harvest

Standing in the Rain

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by Linda Rex

October 23, 2022, Proper 25—Several years ago, I took a brief trip to the community of Cherokee, North Carolina. My kids and I stayed at a cabin back in a beautiful glen in the Smoky Mountains. One morning I woke up to the sound of rain on the roof. I wrapped a blanket around myself and went to sit in a rocker on the porch.

There is something uniquely comforting and soothing about the sound of a gentle rain. The glen looked as though a cloud had descended, wrapping wreathes of wispy cotton candy around each tree and bush. The silence was almost sacred, as though the whole world had paused to take a breath. Soon everything was dripping with water, including the cattle in the field nearby, who were contentedly chewing their cuds.

One of the Psalms for this Sunday describes this gift from God (Psalm 65:9–11) and reminds us that God prepares the soil, softens it with rain, and prepares it so that it can begin to produce abundantly when the season comes for tilling and growing. And we rejoice when the result of God’s generous provision is an overwhelming harvest of good things.

Another passage for this Sunday, Joel 2:23–32, begins by describing how God would again provide the early and latter rains, making an abundant harvest possible. And then the prophet said that God would “pour out” his Spirit upon all mankind. He reiterated about the pouring out of God’s Spirit, affirming that all people of every status would be given this gift.

Where we are now on the Christian calendar, which is post-Pentecost, we are reminded of the gift we have been given of God’s indwelling presence by the Holy Spirit. Everyone of us has been included in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and by faith participates in Christ’s own relationship with his Father in the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit poured out for each and every person, flows down, in and around us alike a flood.

Jesus, in the passages prior to our gospel passage for today, Luke 18:9–14, told his disciples about his upcoming rejection and suffering. Then he told them that the day of the Son of man would be like the days of Noah. We find that Noah and his family survived because of God’s mercy, while everyone else was drowned in the flood waters. In a similar way, our flesh, with its accompanying evil, sin, and death, was drowned in the flood waters of Jesus’ death, and given new life in the dry land of his resurrection.

Jesus also used the example of Lot and his wife having to leave Sodom and Gomorrah. Like evil, sin, and death, these cities were consumed by the fire and brimstone sent by God. In the same way our old life was consumed by the fire of God’s love through Jesus’ sacrificial self-offering. Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33 NASB). We do not want to look back to try to find our real life, but to move forward into the new life God created for us through his Son and by the Spirit.

In the gospel story for today, Jesus tells of a Pharisee and a publican. The Pharisee came to the temple to pray. He took up the appropriate stance, with hands up and eyes lifted to heaven, and began to enumerate to God all the reasons he was just in God’s sight. He thanked God for this, of course, but to emphasize how just he was in comparison, he pointed out the sinful publican.

The publican, on the other hand, stood at a distance, humbly and earnestly praying, asking God for mercy. He could not even lift his eyes up in the normal stance of a Jew—he didn’t feel worthy. The astonishing turn of events in this story is that this man, the publican who was doing everything “wrong” in his life, was the one who went home justified in the eyes of God.

Robert Capon, in his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, pointedly asks what God would do when the publican showed up the next week (Capon, 337ff.). What if he hadn’t changed at all, continuing in his selfish, greedy, and sinful lifestyle—would God forgive him again? Or is there a limit on what God would do? What if the publican suddenly changed everything and started living like the Pharisee—would that mean that he would not be justified before God as Jesus said the Pharisee wasn’t?

Shortly after this parable, Luke includes the story of the children coming to Jesus to be blessed. The Lord had to stop the disciples from preventing their approach, telling them that in order to inherit the kingdom of God, the disciples needed to become like little children. We like to keep things simple—he’s bad, she’s good, they’re not important, I am, I’m saved, he’s not. But that’s not the simplicity Jesus is looking for.

Then Jesus told a ruler who came to ask Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life to sell all that he owned and to give it to the poor and needy, and to follow him. This man could not make that commitment, and so, walked away. When it came to keeping the law and following the demands of the synagogue and scripture, this ruler thought he had it made. But Jesus showed him this wasn’t enough. Apparently, Jesus set the bar so high, this ruler, and the disciples, couldn’t see any way over it. Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus how, then, anyone could possibly be saved. Jesus told them, “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God” (Luke 18:27 NASB). Then Jesus went back to preparing his disciples for his upcoming crucifixion and death, and subsequent resurrection.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are the interpretive key for this whole section of scripture. He wanted his disciples to understand that being justified before God is not something they could achieve by flawless performance or faithful adherence to pious practices. Jesus would pour himself out as a libation or poured out offering before God on our behalf, because of our rejection of him and our crucifixion of him. But Jesus did not remain in the grave—death had no hold on him. He rose and ascended, keeping his promise to send the Spirit, enabling us by faith to share in his own life in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit.

Jesus sent the Spirit, not so we could justify ourselves or do a better job of being Christians, but so that we may participate in his own life, his own death and resurrection. It is Christ’s life poured out so generously and freely into us by the Spirit who enables us to pour out freely and generously into others.

The apostle Paul described his life in service to God as being a poured-out libation, or liquid offering to God (2 Timothy 4:6–8). Like the man who was told to sell all he had and give it to the poor and needy, we each have some way in which Jesus has told us how to participate with him in death and resurrection, for the sake of others. This is almost always some way of laying down our lives which goes far beyond observing religious rules and rituals.

We don’t do this to justify ourselves or to make ourselves right with God, but simply as a participation in Christ’s own life in the Spirit. Christ lives in us by the Spirit, and leads us where he wants us to go. In Christ, we have died to our old life, and have been brought into Jesus’ own life in union and communion with his Father in the Spirit. What is Jesus doing in our world? How does he want us to join in? What does that look like for us?

This moves us way beyond the Pharisee and the publican in the temple praying, seeking their justification, each in their own way. Jesus brings both of them to the same place—at the foot of the cross—where they each are brought down into the reality of the consequences of evil and sin, which is death, and up into the consequences of Jesus’ poured out self-offering, which is eternal life, an undeserved but much-needed gift given to all humanity in the Spirit. This is a rain-enriched abundant harvest well worth celebrating.

Our loving Lord, thank you for sending us the early and latter rains, the abundant showers of your presence in the Spirit. Lord Jesus, flood us with your life and love; flow freely through us and from us, pouring yourself out into the lives of those around us, for the glory of the Father. Amen.

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”       Luke 18:9–14 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/10/olitstanding-in-the-rain.pdf ]

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From Small, Insignificant Beginnings

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By Linda Rex

June 13, 2021, PROPER 6—One of the things I learned years ago while still living on the farm was that although my husband participated in the growing process by preparing the soil, planting the seed, fertilizing and cultivating the soil, and applying pesticides and herbicides, the outcome of planting row crops was ultimately dependent upon forces over which we had no control. We could not predict how much sunshine or rain we would have, nor could we plan for out-of-season freezing temperatures, floods, or hailstorms.

There is something about working the land and caring for livestock that can keep a person humble and dependent upon God. When we are aware of the reality that only God really has control over the outcome, then we are actually in a very good place. In this place of trust and dependency, we can experience rest, trusting that God will make it all right in the end, creating a harvest beyond our expectations. Even if there is no harvest, we are still in a good place, because we are safely in the care of our Creator and Redeemer, who loves us and seeks our best.

Take a moment and contemplate the process of growing things. A small, insignificant brown seed, small enough to be lost in your hand, is placed in soil. This dirt, which rubs on our hands and into our jeans as we kneel on the ground, is full of microorganisms and living creatures. The little seed may simply rot away or die, or one day, when we least expect it, send forth a shoot and a root. Over time, this tiny fledgling plant will grow. We nurture it in whatever way we are able, encouraging it to survive and thrive in the sun, rain, and wind until it is harvest time. The neat thing about growing a plant from seed is, we begin with next to nothing and then, at harvest time, we have a multitude of seeds in return.

Jesus used an illustration of a sower and seed, as well as a mustard seed, in reference to the kingdom of God. The sower planted seed in the ground, and it sprouted and grew without his efforts, until harvest time. The mustard seed Jesus described next was a very tiny seed. But in a very short period of time, this plant sprouted and grew into a shrub up to twelve feet tall, with branches on which little birds could sit.

Jesus Christ, who was God present at that time in human flesh, was like an insignificant and tiny seed planted in the ground—a hidden mystery that would someday bear fruit. And just like the seed in these parables, Jesus was, in time, planted in a tomb, having been crucified in our place and on our behalf. The planting of this Seed, the Son of God in human flesh, is enabling the harvest of many children of God, a reality which will be fully manifest at the coming of Christ in glory.

The kingdom of God, his reign in human hearts, began with Jesus Christ planted in our human flesh, and is at work in this world right now by the Holy Spirit, and will culminate in the renewal of all things at Christ’s return. God has come to dwell in human hearts—our faith response, trusting in Christ and living in him—enables us to participate in this kingdom life right now and ultimately, in the new heavens and earth when all things are made new.

The problem we have as human beings is that we so often attempt to bring about the kingdom of God ourselves and on our own terms. We decide what the kingdom of God looks like and we work to bring it about under our own efforts. This has been true for millennia, with the resulting devastation and destruction of war, genocide, starvation, and slavery which accompany it. God never meant for us to bring about his kingdom under our own power, but for us to surrender to the lordship of the One, Jesus Christ, who brought it about in his person and who is present and active right now by his Spirit, working his kingdom into every part of this world.

We want to see active proof right now that Jesus is at work, whereas Christ said that we cannot see or control what the Spirit is doing—we can only see the ultimate results of it. That God is at work in this world by his Spirit is what we need to trust in—Jesus Christ is still present and is still Lord, even though it may seem to our eyes that God is indifferent to what is happening all around us.

What God is doing involves human hearts and minds—something which is hidden but still very important and real. In our world in which reason is worshipped and human achievements are celebrated and tangible, physical realities are preferred, the things of the Spirit and the human heart are often ignored, ridiculed, and rejected. But this makes them no less real.

We can deny that Jesus Christ ever lived, believe that the stories about him are simply religious myth, but we cannot escape the reality of a changed, transformed life in which Christ is the only redeeming factor. And a changed life does not necessarily mean that person is perfect—we are still humans in need of redemption even though our trajectory may have changed and we are finally turned in the right direction. When Christ by the Spirit goes to work in someone, they are never the same. But they are still free, able to make good or bad choices, and sometimes they are seduced by past passions, desires, or habits that cause them to fall. But they continue, daily, to turn to Jesus, trusting not in their own ability to get it right, but in the finished work of Christ and his intercession on their behalf, and in the power of his Spirit.

The divine Sower has planted Christ in humanity and given the Spirit. All is present for the growth of God’s reign in human hearts. We have a part to play—our response is important. What we trust in and build our life around is important. God invites us to cooperate with the grace God has given us in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul reminds us not to quench, resist, or grieve the Holy Spirit. We can choose to insult the Spirit of grace by continuing to live in the sinful ways God freed us from in Christ, or we can daily turn around and choose to live as the image-bearers of God we were meant to be. And yes, one day we will give an answer for our response to God’s gracious gift of eternal life.

But be encouraged. We “walk by faith, not by sight.” We are not what we once were—in Christ, we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:6–10, 14–17). God is at work, the Seed has been sown, is being watered by the Spirit, and this new life is being nurtured and cared for by the Light of the world. We grow up in Christlikeness as we respond in faith, trusting in Christ’s finished work. And our hope is in the promise that what God has begun in us, he will finish. He is the trustworthy Sower who is working toward an abundant harvest, one in which we can participate by faith in the Seed he sowed.

Father, great Sower of the Seed, we thank you for your love, grace and faithfulness, and for what you are doing right now in and through us by your precious Spirit. It is your love which compels us to no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus, who lived and died on our behalf. May your kingdom come, your will be done, here on earth as in heaven. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

“And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’  And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that ‘the birds of the air’ can ‘nest under its shade.’ With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.”     Mark 4:26–34 NASB

Thrown into the Wind

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By Linda Rex

PEACE
December 8, 2019, 2nd Sunday of Advent—Years ago, I recall walking out my front door and looking down over the hill into the area below the house where the nearby creek ran down into the river bottom. We had a few acres on the flat land which my husband Ray would plant with soybeans or corn. He would harvest the crop and it would be used to feed our cattle. In the fall I would look out over the crest of the hill and see the dust rise as he ran the combine through the field to harvest the grain. Every year as I saw the corn stalks being relentlessly drawn into the harvester and the golden grain pouring into the hopper, I would be filled with a deep sense of gratitude and joy.

Apart from those religious communities who still farm by hand, in modern America today when we read about harvesting crops, we no longer think in terms of threshing by crushing the shell of the grain and then throwing it into the air to remove the chaff. During John the Baptizer’s day, this was how it was done, so when he used farming metaphors in his preaching, he touched the hearts and minds of those people who were familiar with this process.

Removing the chaff from the grain meant removing that part of it which was inedible. When we eat corn on the cob, we are essentially removing the edible part of the grain from the part which is inedible. When I handed a dried ear of corn to our cousin’s horse Goldbrick, he would grab it, and then slowly remove each kernel off the cob with his teeth.

In the case of wheat, barley, or oats—which is more to the point—this means removing the tough exterior casing which holds the grain on the stalk. This part of the plant is more easily blown away, while the heavier grain falls to the ground and is gathered together, collected and stored. The chaff and stalks of the grain were often used as fuel, hence John’s reference to burning.

When the Jewish religious leaders came to the Jordan River where John was baptizing the multitudes, it is not real clear what their motive was for coming. What they were told was that just because their bloodline was Jewish, they would not automatically be included in the kingdom of God. According to John, they needed more than just an appearance of religiosity—they needed a change of heart and mind that would be expressed by a change of behavior.

John pointed out that the house of religious cards the Pharisees and Sadducees had built was about to be brought completely down. No longer were Gentiles going to be excluded from table fellowship, but any person’s right relationship with God would no longer be determined by lineage or performance but solely by faith in Christ. This would require a genuine change of heart and mind—a metanoia or repentance—in everyone. All needed to repent and be baptized.

What Jesus did in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension by taking on our humanity and restoring it was a complete game changer. The seed which was Christ was buried in the ground and in three days arose, bringing us all as a harvest of new life into the presence of the Father. As the firstfruit of all humanity, Christ arose into glory and sent the Holy Spirit so each and every person may participate in the divine life and love.

Jesus is the one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Holy Spirit blows like the wind, calling us to faith in Christ and turning our hearts back to the Father. The wind of the Spirit blows in and over us, not to sweep us away, but to remove those things which keep us from being truly and solely who we are in Jesus Christ. God allows the experiences of life to toss us into the air so that God is able to, by the Spirit, blow away the chaff, burn the refuse, and harvest each precious grain.

The way God works to reap of harvest of righteousness in us is so much like what Jesus went through. We are often brought to or led by the Spirit into places where we may experience crushing and brokenness—not to harm us, but so God is able to renew, restore, and rebuild us into the new humanity of Christ. The path to resurrection Jesus clearly showed is the path through the cross and the grave.

When God goes to work by his Spirit, to form us more completely into the image of Christ, we may find ourselves struggling to cooperate. Today’s culture seems to be addicted to painkillers—in other words, rather than feeling our pain, or dealing with our issues, or working out our difficult relationships, it’s as if we’d rather just take a pill. Or we may try to find some other way to escape or anesthetize our feelings or ignore the truth about what is really happening. What if the best thing I could do would be to deal with what’s right in front of me now, in this moment, with my hand in Jesus’ hand, trusting in Abba’s perfect love, giving and receiving forgiveness, and accepting the grace of God?

Matthew quotes John the Baptizer as saying that Jesus “will thoroughly clear His threshing floor”. In Word Studies in the New Testament, Marvin Vincent says that the obsolete word “throughly” was used in the Rev. rather than the word “thoroughly”, in order to express how a farmer would start at one end of the threshing floor and carefully work his way across so that no kernel of grain was missed. I like this way of saying it, because in many ways, that is what Jesus is doing. He has made sure no one is left out of God’s eternal plan—while at the same time he has made room for our freedom to resist his love and grace. In Christ we are all included—by faith each one of us may freely participate in the finished work of Christ.

One day the earth will be filled with God’s adopted children who truly know their Lord and are fully known and loved by him. To know God, and be fully known by him and fully loved by him, is what we were created for. This divine communion is what God always meant for us to be included in. By the Spirit, we have a real participation in God’s love and life, as we trust in the finished work of Christ, the divine Seed, the Word of God who stood in our place on our behalf.

God’s judgment on evil, sin, and death is that they are to have no place in our human existence any longer. In Christ, they are defeated foes which one day will be cast into the “lake of fire” and consumed. God’s passionate love for his adopted children leaves no room for anything which may mar the beauty and grace of our oneness with him.

The Spirit calls to us to let go of all that chaff and allow the divine wind to blow it all way and to bring a harvest of God’s righteousness in each of us. As we continue to live each day in the already/not yet of God’s kingdom, turning away from ourselves and turning to Christ, we can experience a deep sense of gratitude and joy in God’s presence, rejoicing with him in his bountiful harvest of golden seed, of bringing many adopted children into his kingdom.

Dear Abba, thank you for your careful attention to your divine crop, for the Seed of eternal life you planted in your Son Jesus and are working to harvest even now in each of us. Grant us each the grace to repent and believe, to turn from ourselves and to trust solely in Jesus Christ. Baptize us anew with your Holy Spirit and fire that we may fully reflect your glory and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, | For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord | As the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11:9 NASB

“The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:10-12 NASB