grace

Joy in Judgment

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by Linda Rex

December 11, 2022, 3rd Sunday in ADVENT | Joy—At times I wonder what it would have been like to have been a close relative of Jesus Christ while he lived here on earth. What stories would we have been told about the birth of our cousin? Would we have known the story about how John jumped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when his pregnant relative Mary came for a visit?

Some commentators say that John and Jesus probably did not know each other very well while others picture them as close kin. But when Jesus came to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing the people, the prophet knew exactly who Jesus was and why he was there. He pointed Jesus out as being the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the people.

Later on, John spoke out against King Herod Antipas’ recent marriage to the wife of King Herod Philip, Herodias. The result of John’s truth-telling was a stint in prison, without any deliverance in sight. The gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 11:2–11, describes how while John the Baptizer was in prison, he sent his disciples to Jesus to verify that he indeed was the promised Anointed One or Messiah.

It’s possible that John thought Jesus, if he was truly the Messiah, should have been doing something to ensure his release from prison, or perhaps even have been speaking out against Antipas. But Jesus merely pointed out to John’s disciples that as the Messiah, Christ was busy doing what the Coming One was predicted to do—healing the sick, raising the dead (like he had just done for the widow in Nain) and casting out demons. In the midst of his dark and difficult circumstances, John the Baptizer may have needed some reassurance that all of his own efforts were not in vain. Or he may simply have been continuing to do what he did before—point away from himself, and point his disciples toward Christ.

Jesus’ words about John were not critical, but supportive and understanding. In fact, he let his listeners know that John was a great prophet even though he would be surpassed by the least in the kingdom of God which Jesus was inaugurating. Christ challenged the crowd, saying, “blessed is he who does not take offense at Me” (NASB; in the Greek, καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί). I’m not a Greek scholar, but it is interesting to note that σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthí) looks a lot like our English word scandal. As Jesus points out, we find blessing or joy in not being scandalized by Jesus and what he is doing, even though he might be doing things differently than we expect.

How often are we scandalized by the way Jesus is doing something in our lives or in this world? Can you think of a time when you were infuriated with the way something turned out, wondering why God didn’t intervene? Why is it that the Lord allows things to happen a certain way when he could, being God, make things so very different, so very less painful or awful?

It is easy to pass judgment on God—we do it all the time. Just as the people in Jesus’ day judged him as being un-Messiah-like, we expect God to jump certain hoops, and when he doesn’t, we are offended or scandalized. And often we’re just not honest with ourselves in regards to these things, since, as good people, we know we shouldn’t be mad at God, or offended by how he runs the world.

But let’s think for a moment about judgment as it was expressed in the coming of God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. First off, God judged us as human beings of being worthy of his love and attention. He knew we couldn’t get ourselves into right relationship with him on our own, so he planned from the beginning to do what was necessary to bring us home. In Christ, God judged us as being a good creation gone astray, which needed to experience healing, redemption, renewal, and reconciliation.

All of this at work in our world was evident in the ministry and life of Jesus Christ as he cast out demons, healed the sick and broken, preached the gospel to the poor, and even raised the dead. Jesus, as a human being himself, went so far as to allow human beings to reject him, crucify him, and kill him. Even so, his judgment as he hung on the cross was forgiveness, caring for his mother, and welcoming a criminal into paradise. And God’s judgment on all of us as human beings in our imprisonment in the kingdom of darkness, was to bring us all into the kingdom of light as Jesus rose from the grave in the resurrection.

Do you see that God’s method of judgment is so laden with grace that it looks so much different than ours? Jesus says we aren’t to stumble over him or be scandalized by him. Instead, we are to accept Jesus for who he really is—God in human flesh, our redemption and salvation, our heavenly Father’s Word of grace sent to us, birthed of the Spirit. Are we scandalized by the grace God expresses to us as human beings in Christ? Or is this grace the source of our blessedness and our great joy?

During the season of Advent, we rehearse anew our preparation for the coming of the Messiah, specifically as God came in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, a baby which was laid in a manger while angels announced the good news to shepherds on a hill nearby. Are we scandalized by the coming of God in human flesh in this humble way? Or are we grateful at God’s humility and love?

Jesus Christ, as God in human flesh come for our redemption and salvation, took on a particular human body in a specific place and time. The one who made all things and sustains all things by his word and power became our close relation, becoming one of us that we might share eternity with him some day. And Jesus was willing to do this, even though he knew from the beginning what the cost would be. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. With open hands, we share in his joy, as we receive the grace he so generously offers us, rather than being offended by the way he runs his world.

Dear Jesus, thank you for coming to us and being willing to take on our human existence as your very own for a time. Thank you for sharing your joy with us by your Spirit. Father, grant us the grace to not be offended by your Son, but to embrace him fully, allowing Jesus to be who he is for us, our joy and our salvation. Amen.

“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, and the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. … Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’  Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. … the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”     Isaiah 35:1–10 NASB

“Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and report to John what you hear and see: the “blind receive sight” and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the “poor have the gospel preached to them”. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.’ As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “Behold, I sent my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’ ”      Matthew 11:2–11 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/olitjoy-in-judgment.pdf ]

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The Power of the Scars

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By Linda Rex

October 9, 2022, PROPER 23—Have you ever thought about the profound power a scar has to transport you into another time or place? A scar holds within itself the capacity to remind us of events, people, and experiences. A scar can remind us of suffering, of pain, of healing, and of forgiveness.

I believe this is why the apostle John in his apocalyptic book of Revelation gave us a picture of Jesus bearing the scars of the cross as he sits in glory. I believe it is significant that Jesus chooses at times to bear the marks of our betrayal, condemnation and murder of him as God in human flesh. This brings to mind his initial post-resurrection appearances in the upper room, where he showed the disciples his hands and side where he had received such severe wounds. It was the scars he bore that enabled them to see that the One who died was the One who lived again.

The difference between the scars that Jesus bears and our scars, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, is that within Jesus’ scars lies our redemption, healing, and restoration. Whatever we may carry with us through this life he bears within his own human flesh—a thought which can give us great comfort when the scars we bear today remind us of the pain, suffering and loss we have experienced.

In this Sunday’s gospel passage, Luke 17:11–19, Jesus encounters ten men who had been ostracized from society due to their leprosy. As the story unfolds, we discover that some of the people in this group of lepers were Jews and some were Samaritans. It is significant that the nature of this disease was such that lepers were forbidden to be around other people (they were considered ritually unclean), and this exclusion by society actually created a small leper community where normal social barriers were ignored.

The ten men called out to Jesus from a distance, simply asking him for mercy. Jesus often touched the ritually unclean when he healed them, but this time Jesus didn’t get close to the lepers at all. He simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests, honoring the rite given in the Torah regarding ritual cleansing of healed lepers. And as the ten men walked away, assumably traveling towards Jerusalem, they were cleansed.

As Luke is telling this story, he introduces an unexpected twist. It would make sense for the ten men to simply walk away, go to the temple for the ceremony, and then go back to their everyday lives, returning to those tasks and relationships the leprosy had stolen from them. But by doing this, they would have missed the huge significance of what had just occurred in their lives.

As they traveled on their way, the leprosy on the men disappeared. One of the men stopped, convicted of the reality of something which had escaped his notice before—just who had answered their plea for mercy. Sparked within his heart was a well of gratitude that overflowed into loudly glorifying God, and running quickly to throw himself at the feet of Jesus. On his knees before Jesus, the healed leper thanked the Lord profusely.

Here, Jesus points out the astonishing reality to those standing about him, that the only person of the ten who returned to show appreciation was a Samaritan, a foreigner despised by the Jews. This was the only one who recognized who Jesus was and gave him the gratitude and honor he deserved. Jesus told the man to stand up and leave, that his faith had made him well.

What is often not seen in this parable is that it has a lot more to say than just simple home truths about gratitude and faith. In fact, it is an acted parable about what Jesus was actively working out as the One who came to deliver every one of us from the leprosy of evil, sin, and death. Unable to free ourselves, incapable of restoring ourselves to right relationship with God, we all desperately needed God’s redemption and salvation. As God come in human flesh, Jesus was headed toward death on the cross, a death not much different than that of the lepers he healed, who had lost everything, possibly including limbs and skin, due to their affliction.

It is important to pay attention to the reality that all ten lepers were healed. Jesus’ healing involved all of the lepers even though only one, a Samaritan, returned to offer Jesus gratitude and glory to God. In the same way, Jesus has included all human flesh in his self-offering, in his death and resurrection, but not everyone sees the significance of the gift and responds with gratitude and adoration. In Christ’s resurrection, all have risen, but their experience of that resurrection, of their healing and renewal, depends upon their response to Jesus in faith, seeing him for who he really is—their Savior and Lord.

The kingdom of God was present in that moment in the person of Jesus Christ. The man who returned to glorify God and thank Jesus was participating in the kingdom of God in his recognition of who Jesus was—his Healer and Redeemer. He was experiencing the kingdom reality of life in relationship with his loving Father through Jesus in the Spirit as the joy and wonder of what God did for him penetrated through the darkness in his soul and awakened him to divine light.

I started this blog with a thought about the power of scars. Did this man who returned to Jesus bear any scars from his bout with leprosy? Did he bear the scars of his broken relationships caused by his forced isolation? What was his life going to be like after having been healed?

When Jesus gives us new life, he doesn’t simply erase our previous life. Often Jesus takes the scars of our previous life and brings them along with himself through death into resurrection, giving the scars of our lives tremendous power to testify of his goodness, love, and grace. Instead of hiding the wounds under guilt, shame, and fear—like a leper being isolated away from human society—we want to bring our wounds out into the light of Jesus, allowing him to transform them into scars which testify of God’s love, grace and goodness by carrying them with him through death into resurrection.

This can be a difficult and scary process. Sometimes we need other people to walk through this journey of healing with us. Sometimes we need support and help. But we never go through any of this on our own. Jesus stands firm, having already declared our healing, calling us to walk it out day by day in a faith journey with him. Our part is simply, like this tenth leper, to offer up to our Triune God our gratitude and praise. And we allow our scars, shining with the healing grace of Jesus, to give a powerful testimony to what God does when we simply ask for mercy.

Lord, sometimes our wounds can seem to be overwhelming. We feel like the lepers in this story, isolated and despairing. We ask you, Jesus, for mercy. And, recognizing you have included us already in your death and resurrection, giving our scars a testimony of your grace, goodness, and love, we offer glory to you, Father, and thanks to you, Jesus, for all you have done by your Spirit. Amen.

“While He was on the way to Jerusalem, He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. As He entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him; and they raised their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When He saw them, He said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they were going, they were cleansed. Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered and said, ‘Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?’ And He said to him, ‘Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.’ ”      Luke 17:11–19 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/09/olitthe-power-of-the-scars.pdf ]

Lord, Increase Our Faith

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By Linda Rex

October 2, 2022, PROPER 22—Nowadays, when someone wants to move a grown sycamore tree, if they can afford it, they call up the local landscape company who sends out a large truck with a digger on the back. The workers use this machine’s massive teeth to dig the tree up, roots and all, and to tip it back and up over the truck in order to carry it. Then the workers drive the truck with the sycamore tree on top to its new location, dropping the tree there into the ground.

In reality, a lot of us exercise some kind faith without knowing we are doing it. Looking at this activity on the surface, we may wonder exactly how much faith is needed to move that full-grown tree to a new location. For example, the workers need to trust that the people who put the truck together and the digger together did their job properly, enabling the workers to drive the truck back and forth, and to use the digger to safely remove the tree from the ground. The workers trust that the spade will hold the tree safely until they get it to its new location rather than dropping it in the middle of the highway, creating a massive traffic snarl. The workers trust in the digger’s ability to place the tree safely in its hole, and in the owner’s promise to pay them for their efforts. There is a lot of faith being expressed in this simple act of everyday labor.

In my recent studies with Grace Communion Seminary on the topic of Paul’s epistles, I am learning about his concept of faith. Faith, for the apostle Paul, not only has to do with the trustworthiness of the One being trusted—Jesus Christ, but also about his complete and perfect trust in the Father expressed in his self-offering on the cross. This faith is given to us to participate in by the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. The matter of having sufficient faith to move anything at all has been taken care of by the One who is not only perfectly trustworthy, but who also has total faith in our trustworthy Father—and Jesus enables us to participate in that perfect faith in the Spirit.

When Jesus said that with the faith the size of a mustard seed one could move a tree and plant it in the ocean, he probably had in mind the previous conversation he and his disciples were having about forgiveness. When we come face to face with impossible tasks such as continually and freely forgiving those who deeply wound us, we discover our inadequacy, our inability to do what God asks of us in those situations. It is not a bad thing to realize that our best efforts are insufficient—it reminds us to turn to the One who, by his Spirit, can and will live our best response in and through and out from us.

In our New Testament reading for this Sunday, 2 Timothy 1:1–14, we hear the apostle Paul reminding us to “kindle afresh” or “fan into flame” (NIV) the gift we have been given. Adding fuel to a fire or kindling to hot coals causes the flame to leap up and again begin to burn intensely. Paul is reminding us that there is a fire we are baptized with, the Holy Spirit, and we do not want to “quench” this fire in any way. Rather we want to facilitate and encourage its continued flame.

In speaking of this gift of the Spirit, Paul reminded Timothy that this “sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” was indeed living within him. Because God by the Spirit was living within Timothy, he did not have a spirit of timidity or fear, but one of “power and love, and discipline”. The indwelling presence of God by the Spirit enabled Timothy to do the ministry he was called into, and it was by the Spirit that Timothy found God’s grace and purpose at work in his life. It was not all up to Timothy, but rather a walk of faith in which the “faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” were expressed as he lived out God’s calling on his life.

When asked by the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus spoke of the tiny amount of faith necessary to pick up and move a large tree from land into the sea. And then he went on to use a parable, which in our culture does not really resonate with us, since so many of us object so strongly to slavery. But what if we looked at it a little differently?

Think of a college intern, Gracie, who works for a fashion designer, Laurel, in hopes of one day she might have her own designs looked at and used. (Sorry if this sounds like a romcom plot.) Gracie spends her days fetching Laurel’s coffee, running her errands, picking up her dry cleaning, and taking care of the designer’s everyday tasks. Gracie doesn’t get paid much of anything since she is an intern—she’s lucky to barely have enough income to cover her expenses with her side job waitressing in the student union.

If Gracie is out running errands for Laurel, is the designer going to call her up and invite her in for tea and crumpets, offering to serve her? No. Instead, Laurel will probably call her up and tell Gracie that while she is running around, she is to stop by Laurel’s favorite dinner spot and pick up a meal to go and to be sure to bring home Laurel’s favorite coffee while she is at it. Gracie will be expected to do all that, finish her errands, and clean off the coffee table so Laurel has a place to eat her dinner. And while Laurel is eating, Gracie will be expected to take the dog Feathers out for a walk and to feed her. And when Gracie shows up and finishes all her tasks, she should not expect praise and gratitude from Laurel, since Gracie is simply supposed to do what she was instructed to do, since she is just an intern.

Now, in the real world, I would like to hope that if there are any Laurel’s out there, that they would reconsider how they treat their interns. But this is a parable, right? It is to help us see in our minds eye what Jesus is saying. The disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus said that even the tiniest bit of faith can move a large tree to the sea should it be exercised.

The only way any of us has any faith at all is in Christ, as we participate with him in his death and resurrection. It is Christ’s faith at work in us by the Holy Spirit which enables us to do difficult things such as forgiving what seems impossible for us to forgive. And when we do forgive, when we do live like we should, when we do say what is healing and encouraging rather than hurtful, should God stand up and applaud? No, because we are simply doing what we were created to do, being who we were created to be—image-bearers of the divine, reflections of the glory of God in Christ by the Spirit.

It is God’s life at work in us by the Spirit who gets the credit. It is for his glory and to fulfill his purpose. The life of faith begins with a God who is trustworthy and who, in Christ, lives the life of faith we were created to live within, and who gives us, in Christ, the faith necessary to follow him and live in the truth of who we were created to be as children of the Father. I would imagine that even the angels of heaven have delight as does the Father when his children return home to their real selves, living in right relationship with him and each other. But truly, isn’t that where we belonged all along?

Father, Jesus, Spirit, you made us to live in loving, other-centered relationship with you and each other. We cannot and will not do this apart from your life in us and with us by your heavenly Spirit. Thank you for giving us the faith of Christ by the Spirit, enabling us to trust you in any and every situation, as you always meant for us to trust you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea”; and it would obey you. Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat”? But will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink”? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.” ’ ”       Luke 17:5–10 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/09/olitlord-increase-our-faith.pdf ]

Our Royal Beginning and End

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By Linda Rex

September 25, 2022, PROPER 21—It appeared that the topic of interest this weekend was her majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s death and the succession of Prince Charles (III) to the throne of England. For better or for worse, people from all over the world have been touched in some way by the long arm of this royal family’s commonwealth and country.

I sometimes wonder if our fascination with royalty is bound up in some way with the spiritual reality of our royal beginning in the Triune God. Is there perhaps a core realization that we were made for so much more than this mundane existence? Could it be that God’s “very good” descriptor of his human creations includes our calling to steward the creation he set us within just as a godly king or queen stewards a country?

In both of the bookends of the Bible, Genesis and Revelation, we see humans in the garden in relationship with God and participating in his care of the creation. The revelation that we are to be “kings and priests” with God as the end result of all Christ has done resonates with our original call to stewardship, and calls us up to a new way of looking at how we live even now in this world as citizens of God’s kingdom. This stewardship, or being kings and priests with Christ, involves a real participation in Christ’s own self-offering—a laying down of one’s life and a sharing of all we have been given with others.

Indeed, with the coming of Christ, the kingdom of God entered our human sphere and set up shop. Like the stone “cut out without hands” in Daniel’s vision (Dan. 2:34, 45), the kingdom of God was inaugurated in our human sphere in a new way by the incarnation of Jesus Christ—God in human flesh. The king of the kingdom forged within human flesh our true citizenship in his eternal kingdom, life in relationship with the Father in the Spirit. In what many call the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus showed how the “prodigal” or “wasteful” Father freely welcomed home our wandering humanity (younger son) and forgave our futile efforts to work ourselves into his good graces (older son).

We move from this parable in Luke’s gospel to one about the unjust steward, and then on into the parable for today in Luke 16:19–31. In this story, it may seem that Jesus is simply talking some more about money and being rich, and about going to heaven or hell, but in the progression of the parables, we find he is talking about kingdom realities. He is focused on his reason for being there and the listeners’ need for what Jesus was doing and would do as he worked his way forward toward his upcoming death and resurrection in Jerusalem.

In this Sunday’s parable, Jesus began talking about a rich man who wore splendid, luxurious clothes and merrily enjoyed the benefits of his wealth. I get the sense that, in itself, having nice things and enjoying what blessings God gives is not a problem in Jesus’ eyes. It is the heart and motivation, and what we do with them, that is a concern though. I also realize that some of Jesus’ listeners were probably thinking to themselves, “He must be a good man like me. He loves the Lord and is one of God’s chosen—that’s why he’s so blessed.”

Jesus wasn’t content to leave them in this false state of self-exaltation—his story got a bit darker. There was a poor beggar name Lazarus lying at this rich man’s gate, covered in sores. Lazarus would have been happy simply to have had some crumbs from the rich man’s table, but all he got was what was left from the slop that he couldn’t keep the stray dogs from eating first. And what was worse, these dogs hung around and licked the poor man’s wounds whether he wanted them to or not. Were they waiting for him to die?

In ancient Jewish thought, every Jew after death ended up in Hades (or Sheol), the place of death, either in torment or paradise. Jesus used this cultural understanding with regards to death to explain his point (not to establish some doctrine regarding our eternal destiny). Lazarus died, Jesus went on to say, having starved to death lying outside the rich man’s front gate. And he ended up where every good Jew wanted to end up, in Abraham’s bosom—an ancient expression which meant paradise. A little later, the rich man died and also went to the place of the dead, but in a much less pleasant location.

Going on with Jesus’ story: while he suffered torments, the rich man saw Lazarus in paradise, where he thought he should be. He asked Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drink of water. Let’s pause for a moment. What does this say about the rich man’s view of himself and of Lazarus? Hasn’t this been humanity’s issue since the fall, this determining that some of us are over while others are under? Wasn’t this the reason Lazarus was in Hades in the first place? Perhaps he would not have died had the rich man simply saw him as worthy of his love and grace (something each of us desperately need from God) and had helped him.

But this was not the sole point Jesus was making. He went on to say that the rich man then told Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they wouldn’t make the same mistake he did. Notice the rich man is still treating Lazarus like an errand boy or slave. He has not repented or changed his attitude towards those who were not as blessed as he was. Abraham replied that the five brothers already had the law and the prophets to warn them so sending Lazarus would be pointless. As those who heard the law and prophets read in synagogue each sabbath, every Jewish man had no excuse for not knowing what God says about caring for the poor and needy, and helping the sick.

The rich man said that if his brothers saw someone rise from the dead, then they would repent. And Abraham countered that even if they did see someone rise from the dead they would not repent. Here is Jesus’ pointed reference to his own death and resurrection, the very event he was at that moment intentionally walking toward on behalf of all humanity, counting each and every one of us worthy of God’s love and grace, and working to ensure that we each have a place in his kingdom. The One who had all the riches of divine existence had not been content to allow our beggared humanity to starve to death and suffer outside his gates. No, he had come and had joined us in our very sorry state in order raise us up into new life through his death and resurrection.

The Jewish leaders listening to Jesus had made up their minds that they were already members of God’s kingdom, the special people who were already included and blessed. They did not see themselves as the hungry, sick beggar lying outside the gate. Nor did they see they were meant to reflect the divine Majesty who would lay down his life for the sake of others. And they certainly did not see their need for Jesus nor did they see their need to repent or change their minds. And the greatest bit of irony to this whole parable—Jesus did raise a real Lazarus from the dead, and what did the leaders do? They immediately went out and plotted to kill him—and Jesus. They certainly did not repent and turn to Jesus.

In the New Testament reading for this Sunday, 1 Timothy 6:6–19, the apostle Paul tells us to grab hold of eternal life and to fight the good fight of faith. Part of this has to do with having a healthy view of money and the pleasures of this life—embracing contentment and generosity as part of our human stewardship of all God has made and given us the responsibility to care for. And there is also the need to, as Jesus did, make the bold confession of faith—laying down one’s life for others, being willing to offer it all on the behalf of those who are suffering and in need. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, it is in forgiving that we experience forgiveness, in giving of ourselves that we receive, and in dying that we are born to eternal life. As God’s kings and priests even now, we acknowledge our own need for Jesus, while freely sharing with others the abundant blessings God has given to us in Christ and by his Spirit.

Lord, thank you for reminding us that all that we consider our own we receive from the Father of lights as a gift, through your generous self-offering in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to see others as you see them, Father—our own brothers and sisters, unique equals who have been made at one with you and each other and have been given stewardship over all you have made, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”      Luke 16:19–31 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/09/olitour-royal-beginning-and-end.pdf ]

[If you are interested in participating in an in-person discussion group in the Nashville, TN area or in an online Zoom group, contact me at ourlifeinthetrinity@gmail.com. ]

Stewarding Our Greatest Asset

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By Linda Rex

September 18, 2022, PROPER 20—Do you have property or assets which require a lot of attention and effort for their care? Do you own some things which have become heavy financial or physical burdens for you to carry? Of all your physical possessions, what is your greatest asset? What do you value the most?

Even though we may own property or have physical assets of some kind, Jesus says that what is ours isn’t really our own. As we reflect on our origins, having been created by God to reflect his likeness and instructed by God to tend the garden and all he created, we see that stewarding is fundamental to our personhood as human beings. Taking care of what doesn’t belong to us but what belongs to God is an essential part of our everyday responsibilities as God’s children. We may not realize this, but our everyday lives are simply a participation in what God is doing in this world, and our actions (or inaction) are a statement of how well we are fulfilling our role as stewards of all God has made.

Too often I find myself approaching life as though what I own belongs solely to me, rather than seeing everything through the lens of stewardship—our participation in God’s life—recognizing that everything belongs to him. Perhaps it is good to be reminded that we have been given the responsibility to care for all God has made and to do what he wants done, rather than simply deciding for ourselves what we want to do with what we have. This understanding definitely puts a different outlook on how we live our lives and what we do with the physical assets which come our way.

Going beyond this, though, I am reminded that the greatest asset of all is not some physical belonging or possession, but rather something of more infinite value, meant to be shared with others. In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus told a parable about a rich owner who had to call his manager into account for squandering his possessions. This term “squandering” is the same term Jesus used in his story about the prodigal son, who squandered his Father’s inheritance with extravagant and wasteful living. The dishonest manager was told to give an account of his management, for he was going to be fired if he could not prove his innocence.

As this manager thought about what to do, he came up with a plan which might ensure that he had a place to land once he lost his present employment. He met with the owner’s debtors, and worked with each one to reduce the amount they owed. Surprisingly, when his master found out what he had done, he praised the manager for his shrewdness in handling the situation he was in.

It is interesting that in his parable, Jesus would have the unjust steward praised for what was, in effect, stealing even more from his master. But Jesus, as he addressed his disciples, was focused on something entirely different than simply teaching them the difference between honesty and dishonesty. Indeed, what the dishonest manager offered others was what Jesus himself was offering all people—grace, and life in the kingdom.

The leaders of Jesus’ day had been made stewards of God’s kingdom and his righteousness. They were responsible to care for those who were in need or who were estranged from God. But too often, they valued wealth, possessions, prominence and popularity instead, and did not see their own need for God’s grace and mercy. Not realizing their own need for grace, they did not offer it to anyone else. Instead, they held people to impossible standards and excluded them from table fellowship in ways God never intended.

Ironically, in Jesus’ parable, the one who was the Christ figure is the unjust steward, who offered the owner’s debtors grace. In his life coming to an end, the unjust steward offered new life to those who were indebted to his master. Jesus, as he told this parable, knew the price he himself was going to have to pay so that those listening would receive God’s grace—his rejection, suffering, and crucifixion. He knew that he was facing death so that all people might rise with him in the resurrection and be given new life. Jesus was stewarding well God’s gift of grace to humanity by offering himself freely in our place and on our behalf.

Jesus’ gift of grace in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is our greatest asset. Jesus’ self-offering, his willingness to lay it all down for us so that we may have new life, is the most valuable thing we own. This is a gift he has given to each and every human being—it is not limited to only those who deserve it. In fact, Jesus often pointed out that it is those who realize they don’t deserve it who best see the value of this gift.

The question is, do I, do you, see the value of God’s grace and God’s kingdom life given to us in Christ? And having been given this most precious gift, do we even realize our need for it?

And, having received this totally undeserved benefit of grace and eternal life, how well do we steward it? By God’s grace we are all included in God’s life, moment by moment sharing in what he is doing in this world. By God’s grace, we have been given all we need for life and godliness. By God’s grace and mercy, we have been included in Christ’s own intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit, having been included now and forever in the life and love of God. How well do we share this gift with others? Are we helping others to see the magnitude of what Jesus has done for them?

Whatever physical assets we may own in this life pale in comparison with this most wonderful gift. When we see and understand this, we begin to have a new perspective about everything we own. We begin to realize that generosity, sharing, hospitality, and service are each a participation in what God’s doing in this world. We find ourselves acting more as stewards, recognizing God’s ownership of us and all that we have, and we begin to actively participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, sharing with others the good news of the grace offered to all. This is the best stewardship of the priceless asset we have been given—God’s grace and eternal life.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for sharing every good thing with us, especially the gift of the kingdom and grace through Jesus. So many good gifts! Grant us the grace to steward them well and share them freely with others, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Now He was also saying to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.” The manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.” And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” And he said, “A hundred measures of oil.” And he said to him, “Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.” Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?” And he said, “A hundred measures of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill, and write eighty.” And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings. He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ ”      Luke 16:1–13 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/09/stewarding-our-greatest-asset.pdf ]

[If you are interested in participating in an in-person discussion group here in the Nashville, Tennessee area or via Zoom, please contact me at ourlifeinthetrinity@gmail.com ]

Go and Do the Same

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By Linda Rex

July 10, 2022, PROPER 10—This blazing hot summer weather here in Tennessee has driven a colony of tiny black ants into my kitchen looking for water and food. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how busy and diligent they are in their daily business, but on the other rather irritating that I can’t seem to get them to change their mind about being in my house.

So often we find ourselves like the ants, diligently going about our daily business of life, while we don’t seem to realize the difficulties we are creating for others in our lives. We, as humans made to reflect the image of God, are meant to love God with all our being and to love others as we love ourselves. When we don’t do this and it is brought to our attention, our first instinct is to self-justify—to make excuses for or rationalize away our behavior.

It is amazing to what extent I can go in my own effort to justify things I’ve said or done that have caused harm to others. What is especially amazing is how we can even use our efforts to do good or to serve God as an excuse for unacceptable behavior or neglect. Sometimes our efforts at self-justification are so effective, we don’t even see this is what we are doing. What we need is a mirror to show us the truth about ourselves. But would we even accept the truth if we saw it?

The question that the lawyer asks in the gospel story for this Sunday, Luke 10:25–37, is a very good one. But it most certainly exposed the truth as to the lawyer’s stubborn resistance to loving all others, no matter whom they might be. “Who is my neighbor?” is a question that when honestly asked of ourselves, exposes our prejudices and our preferences, and opens us up to the possibility that we may need to repent or turn away from our own self-centeredness.

What about the man in Jesus’ story, who laid beaten, rejected, left for dead by the side of the road? Isn’t that the way Jesus ended up at the hands of those he came to save? Do we understand first of all that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Word of God, who came into our sphere of existence to live as one of us? Indeed, Jesus became a brother to every one of us, making himself our kinsman-redeemer, willing to suffer and die at the hands of those he created and made so that we might be welcomed home to the Father in the Spirit.

Taking this a bit farther, we find in this story that the Samaritan—the one who is considered an outcast and a heathen—is the only one who stops to join with the fallen traveler who laid dying by the side of the road. Our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection necessitates us accepting our own reality—that we are the outcasts, and that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, the only place where we find redemption, restoration and renewal.

When we find ourselves exposed as being unloving and inhumane, self-justifying may seem the easiest and most convenient response. It sure seems to come naturally to us. But its consequences are often bitter, eternal, and not easily remedied. A much more difficult and often painful, but significantly more appropriate and redeeming response, is to speak the truth in love, to confess what we actually did say, think or do, and to receive the grace we need, and to accept the challenge to make amends as is appropriate.

Why is it so difficult for us to be honest about our failures to love? Perhaps it is because we forget that confession and truth-telling are things that we do “in Christ”. It’s all of grace. It’s all an inclusion in what Christ did in sharing in our human flesh and bringing us through his death into resurrection and ascension. It is his confession and truth-telling as to the truth of who we are as God’s beloved children, forgiven and accepted, that we participate in—allowing ourselves to be exposed fully and yet at the same time being held in the midst of Christ’s love and grace.

When Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three men in his story proved to be a neighbor to the wounded traveler, it is interesting that the lawyer could not bring himself to even say the name Samaritan. He bypassed this name and said instead, “the one who showed him mercy.” It must have burned his heart and mind to have to admit that someone so despised and rejected might possibly have done what he knew in his spirit he might not have done had he been in the same circumstance.

Christ was willing to pay the ultimate price for our healing, health, and wholeness so that we, through him, could live in intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Like the Samaritan who told the innkeeper to do whatever was needed and to charge it to his account, Jesus has done all that was needed for each of us to find healing and wholeness, and continues to stand in our place, interceding for us in each moment in our relationship with the Father in the Spirit.

How beautiful is Jesus’ simple command, “Go and do the same”! If showing mercy is God’s way of being, and he has expressed that to us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and gives us his Spirit so Christ’s life may find its full expression in and through us, then we are to be people of mercy just as God is merciful. Our acts of mercy come out of God’s heart poured into ours by the Spirit, and are not limited by any of the distinctions we tend to put upon our interactions with others. As the apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NASB).

This is a challenge for us as followers of Christ. Do we make room for those who don’t know Christ to come to know him and to grow in their relationship with God? Do we make room for people to be who they are, while inviting them to become all God created them to be? This is where love becomes a decision, a choice—an action of our will by the power of the Holy Spirit. To “go and do the same” is to walk in the path Jesus forged for us and gives us by his Spirit. May we bravely and courageously love as he first loved us.

Dear Father, thank you for loving us in spite of all our ugliness and willfulness, and our petty grievances against one another. Thank you for your forgiveness—we desperately need it and receive it humbly and gratefully. Grant us the grace to love others as you have first loved us, for Christ’s sake and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; “Do this and you will live.”’ But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied and said, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.” Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?’ And he said, ‘The one who showed mercy toward him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do the same.’”     Luke 10:25–37 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/07/go-and-do-the-sameb.pdf ]

Anointed for Death

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By Linda Rex

April 3, 2022, 5th Sunday in LENT—I love reading the book of Isaiah. This prophet has a way of writing which resonates with my current human experience while taking me into a deeper sense of God’s presence and power in the midst of all I am going through.

In the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, Isaiah 43:16–21, the prophet brings to his people’s remembrance the way in which God brought them through the horrifying experience of being pursued by Egypt’s army, and being caught up against the shores of the Red Sea, with nowhere left to go. God’s intervention on their behalf involved opening up a path for them through these waters to the other side, where they celebrated the defeat of their adversary, who had been crushed under the returning waters.

Isaiah called forth this memory for a reason. He was pointing them to the faithfulness of their God. He told them that in comparison to that great, amazing event in their history, what God was going to do next would be unforgettable. He was going to do a new thing—make a path in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

In this season of preparation for the events of Holy Week, we have been reflecting upon our need for God’s deliverance in every area of our life. Apart from God’s grace and love, we are left orphans in this broken world, and struggle to make our way forward against the mighty waters of evil, sin, and death. The opponent we are facing is intimidating—his weapons are spiritual, and he attacks us on every side. Within our human experience we struggle to fight against evil, sin, and death, but find ourselves easily losing our battle, apart from the presence and power of God at work in our circumstances.

In the gospel story this week, the apostle John describes a pleasant gathering at Jesus’ friends’ home in Bethany. Reclining at the meal, Jesus is approached by Mary, who breaks open an expensive bottle of nard, and begins anointing him with the perfume. John distinctly remembers how the fragrance filled the room, and how Mary lowered her dignity to the place where she untied her hair and began to use it to wipe Jesus’ feet.

Judas Iscariot, and the other disciples apparently, took offense at this extravagant gesture of affection for our Lord. He knew the perfume was valuable—a year’s worth of wages were needed to pay for it. Judas brought up the poor and needy as the reason for his complaint, when in reality—as the disciples were to discover later—he was pilfering from the money box. He wanted those funds for himself.

We find illustrated here two approaches to the presence of Jesus. Judas Iscariot, bent on his own avaricious agenda, is concerned about the bottom line, keeping the money available for his own personal use. And he’s not above using an appearance of righteousness and goodness in order to do it. He isn’t truly concerned about the poor, nor is he devoted to Jesus. His devotion is to himself, and his greed, lust, and avarice.

Mary, in contrast, is concerned for Jesus and his agenda. She, as it appears, is the only one who gets it—she seems to know Jesus is headed for death. So, she prepares in advance for his burial, by anointing him ahead of time. She isn’t selfish and greedy, but rather extravagant in her demonstration of devotion to Jesus. She isn’t arrogantly trying to impress everyone with how spiritual she is, but rather, she humbles herself, violating the customary conventions of her day to express her devotion to Christ.

What Mary seemed to get to some extent, and Judas didn’t, was that Jesus stood, as Israel had stood many years before, on the brink of disaster. Yes, he would march into Jerusalem, celebrated and adored—just as Israel left their slave chains behind in Egypt that fateful night, with a high hand. But within a few short days, he would be held hostage at the shores of his death, betrayed by this one who pretended to care about the poor and the needy, but who only cared about his own pocketbook.

Standing on the edge of the mighty waters of death, Jesus was prepared for his Father’s next step. He was going to do a new thing—something never done before. Already, God had entered into our human sphere to become one of us. God, in Christ, had lived a genuinely human life without sin. Now he was going to submit himself to the plots of evil human beings, and allow himself to be crucified and killed. He was doing the one thing needed to create a path in the wilderness of evil, sin and death.

Soon, he would hang on a cross, he would die, and lay in a tomb. But we know in advance that this was not the end of the story. We know that Israel made it safely to the other side of the Red Sea. And we know Jesus rose on the third day, ascending in his glorified humanity into the presence of the Father.

And we also know, as we celebrate at Pentecost, that Jesus sent the Spirit from the Father—making rivers in the desert of our human experience. What God promised through his prophet Isaiah, he accomplished. He did a new thing—God in human flesh, living our life, dying our death, and rising again to send the Spirit so we each can live in newness of life.

What a precious gift we have been given, in the gift of God’s one and only Son and the pouring out of his Spirit, bringing new life into this wilderness desert of our human existence! We do not need to remain on the shores of our dilemma, whatever it may be. We have the victory in Jesus Christ. What God promises, he does deliver.

And what he accomplished in Christ is being worked out in each of us and in this world by his Spirit, as we respond in faith. Here, in this place of impending disaster, we turn to Christ in faith—he is our divine deliverer, and he will bring us through. We trust in God’s love and grace, allowing him to finish in us individually what he has done for us all—make a path through the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Blessed Father, thank you for your faithfulness and your generosity. Thank you, Jesus, for creating a path for us through the wilderness of evil, sin, and death—we trust you to finish what you have begun. Thank you, heavenly Spirit, for drawing us deeper into relationship with our God, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?’ Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.’ ”       John 12:1–8 NASB

[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/anointed-for-death.pdf]

Blind to Our Best Blessing

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By Linda Rex

March 27, 2022, 4th Sunday in LENT—As we journey through the season in preparation for the events of Holy Week and reflect upon our own personal need for the Savior, it’s a good time to consider the many blessings we receive at the hand of God—many of which are undeserved, especially when we are more like prodigal children than faithful ones. However, the miracle of Holy Week is that God cares not only for all of the prodigals in the world, but also for all of the older sons who year after year faithfully serve God and seek to do his will.

In his book, “The Pressure’s Off”, psychologist and author Larry Crabb draws attention to our tendency to focus more on working to receive God’s blessings than we do seeking God himself and being in relationship with him. It is easy to see why he would say this—simply walk into a bookstore and you can see the many books written about ways in which we can be blessed in our lives if we just follow the authors’ guidance in getting our act together and living in a way that pleases God.

Now, I agree that we were created to love God and love one another—that this is our way of being we were created to live in. And when we don’t live in that way, we experience a lot of unnecessary heartache and suffering. But the central issue Jesus pointed us to was loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and being—i.e., all that we are—and to love our neighbor as ourself. This has more to do with a focus on right relationship and a lot less on having a good life in which we are free from pain and suffering.

As I was reading the narrative for today’s gospel reading, Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32, I was struck by the similarity of our misguided focus and the story’s ending where the older son came home from a hard day of work only to find everyone having a huge party in his absence. When he asked what was going on, he was told that they were celebrating because his younger brother had arrived safely home. This, understandably, made him livid.

Furious, he ranted at his father, “All these years I worked to the point of exhaustion, obeying every little instruction you gave me, and not once did you ever even buy me lunch or take me out to dinner! And now, this wastrel, who threw all your money away and made us almost lose the farm, shows up and you throw a party? You even killed the calf we’d been fattening up and invited the whole neighborhood over!”

If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to say that the response of this older son is not much different than our own response when we see God go to work in the life of someone we can’t stand and turn them completely around, drawing them out of their broken, shattered life into one centered in Christ. The memories of all the harm they have done, the broken promises, the losses and griefs we suffered at their hands, are hard to ignore. No, it’s just not that simple to let them off the hook, especially when we see little or no proof that they have genuinely changed.

Or, we may have spent our whole life doing our best to be a good person, going to church faithfully, donating to every good thing we thought might be worthwhile, and trying to take good care of our health and our family. But then we end up in the doctor’s office facing the reality that we are dying of cancer. Or the officer shows up at the door to tell us our teenage child was killed in a car wreck by a drunk driver. Or…the list could go on. Our best efforts at being an obedient child of God seem insignificant in the face of such loss and grief, suffering and pain.

The point we are missing, unfortunately, is that it isn’t about anyone’s performance or lack thereof. It isn’t about the fact that we have been faithful and obedient all these years and they haven’t. The point is that God is love, and that he loves them and he loves us, and that everyone of us is given, in Christ, an intimate relationship with the God who wants to live in union and communion with each and every person now and for all eternity. He does not want anyone to miss out on all that is truly theirs—life in the midst of the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit—something each and every person was created to participate in.

Notice the father’s response to the son’s tirade: “Son, you’ve always been with me. Everything I have is yours. What we’re celebrating is that your brother was dead, but now he is alive! He was lost, but now he is found! How can we do anything less than celebrate?” In every word, he reminded his son that he was near and dear to his heart and that everything he owned was at his son’s disposal at all times. In order to give the inheritance to the younger son, the father had distributed all he owned between them both. This father had held nothing back, but had given it all up—for both his sons.

We find the older son was a whole lot more concerned about the fatted calf and the party and the welcome given the prodigal child, than he was about his own personal relationship with his father. Isn’t that like many of us? We get more concerned about how someone else is or isn’t living the Christian life (as we define it) than we do about our own right relationship with God in Christ. We want to know why we aren’t being blessed by God the way they are, rather than realizing the extent God went to in Christ so that we, along with everyone else, could spend eternity in his presence. What really matters most to us?

It is so easy for us to be blind to our best blessing—life in relationship with the God who loves us and has offered us everything in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. What in this life is so very important that it is worth giving this up? Yes, there may be a prodigal God wants us to welcome home with gratitude, celebrating he or she who was dead is alive again, for the one who was lost is, in Christ, now found. But possibly, we might be the one who is blind to the true blessing God has given us in Christ, unable to see how marvelously wonderful it is to be included in God’s love and life, to be given his own precious Spirit, to be held close to the Father’s heart, with all of heaven at our disposal, now and forever, as his beloved child.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness through Christ and in the Spirit. Thank you for, in Christ, becoming the prodigal one yourself and bringing us home from the far country to be welcomed now and forever in the Father’s embrace of love and grace in the Spirit. Thank you for removing our blindness and helping us to see how beloved and cherished we really are, now and forever, through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.

“Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”     2 Corinthians 5:16–21 NASB

[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/blind-to-our-best-blessing.pdf%5D

Clearing the Way for Fruit

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By Linda Rex

March 20, 2022, 3rd Sunday in LENT—Today our neighbor is having her fence replaced. One of the blessings that came with it was the removal of a small tree next to our shed which had been holding up her fence. It is amazing how the removal of this one misplaced tree enabled us to clean up some things next to the shed we hadn’t been able to reach, while at the same time facilitated the installation of something new which our neighbor was needing done.

As I was studying the readings for this Sunday, I was struck with how this little event in my day coincided with the Word of God for today. The gospel reading tells us about people coming to Jesus with a couple of stories of how several people lost their lives—some in a Roman bloodbath within the temple grounds, and some when a tower fell on them. The common thought of the day was that if something bad like this happened to you, it was because you were a horrific sinner and you were getting what you deserved.

Jesus told them that this wasn’t the case at all—that’s not how his Father works. Instead of worrying about the spiritual condition of the people who died in these events, Jesus’ listeners were admonished to consider their own spiritual condition. He pointed out that they needed to be sure they were right with God themselves rather than focusing on the sinfulness of others.

Isn’t this typical of us, though? I remember years ago when God woke me up to the reality that I needed to quit focusing on the faults of my spouse and others, and start looking at my own issues. You and I are unable to change another person or fix them. The only person we have any control over is ourself, and there is extreme doubt that we can even regulate ourself—we are utterly dependent upon God making us what we need to be by his Holy Spirit. For that reason, we need to do what Jesus was telling these people here to do—repent. We need to experience a change of mind and heart as well as action—a turning away from ourselves to Christ in faith.

After reminding his listeners of their need to repent, Jesus told a story about a vineyard owner who had a fig tree that, after three years, still hadn’t borne any fruit. The owner told the vineyard keeper to cut it away, removing it because it was occupying space needed for production. It was hindering the growth of everything else by blocking the sun, and was taking up resources that were needed for the other plants and trees to be fruitful. The vineyard keeper, like Christ did for all of us by the way, interceded on behalf of the fig tree. He said he would dig around the tree, fertilize it and give it another year to see if it would finally bear fruit.

The point is, there are things in our lives which may simply not be fruit-bearing. Sometimes the things we believe about God or ourselves are inaccurate, misplaced, or even toxic, and they need to be removed so that healthier patterns and beliefs may take their place, and we may begin to bear spiritual fruit. Sometimes the issues may be so small and seemingly insignificant, we miss them, and don’t realize they are symptomatic of some bigger issues—things we need to face up to and repent of so that God can bring us to a healthier, more wholesome way of living and being.

Sometimes the way we read the written Word of God is part of the problem. We may need to go a little deeper in our own personal study of God’s Word rather than just going by what other people say about it. Let me give a couple of examples, drawn from the readings for this Sunday.

First, we read in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 about how God in Christ walked with the nation of Israel through the wilderness, being the spiritual rock from which they drank and drew their life. When someone is, like I am now, going through a time of intense trial and difficulty, people have a tendency to say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” They believe they are quoting 1 Corinthians 10:13, when it actually says: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (NASB). If you look at the context of this verse, you will find that the apostle Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about difficult times or trials. Jesus is the way of escape from temptations to sin, and he taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13).

A kinder, better statement for someone going through tough times, I believe, is that Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He may not keep us from the flames of fire, but like he did with Daniel’s three friends, he will stay with us in the midst of those flames and carry us through to the other side (Dan. 3). We can be truthful with the text at the same time we are compassionate with the person who is hurting, thereby avoiding toxicity and unhealthy spirituality.

Another passage in the readings for today which leapt out at me is Isaiah 55:6–9. When we are faced with difficult or confusing situations or hard times, I often hear people quote verse 9, pointing out that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

I’m all for God being way beyond anything I could be as a human. But the context of this particular passage is about grace. It’s a call to repentance, to turn back to God. It’s about God not looking at sinful people the way that we look at them, or the way we look at ourselves and God when we fail to live the way we know we ought to. God is offering his grace, his mercy, if only we would just turn away from ourself and turn back to him.

Just like the people Jesus was talking to in the gospel passage for this Sunday, we often get focused away from where God would like our focus to be—turning away from ourself and turning to Christ in faith. I’ve been thinking about why we go to church—is it so that we can get a free meal, or help with our bills, or so that we can feel better about ourselves? Or is it part of a personal relationship with the God who has called us to himself in Christ by the Spirit and is wanting us to be a part of what he is doing in the world? Yes, we need to experience God’s love through the good deeds done for us, but shouldn’t we be going beyond that to sharing God’s love with others, once we have experienced the profound goodness and mercy of God?

God is so incredibly patient and generous with us. He continues to bury us with Christ that we might once again rise with him to new life. Christ was willing to be the fertilizer in the ground, placed in the earth so that we might be given the ability to produce lasting spiritual fruit. He offers himself to us, inviting us to turn from ourselves and to turn to him in faith, allowing him produce spiritual fruit in us by the Holy Spirit, as we open up to One who is the Light of the world. May we respond to him in faith, trusting he will finish what he has begun in us.

Thank you, Father, for not cutting us out, but allowing your Son and your Spirit to intercede for us, drawing us deeper into life with you. Grant us the grace to ever turn to you in faith, trusting in your faithful love and mercy, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ And He began telling this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” And he answered and said to him, “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.” ’ ”      Luke 13:1–9 NASB

[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/clearing-the-way-for-fruit.pdf%5D

When It’s Hard to Love

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By Linda Rex

February 20, 2022, 7th Sunday of EPIPHANY—Last night my husband, Ray, and I were talking about how hard it is sometimes to love people, especially when they make it very difficult to do so. In our everyday lives, we come across people who are thoughtless, inconsiderate, or downright rude, and we are asked by God to be gracious and to not hold it against them. And that is difficult, if not impossible, at times.

We’ve all had those experiences where we are simply going about our everyday lives and someone does something that totally disrupts and ruins our day. What is our response to the person who cut us off in traffic, causing us to miss our exit or to spill our coffee all over ourselves? If I look at what the apostle Paul says I should do, I find that “love…puts up with anything” (1 Cor. 13:7 MSG). Did he really mean that I have to put up with anything that people do to me?

What is unspoken in this passage in Luke 6:27–38 is the reality that often love looks much different than what we assume it looks like. Love, at times, is not very nice. Indeed, there can be a profound difference between being nice and being loving. One can be incredibly nice to someone and at the same time be holding them hostage to unhealthy ways of living and being. We often do this to one another when the most loving thing might be to speak the truth in love or to set healthy boundaries in the relationship by not doing for others what they need to do for themselves.

This is where it is a real challenge for us to love. I’m learning that I still have a long way to go when it comes to loving the people in my life well. Love, in the way Jesus describes it, is something sacrificial, serving, humble and self-effacing. It involves losing, dying, being taken advantage of, and being taken for granted. It means being willing to be the one who suffers undeservedly for the sake of another. This certainly doesn’t come naturally for us.

Jesus calls us up to a higher standard—one beyond our human ability. When have we ever gotten to the place where we could and would love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us? It takes an inner transformation by the Holy Spirit to bring us to the place where we would actually love in the same way that God loves us. It takes the love of God shed abroad in our hearts to enable us to think, live, speak and act like the sons of God we are in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:5; 8:14).

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that there is probably nothing someone else has done to us that we have not in some form or fashion done to others. Indeed, if we believe we’ve never done to others what has been done to us, then we need to consider whether or not there are a few things we’ve done to God that he didn’t deserve. Oh, yes—I went there. We do stuff to God all the time that he doesn’t deserve. And most certainly, he did not deserve to be crucified when he came in the person of Jesus Christ.

And love is a challenge when we must do the right thing in the face of someone doing the wrong thing. When someone is unjust toward us, do we remain just and fair? When someone is cruel to us, are we kind back? When someone is indifferent or cold to us, do we respond with intentional compassion and concern? This is hardest to do in our closest relationships, where our everyday lives wear down our respect and patience with one another. When someone we love repeatedly messes up, it’s really hard to let them off the hook one more time. But isn’t that what God does with us?

Jesus really got down to the basics when he began talking about blessing those who curse us and doing good to those who hate us. He didn’t ask us to give up our human dignity, to allow ourselves to be abused, but he did ask us to go way beyond what comes naturally to us, so that we might be as gracious to others as his Father is to us. What standard do we want God to judge us by—the criticism and condemnation we hand out to others or the gracious patience and understanding we offer them when they mess up or hurt us?

This passage is really hard to read, because I realize how impossible it is for us to actually live this out in our world full of users and abusers. How was Jesus able to actually do this when he lived here on earth? It was only possible because he was filled with the Spirit from birth and was, as God in human flesh, living in union and communion with his Father moment by moment as he interacted with those he encountered day by day. How else could he have handled so graciously the constant condemnation, rejection, and abuse? How else could he have allowed himself to be crucified by those he came to save?

The reality is that living in right relationship with God and others comes to us only as a gift. It is Jesus’ right relationship with God and others that we participate in by the Holy Spirit. Jesus lived out loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit while he was here on earth, loving others in the way we were meant to love. And he forged within our humanity the capacity to love and be loved as God intended when he created us. When we love God and love one another—we are truly human the way God meant us to be human.

So, Jesus, having lived our life and died our death and risen from the grave, sent the Spirit from the Father. The Spirit shed abroad in human hearts enables us to truly love and be loved in the way we were meant to. We find the ability to love when it gets hard as we trust in Christ’s love being poured out within us by the Holy Spirit. When we are faced with unpleasant or difficult situations in which it is impossible to love another, we turn to Jesus. We find in him the capacity, by the Spirit, to do what we would not otherwise do.

Seeing our need for Christ, for his grace, for his ability to love and be loved, enables us to offer the same grace and compassion toward others. Understanding our dependency upon a power greater than ourselves to be able to simply love and care for others, enables us to graciously understand when others fail to love and care for us. May God awaken us to the depths of the love and grace he has toward us that we may offer it freely to all those whom we struggle to love.

Thank you, Abba Father, for your unfailing love and grace. We are so dependent upon your mercy and compassion! Fill us with your love that we may love others as you have loved us, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.”     Luke 6:27–38 NASB