By Linda Rex
January 12, 2020, EPIPHANY | BAPTISM OF THE LORD—In my church, as we prepare the communion table every Sunday, we light three candles. The large white candle at the center is ostensibly the Christ candle, while the other two represent the other members of the Trinity. On occasion the Christ candle refuses to light when we hold a lit match to it, so we cut down the wax around the wick so it will light properly. Otherwise, our attempts to light it during the service become rather humorous.
The prophetic word for this Sunday is from Isaiah 42:1-9. This passage describes the Suffering Servant who would come to establish justice in the earth. He would be appointed as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison. This was to be a new thing which the Creator of all would bring to pass on the earth.
In the middle of the passage, Isaiah says in verse 3 that “A bruised reed He will not break | And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish.” It seems that this Suffering Servant would bring justice about in a manner that would involve compassion, concern for those who are suffering, and bringing light and freedom to those who are caught in the darkness. It would not involve coercion, oppression, or imposing his will on those around him.
It’s a common human experience to feel as though we are a dimly burning wick. If you have never had a blue day or a season of depression in your life, I congratulate you. You are very blessed. Speaking as one who has battled depression on and off throughout my life due to my family genetics, I can tell you that there are times when a person can feel very much like that dimly burning wick that’s just about ready to go out. In fact, when we are in the darkest parts of that place, we may even wish that someone would just blow out the fire and free us from the pain.
When I was at my darkest places, I had people tell me I should just cheer up, get my act together, and get on with my life. What they did not realize was that I had been trying to do that for quite some time and it just wasn’t happening. When the deep sadness is on, when the heart is broken or faltering, a person cannot just get their act together and become sunny and happy all at once. Telling someone who is depressed to turn to Jesus and to trust him is a nice thought, but for someone who is crying out to Jesus daily for the heart and will to go on, it is not helpful.
There are times when the inner candle burns low and begins to flicker, coming close to going out. Christ never intends for that flame to go out, but seeks to make it stronger and stronger. Sometimes, our darkness and sadness becomes our normal. It shields us from having to deal with the realities of the world around us. It keeps us from having to deal with the difficult places within that God is wanting us to address and bring to him for healing. It is important to take our times of being a dimly burning wick and to ask ourselves, what is keeping this candle from burning as God intended?
I know from personal experience that getting adequate counseling or even medication is not always an easy process, though it really ought to be done. Because of my previous history with taking antidepressants, mostly due to my fibromyalgia, my previous medical sharing group would not pay for anything related to mental health care. They effectively prevented me from getting help with something which genetically I needed help with, because they thought I shouldn’t need continuing assistance. This dimly burning wick to them was not worth their financial assistance or concern.
We will run into this when we are battling the darkness. This is why it is essential for us to trust in Christ, rather than in the efforts of human beings or medical practices. At times we need him to show us what is at the root of our darkness. There may be some old ways of believing, some false ideas about God or ourselves, which need to be trimmed away so the flame of God’s love and life may burn more freely and fully. There may be unhealthy relationships which need mending or hurts which may need forgiving. There may be anger which needs resolved or pain which needs healed. This is why we need safe people to talk with and we need to stay in relationship with others, even though we are being drawn into isolation and retreat.
We need to remember that God has given us through Christ and in the Spirit, a new heart. The evil one seeks to destroy our heart, to snuff out the light God has given us. Many times, a dimly burning wick is heart-sick—through loss, grief, anger, bitterness, or many other reasons. Jesus does not seek extinguish the little bit of life that is left, but rather to reignite it—to infuse it with the flame of his belovedness, the fire of his Father’s love in the Spirit.
When we read the story of the baptism of Jesus Christ, we find him being baptized, not because he was a sinner who needed redemption, but because all of us are sinners in need of redemption. He immersed our humanity in his immersion, rising up out of the water to receive the Spirit lighting upon him as a dove. Standing there, with the baptism waters dripping from his frame, he heard with us his Father’s voice, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Whatever may be keeping us in our dark place, we need to take seriously what Jesus did for us in this moment. His inclusion of our humanity in his baptism, in his receiving of the Spirit, and in receiving his Father’s blessing, is the root of all our healing—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Even though it may seem as if we have no hope, the one thing God offers us in the gift of his Son and his Spirit is hope. But it may require a little trimming of the candle for us to experience the hope we need to keep our wick burning.
At times, it may not feel like he hears you or sees you—but he is tenderly nursing the flame within you. He is present, sharing the darkness with you, even though you may not be able to sense his presence in you or with you. It takes courage, fortitude, and endurance to battle the darkness. It takes boldness—a willingness to go places you’d rather not go, to take risks you’d rather not take, to move beyond the deep sadness back into the light.
Yes, turn to Christ. But do more than that—receive the gift Christ has given in sharing with us his belovedness, the all-surpassing immensity of the Father’s love. Allow God to carry you through this season, resting in the reality that he is in you, with you, and for you. He has given you his word—he will never leave or forsake you, but will be with you to the end. Allow him to be your living Lord, present in and with you by the Spirit, caring for you in your darkest moment, and bringing you, in his good time, to a brighter place.
Dear Abba, thank you for giving us hope in our darkest places. Thank you, Jesus, for joining us there, identifying with us in our brokenness, struggles, and darkness, and bringing us into your light. Lord, give us this day a reason to go on—the heart to keep trying. Do not allow us to be extinguished, but to begin to glow again with new light—through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.” Acts 10:38 NASB
“After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’” Matthew 3:13–17 NASB
By Linda Rex
December 22, 2019, 4th Sunday of Advent—I was reading a devotional this morning which used the story in the gospels of a man who was bound by demons and wandering about in the tombs, in the region of the dead. This man broke any chains that held him, but when Jesus spoke to him, he found true freedom.
How often I have felt like this man, wandering about in my own personal chains, unwilling to be shackled by the bonds of love God has for me. How often I have harmed myself rather than submitting myself to the love and grace of God as expressed to me in his will for my life! I know I am not alone in this—I see it often in people around me. It is our human condition apart from God’s merciful intervention.
One of the most basic steps in facing our addictions and being freed from them is coming to understand that apart from the intervention of a “higher power’, we cannot be free. We can try harder and harder, we can work the plan faithfully, but we have to eventually end up at the place where we realize in a deep and significant way that apart from divine intervention, we have no hope of ever being any different than we are right now.
God’s method of intervening in our circumstances did not involve him being a distant, cold and uninvolved deity. Nor did he seek vengeance on us for our pitiful failures at trying to be what we believe we need to be in order for him to accept us. God’s way of turning our hearts back to him, of restoring our relationship with him, was to enter into our very existence as a human being and to personally turn us around back into face to face relationship with himself.
Historically, the nation of Israel was in many ways like you and me. They were brought into relationship with God, but they refused to let him be the center of their life. For a while they would live as his people, but in time they would turn away from him, back into their idolatry and hedonism. They would reap the results of living life on their own terms, come to the end of themselves, and then turn again to him—for a while.
But this was not a surprise to God. None of this is. He knew long before our cosmos existed that we would have this proclivity to turn away from him to other things. He knew it would require his personal involvement to restore us back to our original design so that we could be the image-bearers of God he intended us to be.
We hear the cry in Psalm 80:2b-3, 7, 17-19 of the psalmist Asaph asking three times, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” Prophetically he pointed to a Son who would be the source of our genuine revival, the only means by which any of us will be saved. Our only hope of being people who would never abandon God would be for God to himself turn our hearts back.
So we have in Isaiah 7:14 the promise of a virgin bearing a son who would be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us.’ What a thrilling promise! This Advent season, as we gaze upon the nativity scenes we see around us, as we are reminded of the reason for the season, we are given a hope for something more than our constant failures to love. We are able to have peace of mind and heart because we know God has sent us a Savior—someone who has done and will do what we cannot and will not do. We are able to have joy, because we are celebrating the reality that God has come and stands in our stead, on our behalf, filling us with his real presence in the Holy Spirit.
Advent reminds us that when Israel had absolutely no hope of ever getting anything right with God ever again, God did not forsake her. He came himself, in the womb of a virgin, allowing himself to be carried as a promise to his people of their deliverance. Advent reminds us that we are not left abandoned in our sin and selfishness—there is a Savior who is one of us and yet is God himself—he has come to bind us once and for all to God with unbreakable cords of love and grace.
The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and today we as his people are pregnant with his presence by the Holy Spirit. God is even at this moment working deliverance in this world—preparing for the day when all things will be transformed completely and God will finally dwell forever with humankind. Our failures to love, our sinfulness and the evil which so often enslaves us, do not and will not stand in the way of God accomplishing what he set out to do from before the beginning of this cosmos. He will finish what he has begun—he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Advent teaches us love in a profound way—of God’s desire to be near to us, so near that he actually enters into our human existence himself. The presence of God in our humanity is the greatest gift of love God could ever give. He knew the cost of this gift would be the suffering and death of his Son, but he gave it anyway. He knew the rejection of his Spirit which would occur, but he gave his Spirit anyway. God freely gives—do we receive?
Whatever struggles we may have with our addictions or failures to love God and others, we find in Jesus that God is present and real in the midst of them. He is at work, as we are willing, to heal, restore, and renew. We are given Jesus Christ—he is in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. What is our response?
I’ve often thought that Joseph was an incredible man. He had betrothed himself to a young virgin who turned out to be pregnant with someone else’s child. He could have made a public spectacle of her—but he was so loving in not wanting to do this. And when God told him to marry her anyway, he did it (Matthew 1:18–25). His humility and sacrificial spirit bear witness to the humility and sacrificial Spirit of God himself. Will we in this same Spirit of humility and sacrifice receive the wonderful Gift of God in our humanity? Will we surrender to the reality we are in desperate need of God, and God in Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and will come again one day?
Thank you, Abba, for loving us so well. It was not enough for you to create all things, to set everything in motion, and to walk away. You dove right in, taking our very humanity upon yourself in your Son Jesus, renewing us from the inside out. Thank you for sending us your Spirit, enabling us to be one with you, and to be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“… concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power 1by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God…” Romans 1:3-7a NASB
By Linda Rex
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?
Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?
We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?
Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.
And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.
A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.
This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.
Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.
Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.
Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?
So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.
Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?
This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?
It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.
May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.
Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB
“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB
By Linda Rex
October 13, 2019, Proper 23—On a rare occasion I wonder what the world would be like if every young lady had her very own fairy godmother. With the whisk of a wand would come a pumpkin carriage, a beautiful gown, and the promise of love and living happily ever after as princess in the kingdom of a charming prince. So often we expect God to be like a fairy godmother, waving his wand over our circumstances, making everything wonderful and perfect, just as we imagine it should be.
As a child I was not allowed to read or watch fairy tales because they might fill my head with dreams and fantasies and that was considered unhealthy. But I have always been drawn to them because, as I found out as an adult, at the root of so many of them is the story of God’s love for humanity.
Modern versions of these fairy tales often lose the simplicity of this story, of how a beautiful princess is held captive in some way by an evil person, and a handsome prince from a far away land comes and rescues her, carrying her home to his kingdom. More important than the magic wand or fairy godmother is the prince, who faces an impossible task of defeating a horrible, evil foe. This prince may even cross the line of death, only to be rescued by the kiss of true love. This is the wonderful story of the gospel—of what Jesus did for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Stories tell us a lot about ourselves, about how we deal with evil, sin, and death. They can act as mirrors, showing us what is going on in our hearts, or they can inspire us to transcend whatever sorrows or difficulties we may be facing at the moment. Sometimes we immerse ourselves in stories in an effort to escape the hardships of life. But stories are the language of humanity—from the beginning of time we have always used stories to teach, inspire, remember, and to create community.
It is instructive that the Spirit inspired the preservation of millennia of human stories in the Bible—of families, communities, nations, and even of our Savior. These stories remind us of our common humanity. When we read a story about what happened to someone a long time ago, at times we see ourselves in the midst of that story. We find ourselves faced with the same issues, the same family dynamics, the same pulls toward sin and selfishness as the people in these stories.
When we look at the lineage of Jesus, we find the names of people who are in these stories—people who made mistakes, whose families were a mess, and whose relationship with God was, from all appearances, questionable. These were real people, like you and me, who were sinners—whose only hope for eternal salvation lay in the grace and mercy of God himself.
Think about the story of Naaman, an Aramean commander of the army. He had leprosy from which he could not be cured—how he got it and how bad it was, we don’t know. What we do know is that an Israelite captive, a young girl who was his wife’s slave, lamented the fact that Naaman didn’t know Elisha, because the prophet could cure him.
Naaman went to his king with this information, and he sent him to the king of Israel with a letter and some gifts, and a request for healing. While the king of Israel was stressing out about all this, thinking he was facing war, Elisha sent a message to the king, telling him to send Naaman his direction and that he would take care of him. So, the king of Israel sent Naaman to Elisha’s house.
Naaman was looking for the guy with the magic wand, who would say some fancy incantations and he would be healed. But God had other things in mind—he wanted Naaman to be a part of the process of his healing. Elisha sent a message to Naaman—which was insulting enough in itself—and told him to dip seven times in the Jordan River and he would be clean. Thinking he had been insulted and humiliated by Elisha. the infuriated Naaman started to return home.
If Naaman had continued to focus on his own method of healing, on his expectations of God, and on his own way of doing things, he would have missed out on what God wanted to do for him. There is a great measure of humility and grace which goes with healing—it’s on God’s terms and in his timing and way. Our times are in his hands, and he writes our days in his book before any of them come to be. God isn’t a fairy godmother—he is a loving Lord who knows the end from the beginning and holds all things in his hands.
God allowed Naaman the freedom to accept or reject his intervention in his life and circumstances. The commander might have been able to order around the men under his authority, but he could not order around the Lord of the universe. A critical lesson which comes with healing of any kind is a deep understanding, acceptance of. and submission to the reality of our powerlessness. We are not the Lord—Jesus Christ is.
The healing God offers us so often supersedes the simple renewal of human flesh. We value this life so much that we forget that God sees all things through the lens of eternity and because of the finished work of Christ, death is not an obstruction or limit. It is merely a door to our real existence—of our glorified humanity dwelling in the presence of God forever. Death is not to be feared—it is to be seen as a defeated foe, conquered by our ever-living Lord.
Soon I will be attending the funeral of a woman who played a significant role in my life for many years. My mother-in-law Sue was a woman of faith who followed Jesus to the best of her ability and understanding. She took seriously the admonition to teach the young women how to care for their homes and families, and sought to share in her children’s and grandchildren’s lives and interests as much as she could. She loved the land and the animals on her farm—I can see her now in my mind, the barn cats and chickens following her as she carried the sloshing milk bucket back to the house.
The stories of our lives, of our loved ones as they join us on this journey, are important to remember and to share. We need to tell these stories so that others can see how God intervened and impacted our lives, and how Jesus rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of light. When God asks us to take a step toward our healing, we need to listen and to participate with him in our renewal, even if it doesn’t make sense, or we don’t understand his purpose in all of it. We never know who may find healing, or how, when we share our stories and allow others to participate in God’s work of healing in our lives.
Dearest Abba, thank you for including us in your story. Thank you, Jesus, for being our Prince of Peace, the One who came and rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us into your kingdom of light. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for bringing Jesus’ resurrection life into reality in us and in our lives. Grant us the grace to admit our powerlessness and to surrender to your will and purposes in our lives. Give us the courage, boldness, and inspiration to tell your story and ours, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“He looked at them and said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed of their leprosy. …And Jesus said to the man, ‘Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.’” Luke 17:14, 19 NLT
“But Elisha sent a messenger out to him with this message: ‘Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your leprosy.’” 2 Kings 5:10 NLT
By Linda Rex
September 22, 2019, Proper 20—One of the most painful things I have experienced over the years is going through the consequences of a bad decision or decisions I have made, especially with regards to my significant relationships. It seems as though some consequences never end, even though we may have changed or done our best to make amends for the error done.
We often believe, however incorrectly, that if we just do the right thing from now on, our life will be much better. I’d like to say that is the case, but sometimes we have to go through the hard and messy stuff for a while before we see the benefits of changing the way we live.
The reality is that as broken human beings, our bent is toward doing things in a self-centered, self-preserving, self-fulfilling way. When we discover that life wasn’t meant to be lived with ourselves at the center and try to live a Christ-centered life, we often discover there are shackles and traps we have not seen that we have been caught in that we cannot escape easily and on our own.
As human beings, life can be wonderful, and then it can be hell. Sometimes the hell in our lives is the result of our own choices. Sometimes it is the result of the choices of those around us. Either way, we do have occasions when we wrestle with the ugliness of our broken humanity and the consequences of sin.
Here in the Western world today we do not always see the immediate consequences of our choices. One can live for many years on the edge financially before we finally hit the bottom. A person can play by the rules a long time and successfully hide an addiction, but in due time, the truth will come out, exposing a life of deceit, unfaithfulness, and/or worse.
Some types of our brokenness is socially acceptable and so we see no need to change anything, not realizing the harm we are doing to ourselves or to others. But consequences happen. We will at some point have to deal with the truth about God and about ourselves and come face-to-face with the reality we are not meant to be at the center of everything—Christ is.
The people of Judah came to a place where all they trusted in and counted on was going to be swept away. Starvation, war, enslavement—these were the consequences they were facing. Jeremiah grieved with the suffering of his people. He knew the sin of the people was very grave—unfaithfulness to their covenant God—and the consequences they were beginning to feel would only get worse. Why could they not see the path they were on? Jeremiah mourned—he lamented the fallen condition of his people, longing for their healing and renewal.
What Judah was called by Jeremiah to see was that, just as he shared their pain and suffering, so God also shared their pain and suffering. It was not enough for God to look upon his people from a distance and see them suffering the consequences of their choices. No, at the perfect time, God came and actually entered into the midst of their suffering. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus was Abba’s ultimate answer to the suffering of his people. Even though God’s people could never seem to get things right, still God would come himself and set things right.
Truly, our sinfulness as human beings is a sickness only the divine Physician can heal. The apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. We cannot and do not get ourselves right with God—Jesus came and made us right with God, and makes us right as we trust in his perfect, complete gift of himself in our place and on our behalf.
What we have is a Physician who is also the one who is sick. He became the patient, bearing the full weight of our illness and the consequences of our sin, including death on a cross, and brought us complete restoration and renewal in his very person.
When Jesus rose from the grave and ascended to his Father, he brought our broken humanity to a new place—to the place where by faith we live eternally in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit from his Father so we could share in his perfect relationship with Abba and be able to live the other-centered, Christ-centered lives we were created to participate in.
This does not mean that when we trust in Christ that all the consequences of our failures to love magically disappear. It seems we often have to wrestle with these for years as part of our calling to share in the sufferings of Christ. There are times when God graciously removes the consequences of our choices—healing venereal disease, curing alcoholism, or removing a hunger for cocaine. But this is not always the case. Sometimes our battle against such pulls is the Physician’s very cure and is the means by which he intends us to participate in him providing the cure for others with the same struggle.
The biggest take-away here is, God is present in the midst of our consequences. He may or may not remove or minimize them—we should ask, but accept he may not. He shares our struggle and our pain—as we allow. And when we trust in Christ and are baptized, we are placed within the body of Christ to share this journey with others who are facing the same struggles. We are meant to participate in a spiritual community—a hospital for sinners, you might say—where we are all, as broken human beings, finding our healing and renewal in Christ.
We have a divine Physician who is on call for us 24/7 and who cares about the smallest concern of our lives. We probably ought to listen to him and follow his guidelines for the care of our souls—to feed and nourish properly the temple of the Spirit and our minds and hearts. We probably ought to live the way he created us to live—loving him wholeheartedly and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
But at any moment, no matter the joy or pain, he is present in the Spirit to share what we are going through, to help us bear whatever we face, even if it is the consequences of our bad choices. He never meant for us to go through life alone, but always to be at the center, sharing every part of it with us.
Dearest Abba, thank you for giving us your Son as our on-call Physician, who is always present and available to us at any time. Thank you, Jesus, for coming yourself and bearing our troubles and trials, and freeing us from the shackles of evil, sin, and death on the cross, rising to bring us all to share in your unity with the Father in the Spirit. Turn our hearts to you, Lord Jesus, to trust you in faith. Fill us anew with your Spirit, giving us the heart to live in the truth of who we are as image-bears of our God who is love. Amen.
“I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief. Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wounds of my people?” Jeremiah 8:21-22 NLT
By Linda Rex
PROPER 9—This morning the thought came to me that perhaps we as human beings expend way too much energy trying to fix ourselves or even other people. It’s interesting how many books can be found under the self-help and psychology signs at a big bookstore. So many ways to straighten ourselves out!
Indeed, as Christians we can easily be tempted to turn our walk of faith into a self-help program or a means by which we make ourselves good enough that we will be fit for heaven. So often, people speak of their eternal future in question marks, wondering if they will qualify or overcome enough that God will let them in when the time comes.
And even when it comes to our relationship with God, we often believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we can only approach God in prayer if we are on his good side, having behaved properly and not having anything in our lives which might be cause for criticism or condemnation. So much of our lives may be lived by the rule book and living by the rules makes it easy for us to discern whether or not we are on God’s good side or bad side, so we know whether or not it is safe to approach him when we are in trouble. The only problem is, if we are honest with ourselves, no matter how hard we try to keep all the rules, we fail.
The struggle with guilt and shame is real. Some therapists and counselors teach methods of getting rid of guilt and shame as though it weren’t real, while others realize that these are symptoms of something deeper which needs healing and renewal. The truth is, God never meant for us to live oppressed by guilt or shame or any other negative, destructive emotion. God meant for us to live at peace with him and the other people in our lives, and at peace within ourselves. This is why he sent Jesus.
As the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus was full of grace and truth. In Jesus, we see God’s very Word written into our humanity—our way of being lived out in a tangible way here on earth, in a way which we could hear, see, touch, and experience. If we want rules to live by, we need only the Person of Jesus Christ, the law expressed in his very being written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In Christ, the truth of our being was accompanied by grace though, and was expressed fully as Jesus took our humanity with him through the crucifixion into the grave and out the other side in glory.
The problem we have with Jesus is often the reality that trusting in him and in his completed work means we lose control over the final outcome for ourselves and for others. In other words, it becomes a work of faith rather than a work of our flesh. Our acceptance by God is not won by our merit or our efforts, but solely by the Son of God who stood and stands in our place and on our behalf. We cannot boast about anything, as the apostle Paul points out, except “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).
You may remember the story of Naaman, the captain of the army of the king of Aram who was afflicted with leprosy. A captive Israelite girl told his wife he should go to the prophet in Samaria so he could be healed. Eventually Naaman made his way to Elisha’s house. The prophet didn’t talk with him face to face, but rather sent a messenger to tell him if he went and washed seven times in the Jordan River, he would be restored and made clean.
This made Naaman furious. He assumed Elisha would do some great miracle-working action or would speak some fancy words over him. He knew in his mind what it was going to take to get well. Feeling insulted, he reminded himself that his nation’s rivers were better than the Jordan River. It seems he thought his healing should be on his terms—he believed this Israelite prophet was insulting and demeaning him by asking this simple request of him. So he began to head for home.
Thankfully, he listened to his servants when they reminded him that if he had been asked to do something big, he would have done it—why not do this little thing? So Naaman humbled himself and went to the Jordan River and washed himself seven times. In the end he was healed, but only because of this simple act of trusting obedience.
So often we refuse God’s simple instruction to us—wash and be cleansed. We want to follow a difficult plan or program to make ourselves better. It is good to practice spiritual disciplines, but not to make ourselves right with God and not to fix ourselves or anyone else. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, fasting, and worship are ways in which we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. In other words, they are ways in which we simply come and are cleansed in Christ’s perfect work and participate in an ongoing relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit.
God calls us to renewal and says to you and me—wash and be clean. Christ’s blood and broken body are the place where we experience renewal and transformation, healing and freedom from guilt and shame. We can keep trying to free ourselves by our own efforts and in our own way, or we can simply be washed in Christ. In baptism we acknowledge that we died with Christ and rose with Christ—we are made new in him. The Spirit is at work in us bringing this reality to fruition within our beings.
Our efforts do not accomplish this. Rather, they are a participation in what Jesus has already done in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Healing, renewal, and transformation are a gift from God, as the Spirit makes the finished work of Jesus a reality in each of us individually. As we trust in Christ and respond to the indwelling Spirit of God—sowing to the Spirit, not to the flesh—we reap eternal life. We participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba in the Spirit, and find we are cleansed, healed, and made new. And the only thing left for us to do is to give our gratitude and praise to God.
Abba, we thank you for the gift of new life, of healing, renewal, and transformation in Jesus. Thank you for your Spirit, your presence and power at work in us, with us, and for us. We praise you, for you are worthy. Finish what you have begun, even as you have promised. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
“Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, ‘My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, “Wash, and be clean”?’” 2 Kings 5:13 NASB
By Linda Rex
3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER—As the years go by, I find myself reflecting on the journey I have been on with Jesus. The person I am today is profoundly different from the person I was as a young adult. I had lots of dreams back then, and I voiced many strong convictions about what I believed to be true about God, myself, and others, much of which I have since renounced as wrong or inaccurate.
Life seemed to be a lot less complicated back then. I believed that if I just did everything the way it should be done, my life would be blessed, I would be happy, and things would go along quite well without any difficulties or suffering. Whatever difficulty or suffering that might come would be because I sinned or because I was being persecuted for doing what was right. It seemed as though I was on God’s side so he had to be on mine, making sure everything went as it should.
I’m a little embarrassed to think about how naïve and unschooled I was, but it was merely the outgrowth of unhealthy theology and a protected yet legalistic childhood. I have, through the conditioning of God and everyday human existence, come to have a more rounded and mature view of things. There is indeed evil at work in this world, and evil affects anyone and everyone at some point. No matter who we are, we won’t escape failures, difficulties, struggles, and challenges.
A fundamental change in my life began when my view of who I believed God to be was challenged. I believed God was Father and Son, and the Spirit was their power or essence. As I grew in my understanding of who the Holy Spirit really is as the third Person of the Trinity—reading in the scriptures and believing all the examples of his personhood illustrated there and growing in my personal relationship with the Spirit through prayer and listening—my understanding of who Jesus and the Father are began to change as well.
Knowing the Father as our loving Abba and Jesus Christ as his Son the Messiah, the Word who came and took on our human flesh, dying our death, rising again, to bear our glorified humanity in the presence of the Father forever, is life-transforming. As the Spirit brought me nearer and deeper into the life of the Trinity, what I believed kept moving beyond just a religious creed into the realm of personal experience. The reality of Jesus Christ in me, with me, for me, began to take a clearer shape. Jesus was no longer some story character—he had revealed himself to me personally by the Holy Spirit. I began to hear God’s still small voice in my heart and mind, and I began to know and believe I am loved, forgiven, and accepted. The more I believed the truth about who Jesus was and why he came and the more I knew I belonged and was included in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Abba in the Spirit, the more my behavior began to change.
I was more than happy to do my part in obeying God—I had constantly been bombarded by the shoulds, oughts, and have-tos of the belief system I held and all it did was make me worse. The harder I tried, the more I found myself shackled by unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. I struggled often with depression and self-loathing. This obviously wasn’t God’s way of doing things. Eventually, the change I noticed within myself did not come about because I tried harder, but rather because I admitted I couldn’t do it and I needed Christ to do it in me and through me by his Holy Spirit. It happened when I was honest with others about my struggles and failures, and sought help. It happened when I was transparent about my failures, became fully known and yet loved, accepted and forgiven within a healthy spiritual community.
The worst thing about toxic or legalistic religious environments is that they do not allow people to be authentic and real and so find genuine healing and renewal. It seems that when people come together to form a church, they bring with them their masquerade gear and spend copious amounts of energy hiding from one another. In this type of environment, addictions and co-dependencies thrive. Healing and renewal are often limited or are complicated by unhealthy boundaries and toxic relationships.
It is much better to be in a safe spiritual community where each person is able to be genuine and transparent, and is allowed to grow up in Christ. Growing up in healthy ways requires the freedom to make mistakes without condemnation and with the support and encouragement of those who have previously traveled those same difficult paths. A healthy spiritual community allows for falling short without condemnation, but challenges brothers and sisters to grow up into the fullness of who they are in Christ.
Saul was not a bad person. He was a zealous God-fearing Jew. He meant to do the right thing, and he was trying to live life the way he believed God wanted him to. I don’t know why he was so adamant about imprisoning and executing the believers in Christ, but perhaps his zeal for God was also inspired by a need for the approval of his Jewish peers and a need to accomplish what no one else was doing quite as well. Whatever his reasoning, it seemed to be borne out of a heart seeking to please God.
Imagine how horrifying it must have been to realize that the One Saul had been trying to impress was actually the One he had been persecuting. His efforts to earn God’s love and approval, and the adulation and approval of his peers, was actually an action in opposition to God and in persecution of Jesus. Saul needed to know who Jesus Christ really was. He needed to have his image of God reformed into something which more perfectly apprehended the Triune God of love. As Saul sat in the darkness of blindness for a few days, he must have thought at least once—now what do I do? How can I possibly make amends for this?
What if Ananias had refused to listen to Jesus when the Lord told him to go lay hands on Saul so he could see again? What if he had stood in judgment of Saul and had condemned him, insisting he pay for his crimes against Ananias’ friends and fellow believers? But he didn’t. He humbly obeyed Jesus’ command and met Saul right where he was, offering him grace and love, and entrance into the body of Christ, the church.
Saul, whom we know today as the apostle Paul, never minced words when he spoke about his past and his failures in life. He was transparent and honest about the people he had harmed and the suffering he had incurred. Instead of being a reason for shame and guilt, God made his failures an essential part of his witness to the resurrection power of the risen Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was effective often because people saw the profound reversal which had occurred in his life when he met Jesus Christ.
A church should be a spiritual community where people can be authentic and transparent, and safely transverse the changes necessary between spiritual infancy and the spiritual maturity of Christlikeness. This is a journey that takes time, and we all have ups and downs as we travel. We are bound together in Christ to offer one another both grace and truth—to enable one another to be challenged as well as upheld when things don’t go as we planned or hoped they should, or when we fall short of Christ.
The Spirit creates such a community as we respond to his work in our hearts and minds, and live and walk in him, tossing aside the old as unneeded scraps of clothing ready to be burned, and putting on Jesus Christ who is our life and the truth of our being. As we live out the truth of our real reversal in Jesus, the Spirit enables us to participate in bringing others to experience this transformation as well, creating a fellowship of care which reflects the inner life of the Triune God. Our spiritual community isn’t meant to be a closed group but rather a welcoming place where others may find healing and renewal as well.
Dear Abba, thank you that by your Spirit you bring together people to form spiritual communities where they can find healing and renewal, and share that gift with others who are broken and suffering. As believers, change our hearts and minds so that we begin to live together in ways which are transparent and authentic, and are safe for others to participate in and to come to know and grow up in Christ in a healthy way. We thank you for never ceasing to bring us to yourself through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ … and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ ” Acts 9:5-6, 20-21 NASB