Jesus could have stopped the whole process immediately. But he didn’t.

I have a hard time getting my mind around the voluntary surrendering of oneself to the will of those who wish to destroy you when you have the ability to stop it. We do this sometimes when we are in toxic relationships and don’t have the life skills to oppose controlling people. But this was something entirely different. Jesus was intentionally walking down a road that had been planned out before the beginning of time and he knew this was the only way that he could accomplish what God intended from the beginning—to unite our humanity with his divinity and take it through death into resurrection, purchasing for us an eternal bond of oneness with God that nothing could break.

We may think that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was something the Father did to Jesus, but in reality, the fault lies with us as human beings. It is our turning away from God that required Jesus turning us back in his sacrifice. The alienation we feel in our relationship with God was keenly felt by Jesus in his humanity, expressed in his cry during his last moments, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But as the rest of Psalm 22 shows, he had every reason to trust his faithful Abba—to know that he was present with him in that agonizing moment on the cross. As Jesus breathed his last, he entrusted his spirit into his Abba’s care—nothing, not rejection, not abuse, not crucifixion, and not even death, could separate Jesus from the love and unity which existed between the three Persons of the Trinity.

Jesus is well-versed in what it feels like to have people and circumstances impacting his life, bringing it to a place he would prefer not to go. Jesus told Abba he wanted to avoid “the cup” if at all possible—but relinquishment is what he chose. We don’t go through these times of crisis well if we are unwilling to relinquish control to Jesus and allow him to do for us what we could not otherwise do. We need to remember that we are not alone, but are held in the grip of grace, in the love and life of God himself—included in his embrace. As we trust in Christ and receive by faith the never-ending love and grace of God, we will experience the reality that we are not abandoned—we are beloved and held.

As we go through this time of crisis, of change and loss of control, let’s remember to pause for a time with Jesus on the cross, knowing that we are held in the love of God and nothing can separate us from that love. On this Good Friday, we can celebrate with gratitude the incredible gift Jesus gave in his surrendering to the cross and the grave so that we could share in his resurrection. May this give us great comfort and peace in these difficult times.

Dear Abba, thank you that your love never fails. Thank you, Jesus, for walking the road to crucifixion and death so lovingly and faithfully, humbly willing to give all for our sakes. Grant us the grace to walk this road with you, offering grace and love to our fellow travelers as we go, for your sake, Jesus. Amen.

“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, | And our sorrows He carried; | Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, | Smitten of God, and afflicted. | But He was pierced through for our transgressions, | He was crushed for our iniquities; | The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, | And by His scourging we are healed. | All of us like sheep have gone astray, | Each of us has turned to his own way; | But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all | To fall on Him.” Isaiah 53:4-6 NASB

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest. Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel. In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.” Psalm 22:1-4 NASB

“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.” Hebrews 4:7 NASB

Loving Others, While Being Betrayed

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By Linda Rex

April 9, 2020, MAUNDY THURSDAY, HOLY WEEK—As our local government steps up its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a concern by many that some people are still not observing the guidelines for staying safe at home. Apparently, the need for most people to restrict the space between themselves and others to prevent the spread of this disease is not being taken seriously.

My husband, who works as a truck driver, recently watched as many travelers entering Florida were being stopped at the border—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut already have travel advisories in place. Even though this coronavirus’ deadly effect is becoming more and more well known, these people still felt the need to travel and vacation in another state.

Since I have inherited my mother’s weak lungs and pulmonary system, and wrestle at times with fibromyalgia (which is an autoimmune disorder), I am one who is in the at-risk population. But there are many in my congregation and extended family who are even more vulnerable than myself. How can I say that continuing to act as though nothing is wrong and allowing myself to be around many other people without restrictions is an act of faith? I find it difficult to do so. I believe I would be testing God.

Nor do I believe it is the best expression of God’s love. I personally feel there is a need to use the wisdom God has given us to create a healthy space around ourselves and others so we do not spread this disease. Even our human bodies and the cells within it teach us the wisdom of having healthy boundaries in these situations.

We’re coming up to Holy Week, and the passage I am writing about today is where Jesus and his disciples sat down to eat the Passover meal together. Jesus interrupted the meal because he wanted to demonstrate to his disciples what it means to express love for others. When we have our own agenda in mind, we often ignore the things which really matter. We may not intend to do so, but it is easy to get so focused on moving forward in life that we lose sight of the true realities.

Earlier Jesus had caught the men disputing as to who was the greatest, and it was imperative that they came to understand that life wasn’t about social position or personal promotion or one’s own personal agenda. The disciples, in their wrestling for power and position, were doing the very thing that Jesus had pointed out over and over as flaws in the Jewish leadership. The disciples knew better, but there they were, acting just like the others—seeking the glories of this human society while dismissing as unimportant, the real glory they were created for. There was a deeper, underlying purpose at work in life and Jesus needed them to see it and understand it so they could participate in it.

Jesus’ love for the disciples was not deterred by their failures. When he rose from the table, he girded himself with a towel, got a basin of water, and began washing their feet. Appalling as this may have been to the disciples—it was work only the lowliest servant would do—they watched Jesus do it for each of them. Peter told Jesus that he wasn’t going to allow him to stoop to that level. Jesus merely replied that then Peter would not belong to him. At this, Peter jumped to the other extreme, telling Jesus to wash all of him.

Jesus’ point was not so much the washing as it was the act of what he was doing. He was willing to stoop to whatever level was necessary to include the disciples in his life and ministry. He girded himself with a towel and took on the task of cleaning their feet. What Jesus would do in the following hours after this meal would involve a task of cleaning which would be even more degrading than washing dusty feet—he would cleanse our humanity once and for all from the dirt and grime of evil, sin, and death. This was a much more serious cleansing, one which only he could do. And he was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve it, even going all the way through death on the cross into the grave.

I believe that it is significant that Jesus washed every disciples’ feet. This means that Judas Iscariot most likely was present and received the gift of grace in the wiping of his feet. But Jesus knew that the washing of Judas’ feet would not wash his heart—he had already given himself over to the evil one by making the decision to betray Jesus to those who were seeking to kill him. This is why Christ said, “Not all of you are clean.”

In the offering of himself in sacrifice, Jesus did not leave anyone out. He included every human being in his offering on the cross, but the truth is, not everyone receives the gift he gives in his humble sacrifice. Humility is a gift we give to others and shows our willingness to stoop to the lowest level necessary to include others in our love and life. Jesus taught us in this simple act that we need to be willing to love one other in humility, service, and sacrifice. It is in this way that we express in the deepest way our love for God and one another.

Jesus faced the crisis of his human life on this evening, knowing he would shortly be hanging on a Roman cross, by stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. He was willing to do even the most menial task so that others could one day share in his intimate relationship with his Father. No greater love can be shown than that of laying down one’s life for another and Jesus began this laying down of his life by humbly washing the feet of his disciples.

The truest expression we have of genuine humanity is to love one another—to care enough about the other people in our lives that we do not unnecessarily put them at risk. We set aside our own agenda on behalf of the needs of others. We are willing to serve even if it means losing the approval and acceptance of those around us or it inconveniences us. We are open to giving of ourselves when others would not deign to dirty their fingers for fear of contracting the disease. We are willing to work at tasks which we would not ordinarily do so that others may be helped and cared for.

There is a wideness to the love and mercy of God which includes the broad spectrum of human kindness we are called to express during this difficult time in our history, in the midst of our own crisis. As human beings, the truest expression of our humanity is to love one another. Some of us will do this by treating those sick with this disease, putting themselves at risk for our sakes. Others will do this by continuing to provide essential services, risking the loss of their interaction with their loved ones during this time. And all the rest of us can do this by being careful of each other’s space, and by seeing that those who are most vulnerable have what they need when they are unable to get it themselves.

What is most beautiful about a crisis as is before us today is that we can see the face of Jesus in each of us as we humble ourselves to serve, love, and sacrifice for one another. The Spirit of God’s love and grace flowing through people all over the world is evident as we rise to the occasion of battling this coronavirus and do so in such a way that we set aside our own personal agenda for the sake of those more vulnerable and less fortunate than ourselves. May God’s grace through Jesus and by his Spirit continue to enable us to truly love one another.

Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take the humblest place so that we might rise with you, sharing in your eternal glory through your death and resurrection. Grant us the grace to truly love one another as you have loved us, to humble ourselves to serve and sacrifice, and to be willing as we need to, to lay down our lives for one another in your Name. Amen.

“Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. … ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’” John 13:1-4, 34-35 NASB

Expectations of Deliverance

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By Linda Rex

Sunday, April 5, 2020, PALM SUNDAY, 6th SUNDAY IN LENT—As I sat on a bench with my husband on the greenway at Fontanel this afternoon, I watched families and couples taking advantage of the opportunity to get outside to walk in the fresh air and sunshine. Everyone we met smiled and shared hellos with us as they went by. Even the guys in the catering van that drove by greeted us and smiled.

In the real world away from the social networking and politicized news reports, it was comforting to experience some real human connection, even if it was brief and from a distance. Perhaps this is the real takeaway from all that is going on right now—we were created for relationship, and anything that tries to prevent that or destroy it in the end will fail. We are interconnected with one another as human beings in ways which go beyond the physical—we are connected at a deep level which extends beyond the limits of evil and death.

The reason I say this is because so often our suffering and struggle in this world is caused by unhealthy or estranged relationships or ways of relating, and our healing is equally so often found in the rebuilding and renewing of relationships. Today we are normally too busy to go deep with one another and are unwilling to do the difficult relational work that is necessary for true connection. We have many distractions which prevent us from sharing at an intimate level with most people in our lives, and many of us prefer to avoid the discomfort of dealing with interpersonal issues when they come up.

Maybe if we gave serious thought to how Jesus lived when he was here on earth, we might think differently about how we live our lives. At that time, Jesus lived in a culture and setting in which life was slow enough that people really knew everything about everyone else. They knew their family and their neighbors, and all the people they interacted with on a daily basis. In a big city like metropolitan Nashville, it’s easy to hide. It’s easy to pretend we have it all together just long enough that people think the best of us and trust us. Our social networking is very convenient for creating facades which impress people without risking their criticism or disappointment.

But what happens when we slow down long enough for people to really get to know us? What happens when people begin to find out who we really are? We can only pretend for so long. Eventually as people get closer, they begin to figure out our flaws and those things which we do poorly and how we fail or fall short. What we do then reveals how deep our true humanity goes. To love and be loved is to be truly human, as is to forgive and be forgiven. To do any less is the sphere where inhumanity flourishes and poisons our existence.

The disciples and others traveling with Jesus into Jerusalem on that day celebrated his arrival with shouts of “Hosanna!”, calling out to him their hearts’ cry for deliverance from their Roman oppressors. Luke records in his gospel the messianic tone of this celebration, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; | Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” This resonates with the angelic chorus at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in the highest, | And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).

The cry, “Hosanna!” is the cry “O, save!”, the crowd’s call to a deliverer to rescue and save them. Laying out garments before Jesus as he humbly rode in on the colt of a donkey showed their willingness to be his subjects and to allow him to rule. It is significant that as Jesus rode through the city, not everyone was taken up in this celebration of his arrival. As we read in the other gospels, there were those who told Jesus to shut the mouths of those shouting “Hosanna!” These people did not want the Jesus to be their deliverer or savior, and would one day soon participate in having him crucified.

The real question of the day on the people’s lips is a question we each need to come to terms with though, “Who is this?” Indeed, who is Jesus Christ? What right does he have to ride into Jerusalem and be celebrated as the expected messiah, the deliverer of his people? What makes Jesus so special, so worthy of people’s adoration and trust? Isn’t it enough that he is a prophet?

Actually, no; there is so much more going on than this, and we need to come to terms with it. We need to accept the reality that when we are faced with the catastrophic events in life, with the economic and political distresses of our culture, our efforts to make things right are flawed and ultimately ineffective. Indeed, we cannot count on our government to always do what is right and most helpful for everyone in these situations—they are going to let us down. Our scientific advancements have limitations—there is a learning curve, and a need to balance our technology with human kindness and wisdom, which we so often don’t do.

No matter which way we turn, we come up against the reality that we as human beings face so many things in life where we end up saying, “hosanna” and often don’t even realize what or who we expect salvation from may very well, in the end, fail us.

Maybe instead of seeking deliverance from our problems or sufferings, from the fearful things we face in this world, we should work towards an honest assessment of what’s really going on. Let’s be truthful about all this: in this moment, as we sit in silent reflection, what is the foundational issue at work in all that is happening around us? Could it be that we do not understand who we are? Is it possible that we do not understand who our deliverer and savior really is? Indeed, where are we placing our faith? Who is it we are counting on to deliver us?

The capacity to reach out and help others while risking our own health and economic well-being comes from an inner wellspring which has its source in the living Lord. This is the God/man who rode that foal into Jerusalem, allowing the people to celebrate his arrival. He was not afraid of what he faced, but was willing to allow events to take their course, for the hatred of his foes to reach its peak, so that he would experience the crucifixion that was necessary so humanity could be freed once and for all from its efforts to be its own savior and redeemer.

As God in human flesh, the person Jesus Christ took a place of humility—receiving the praises due him but refusing to allow these to determine which path he trod. He didn’t seek, nor did he need, human approval and praise, even though it was rightfully his. He sought, rather, to know those he met and to bring them to the place where they knew him, not as a politically motivated strong-arm deliverer, but as a humble brother who was willing to lay down his life and allow himself to be mistreated and murdered for the sake of every human who has ever lived.

Our need to control what is happening in our world, to ensure a positive outcome of what is happening around us, causes us to live so often in fear—fear of what might happen, fear of what is happening around us right now, fear of what others may say or do. Our fear so often governs our decisions and the way we run our lives and our world. Perhaps it is time to lay down our fear and allow God’s love to cast out our fear once and for all.

God’s perfect love casts out all fear because it was expressed in our Lord Jesus Christ laying down his life for us. He lived our life, died our death, and rose again so that each of us may by faith and in the Spirit participate in his perfect relationship with our heavenly Father and in loving relationship with one another. Turning to Jesus means turning away from our trust in anything other than God himself as the solution to our difficulties and problems. It means not having the answers, but trusting that in God’s perfect time, the answers will come or will be found. It means we may not experience the resolution to our issue that we seek, but may need to be willing to receive the one that is there or the one that will one day be ours in eternity.

During this time of upheaval, while hard decisions are needing to be made, while sacrifices are asked of us, and relationships are held at a distance, let’s seek to go deeper with God and with each other. Let surrender our efforts to be our own savior and humble ourselves to allow Jesus to be who he is—our Savior and Lord—allowing him to guide and provide what is needed in this time of crisis. Let’s turn away from ourselves, from the things and people we count on, and turn to the one who was willing to and did lay his life down for us—Jesus our Lord.

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to us, to share life with us and to offer yourself in our place and on our behalf. Thank you for allowing us as human beings to pour out on you all the horrors of human depravity and inhumanity, while through death and resurrection bringing us to participate in your holy relationship with your Abba in the Spirit. Grant us the faith to trust, not in our own human abilities and efforts, but solely in your faithful love, that all may be to God’s glory and praise, in your holy name. Amen.

“The crowds going ahead of Him, and those who followed, were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David; | BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; | Hosanna in the highest!’ When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.’” Matthew 11:9-11 NASB

“O LORD, do save, we beseech You; | O LORD, we beseech You, do send prosperity! | Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD; | We have blessed you from the house of the LORD. | The LORD is God, and He has given us light; ….” Psalm 118:25-27a NASB

In Death, Coming to Life

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By Linda Rex

March 29, 2020, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT—Tuesday, as my son and I made our normal every-other-week trip to the grocery store to update our pantry, we found many of the shelves empty. Things which you and I take for granted were not available and I discovered I would have to buy brands of food I wouldn’t normally buy just so we had what we needed. I also realized after looking in more than one store that there was no hope of taking any toilet tissue home that day.

As we did our best to honor the social distancing cues, I felt an atmosphere in the store of a quiet bustle mixed with anxiety. As people went about looking for items to purchase, it seemed as though there was a common effort to keep things as normal as possible in a setting which was anything but normal. There really wasn’t any conversation, and even the cashier seemed a little distracted.

It’s hard to keep track of all the details regarding the COVID-19 outbreak since they are constantly changing and people express such a wide variety of opinions on what is going on and what our response should be to the crisis. When faced with the possibility of an extreme number of deaths resulting from this virus, it is instructive that for the most part, the average person doesn’t want to die, nor do they necessarily want others to die.

I found myself asking the question this week—do I really, sincerely care whether other people around me live or die? Whether we like it or not, how we act in this crisis tells a lot about us and whether or not our love for others is genuine and real. Who is our neighbor? Truly our neighbor is that person we have never met who is vulnerable and could easily catch the disease and die. She is also that person who just lost their job or business because their place could no longer stay open due to quarantine restrictions.

My neighbor, whoever he or she may be, is a person who like myself, is facing the reality of death, whether actual death, or death to a business, or financial stability, or the comfort of family and friends. Each of us is walking step by step through “the valley of the shadow of death”, not knowing what the next month or two may bring. Our life may never be the same again. We may never be blessed in the same way we were blessed before this all began. Death is an evil which so often brings about traumatic change and leaves us wounded and broken.

Whatever may happen in the next few months, we can be certain of this—death does not have the last word. Our faith in Christ teaches us that death is not an end—it is a beginning. It is the place where Jesus meets us and brings his resurrection life to replace our death. We can look at death as a welcome birth into new life, both now through our spiritual rebirth and one day in a glorified body in the age to come.

In the Christian faith, baptism and communion are expressions of the spiritual reality that we died with Christ and are risen with Christ—he is the determining factor of our existence. He is our life. Our eternal life—the intimate knowing and being known which exists between the Father and the Son in the Spirit in which we participate in Christ—has been solidly established in Jesus Christ and been given to us by the gift of the Spirit. God’s presence in us and with us affirms that we are alive in Christ—death no longer has any hold over us.

In Ezekiel 37:1–14, a companion passage to this week’s lectionary pericope, we read about the prophet’s encounter with God in the middle of a valley filled with dry bones. These bones represented a morally bankrupt and alienated nation who had rejected their covenant relationship with God and who had, like so many of us, found themselves spiritually dead, with no hope at all of any life in or connection with God.

Standing in the middle of death in this way, Ezekiel must have felt overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the situation. But God said to him that he was going to cover the bones with sinews and flesh—and he did. Then God breathed his life into these lifeless pieces of human flesh—a simple reflection on what God did in the beginning when he first gave life to humankind. Without God’s breath in us, without the zōē life, we are but lifeless pieces of flesh, with no ability to know or be known. It is God’s Breath or Spirit breathed into us through our Lord Jesus Christ (who is the resurrection and the life), who gives us the capacity for intimate relationship with our God and one another.

Another companion passage (Romans 8:6–11) tells us that apart from the Spirit at work in us, we cannot please God. As long as we continue to focus on our fleshly human existence, we reap the consequences of that existence—death—and we are unable to live in loving relationship with the God who formed us to love and be loved. The apostle Paul says, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace”. He goes on to say that apart from the Spirit we will not live in godly ways. In fact, we cannot.

Our natural proclivity is to choose those ways which lead to death. So Jesus came and lived our human life in such a way as to transform our humanity—to reform our human existence into one which resembles the divine life and love. Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the reality of what it means to truly live, as he is intimately connected with the Father and compassionately connected with his human brothers and sisters in the Spirit.

We read how closely Jesus connected himself with us in many stories told by the gospel writers. John tells us of one such story, when Jesus was notified that a very dear friend was seriously ill. After hearing the news, Jesus surprised his disciples by not immediately leaving to go heal him, but remaining where he was. Later, when he prepared to go to Bethany, he was asked about Lazarus, and he told them Lazarus was dead. On face value, it would seem as though Jesus was indifferent to the suffering of these close friends. But we need to look closer at what really was going on.

What is Jesus’ response to death and dying? In this case, Jesus was setting in motion a plan to bring many people, including his disciples, into a deeper understanding of and belief in his person as their Messiah. Mary and Martha both implied their disappointment in Jesus delaying his coming by reminding him he could have healed Lazarus and prevented his death. But Jesus had greater things in mind—he was focused not on death, but on resurrection.

In his conversation with these beloved sisters, Jesus reminded them of who he was—the resurrection and the life. Life was found in him—a life unbounded by the limits of our human existence. Jesus pointed them beyond the moment of loss and grief to another of hope and joy, reminding them that death is not the end. In this case, death was only a temporary problem which was going to be superseded by the resurrection of Lazarus to his former human existence.

Jesus had the opportunity, because of Lazarus’ death, to glorify his Father by raising Lazarus from the dead—thereby demonstrating the reality of his personhood as the One with power over death, the One who gave life to all things. This would set in motion a series of events, due to the fear and hatred of the Jewish leaders, which would culminate in Jesus’ own death on the cross. He knew he must die, so that all humanity might live—and he was willing to start the process by raising Lazarus from the grave.

Who is our neighbor? According to Jesus, every human being was his neighbor—someone he was willing to die for so that they could live. As it has been written, “God didn’t want to be God without us”, so he came and joined us in our humanity, lived our life and died our death, rising again to bring our humanity into the presence of Abba forever. In the sending of the Spirit, we participate in that divine life by faith in Jesus Christ.

In the midst of this time of uncertainty, while facing the reality of illness and death, we can be sure of one thing—we are not alone. As the shepherd king David wrote, we have no reason in the midst of this “valley of the shadow death” to fear evil—for God is with us. Immanuel—our Lord—has traversed this path before us and is walking this path with us. In the Spirit he is present, sharing our sorrow, grieving our losses, carrying us into a new place of healing, renewal, and restoration. It may be dark and difficult for a while, but he promised never to leave us or forsake us—and he will keep that promise. For he is faithful.

Blessed Lord, thank you for walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” before us in your death and resurrection, but also for walking with us through this difficult time of uncertainty, suffering, and death. Pour on us anew your life-giving Spirit. Give us healing. Refresh us in your Zōē—your very life, your being Jesus, for your name’s sake. Amen.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’” John 11:25–26 NASB

Is God Among Us or Not?

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By Linda Rex

MARCH 15, 2020, 3rd SUNDAY IN EASTER PREPARATION—Have you ever felt weary from the journey, wanting to just sit down, exhausted from the journey on the rocky road of life? Has life come at you full speed, ripping out of your hands everything that to you is precious and worth having? We all come to places there we find ourselves in the dry, barren wilderness where we wonder if we will ever again be in a place of joy, plenty, and peace.

As this area of middle Tennessee still reels from the impact of the tornadoes earlier this week, I am reminded again of the fragility of human life. Our technological wonders become impotent when the power goes out. Our cities become a mass of traffic snarls and, sad to say, even human predators begin roaming the streets, looking for ways to take advantage of those already in crisis.

In the midst of our suffering and struggles, we can so easily begin to gripe and complain, much like the Israelites when they came to the wilderness of Sin at Rephidim and there wasn’t any water (Ex. 17:1-7). The circumstances they found themselves in spoke more loudly than the past experiences of God’s presence and care as they journeyed. Even though they had been given plenty of evidence that God was with them and cared about them, they still questioned the reality of it, asking, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”

How easy it is for us to forget the living, loving presence of God! The psalmist in Psalm 95 speaks of how impossible it was for the people of God to find rest in him when they kept forgetting who he was—the loving Lord who had redeemed them from slavery and had brought them into covenant relationship with himself. They had forgotten the simple truth—God was theirs and they were his. If they had simply trusted in this God who was united with them in covenant love, they would have had peace and comfort in the midst of their struggles, and would known he was going to provide for their every need on the journey.

In the story in Exodus we find that Moses was told by God to take his rod and to strike the rock at Horeb, so that water would flow from it so they could drink. In Psalm 95, the psalmist calls God himself “the rock of our salvation.” He is the one who “is our God, | And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” This is the God who sat by the well in Samaria, wearied from the journey, simply asking for a drink of water.

It was not enough for God to sit up in heaven watching us go through life, stumbling and hurting, and failing to love and be loved. He solidified his relationship with the creatures he had made by taking on our humanity and dwelling for a time in the midst of our human existence, experiencing all the temptations we face during our lives here on earth. In Jesus Christ, the One who is God in human flesh, the immovable crag, the solid Rock of our salvation, we find the source of our refreshment and renewal.

Just as the rock in the wilderness was struck by Moses, Jesus was abused, tortured, and killed by those for whom he came. But we read in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (NASB). The greatest expression of the covenant love of God toward humanity is found in this gift of Jesus Christ, for in him and through him, we are given life.

Jesus told the woman he met at the well in Samaria, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14 NASB). God came in the person of Jesus Christ, was crucified for our behalf, but rose again, drawing all humanity with him into the presence of the Father. In the sending of the living water, the Spirit, we are invited to drink of eternal life, the life which Jesus forged for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In spite of how we may feel at the moment and in spite of what we may see happening all around us, the spiritual reality is that we are held in the midst of the love and life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We are included in their divine life, and by the Spirit we participate in the eternal loving relationship between the Father and the Son. We are held at all times in the loving hands of our heavenly Father—no matter what our personal experience at the present time here on earth may be.

As long as we keep our eyes on our circumstances and refuse to believe in the living Presence of our loving God, we will find no rest or peace. Our anxiety and negative outlook find their roots in the lingering question in our hearts and minds, “is God among us or not?” We can look at Jesus as though he is a boulder—hard, cold, and impenetrable. We can refuse to believe God cares at all about us or the circumstances in our lives. But we would be believing a lie, a lie which prevents us from seeing or hearing the One who is truly present with us at all times.

We find hope in the midst of our struggles when we come to know and believe that God is present in us, with us, and for us in the person of Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Trusting in Jesus enables us to find rest in the middle of tragedy and suffering, offering us peace in spite of what is happening all around us. The apostle Paul writes, “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:3-5 NLT)

It is essential that we remember and believe who God is—the God who loves us so much that he was willing to come and be present with us in the midst of our human suffering, struggles, and death, and to lift us up into life with himself. This is the God who has committed himself to us by taking our very humanity, our life and death, upon himself so we can be with him both now and forever. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 8:38-39, “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love … revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NLT). Now that is a promise—and a Being—worth resting in.

Thank you, Father, for your faithful love in spite of our forgetfulness and unbelief. Holy Jesus, thank you for your immeasurable gift of yourself and for sending the Spirit from the Father so we can begin to know and believe we are loved, held, and cared for at all times, no matter our circumstances. Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to receive the flowing waters of eternal life, allowing ourselves to be immersed both now and forever in God’s love and grace, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“He named the place Massah and because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us, or not?” Exodus 17:7 NASB

“Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, | As in the day of Massah in the wilderness, | When your fathers tested Me, | They tried Me, though they had seen My work. | For forty years I loathed that generation, | And said they are a people who err in their heart, | And they do not know My ways. | Therefore I swore in My anger, | Truly they shall not enter into My rest.” Psalm 95:8-11 NASB

See also John 4:5-42 and Romans 5:1-11.

Journeying With Jesus

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By Linda Rex

March 8, 2020, 2nd SUNDAY IN EASTER PREPARATION—The longer I am a pastor and the more the Spirit leads me to even more boldly proclaim the good news of Christ, the more I experience the rejection of those opposed to the beauty of God’s love and grace. It may be that I do my best to follow the lead of Christ and his Spirit, but it never fails that my motives are questioned, my heart is maligned, and my efforts ridiculed. In this post-Christian age, it is noteworthy that those most critical of and opposed to the clear message of the love and grace of God are often fellow believers.

This morning during my devotional time I was reminded that when Jesus calls us to follow him, he doesn’t always tell us at the beginning where we are going or how we are going to get there. But he does tell us there will be a cost. There is a cost to following Jesus because the path Jesus trod was straight through death into resurrection.

Jesus doesn’t always tell us at the beginning of our journey where we may end up. What is more urgent on his mind is that we are going with him where he is going. If we knew ahead of time that we would be headed where we were headed, would we even go there? Probably not.

When God told Abram to leave his country, his relatives, and his own family home, he did not tell him specifics about where he would end up. He merely told him to go, to leave where he was and move toward the place where God would show him. And so Abram left (Genesis 12:1–4a).

Part of God’s promise to Abram was that he would bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him. God gave him a promise that he would not travel this road alone, but that God would take seriously everything that happened to Abram, and enable him to be the person God was calling him to be. Abram just needed to trust God and act on what he had been told to do. And he did.

In the writings of Paul (Romans 4:1–5, 13–17) we read that because Abram believed, God counted it as righteousness. Abram saw God as the One who made everything from nothing, who could take something and make it into something new. He trusted God to be who he was in his life—the One who would take him from where he was to where he needed to be. And so he acted accordingly—by faith.

What is it about stepping out into a new place that is so frightening for us? And what if we are trying to do what God is calling us to do and all we meet with is opposition or ridicule? Where is God in these situations? He is where he has always been—with us and in us. This is the key.

Sometimes we get all involved in the journey and we lose sight of the simple fact—it’s not about the journey. It’s about who we are journeying with. It’s about our ongoing relationship with the One who holds us in his hand, who has the capacity to create something new out of something broken—the One who will never abandon us to our fate but will in his perfect time come alongside and lift us up into a new place.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus under cover of darkness, as though hiding from his fellow Jews and not wanting to risk their condemnation or criticism. He came to Jesus and told him that since he could do so many miracles, they knew he was a teacher come from God. But why was he hiding then? What was it about Jesus that was so threatening to the status quo? Could it be that Jesus was eliminating all our human dependencies and insisting on total allegiance to him alone?

Jesus initiated a conversation by telling Nicodemus that the only way someone could be in the kingdom of God was by being born again or born anew. Being in the kingdom of God was not determined by ancestry nor by performance, but solely by relationship—being born of the One who made all things. Nicodemus clearly got that Jesus meant birth, but he thought only in terms of the actual physical act of birth. Jesus was taking him much deeper—our spiritual birth and life in the Spirit must begin in the only begotten Son of God. We are born again in Christ, not by our own human effort.

The inclusion of humanity in Christ’s sonship means that when Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again, all of humanity was reborn in him. It is by the Spirit that we participate in that rebirth. T.F. Torrance, when asked when he was born again, would state that he was born again 2,000 years ago in Christ. In our spiritual rebirth, being born again, we are merely participating in what Jesus did in our place on our behalf as the eternally begotten Son of the Father.

Being born again, being immersed in the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, means we are transported from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. We find ourselves in a new place, with a new reason for living. From now on we do not pursue our own path—rather, we follow Christ. We walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh. We dwell in Abba’s house now, so we live the way he lives, loving God and loving one another.

After the initial baptism, where we participate in Christ’s baptism and anointing in the Spirit, we continue our journey with Jesus by living our lives in dependence upon the daily bread of our Abba’s provision. We come regularly to the table of grace and participate in communion, eating the bread and drinking the wine/juice, and communing with our loving Lord. We read God’s word, converse with God in prayer, and join together with fellow believers in the life of faith. We follow the lead of the Spirit as Jesus draws us deeper into life with him and we move with Jesus into his mission in the world around us.

Eternal life is, Christ said, to know intimately the Father and the One whom he sent, his Son Jesus. This is a relationship we are called into. And following Jesus means we will go through difficulties and struggles. Jesus told his disciples that just as he was ridiculed and criticized, so would his followers be ridiculed and criticized. But that would never diminish the reality that we are Spirit-filled and Spirit-led, and we are born from above, adopted children of our heavenly Father.

The faith walk is not an easy road. But the joy is in the journey with Jesus and with our heavenly Father by the Spirit. The joy is we are never alone, but when we are cursed by others, we can offer them blessing because of what Christ has done and is doing. We can continue on the path, uncertain of the direction, because we know the One who is leading us and he is trustworthy. We walk by faith, not by sight—and he will bring us safely home.

Thank you, Abba, for giving us new life in your Son Jesus by the Spirit. Thank you that we never walk the road of life alone, but you offer us your very self to be in us and with us on this journey. Open our eyes to see you with us. Open our ears to hear your direction and your comfort as we travel. Give us the courage and faith to follow wherever you lead, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” John 3:3 NASB