grace

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

Offering Light to the Blind

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By Linda Rex

March 22, 2020, 4th SUNDAY IN LENT—Recently I spoke with someone who told me that the recent tornadoes and Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak were sent from God to wake people up and to turn them back to him. As a pastor, I am often offered this opportunity to blame God for the bad things which happen in this world, but I am reluctant to give him responsibility for what is not his and which has its roots in our own brokenness and this broken world we live in, and the evil which is always at work in it and in us.

Don’t get me wrong—there are consequences to our choices. We have made and do make decisions which affect the planet we live on and the people who live on it. In this day and age, we often prefer to believe we can control and limit the affect of most things, but truth is, there are many things we can’t contain or direct. We find ourselves often at the mercy of physical forces and natural occurrences, deadly diseases, and even just human willfulness and evil.

Our response to all this is critical. We can take the common and comfortable road to fear, and respond with a more diligent effort to control and manage our circumstances and our world. Or we can acknowledge our need for strength and wisdom beyond ourselves, drawing upon divine resources to find the faith, hope, and love we need to deal with what is beyond our capacity and power to handle.

When Jesus walked by a man who had congenital blindness, his disciples asked him who had sinned—him or his parents? In the Jewish teaching of the day, the man’s blindness was due to his parents’ sin or his own sin (though that seems far-fetched since it happened when he was in the womb). Jesus said that his blindness was not due to a specific sin or sins, but was simply providing an opportunity to demonstrate the glory of God.

Throughout the teachings of Jesus, we find that he is quite frank about the need for human beings to have their eyes opened to the light of who he was as their Lord and Savior. He had no illusions about the human condition. We are sinners, human beings with a proclivity toward rejecting God and living in fear and disobedience. The issue with our humanity goes down into the very core of our being—we walk in darkness instead of in the light of God’s grace and love.

Instead of tragedies and natural disasters, and even blindness, being some punishment poured out on people because of their sins, Jesus sees them simply as part of our broken human condition. And that broken human condition has only one way of being healed—mixing the DNA of the living Lord Jesus Christ with our human clay and washing us in the waters of his love and grace. We can only have light in our darkness if we will receive the light-bringing treatment of Jesus and be washed in the living water, the Holy Spirit.

Just as this man who was blind from birth had to receive the clay Jesus made from spit and dirt onto his eyes and had to walk to the pool of Siloam and wash himself, we need to receive Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, by allowing ourselves to be washed in the water of the living Spirit. We participate in Christ through the sacraments of baptism and communion because these are tangible ways we experience with gratitude the life-giving power and presence of the living Lord.

The man in this story who was born blind went through a process as he came to faith in Christ. At first, he was met by Jesus, who took the initiative in their relationship. Jesus offered him healing, but the man needed to participate in the healing process. The One who was sent by the Father, Jesus, sent this man to the pool of Siloam (some translate “sent”) where he was to wash and be healed. But at that point Jesus had not yet revealed himself as Messiah.

It is when this man was faced with explaining to the Pharisees what had happened that his faith in Jesus began to take form. When the miracle was brought to these leaders’ attention, they asked him what had happened, saying that since Jesus had made clay and healed someone on the Sabbath, he was a sinner, so he could not have done this miracle. The astute, formerly blind man saw the irony in the situation—he once was blind, now he could see, but the Pharisees were so set against believing Jesus was Messiah that they were willing to deny the reality of a genuine, incredible miracle of healing.

So the conversation went down the rabbit trails into the depths of the corrupt human heart, where these Pharisees, even when faced with the glorious truth of a blind man being given his sight, refused to believe, preferring instead to remain in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief. Sadly, Jesus had to tell the Pharisees that it was because they thought they saw that they were truly blind in the things which really matter, the spiritual realities. The man who was blind, however, came to see and believe who Jesus was as Messiah, and knelt down and worshiped him.

This weekend there are genuine and serious concerns at stake. Not only do we have the recent devastation with the tornadoes here in metro Nashville and in Putnam County, we now have real concerns about the coronavirus, which is making its way slowly into every part of our nation. We do not have control of any of these things, so it is easy to lapse into fear, and other unhealthy and unloving human responses such as hoarding, stigmatizing, blaming, and fear-mongering. We are being brought to the edge where we must choose between being truly human by loving and trusting God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, or being inhumane, less than who we truly are as God’s created and redeemed children, made to reflect his likeness as the God who is love.

What if we began to look at this time of crisis as an opportunity to see the glory of God? What if, instead of putting people and events into boxes, we opened our eyes to the everyday miracles of healing, transformation, and renewal which are taking place all around us? What if, instead of self-protecting, self-seeking, and self-indulging, we turned outside ourselves to help, serve, heal, comfort, and pray?

Are we going to remain in our spiritual blindness or are we going to confess the reality of our need to see what is really going on? Will we allow ourselves to be anointed in the humanity of Jesus Christ, washed in the flowing waters of the Spirit, and healed by the living Word at work in our world? Perhaps it is time to have the grace and humility to meet Jesus where he first meets us, in the middle of our darkness, offering us the light of life, the blessed gift of himself in the midst of our struggles and suffering.

Holy Father, thank you that we are not alone, but you are always with us in every circumstance of life. Hold us in our suffering, in our fear, in our loss, and in our illness. Lift us anew into life and wholeness. Rebuild, restore, renew, heal. Empower us for what we must face and carry us through. You are our life and our hope—enable us to trust in you in every circumstance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 NASB

“… for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light …” Ephesians 5:8 NASB

“Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, ‘We are not blind too, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’” John 9:40-41. See also John 9:1–41.

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

Receiving Abba’s Words of Love

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By Linda Rex

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2020, TRANSFIGURATION—Today I can walk into any supermarket or department store near me and be met with an effusive display of Valentine’s Day gifts, flowers, and cards. Many people today will be taking their loved ones out for coffee, lunch, or dinner, and some may even decide that today is the perfect day to pop the question, “Will you marry me?”

For the most part, I think that we all love a good love story, especially when it has a “happily ever after” ending. It’s almost as if, written into our very being, is the longing to love and be loved. Without this, our lives become shadows—a constant steady motion forward, but no interweaving of our lives with others around us, except at work or play. The longing for deep connectedness is real, but many of us don’t slow down long enough to ponder its source and to seek its resolution.

One of the ways in which we long to be loved is often a deep inner longing to hear our father, or mother, say, “I love you.” How many people today live their lives in a effort to somehow win the approval and affection of a parent? Many times, we don’t even realize we are doing this, and it is after years of passionate struggle to succeed and gain significance that we finally awaken to the reality that we will never gain either, nor can we ever work hard enough to gain the love and approval of another person. Love is not earned—it is a gift we give one another.

Sometimes our wounds go so deep that even though we are surrounded by loving people, we are unable to receive the love they desire to give us. It is very easy for us to close our hearts to others, to put up walls that are so high that no one can enter in and touch us. We may prefer to live life behind walls—relationships involve risk, especially intimate ones. But we will never truly experience real life, real living, until we are willing and able to let someone else know us deeply, and to love us in the midst of our messes and failures.

Jesus spoke to his disciples about the oneness between him and his heavenly Father, and in his prayers, he expressed their intimate oneness. Jesus goes so far as to say, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3 NASB). We were never meant to live life alone and unconnected, empty of relationship. Deep connectedness is what we were created for. We were meant to share in the oneness which has always existed between the Father and the Son in the Spirit.

At the transfiguration, John, James, and Peter witnessed the Father’s expression of love for Jesus, his Son. Being in the presence of God, they were terrified. Instead of feeling warmed by the presence of a loving, affectionate Father, they were filled with fear. Jesus’ immediately said to them, “Don’t be afraid.” They needed to have a clearer picture of what kind of God they were obeying—not a punitive God to be afraid of, but an affectionate Abba to love.

The reality is that our conception of God is often distorted by our experiences, most especially our own relationship with our parents or other people, even well-meaning Christians. We can allow these distortions to get in the way of encountering God on his own merits, and end up refusing to receive the love and grace God offers us. God has been as loving as possible with us in giving us Jesus and his Spirit, and often surrounds us with loving people, but we can and do resist and refuse his love.

This unfortunate, because God really wants to give us the “happily ever after” ending. He wants us to live in joyful, loving connectedness both now and forever. This is why he went to so much effort to prepare for and orchestrate the coming of the Word into human flesh, to live our life, and die our death, raising us into glory.

There is a hidden glory in every human being. Just as in Jesus the disciples discovered the hidden glory of God’s very being, in each of us is an inherent design, a script which reflects the very being and nature of God himself. We were made in the image of God, after his likeness, to live in the same oneness, interconnectedness of unique equal persons, as do the Father, Son and Spirit. Our inclusion in this holy love is by faith in Jesus. There is no distinction made between any of us as human beings—our common humanity is centered in Christ and we share in his glory, both now and forever.

Why do we as humans so often choose fear of God over receiving this immense, overwhelming love of God? Why don’t we allow ourselves to be loved? Perhaps one reason is that love often calls us up out of our worst into our best—love may ask us to change things we don’t want to change, to give up things we don’t want to give up. And love can hurt at times. Love requires vulnerability, transparency, honesty—requiring us to lay ourselves out at the mercy of others. Sometimes loving in this way means we suffer immeasurably—like the living Lord who became human only to end up crucified.

It is much easier to fear God and to try to be a good person, to earn his love and affection, than it is to lay ourselves fully in his hands and surrender to his love. To earn God’s love, we can follow a list of rules or set up systems in our lives that make us feel like we’re being good people and we’re obeying God. It doesn’t require openness or authenticity—it looks good on the outside, and we’re always in control. But it does not get us any closer to God—in fact, it may actually become a god in itself, separating us from any real relationship with the Lord.

To come, as Jesus teaches us, to the cross and lay ourselves at God’s feet, knowing our only hope is his love and grace, is the perfect place to encounter the living Lord. It is acknowledging our failures to love God and each other that paves the way for God to enter in and be for us what we cannot be. It is in expressing our need for God and our desire to know him better that we find ourselves growing in deep connectedness with him. When we understand our need for the daily bread of his love and grace, his Word to us, and our words in response to him, then we are beginning to understand what it means to receive Abba’s words of love.

Today is a good day to practice the spiritual discipline of silence and solitude. Find a place where you can be undisturbed—preferably somewhere in nature, where you can experience the beauty of what God created for your joy. Give yourself a few moments in silence to still chaotic thoughts, and then tell God you are there to hear his words of love. Ask him to help you to receive them and to believe what he says to you is true, and to guard you from any lies the deceiver may use to confuse you. Then just sit for a time in the silence. If your thoughts wander, just give them to God, and ask him again what he has to say to you. You may only hear silence or you may hear Abba’s words of love in your heart. Either way, you are on the path to deeper connectedness with God—and opening yourself to hear and receive the words of love Abba has for you.

Thank you, Abba, that you meet us wherever we are, and in your love, work to bring us to where you are. As we take the time to listen to your words of love, enable us to hear and to receive them, and to begin to live as though they were true. Thank you that you have already expressed your love to us in the gift of your Son and your Spirit. We are grateful. Amen.

“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.” 2 Peter 1:16 NASB

The Simplicity of Grace and Truth

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By Linda Rex

FEBRUARY 16, 2020, 6th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—Lost in the midst of our current political scene, with its polarizing rhetoric and maneuvering of people into places of influence and power, is the quiet transforming simplicity of grace and truth. As I was reading the gospel reading for this particular Sunday, I was struck by the reality that even though we may have dogmatic opinions, emphatic assertions of right vs. wrong, or clear expectations of how things are or ought to be, we are never at the place where we can, with authority, say we are right and everyone else is wrong.

There is only one person who did this, and was right in doing it, because of who he was. The fundamental groundwork of the gospel message is that this person had the capacity to know exactly what to do and say in every situation, and was able to do and say it, because he was the One who created all things and held them together by his word of power. He could, and did, say to those around him, “It is written…” or “You say…” and overturned what had been said or written by simply affirming, “But I say…”.

When human beings talk in this manner, all our red flags go up. Immediately, we grow concerned, because such language overthrows any authority other than the one who is speaking. For Jesus to say, “What you may have been told or taught has no relevance anymore—what I say is what really matters now,” is to put Christ on a plane above everyone else, even to the point of him being God himself. We would never accept a human being having the arrogance to place themselves in that position of authority….or would we?

The problem we are running into today is the loss of our understanding of who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is—the One who is both fully God and fully human. I was driving in downtown Nashville yesterday, and was amazed at the vast amount of construction and renovation that is going on in this city. As I looked about me, I saw towers of glass and metal rising high into the sky, many of them only partially built. Apartment buildings that were dozens of stories tall gave evidence of the thousands of people moving into Nashville needing places to live.

Years ago, the tallest buildings in the skyscape would have been the cathedrals and churches with towering steeples. Today, such buildings are dwarfed by the immensity of other places where people live, work, and play. In some ways, this is a metaphor for the attention we give today to the spiritual realities, and to the God who sent his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to transform our hearts by faith.

What we have lost is not so much a creed or a certain religion or belief system as it is the simple understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to him. To even assert that there is a God and that we are his creatures, formed to live in relationship with him, is offensive to many people today. We do not want to surrender ourselves to the reality that there is someone to whom we owe our existence and our ability to live and work in this world. And we most certainly do not want anyone other than ourselves to have the ability to tell us what to say or do.

This is not a new problem. In reality, it is one we have been manifesting since the days when Adam and Eve walked in the Garden of Eden. They too wrestled with the choice between life, and deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil. The human tendency to choose for ourselves a way of living and being which ends in death is something fundamental to our humanity—it is our sinful nature at work within us. We just have a natural proclivity to choose death over life, and then to blame God when things don’t turn out the way we want them to.

It is ironic that the nation God called his very own, ancient Israel, whom he joined himself to in covenant love, would take the descriptions of life in his presence and turn them into prescriptions for living. They added many words to the 613 rules in the old covenant, creating an even more difficult path for the average person to follow, should they decide to obey the God of the Jewish people. Over the centuries, as the Jews interacted with God, for many of them, the law and its observation supplanted the covenant relationship it was designed to lead people into and to participate in.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, reminded his listeners that keeping the law in itself was insufficient—no, even impossible. He told them what the law said, and then took them farther, deeper, into the heart of his Father. He showed his hearers that God looks at our intent, our motives, and our reasoning. We can’t just go through the motions—an entire transformation of our being is needed, not just a change in our actions.

That being the case, we as human beings are in an extremely difficult place. There is no way, with our sinful nature abounding, that we can ever have the right motivation in every situation. There is no way we will ever keep our thoughts where they ought to be or our feelings and desires pure and chaste. We are helpless and can never live as we ought to in right relationship with God and others.

So we come to the simplicity of grace and truth. Truth is, we are not God—he is. Truth is, we are broken, sinful people, who will, whether we want to or not, find ourselves choosing death instead of life, and reaping the consequences of it. Truth is, we have no hope of anything being any different—in us, in this world, in our circumstances—apart from the living Lord, the One who made it all, sustains it all, and redeemed it all. So, we need grace.

And we have grace. That is the good thing. God the Word has come into our humanity, lived the life we were created for in Jesus Christ as a Son in perfect relationship with the Father, died the death we so often choose, and has risen, taking us with him into glory. Our humanity is now in a totally different place—we are free to live in right relationship with God and others because of Christ. This grace means that it’s not all up to us—it’s up to him. Whatever we say and do as humans, we say and do it in Christ, and he gives us life.

Truth—God is, and we are his, and apart from him, we have no hope. Grace—in Jesus he has come, included us in his life and death, and has sent the Spirit to make this so as we trust in him. The simplicity of grace and truth—the reception of the gift God has given—the belief that God loves us this much and will never leave or forsake us, would transform our lives, our politics, and our world, if we were willing.

Today, in the stillness of quiet reflection, consider these questions: Are my decisions leading me to a greater, fuller life in joyful relationship with God and others? Or are they leading down the path to death and destruction? What is my response to the words of Jesus to me, “But I say…”? Allow yourself to respond in the simplicity of grace and truth which is ours in Jesus Christ, receiving Abba’s gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit.

Dear God, we so desperately need healed! Thank you, Abba, for your perfect gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us grace and truth, and for leading us into life everlasting. Our life is in you alone. Holy Spirit, may you penetrate the core of our beings with the new life Jesus brought us, transforming our hearts and minds, and thereby healing our churches, our communities, our politics, this world and the earth on which we live. We long for you to finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life,…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20a NLT

See also Matthew 5:21–37.