By Linda Rex
September 5, 2021, PROPER 18—Wouldn’t it be nice if we could simply ask God to heal someone and he would? What if we could just ask God to fix a situation—get rid of that political leader, close that company, get those people working—and it would just happen? We kind of like the idea of a vending machine God.
Or, when we think of having the faith to receive God’s “yes” to our requests, we often put the burden solely upon ourselves. We catch ourselves starting to move to the place of asking God for something, only to back away and say, “If only I had the faith to….” I wonder if often the issue isn’t with our faith or lack thereof, but rather with our inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of who God is. We don’t know what our Father’s heart and mind toward us really is and we don’t trust him to have our best interests at heart in every situation.
I suppose that if we knew God well and were walking day by day in intimate relationship with him, we might come a little closer to knowing how he perceives a certain situation and what it is he would do in that situation. Over time, by experiencing his answers to our prayers and his faithfulness to us in difficult circumstances, we might be able to ask with greater assurance for his intervention and receive what we request. But God doesn’t always say “yes.” The reality is sometimes he says “later,” or “no.” And we need to be okay with this.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday (Mark 7:24–37) we read that Jesus was trying to find a place where he could teach and minister to his disciples. He went to the region of Tyre, and entered a house, seeking privacy and quiet—time away from the crowds and their demands on his time and energy. In spite of Jesus’ efforts to remain anonymous and isolated, a Syrophoenician woman came to him in great humility and asked him to heal her daughter of an unclean spirit.
Jesus’ reply seems at first glance to be rather rude and disrespectful. He told her it was not fitting to take food away from the children and to feed it to the dogs. She as a Gentile may have experienced often the use of the term “dogs” by the Jews in reference to herself. But in reality, Jesus used a diminutive term when talking about the dogs, which showed he was referring to puppies or the family pets. He was not insulting her, but rather was explaining that his first responsibility in that moment was to his disciples, those he was training and teaching at that particular time.
The woman was not put off by Jesus’ initial refusal to help. It was quite common for her people and his, like ours today, to have family pets around the dinner table. Her reply to him was witty, saucy, and genuine—she quickly pointed out that the pet dogs could eat at the same time as the children, since they picked up the crumbs which fell off the table or ate those tidbits handed to them by the children. There was a picture of pleasant domestic tranquility in her words, a thing she may have been missing due to her daughter’s current illness. She boldly made her request, no matter the cost to herself or the inherent risk of refusal. She trusted in his ability, and willingness, to do what was needed to heal her daughter—which in the end, he did.
There are many stories in the Old Testament of people who had the boldness to ask a big thing of God, believing they would have his “yes” in response to their request. Jacob, who wrestled all night with God, would not let go until God gave him his blessing—and received it. Elijah asked God to make a visible sign of his power and glory in front of the worshipers of Baal—and he did. Elisha asked for a double portion of the Spirit which was on Elijah—and it was his when Elijah was taken. A woman who lost her son came in great grief to Elisha—and her son lived again. Nothing was too large for these people to ask for—and God happily said “yes” to each of their requests.
What if they had never asked? What if they had believed that God was not interested in what was important to them?
The thought came to me—what if Peter and John had met that man at the temple who had been lame from birth and had said to him, “We don’t have any silver or gold” and then simply walked away? Thankfully, for his sake, they did not just walk away. They offered what they did have, and that was healing in the name of Jesus Christ.
Peter and John had experienced God and his love for them in a profound and deep way. They had walked and talked with the Son of God who had taken on human flesh and lived alongside them for three years. They had sat around the campfire with Jesus and had heard his teaching and preaching. They had watched him be betrayed, be crucified and die, and then had walked and talked with him after the resurrection. The consequence of that ongoing relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ was a confident assurance and trust that enabled them to boldly ask for whatever was needed in the moment, even when it was a huge request like making a lame man walk.
If Peter had come across this lame man that night when the rooster crowed three times marking his denial of Christ, would he have responded in the same way? What would have been God’s answer to his request at that time? Peter’s faith experienced a time of testing through which he learned the heart of Jesus and his Father. He came to know Jesus in a way he had never known him before. He discovered God was not only trustworthy, but he was also gracious and compassionate—a faithful God who knew him intimately, and loved him completely and fully anyway. Filled with the Spirit following Pentecost, Peter, and his co-laborer John, had a sense of certainty about what the risen Lord would do in the situation with the man who was lame, and so they told him to walk in Jesus’ name—and he did.
Have you ever had that kind of conversation with God in which you were frankly honest with him, where you boldly asked for what was needed for yourself and others? In the midst of an ongoing conversation with God, a growing relationship with Jesus through the tests and trials of life, there is certainly room for truth-telling—for being genuine in your expression of your anger, your fear, your frustration or your need. Whatever it is, understand that God meets us where we are, not just where we ought to be or wish we could be or believe we should be.
How well do we know God? I find that way too often I make God much, much smaller than he really is. Too often I make him in my image instead of remembering I am made to reflect him. I may understand intellectually that he is greater than my problems or concerns, but my actions demonstrate that I don’t truly believe he is. I may believe that he has the capacity to fix whatever my situation is, but I simply don’t act on that capacity by boldly requesting his intervention in my situation and trusting him to do what is best. When the apostle James said that faith without works is dead, he was pointing out that too often what we say we believe about God isn’t demonstrated by the way we behave in our relationship with him and others (James 2:1–10, 14–17).
It is critical that our fragile human faith be replaced with Jesus’ implicit faith in the Father. The Spirit is working this transformation in our hearts and lives as we turn to Christ and walk in him. We spend time growing our relationship with God through the study of his word, prayer, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We make room for God to work on our hearts and minds, allowing him to draw us through difficult times and painful situations into closer relationship with him. Our trust in God and in his faithfulness grows as we follow Christ and walk in the Spirit through all of life.
And remarkably, we find that even when we do ask, we are not alarmed when God does not give us an immediate “yes”. Our relationship with God becomes more important than having our way in a given situation. We are willing to trust in God, rest in Christ, allowing the Lord to do what only he can do in the situation, believing he will do what is in our best interests because he loves us and is faithful. We know who he is, that he is trustworthy and faithful—and so we can, in Christ, trust him. We discover that the faith we are needing has been given to us as a gift from God through Jesus in the Spirit. This blessed gift of faith means God’s “yes” is already at work in our situation—we need only rest in Christ and trust in God’s love and faithfulness, for he is trustworthy.
Dear God, thank you for your faithfulness, for being trustworthy, the One we can rely upon in every situation to carry us through and to bring us in the end to where we need to be. Fill us with the faith of Christ by your Holy Spirit, giving us the grace to come boldly to your throne to receive what we need in every situation, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He was saying to her, ‘Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered and said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.’ And He said to her, ‘Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.’ And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.” Mark 7:25–30 (24–37) NASB
“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?… Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” James 2:14, 17 (1–10, 14–17) NASB
By Linda Rex
June 27, 2021, PROPER 8—In the middle of this pandemic, many of us discovered that we acutely missed the social benefits of physical touch. For our spiritual fellowship at Grace Communion Nashville, the loss of hugs and handshakes was a serious loss, not to mention the inability for a time to even be in the same location with our friends and family.
As we face the possibility of another season of separation, it is comforting to be reminded of the reality that nothing, not even the restrictions of social distancing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ, nor from one another. We are created for relationship, and healthy interactions with others are an essential part of our personhood. So we will do our best to keep our relationships strong in spite of social distancing and health restrictions.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Mark 5:21–43, we find two people who are faced with catastrophic health situations and who believe that the only person who can rescue them is Jesus. One of these is a woman with ongoing menstrual bleeding, a situation which, due to the restrictions of her religious beliefs meant she was excluded from any fellowship with other people. She was considered ritually unclean, and for the past twelve years had been avoided by anyone who was afraid they might be touched by her in some way, for they would have been made ritually unclean as well.
It took a lot of courage for her to enter the crowd that day, risking physical contact with those around her for the sake of being able to touch Jesus’ garment. She said to herself that if she could just touch his clothing, she would be healed. She believed that he was someone who healed people and drove out demons. At this point, she was willing to take the risk of entering the crowd and touching his clothing for just the possibility of finally being freed from her social exclusion.
While Jesus had been on the beach earlier, speaking to the crowd, Jairus had come up to him and urgently appealed that Christ would heal his twelve-year-old daughter. The synagogue official was at the point of desperation it seemed, since he was willing to humble himself to the point of kneeling before Jesus as he made his request. In compassion, Jesus had agreed and the crowd had followed the two of them to Jairus’ home, pressing in on them, making travel a bit cumbersome.
It was in the midst of this large crowd that Jesus stopped to ask quite loudly, “Who touched my garments?” The disciples thought he was crazy—he was being touched by everybody, it seemed! But here, trembling and afraid, came the woman who had touched his prayer shawl, kneeling at his feet. She had touched him, and knew that she had been healed. Fearful of rejection and condemnation, she poured out her story, the painful truth of her suffering, all the failed attempts to get well, all the useless doctor visits and treatments, and her simple desire for healing and relationship. She had hoped to slip away unseen, but Jesus had in mind a deeper healing.
Jesus called this woman “daughter”, setting her again within the context of community and family fellowship. And he gave her a benediction of shalom, true peace—of reconciliation with both God and man. This was the real healing she needed, far beyond the relief from her physical ailment. She was accepted, forgiven, and beloved. In this moment, all the barriers erected against her were wiped away and she was welcomed and restored.
It is interesting in the stories of Jesus healing people and raising people, that he did not always abide by the religious restrictions regarding what was ceremonially clean and unclean. To be touched by this woman rendered him, according to tradition, ceremonially unclean. But the Messiah was more than willing to allow himself to be made ceremonially unclean so that she could be made once and for all, clean. This points to the reality that the Word of God took on our “unclean” human flesh to make it “clean”—becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Jesus was not made unclean by our sin and death—he transformed our humanity and made us like himself instead, and we participate in this new existence by faith in him and by the gift of the Spirit.
At this point in the story, while Jesus paused to minister to this woman, messengers arrived from Jairus’ home. They came to tell him that his daughter had died, that he didn’t need to bother Jesus any more. Christ pointedly ignored what they said, choosing instead to continue to Jairus’ house, in spite of the realization that religious tradition prohibited the touching of dead bodies. He was on his way to perform an acted parable, demonstrating once again that the kingdom of God, present in his person, was breaking into Satan’s stronghold of death, demons, and disease, and freeing all those held captive.
The official mourners were already wailing when Jesus and three of his disciples arrived. When Jesus told them the girl was only sleeping, they scornfully laughed, making fun of the idea that she might possibly still be alive. They had seen her dead body, and they recognized death when they saw it. But Jesus was symbolically speaking of death as merely sleep, a temporary condition over which he had all authority and power.
He, taking the lead, ushered all the mourners outside and then entered the room where the dead child lay. In the final scene of this acted parable, Jesus simply took the young woman’s hand and told her to arise, which she did. As she got up and started walking about, Jesus encouraged her stunned parents to make sure she got something to eat, demonstrating that she was completely well.
In this passage we see Jesus teaching the crowds, showing compassion to those in need, and touching the untouchables, bringing them back into fellowship. We see Jesus restoring community, willing to risk ceremonial uncleanness for the sake of those who could do nothing to change their situation. These all point to what God did for us in Christ in the Word of God setting aside the privileges of Godhood to join us in our human flesh, so that our fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit might be restored and we might be made new.
As we go through another chapter of the pandemic saga, it would be good to reflect upon what these stories tell us about who Jesus is and who we are in him as the Father’s beloved children. What does it mean that in Christ, God has declared us clean, when we so often choose the way which leads to evil, sin, and death? The kingdom of God has broken in on this broken world, and Jesus is actively, by the Spirit, working to make all things new.
When we feel isolated and separated from meaningful fellowship, we can be reminded that we always have a personal companion in us and with us—Jesus by the Spirit. We can practice the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, and stillness, and experience in a real way the indwelling presence of God, guiding us, encouraging us, comforting and strengthening us. And at any time, like this woman and like Jairus, we can run to Jesus, throwing ourselves on his mercy, knowing he will lift us up and restore us, welcoming us home to the Father in the Spirit, and restoring us to warm fellowship with him and one another.
Father, thank you for sending your Son and your Spirit, for including us in your life together as the Triune God of love. Renew in us again a sense of our inclusion, of your presence and power at work in us and in our world each and every day, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.’ While He was still speaking, they came from the house of the synagogue official, saying, ‘Your daughter has died; why trouble the Teacher anymore?’ But Jesus, overhearing what was being spoken, said to the synagogue official, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.’” Mark 5:34-36 NASB
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9 NASB
By Linda Rex
March 21, 2021, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—Last fall as some of my flowers went to seed, I decided to spread some of them in the empty spots in our garden. This winter, I gathered more of the seeds and sprinkled them in a pot on the patio. As time went by, I began to see little sprouts rise from the soil. Are they weeds or flowers? I’m not quite sure yet. And I’m not sure how many will survive the freezing temperatures.
But what I do know is that even though the process of planting looks a lot like death and burial, it is the means by which new life happens, new flowers bloom and fruit is borne. What seems to be the end is actually the way in which new possibilities open up—planting season accomplished means harvest season may be looked forward to with anticipation and hope. God is our divine Gardener, and he loves to plant seeds and watch them grow. When we come to situations in life that appear to be an end, we need to remember they may just be a seed God is planting so he can later reap a bountiful harvest.
When Philip and Andrew told Jesus about some Greeks who wanted to see him, he said that his hour had come. The hour Christ was speaking of was that time when his ministry would culminate with his death on the cross. I stand in awe of Jesus’ ability to confidently and courageously walk intentionally toward the crucifixion, while knowing the consequences of that decision. In close relationship with the Father, he did not ask that the hour be removed, but continued to move forward, thinking of all humanity’s need, and joyfully anticipating our freedom from evil, sin, and death.
Jesus said that when he would be lifted up, he would draw all people to himself. In the crucifixion, all humanity finds itself at a new place—dying in Christ’s death and subsequently rising in his resurrection and ascending with him into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. When the disciples saw the crucified and dead Lord planted in the tomb, they believed it was all over—even though Jesus had told them he would rise again. To them, death was the end.
Today we can look back with joy and see that death isn’t the end. The celebratory voice of the apostle Paul comes to mind here—“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (1 Cor. 15:54b-55)? In the gift of the Spirit, we receive by faith all that Jesus forged for us and begin to participate in the divine life and love, sharing in Christ’s perfections.
The psalm passage for this Sunday, Psalm 119:9-16, contains meditations on God’s ways. The psalmist uses the phrase “your word” three times in this pericope. The first, in verse 9, says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word.” When the living Word took on our human flesh, he experienced our human existence, and forged into our flesh the obedience and faithfulness we are unable to practice on our own. In sending the Spirit, Jesus enables each of us to participate by faith in his purity and obedience. Members of the early church were called followers of “the Way,” a good description of what it meant to follow Christ. To keep our way pure, we need “the Way, the truth, and the life”—Jesus—implanted in our hearts. It is Christ in us, the living Word, planted in our hearts by the Spirit, who enables us to bear the fruit of purity and faithful obedience to God’s will.
The second phrase I’d like to mention is in verse 11, which says, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” Here again we see the idea of the implanting of the Word of God in our hearts—and treasuring its presence there. We implant the written Word by reading, listening to, and studying the Scriptures. But the living Word coming to us is a gift of God through Christ in the Spirit. God himself comes to dwell in our hearts by faith, as we trust in Christ and in his finished work. We want to treasure this precious gift, for this is how God writes his law on our hearts and minds, enabling us to have the desire as well as the ability to obey him (Jer. 31:31-34). By faith, we find ourselves in a new relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit—one in which we depend upon Christ’s obedience, not our own, and on his right relationship with the Father in the Spirit, not on our own.
We find the third phrase in verse 16: “I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word.” The reality—if we are honest with ourselves—is that we don’t remember the written Word of God like we should. Maybe we really don’t have an interest in remembering anything about God. And even when we’ve spent time learning the written Word, we find that in critical moments, we seem to completely forget all we have learned or memorized of God’s ways. This is the human condition. Our flesh gets in the way and we begin relying on our human understanding or efforts rather than pausing to remember what we know from the Scriptures.
But when by faith, the Spirit of Christ is planted in our hearts, we begin to discover that we don’t always forget. There are little seeds God has spread about in there that we aren’t even aware of. We are at times surprised by a small snippet of Scripture popping into our mind, offering us encouragement or guidance when we need it. A song we’ve sung or heard on the radio begins to run around in our head, reminding us of our belovedness or the grace of God. A friend calls or stops by and mentions something that brings to mind exactly what it is we need to remember. The reality is that there is divine life at work in us—the living Word implanted in human hearts by the Spirit produces fruit! God is always at work as a good Gardener, doing all that is needed in order to bring forth the fullness of Christ in each of us.
As we can see, the work Jesus accomplished through the crucifixion, as well as in his death, resurrection and ascension, made possible so much more than simply our rising from the grave one day. Jesus looked forward with joy to the cross because he knew that the culmination of all his efforts would mean our healing and transformation, and the renewal of all things. The planting of the Seed, the Word of God, in the grave means in due time there will be an abundant harvest—one we are able to participate in even now by faith in Jesus Christ.
As we approach Holy Week, we have the opportunity to take some time in reflection, allowing ourselves to listen for the living Word at work in our hearts and minds. How is the Spirit affirming in you that you are the Father’s beloved child? What is your relationship with the written Word of God right now—do you need to go deeper with the living Word so that the written Word has greater impact in your life? What are some ways in which you need to participate in Christ’s death so that resurrection and new life can burst forth in your life?
Heavenly Gardener, gracious King, thank you for your grace extended to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thank you for raising us up in Christ, and for sending your Spirit, awakening us to new life. Enable us to trust in your faithfulness and goodness, allowing you to finish what you have begun in us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And Jesus answered them, saying, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, “Father, save Me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour.’ … ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.” John 12:23–27, 32–33 NASB
(All references above, NASB.)
By Linda Rex
February 7, 2021, 5th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—One of the things I have missed most since moving into metro Nashville has been the ability to walk out my door and simply find solitude where I felt safe to be by myself in nature. Although there are many greenways in the city where we can go walking or cycling, it is not the same as having a few acres of woods where one can wander about and simply experience the relative silence of the outdoors.
Even out in the country where I used to live there would not be genuine silence, since one could still hear the cars passing on a highway half a mile away or on the gravel road where we used to live. But it was possible to walk out our door and into the woods, and there encounter face to face a whitetail buck or doe as they were out on a browsing expedition looking for a meal. I could find wildflowers in the spring, blackberries in the summer, and in the rippling brook, a number of creatures simply being who they were created to be, reminding me of what really matters in life.
When I would walk in the hills or woods out in the country, I would find there a sense of the imminent yet transcendent presence of God. Sitting on a hill watching and hearing the wind blow through the blades of tall grass and wildflowers reminded me of the wind of the Spirit as Jesus described it to Nicodemus—we don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going, but we can see the wind’s affect. Looking up at the dark sky at night, the stars filled the expanse overhead. The Milky Way was quite evident and made even more impressive the psalmist’s praise that the God who set the stars in the heavens calls each one by name (Is. 40:26; Ps. 147:4).
Caught in the daily routine of life in the city, we can lose sight of the magnitude and glory of the creation God made and so simply cease to have a sense of our place in the midst of the universe as his beloved. And we can be so preoccupied with our responsibilities, our activities, and even our entertainments that we never stop to reflect or examine the state of our hearts and minds. Are we so busy that we do not have time in our daily life for solitude and silence—a place where we can receive God’s refreshment and renewal, and be reminded of who he is and who we are as his beloved?
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, we find Jesus going to synagogue with the disciples on the Sabbath and then returning to Peter’s home afterward. There they find Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. Even though the rabbis taught that healing was not to be done on the Sabbath, Jesus went to the woman, took her by the hand, and healed her. Her response was what our response should be to the Messiah’s healing touch—a dedication to the service of God and others. She got up and began to tend to their needs.
One might think that Jesus, as God in human flesh, shouldn’t have had any needs. But in reality, he was fully human, so he grew hungry and weary just like every other person. In this story, as evening after the Sabbath approached, the entire city came to the door of Peter’s home, bringing all their sick and demon-possessed. Mark says that Jesus healed many of them and cast out many demons. He was in his element as the Messiah, but not without a cost to his physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Those doing ministry with Jesus in a wide variety of occupations know how we can grow tired and need moments of refreshment after tending to the spiritual, mental, emotional as well as physical needs of others—it is hard work.
This is why we see Jesus seeking solitude and silence the next day—he sought freedom from the everyday business of the city life of Caperneum. He made the effort to get up long before anyone else was up, even the field workers who rose at dawn, in order to have time along with his heavenly Father. He sought time away in order to regroup, to reflect, to be renewed in the presence of his Abba, so that he might be filled anew with the Spirit’s power and presence, and have the strength to face what he knew would be his next challenge—saying no to the temptation to stay and build a following there in Caperneum.
After a while, the disciples, including Peter, sought him out. They were concerned that perhaps Jesus had left without them. Peter, when he found the Messiah, told him that everyone was looking for him. Jesus’ response was that they would leave Caperneum and travel to the various villages in the region, sharing the gospel or good news of the kingdom of God. His time alone with the Father had renewed his strength and his focus on what really mattered—preaching the gospel to many people in the area—and he was ready to go and do it.
We can grow weary in serving others, in doing good, in sharing the good news, and in living out the gospel in the midst of a world that ignores or rejects the things of the Spirit. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God never grows weary or tired even when we do. When we wait on the Lord, spending time alone with him in solitude and silence, in times of rest and listening, where we aren’t working on something or trying to do something but are simply being present to God, we will find new inner strength and spiritual resources to deal with the difficulties of everyday life (Is. 40: 28–31).
This time of the pandemic and the disruption of our daily rhythms has provided a perfect opportunity to begin to be more intentional about building into our lives times of renewal, refreshment, and reflection. We have the opportunity to begin to practice healthier ways of living and being which include daily times for solitude and silence, or simply for listening to God. We can create space for daily moments of feeding our souls as well as our bodies, by reading inspirational writings or our bibles, and allowing what we read to sink into our beings, renewing and refreshing us.
True spirituality is relationship—an intimate relationship with the God who knows us completely, who calls us by name, and who gives us himself in Jesus Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. It is difficult to build a relationship with someone with whom you do not spend any significant amount of time. Our relationship with God, though, is the source of our inner strength and well-being. We find the capacity to deal with things that are overwhelming, traumatic, or catastrophic by drawing on an infinite Source beyond ourself of strength, courage, faith, and endurance. Intentionally nurturing that relationship only makes sense, and can be the basis for a healthier way of being as we move on into this new decade of 2021.
Dear Abba, Father God, we come to you in gratitude for your love and faithfulness to us. Thank you for the gifts of your Son and your Spirit. Draw us close, renew and refresh us. Remind us again that we are your beloved, accepted and forgiven, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.” Mark 1:35 NASB; see also Mark 1:29–39.
By Linda Rex
January 24, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—One of the fun Bible stories put into film by Veggie Tales was that of Jonah the prophet, who was eaten by a large fish and then spit up on the shore near Nineveh three days later. Not many people today have much faith in the miracle of this story, but it is one of the signs which Jesus said pointed toward his death and resurrection. Beyond Jonah being the big fish’s dinner is an element of the story which touches all of us and speaks to much of what we are facing today as a nation, and as a world.
With the number of deaths due to COVID-19 reaching beyond the two million mark, we are faced with the reality of the transience of human life and the fragility of its existence. We are impacted by the limitations of our circumstances and where we live—we may never see the blessing of a vaccine if we do not live in a country where they are provided and paid for. And if we choose the option to not receive this vaccine, what will be the impact on those around us whom we may infect or be infected by? What has been happening lately illustrates powerfully that what we do as individuals has consequences—not just for us, but for everyone else around us.
The story of Jonah speaks to the reality that every nation or people group, no matter its history or military prowess, has to answer to God for its conduct and the way its citizens conduct their lives. God told Jonah that the people of Nineveh were so overcome by evil and depravity that they were facing destruction—but later explained to Jonah that the people simply did not know their right hand from their left. In other words—they didn’t know any better. Jonah, whether he liked it or not, was sent to the Ninevites to help them see they needed to change—to turn away from their evil ways, and to begin living the way they were meant to live.
The church in many ways has failed our nation and the world by not simply helping people know they are loved and accepted, and that there are healthier ways of being in which we can and should live. So often as believers we have been happy to wish upon others God’s flaming judgment of destruction, just as Jonah sat up on the hill waiting to see God pour down flames of fire on Nineveh in response to their sin. We must never forget that God’s heart is not for any person’s destruction, but rather their salvation. It is more important to God that people see they are wrong, turn away from their sin to him in faith, and begin to live in outgoing love and service, than that they pay a painful and destructive consequence for the evil they are doing.
When Jesus arrived on the scene in Galilee following John the Baptizer’s imprisonment, he told the people that the time was fulfilled, the kingdom of God was at hand, and they were to repent and believe the gospel. He called people to believe and live out the good news of God’s love for humanity expressed in Christ—the One who revealed to us the Triune God who lives in other-centered love, unity, and equality as Father, Son, and Spirit. In Christ’s birth and as he lived here on earth, the Son of God inaugurated the kingdom of God. As the king of the kingdom, he called people to turn away from themselves and their sinful ways toward him in faith. Jesus spent time teaching disciples who were called to create new disciples, who would continue to expand this kingdom with more and more disciples or followers of Christ.
God’s word to Jonah as he sat waiting to see Nineveh get what it deserved is his word to the Church today. Are we waiting for Jesus to come and set everything to rights by bringing death and destruction to everything and everyone we believe is evil? Or do we recognize the simple truth that all people, including ourselves, simply do not fully realize what it means to be God’s beloved, those meant to be his adopted children who were created to love God and one another in other-centered love and humble service?
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward those he believed were unworthy of God’s love initially motivated him to try to avoid going to Nineveh at all. The ship he got on was headed for Tarshish instead. As believers, what ship are we on? Are we seeking the healing, transformation, renewal, and blessing of those who have different ideologies or beliefs than us, or whose background, status, or position in society is different than ours? Do we pray for, encourage, help, support, and speak words of life into those who just can’t seem to get beyond their addictions, poverty, or mental illness? Or do we avoid them, insult them, or even worse, seek their ostracism or destruction?
Jonah told the men on the boat headed for Tarshish as the storm grew stronger and stronger that they should just toss him over the side of the ship. He would rather have died than have done the simple thing God wanted him to do—call a people to repentance so that they would not die. Are we more willing to bury ourselves in our personal interests, agendas, and activities than to help others hear God’s word to them and to know that they are loved, and that God does not want their destruction, but rather, their salvation?
The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 reminds us that the world in its present form is passing away. In time, all that we see around us will be either completely different or entirely gone. We are only passing through—we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom which will last forever, long after everything we see, feel, touch, taste, and hear is gone. Surely, we want to encourage each and every person we know to make a better choice, to choose a better way, than the path to desolation, separation, or isolation they are currently on. There is a way that leads to destruction and death, and then there is a way that leads to life and relationship, healing and renewal.
Jesus says to us, “Follow me.” His call to discipleship, to follow him and his ways, is a call to immediate action. Just as Jonah’s message was emphatic and urgent (within 40 days), Jesus’ message is also emphatic and urgent. Participate in the kingdom life now—don’t wait! This is the heart we are to express toward each and every person in our lives—now is the time of salvation! The kingdom of God has come in Christ and will be established in its fullness when he comes in glory to set up the new heavens and new earth. One precious blessing we will experience then will be life with each and every person with which we have had the privilege of sharing this good news today. What a great reason to get busy sharing the good news right now!
Dear Lord, thank you for your forgiveness of our refusal to share the good news with others. Thank you for resisting and working against our prejudices, our hatred, and our condemnation of others. Grant us the grace to receive your correction, to accept your heart of love and grace toward all people, and to embrace the urgency of sharing the good news of Jesus. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
“Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.” Mark 1:14-20 NASB
See also Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:9–12.
By Linda Rex
November 29, 2020, ADVENT | HOPE—Last night I was watching a report by Nashville’s mayor in which he was describing the latest spike in COVID-19 cases and an upcoming mandated reduction in the size of gatherings. As you can imagine, my heart turned over. I’m not looking forward to the isolation and health problems this will bring about for so many, nor am I thrilled about the loss of income, business and other difficulties it will create for those already struggling.
In some ways, I can identify with the prophet Isaiah when he wrote:
“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,
That the mountains might quake at Your presence—
As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-9 NASB)
What is interesting about the rest of this passage, though, is how Isaiah didn’t focus on the glorious entry of God into the human sphere to exact his fiery judgment, but rather on God’s deliverance for us from our human proclivity to sin and our futile efforts to do the right thing. This one-of-a-kind God, who Isaiah describes as the potter, is called upon to do the work only he can do for and in us as his clay (Isaiah 64:1–9).
The psalmist in Psalm 80 acknowledges that the only hope for any of us is for him to smile upon us and restore us. This request is repeated three times—emphasizing a passionate desire for God’s grace and good will to be showered upon us. At the end of this psalm, he writes:
“Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
Then we shall not turn back from You;
Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
O LORD God of hosts, restore us;
Cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”
(Psalm 80:(1-7) 17-19 NASB)
Do you see it? Here is a hint of how God is going to save his people—something related to a “son of man” whom God places his hand on and makes strong. Our only hope for God’s grace, restoration and renewal begins with God himself and his desire for and accomplishment of our transformation and healing through the Son of Man.
In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, when the apostle Paul speaks of the final revealing of Jesus Christ, he affirms that we are found blameless not by our own efforts, but because God is faithful. God’s faithfulness is expressed to us in his gift of grace through Jesus Christ which enriched us in speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts, and in the testimony of Christ being confirmed in us. He has called us into and has ensured we can participate in Christ’s fellowship by the Spirit with his Father.
So often we look into passages regarding the coming of Christ in glory and begin to impress upon them our private expectations and opinions rather than seeing them from God’s point of view. We see the world around us as very messy, filled with evil and sin, and right away call for God to rend the heavens and come down in a dramatic deliverance. We can easily diminish the incredible reality of what God has already done for us in the entrance of his Son into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.
We’re entering into the Advent season, and I am reminded of that beautiful night when the shepherds were quietly tending their flocks on the Judean hillsides. Suddenly an angel appeared—“rending the heavens”—with an incredible message that would change the world forever—the Messiah had come in the person of an infant lying in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem. The angels gathered around and celebrated this good news, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).
Later on, this Savior, as he faced his upcoming death on the cross and resurrection, spoke of the transition which would occur between the kingdom of God which he was inaugurating in his passion and that glorious day when he would come in power, ushering in the new heavens and the new earth. He knew there would be a substantial time lapse between his ascension and the day of his final arrival, and he wanted his followers to stay in a state of continual readiness and diligence, especially with regards to sharing the good news of what Christ did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
What Jesus forged for us in our humanity tore open our cosmos and set it upon a new footing—in the all-ready/not-yet of God’s kingdom, he has made all things new. We have an incredible hope that bursts into our gloomy sin-laden world and lays bare all our futile efforts at being good and forces us to a crisis—where will we put our faith? Will we continue to trust in our human efforts to rule ourselves—to count on our 201 ways to solve our own problems and save ourselves? Will we keep to our own agenda or will we submit ourselves to God’s plan for our lives? Is Christ—the way he really is—good enough for us? Or do we need to add something to the simple reality of his grace and truth?
Our attention does not need to be on some particular plan or outline of end-time events, but solely on Jesus. Christ is our life. We participate through baptism in his death and resurrection, renewing this covenant relation as we take the bread and the wine in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith. We live each day in attentiveness to Jesus’ coming and presence—both in his presence here and now by the Spirit at work in this world, but also in anticipation of his coming glorious presence at the renewal of all things. As things grow more difficult for us, as we struggle to stay the course, we can hold ever more tightly to the reality that Christ has come, he is come now by the Spirit, and one day he will come in glory. We have every reason to hope. Maranatha—even so come, Lord Jesus!
Father, thank you for the grace you have given us in your Son, for the work you already accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and are working out in this world even now by your Holy Spirit. Keep us ever diligent, ever faithful, attentive to the end to our precious Lord Jesus by your Spirit. Amen.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 NASB
See also Mark 13:24–37.
By Linda Rex
July 5, 2020, PROPER 9—When Jesus gave the invitation, “Come to me, … and I will give you rest,” he spoke out of a heart of humble gentleness, calling us into relationship with himself. He had just explained that the only way for any of us to come to know God was through his own relationship with his heavenly Father. It is within the context of this intimate relation between the Father and the Son that any of us are able to begin to know and relate to God in a personal way.
The people gathered at that moment around Jesus had spiritual leaders who taught them that relating to God was first and foremost an issue of right behavior based in the observance of the old covenant law. Seeking to observe all the details of the law correctly, the people labored under a heavy burden from which there seemed to be no relief. Keeping the law did not remove guilt and shame, nor did it help them to keep the law better. If anything, it caused even more distress and despair.
Jesus called for the people to come to him—into a relationship with him in which they were to find rest. We find the idea of rest, of coming into relationship, in several places in the old testament, some of which are part of the readings for this Sunday. I believe they can help us to understand a little of what Jesus is calling us into when he says, “Come to me…. and I will give you rest.”
In Genesis 24, we read the story of Abraham’s servant, who after he died went to seek a wife for Isaac among his relatives. Asking for God’s guidance, he requested a sign, that when he asked for water to drink, the right young lady would also offer to water his camels. When he encountered Rebekah at the well, he asked her for a drink, and immediately she offered to also draw water for his camels. Believing this was God’s answer to his prayer, he inquired as to her parentage. She brought him home to her family who turned out to be relatives of Abraham.
Now Rebekah had a difficult choice to make. She would have to leave her family, her ways of living, everything she was familiar with, to join this servant on a journey back to the Negev to marry Isaac, her betrothed. They asked her, “Will you go…?” I believe this is the question Jesus brings us to when we encounter him. Are we willing to go wherever he goes, to leave behind all that was, and to commit ourselves unreservedly to him, willing to be faithful and obedient to him until death?
This brings to mind the story of Ruth, another woman in the lineage of Jesus. Hers is a beautiful story of redemption. At one point, the widow Ruth is counseled by her mother-in-law Naomi, who tells the young woman, “… shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you” (Ruth 3:1b NASB)? The word for “security” is literally “rest”. Naomi’s wish for Ruth was that she would find real rest in the home of a husband who would care for her, provide for her, and protect her.
We find this same idea of marriage relationship within the Song of Solomon. In many ways it reflects the intimacy between Christ and his Bride, the church. In the passage for this Sunday, we read: “Listen! My beloved! Behold, he is coming, | Climbing on the mountains, | Leaping on the hills! … My beloved responded and said to me, | ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, | And come along. … Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, | And come along’” (Song of Solomon 2:8, 10, 13b NASB)! We find the same idea of the woman being called away from her home and called into close relationship with the man she loves.
Psalm 45, another passage for this Sunday, is a lovely picture of a queenly bride being brought to her king to be made his wife. She is clothed in embroidered gold clothing, beautifully gowned and arrayed. She is told: “Listen, O daughter, give attention and incline your ear: | Forget your people and your father’s house; …. Because He is your Lord, bow down to Him” (Psalm 45:10-11 NASB). We find that the Bride of Christ is meant to leave all behind so we may share in the royal throne with Christ our King, for we are made kings and priests who will reign with Jesus in glory.
All of these pictures show us that there is a rest we are called to, but it is the kind of rest that has to do with resting in humble dependence upon our Lord and King Jesus Christ, who is our husband, our protector and provider. He is humble and gentle in heart and he offers us his tender care as a Shepherd for his sheep. It is within the context of his care and protection that we take on the yoke of obedience—being obedient to the law of the Spirit who dwells within us, transforming our hearts by faith. As Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (NASB).
By faith we rest in the finished work of Christ, knowing that our redemption is complete and is being worked out in us by the Holy Spirit as we respond to his transforming and healing work. Yes, it is a struggle because our flesh seems to believe that sin is still in charge, but the truth is that evil, sin, and death are no longer our taskmasters. The reality is that in Christ we are free! We are free to love God, love our neighbor, live in wholehearted obedience to the voice of the Spirit as Christ lives in us. We are free to live in intimate relationship with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit. (Romans 7:15–25a)
Christ’s yoke is light and easy, for there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! (Rom. 8:1) As we walk in the Spirit, we won’t walk in our old sinful ways. We rest in his perfect relationship with the Father, and participate with him in loving God and loving one another, sharing in his mission in this world. This makes the yoke of commitment to God in Christ an easy and light burden to bear. We share in Christ’s righteousness and as we yield to the inner workings of the Holy Spirit, we experience cleansing, renewal, healing, and growth in Christlikeness. We experience the reality of living as God’s adopted children held in his loving embrace both now and forever.
Perhaps this is a good time to pause and reflect on the precious gift Jesus is offering us. Hear Jesus asking you now, in this moment, “Come to me, … and I will give you rest.” What is standing in the way of you saying yes to him? What are you counting on to get you through instead of simply resting in him, in his love and grace? Perhaps now is a good time to leave all that behind, accept his rests, and join Jesus on his journey—I know he’d love to have you!
Jesus, thank you for including us in your life, death, and resurrection, for sending the Spirit from the Father so we could share in your intimate relationship with him. It can be scary to leave behind everything we are comfortable with and simply follow you. Help us to let go, to surrender ourselves to your love and grace, to simply rest in you. Thank you that all we do is a participation in what you have already done. We trust in you, in your perfect finished work. In your name we pray. Amen.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; | He is just and endowed with salvation, | Humble, and mounted on a donkey, | Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9 NASB
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and ‘you will find rest for your souls.’ For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 NASB
By Linda Rex
June 14, 2020, Proper 6—One of the things that has come out of the most recent events, alongside the killing of George Floyd and others, is a reminder that we as human beings have a tendency to be blind to that which we prefer not to look at. Sad to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we do this all the time, preferring to keep our attention on what interests us or gives us pleasure, or what we are most comfortable experiencing.
A while ago I had the privilege of attending a GCI event in Ohio. During this weekend event, our group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located downtown near the river in Cincinnati, Ohio (https://www.freedomcenter.org/). While most of the museum is dedicated to the history of slavery and its abolition here in America, there is an exhibit on the third floor which I found to be especially moving.
This area was filled with exhibits meant to educate visitors about the current issues in the world today regarding the slavery of men, women, and children. It was hard to see, to accept the reality that so many still live in bondage, but I found I could not turn away from the sights and sounds of those whose voices were seeking yet to be heard. It was almost as if, just by this exhibition being there with people visiting it, those people held in slavery today were given a tiny ability to speak their pain and suffering.
My personal struggle is then, having seen and heard their cries, what am I to do about it? Can I continue to live indifferent to their suffering and their need? But their need is so great, and the work required is so difficult, even beyond my ability! And therein lies the struggle—how do I personally address the needs of those who are still experiencing oppression at the hands of those around them.
The gospel of Matthew tells of how Jesus was going through all the cities and villages in Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. “Seeing the people,” it says, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NASB). That phrase “seeing the people” just leapt out at me today—he didn’t pass by indifferent to their suffering. No, he saw them.
Really seeing these people is what awoke a deep sense of compassion within Jesus and led to him offering them hope and healing. The NIV says these people were “harassed and helpless”. There is a picture created of people who had no one to look after them, to defend or protect them, or to make sure they had what they needed—water, forage, and a safe place to rest. This was the job of the shepherd, and those shepherds they did have were not caring for them, but were preying upon them and oppressing them instead.
Even though Jesus was going about healing and speaking life and hope into these people, he realized the magnitude of what was needed was beyond the capacity of one human being. Even though he was God in human flesh, his purpose was not to do everything by himself—he was mentoring disciples who were learning what it meant to live in other-centered love and service. He meant for his disciples to make other disciples who would make other disciples, and so begin to fill the earth with his compassion, care, and healing, and the good news of God’s love and grace.
As Jesus truly sees the people he is ministering to, he turns to his disciples and says to them that even though there is a great harvest of souls for the kingdom, there were insufficient workers available to do the task. He tells his disciples to pray that God would provide laborers who would participate in this ministry with him. Having truly seen the people in their distress, he longed to set them free and give them new life—Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to help with the harvest.
Jesus himself turned his disciples to the Father as the source of laborers for his spiritual harvest. The heart of the Father toward those who were suffering was expressed by Jesus himself, and he knew the Father’s answer was to bring others to the place where they would be willing and able to help with this task.
And so, in the next scene, we see Jesus sending out twelve disciples in pairs, equipping them with the authority to cast out demons and to heal people, and instructing them to proclaim the kingdom of God. What in the beginning appeared to be a general request to God for helpers ended up being a personal mission for each of these disciples. They were sent out by Jesus and they began to participate in the ministry of God’s love and grace to these struggling people.
In Romans 5:1-8, the apostle Paul tells us that “Jesus is God’s grace embrace of the entire human race” (Rom. 5:2 MB). God saw us while we were still helpless, still sinners, and Jesus died for us. In Christ we find the inspiration to involve ourselves in situations where there are people who seem to be harassed, helpless, confused, aimless, and distressed. There are many more than we can possibly serve ourselves, so we pray God will provide others to come alongside and help. And then we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are the ones God is sending, and we do what we can to offer healing, renewal, and the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to those he places in front of us.
We find in Jesus our own calling as human beings to “see” our fellowman, to hear the voices so often left unheard, and to open our hearts to those who we in the past have preferred to leave our hearts closed to. We draw close to those whom we have pushed aside or ignored, and we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering and need. We have the strength to speak the truth of God’s love and grace into that which is sinful and wretched, and offer the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
These are high ideals. And the bar was set high by our Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ. But he sent his Spirit to infuse us with not only the capacity, but the heart, to meet this challenge. We have a long way to go before every human being is able to live with the plenty and dignity they ought to experience, but we can and must be working to that end. We begin with prayer—that God would send laborers—and then listen to hear God’s call upon our own hearts and lives to participate where we are with his strength and resources to make a difference in this world.
Father, forgive us for not seeing our brothers and sisters who are suffering, harassed, and helpless. Forgive us for diminishing one another, for not speaking life and hope into the lives of those without hope. Forgive us for not living out the truth and grace of Jesus in our relationships with one another. Lord, please send laborers to help with this great spiritual harvest. And if there is a role we are to play in the healing of our family, our city, our state, our nation, our world, please reveal it to us. Send us forth with urgency to heal, bring renewal and to proclaim your kingdom life, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 MSG
“God’s timing was absolutely perfect; humanity was at their weakest when Christ died their death. … Herein is the extremity of God’s love gift: mankind was rotten to the core when Christ died their death.” Romans 5:6, 8 MB
By Linda Rex
May 24, 2020, 7th SUNDAY OF EASTER/ASCENSION SUNDAY—Last week in this blog we wrestled with the reality that what we believe influences how we respond to what is happening in our lives. We often do not realize, nor do we intentionally deal with, beliefs we may hold dear which are actually undermining our ability to be relationally connected in healthy ways.
One of the beliefs which often keeps us closed within ourselves is the belief that we are alone, that no one understands what we have been through or are going through right now. This is one of the reasons that support groups are part of the healing process for people who struggle with addictions. The insidious lie that no one understands—that we are all alone in this world, that we can and need to handle this issue all by ourselves—keeps us locked in unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and living.
We may struggle with opening up to others because everyone we have done this with in the past has betrayed us or failed us in some way. Or, in our life, we may experience safe relationships as anything but safe. But whether we like it or not, the path to our genuine healing lies on the continuum of healthy relationships with safe people, and we have to stop isolating in order to find renewal and restoration.
On Ascension Sunday in the Christian church we celebrate an event in Jesus’ life which directly speaks to this issue. For many years, Christ’s ascension really didn’t mean a lot to me. My church taught me he did send the Spirit to help out the people he called to himself, but that didn’t really seem to help much with the everyday issues of our lives. Our church’s view back said that when he left, he went home and left us all here to struggle until he came to punish the people in the world for failing to live rightly—that is except all the sainted people who managed to keep all the old covenant laws and observe all the days correctly. Back then I desperately hoped I would be counted as one of the obedient few.
But now, every year on Ascension Sunday, my associate Pastor Jan invites us after church to join her in the parking lot for a visible lesson on Christ’s ascension into glory and what that means for every human being who has ever lived. We cannot gather this year for Ascension Sunday and to eat William’s fried fish, but we can take some time to reflect on scriptures we will read on this day. They tell us how Jesus, after he had risen from the grave, spent forty days walking and talking with his disciples. His glorified humanity was still tangible but somehow different—he ate and drank, cooked fish at a campfire, and he walked through walls. He didn’t stop being human when he was resurrected. Instead, his humanity was glorified—transformed by his indwelling presence as God in human flesh.
He spent these forty days after the resurrection opening the disciples’ minds to the Old Testament scriptures, explaining how everything which had happened to him had been predicted and now was fulfilled. There was still some misunderstanding by the disciples—they were still looking for him to restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). But instead of restoring the kingdom of Israel as they wanted him to, he told them they were to wait for his Spirit to come and that they would be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and going throughout Judea, to Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.
The kingdom which Jesus was inaugurating had a lot to do with who he is now—God in human flesh. The uniting of the divine life with our creaturely human existence meant that our turning away from God to ourselves and the things of the earth no longer defines us. We now have the capacity to participate in the oneness in which the Father, Son, and Spirit dwell. In the sending of his Spirit, Jesus enables those who believe to participate in the divine life and love. They experience God’s indwelling presence now, being empowered by the Spirit to bear witness to the living Lord Jesus who is seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We find in Jesus Christ—and this is the magnificence of the ascension—someone who is God who has experienced what it is like to be an infant, a child, a teen, and an adult. This is a God who knows the feeling of being held by his mother, taught by his father and other teachers, and being called names by those who questioned his parentage. He has experienced tears, the death of dear friends, and betrayal by those he loved. He knows in a real and personal way what it means to be human and how difficult it is for us to live in relationship with one another and with God.
Jesus, who is still God in human (but glorified) flesh, holds our humanity in the presence of our heavenly Father, and sends the Spirit. As we place our faith in him, Christ by the Spirit empowers us to bear witness to the Father’s love expressed to all humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. We do this not only by our words, but most significantly by our lives lived in unity of the Spirit—expressing the oneness of the other-centered love we were created to reflect and participate in as image-bearers of our Creator.
We were created for relationship and it is in healthy spiritual community that we find renewal and restoration. Many of our emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds occur within the context of relationship, and it is in this same context where our best healing occurs. The ascension of Jesus Christ teaches us that undergirding all other relationships, there is a Person who is intimately familiar with our situation, who shares our wounds, and who is closer to us than any other human being could ever be. In Jesus we have an advocate and helper like no other.
As we place our faith in Jesus, we begin to experience the reality of our inclusion in the divine life and love. We are joined in union and communion with the Father through the Son in the Spirit, so that all of life is now lived in participation with them. We share in their mission in this world—to testify of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus Christ. God, by his Spirit, calls us into spiritual community—what we commonly call the church, though spiritual community can exist in many other ways.
Church is an unpleasant topic for many. It has and is often the cause of many relational hurts. But that is not God’s reason for drawing people together into spiritual community. It is meant to be the place where Jesus is present in this world, testifying to the love and grace of God. It is meant to be the place where people encounter safe relationships in which they can find healing and wholeness. God calls people together, not so they can impress everyone with how good they are or so they can protect themselves from being contaminated by sin, but so that the other-centered love they express to one another and to the community they live and work in is a living testimony to the love of God expressed to us in Christ, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
Perhaps it is time to reflect on where we are in our relationship with God and with the other people in our lives. Are we intimately connected with the God who has gone to such lengths to be intimately connected with us? What are we placing between us to keep us from opening ourselves up to his love and grace? And if we have placed our faith in Christ, is this manifest in the way we live with those around us? When others look at us and how we interact with them, do they see an expression of God’s other-centered love? Our reflections should not be discouraging, because on God’s side—all is done. Jesus stands, hands out-stretched, inviting us on the journey—knowing exactly what we need in this moment to move deeper into his love and grace, and to find healing and renewal.
Abba, thank you for loving us so, for drawing us to yourself. Thank you, Jesus, for going through all that you did and for bringing us into glory in your resurrection. Holy Spirit, please finish in us what you have begun in Jesus—we are open. We receive your living Presence, God, and seek to bear witness to your grace and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” John 17:1-5 NASB
“… and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Luke 24:46-51 NASB
By Linda Rex
Sunday, April 5, 2020, PALM SUNDAY, 6th SUNDAY IN LENT—As I sat on a bench with my husband on the greenway at Fontanel this afternoon, I watched families and couples taking advantage of the opportunity to get outside to walk in the fresh air and sunshine. Everyone we met smiled and shared hellos with us as they went by. Even the guys in the catering van that drove by greeted us and smiled.
In the real world away from the social networking and politicized news reports, it was comforting to experience some real human connection, even if it was brief and from a distance. Perhaps this is the real takeaway from all that is going on right now—we were created for relationship, and anything that tries to prevent that or destroy it in the end will fail. We are interconnected with one another as human beings in ways which go beyond the physical—we are connected at a deep level which extends beyond the limits of evil and death.
The reason I say this is because so often our suffering and struggle in this world is caused by unhealthy or estranged relationships or ways of relating, and our healing is equally so often found in the rebuilding and renewing of relationships. Today we are normally too busy to go deep with one another and are unwilling to do the difficult relational work that is necessary for true connection. We have many distractions which prevent us from sharing at an intimate level with most people in our lives, and many of us prefer to avoid the discomfort of dealing with interpersonal issues when they come up.
Maybe if we gave serious thought to how Jesus lived when he was here on earth, we might think differently about how we live our lives. At that time, Jesus lived in a culture and setting in which life was slow enough that people really knew everything about everyone else. They knew their family and their neighbors, and all the people they interacted with on a daily basis. In a big city like metropolitan Nashville, it’s easy to hide. It’s easy to pretend we have it all together just long enough that people think the best of us and trust us. Our social networking is very convenient for creating facades which impress people without risking their criticism or disappointment.
But what happens when we slow down long enough for people to really get to know us? What happens when people begin to find out who we really are? We can only pretend for so long. Eventually as people get closer, they begin to figure out our flaws and those things which we do poorly and how we fail or fall short. What we do then reveals how deep our true humanity goes. To love and be loved is to be truly human, as is to forgive and be forgiven. To do any less is the sphere where inhumanity flourishes and poisons our existence.
The disciples and others traveling with Jesus into Jerusalem on that day celebrated his arrival with shouts of “Hosanna!”, calling out to him their hearts’ cry for deliverance from their Roman oppressors. Luke records in his gospel the messianic tone of this celebration, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; | Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” This resonates with the angelic chorus at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in the highest, | And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).
The cry, “Hosanna!” is the cry “O, save!”, the crowd’s call to a deliverer to rescue and save them. Laying out garments before Jesus as he humbly rode in on the colt of a donkey showed their willingness to be his subjects and to allow him to rule. It is significant that as Jesus rode through the city, not everyone was taken up in this celebration of his arrival. As we read in the other gospels, there were those who told Jesus to shut the mouths of those shouting “Hosanna!” These people did not want the Jesus to be their deliverer or savior, and would one day soon participate in having him crucified.
The real question of the day on the people’s lips is a question we each need to come to terms with though, “Who is this?” Indeed, who is Jesus Christ? What right does he have to ride into Jerusalem and be celebrated as the expected messiah, the deliverer of his people? What makes Jesus so special, so worthy of people’s adoration and trust? Isn’t it enough that he is a prophet?
Actually, no; there is so much more going on than this, and we need to come to terms with it. We need to accept the reality that when we are faced with the catastrophic events in life, with the economic and political distresses of our culture, our efforts to make things right are flawed and ultimately ineffective. Indeed, we cannot count on our government to always do what is right and most helpful for everyone in these situations—they are going to let us down. Our scientific advancements have limitations—there is a learning curve, and a need to balance our technology with human kindness and wisdom, which we so often don’t do.
No matter which way we turn, we come up against the reality that we as human beings face so many things in life where we end up saying, “hosanna” and often don’t even realize what or who we expect salvation from may very well, in the end, fail us.
Maybe instead of seeking deliverance from our problems or sufferings, from the fearful things we face in this world, we should work towards an honest assessment of what’s really going on. Let’s be truthful about all this: in this moment, as we sit in silent reflection, what is the foundational issue at work in all that is happening around us? Could it be that we do not understand who we are? Is it possible that we do not understand who our deliverer and savior really is? Indeed, where are we placing our faith? Who is it we are counting on to deliver us?
The capacity to reach out and help others while risking our own health and economic well-being comes from an inner wellspring which has its source in the living Lord. This is the God/man who rode that foal into Jerusalem, allowing the people to celebrate his arrival. He was not afraid of what he faced, but was willing to allow events to take their course, for the hatred of his foes to reach its peak, so that he would experience the crucifixion that was necessary so humanity could be freed once and for all from its efforts to be its own savior and redeemer.
As God in human flesh, the person Jesus Christ took a place of humility—receiving the praises due him but refusing to allow these to determine which path he trod. He didn’t seek, nor did he need, human approval and praise, even though it was rightfully his. He sought, rather, to know those he met and to bring them to the place where they knew him, not as a politically motivated strong-arm deliverer, but as a humble brother who was willing to lay down his life and allow himself to be mistreated and murdered for the sake of every human who has ever lived.
Our need to control what is happening in our world, to ensure a positive outcome of what is happening around us, causes us to live so often in fear—fear of what might happen, fear of what is happening around us right now, fear of what others may say or do. Our fear so often governs our decisions and the way we run our lives and our world. Perhaps it is time to lay down our fear and allow God’s love to cast out our fear once and for all.
God’s perfect love casts out all fear because it was expressed in our Lord Jesus Christ laying down his life for us. He lived our life, died our death, and rose again so that each of us may by faith and in the Spirit participate in his perfect relationship with our heavenly Father and in loving relationship with one another. Turning to Jesus means turning away from our trust in anything other than God himself as the solution to our difficulties and problems. It means not having the answers, but trusting that in God’s perfect time, the answers will come or will be found. It means we may not experience the resolution to our issue that we seek, but may need to be willing to receive the one that is there or the one that will one day be ours in eternity.
During this time of upheaval, while hard decisions are needing to be made, while sacrifices are asked of us, and relationships are held at a distance, let’s seek to go deeper with God and with each other. Let surrender our efforts to be our own savior and humble ourselves to allow Jesus to be who he is—our Savior and Lord—allowing him to guide and provide what is needed in this time of crisis. Let’s turn away from ourselves, from the things and people we count on, and turn to the one who was willing to and did lay his life down for us—Jesus our Lord.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to us, to share life with us and to offer yourself in our place and on our behalf. Thank you for allowing us as human beings to pour out on you all the horrors of human depravity and inhumanity, while through death and resurrection bringing us to participate in your holy relationship with your Abba in the Spirit. Grant us the faith to trust, not in our own human abilities and efforts, but solely in your faithful love, that all may be to God’s glory and praise, in your holy name. Amen.
“The crowds going ahead of Him, and those who followed, were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David; | BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; | Hosanna in the highest!’ When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.’” Matthew 11:9-11 NASB
“O LORD, do save, we beseech You; | O LORD, we beseech You, do send prosperity! | Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD; | We have blessed you from the house of the LORD. | The LORD is God, and He has given us light; ….” Psalm 118:25-27a NASB