By Linda Rex
August 16, 2020, Proper 15—If there is one thing we are good at as human beings, it is finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other people. We seem to find ways to elevate ourselves while demeaning others, or including ourselves while excluding others. One of the worst things we as Christians do so often is to use the Word of God and our religious faith to create unhealthy boundaries between ourselves and other people.
The one place where we as followers of Christ should find common ground is at the table of thanksgiving—communion. Here we each acknowledge anew with gratitude that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we find our true life in him. Here every person who trusts in him is bound to the community of faith, no matter his or her race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social status, or any other type of differentiation we might come up with.
The gospel passage for August 16th tells the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. Unfortunately for her, orthodox Jewish people of that day believed they had to separate themselves from the Gentiles. This meant she was excluded from any connection with the Jewish rabbis or synagogues. The fact that she sought help from Jesus showed an understanding and appreciation for who Jesus was that the Jewish authorities had denied. They ridiculed any possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Messiah.
Previous to his encounter with this woman, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees. They had criticized Jesus’ disciples for not observing careful ceremonial washing before they ate. Jesus pointed out their nitpicking observation of their traditions actually prevented people from obeying God and loving others as they were supposed to. For example, they said if a person gave to the temple coffers the support which was meant for the care of their dependent parents, that it was acceptable. But Jesus said that doing so broke God’s command that parents be honored and cared for by their children.
Later Jesus explained to his disciples when they were alone that it wasn’t what a person put into their bodies that made them unclean, but what came out of their hearts. Whatever we eat eventually gets used or discarded by our bodies. But what comes out of us in what we say and do is often what defiles us. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”
Matthew, in his gospel, says that after this conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and made his way into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Was he trying to avoid more of these provocative conversations so he could focus on teaching his disciples? Perhaps. But what is interesting is that their next experience was meeting this Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on my daughter, Son of David!”
Here we have someone who is excluded from the Jewish fellowship who is calling Jesus “Son of David”, a title only appropriate for the Messiah. Why did she call him this? Was she a Gentile proselyte? In any case, she seemed to be much more in agreement with who Jesus was than the Pharisees were.
The disciples, though, seemed not to have learned much from their previous experience with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish scriptures spoke of the day God’s salvation would be known among all nations. A foreigner coming to Jesus and asking for mercy was welcome—it said so in the writings they read in the synagogue. But it was their traditions regarding the Gentiles which created the barrier between them and caused them to resist including this woman in what they were doing.
Yes, Jesus was sent first to his people, Israel or the Jews, but not to the total exclusion of others. Jesus came to his people first so that when all was said and done, every human being would have a place at his table—all could come to him in faith and be received.
Jesus’ comment to the woman about taking the table food and feeding the dogs could have been an insult. But she knew that in a family, even the pet dogs had a place at the table, picking up the scraps off the floor. Even today, we often consider our pets to be part of our family, included in our life and worthy of at least a few choice leftovers after the meal. Speaking in this way, the woman touched Jesus’ heart, and so, in compassion, he healed her daughter.
Jesus remarked on her faith. While the disciples were busy trying to avoid having her bother the Messiah, the Messiah was busy being who he was—the bringer of salvation to all people, both Jew and Gentile. She trusted him to be compassionate and gracious, and so he was. She asked for mercy and she received it, because she trusted him to provide it.
What joy there must have been as this woman’s daughter was finally free from what had brought such chaos, pain, and suffering in her family! What Satan had meant to steal, kill, and destroy was replaced by the love, healing, and mercy of God—the renewal of the family bonds. This was but a small reflection of Jesus’ eternal intimate bond of love with his heavenly Father in the Spirit.
Perhaps it would be helpful to take a few moments to reflect on what barriers we may have at work in our lives which need to be replaced by love, compassion, and mercy. Who do we know who needs the tender touch of our Savior? Perhaps instead of criticism, condemnation, or isolation, today we may offer prayer, understanding, and a kind word or smile. What barrier can we replace today with God’s love and grace?
Holy Spirit, grant us the heart of Jesus towards each and every person we encounter in our lives. Enable us to see them as you do—one whom you came for, Jesus—one whom you love, Abba. Grant us the grace to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us ill, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is only possible through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. In your Name we ask this. Amen.
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, | To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, | To be His servants, ‘every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath | And holds fast My covenant; | Even those I will bring to My holy mountain | And make them joyful in My house of prayer. | Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; | For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ | The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB
“That Your way may be known on the earth, | Your salvation among all nations. | Let the peoples praise You, O God; | Let all the peoples praise You. | 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; | For You will judge the peoples with uprightness | And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.” Psalm 67:2-4 NASB
See also Matthew 15:21–28.
By Linda Rex
SUNDAY, MARCH 1, 2020, ASH WEDNESDAY/1ST SUNDAY IN EASTER PREP—Recently, I was chatting with someone about current events and they were telling me about a program they heard on the radio. The person they were listening to was saying that the current issue with child abuse imagery has multiplied into millions of cases worldwide since the time of Clinton’s presidency. The implication was that his moral failure with Monica Lewinsky was the root of this alarming increase in the use of pornography. Personally, I would be more inclined to believe that this extreme numerical increase is more directly related to the use the internet as well as the ability to track the use of pornographic material on the internet. But that is not the point I feel led to make.
Over the decades our nation has been at certain times more concerned with particular sins than with others. I was reading a historical novel the other day which was set in the time of this nation when temperance and prohibition were promoted as the solution to all of the ills besetting the nation. I agree that the misuse and abuse of alcohol and/or drugs leads to many other sins, but there is so much more at stake. It is a greater issue that we can become so obsessed with a certain sin that we lose sight of our proclivity for living as though we are in charge and able to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil.
The story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden eating the forbidden fruit cuts down to the root of all human behavior from that time to today. We are all created for an intimate relationship with the God who made us and we can, at any time, walk and talk with God if we so desire. We may not experience this relationship with God in the same way they did, but it is what we were created for. However, we often trade this direct relationship with God we were given in Jesus Christ for a substitute relationship—dependency upon and reveling in the things of this human existence. Or as followers of Christ, we may even substitute church attendance, rule-keeping, moral purity, and community service for an intimate walk with our living Lord.
The truth is that we often are more concerned about repenting our mistakes or moral failures than we are repenting the bent we have toward rejecting God himself. What we need to do is to acknowledge the reality that we wish to live as though we are self-sustaining individuals, as little gods who run the universe the way we want it to be run. Let’s be honest with ourselves—we don’t want to have to answer to anyone for what we say or do—we want to create our own rules to live by and not have any consequences for our choices or behaviors.
So we come to the time on the Christian calendar called Lent (or Easter preparation) which begins on Ash Wednesday. This is the time when we honestly assess and confess our genuine and deep need for the Lord Jesus Christ. For, if he did not stand in our stead and on our behalf, we would have no interest in or desire for, nor the ability to have, a relationship with the God who made us and who cares for us. We don’t just draw up a list of sins and tell God about them. No, we go much deeper—down to the core of our being—down to the heart which turns away from God toward the things and people of this human existence.
God calls us to return to him. To return is to go back to the place where we started. We began at a place in which we were fully included in God’s life and love. And then we turned away. When God as the Word took on our humanity, he turned us back to his heavenly Father.
As Jesus stood in the waters of the Jordan River with the baptismal waters dripping off his frame, he heard the Father’s words of love—“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased (Matt. 3:17 NASB).” On the mountain where he was transfigured, we again hear the affirmation of his heavenly Father—“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him (Matt. 17:5 NASB)!” In Christ, we are beloved children. We are God’s pleasure and joy. God calls us to rend our hearts—to quit with all the religious externals and to get down to the core of our being: What drives us? What is the focus of our inner conversation? What directs our decisions and choices? Where does God fit in our lives? Does he even have a place in our heart?
The process of examining our hearts is not meant to be discouraging or depressing. Rather, as we take God’s hand and walk down the corridors of our inner sanctuary, we begin to see in a greater way our need for deliverance, redemption, and forgiveness. We see our need for a Savior. We begin to put God back in his rightful place as Lord of our existence. And most of all, the closer we get to the heart, we discover that waiting there all this time has been Christ himself by the Spirit.
For Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save us. He entered our human existence, not to destroy us, but to reconstruct us back into the image-bearers of God we were created to be. We do not look to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday with dread or to Holy Saturday with sorrow, but to Resurrection Sunday with anticipation and joy. What was meant for our evil, the destruction of our souls, God turned to good—the deliverance of all people. Jesus came to live our life, die our death, and rise so that the Spirit would be sent—so we would receive the very life of God within ourselves.
When we are called to return—to turn about, we are called back into the relationship which was ours from before time began. God has always meant to include us in his life and love, and even though we managed to turn away from this to the things of this world and ourselves, God has in Christ turned us back to himself. Receive the gift which has been given. Come to yourself, your true self. For Abba loves you dearly and is pacing on the porch, looking down the road, anticipating your return. Run to him!
Dearest Abba, thank you for not rejecting us because of our rejection of you, but giving us your Son in our place and on our behalf. Turn our hearts back to you again. Renew in us a desire for your will and your ways, but more importantly, for your very presence—to affectionately tend to your heart as you tend to ours. We praise you that this is all possible through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, | And with fasting, weeping and mourning; | And rend your heart and not your garments.’ | Now return to the LORD your God, |For He is gracious and compassionate, | Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness | And relenting of evil.” Joel 2:12-13 NASB
“For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:17-19 NASB
By Linda Rex
LENT—My personal Lenten wilderness wanderings are taking me through some painful memories. They are also taking me to the place of recognizing and acknowledging my failures to love. This process is humbling and calls forth in me an anguished cry to God for deliverance and renewal.
The hardest thing for me to accept is the realization that if I had only listened more carefully to what the Spirit was telling me and had promptly done things his way, not in my own stubborn “righteous” way, things in my life would have been a lot better, a lot less people would have been hurt, and the lessons life had for me would have been much easier to swallow.
So often God’s love and grace stand ready to bring healing and wholeness, but we are not willing to open ourselves up to them. God’s love and grace don’t always appear the way we expect them to—case in point being the Messiah who would be a suffering servant rather than a conquering hero. We want God to conform to our ideas of how things should be rather than simply surrendering to him and his plans and ways.
Now I could wallow in guilt and shame, but it would really serve no purpose but to keep me in a place where the evil one can create even more destruction and death. No, the better thing is to receive what God is offering and be open to what he wants to change in me and in my life. Having an open heart to receive all God has for me is a better place to be.
There are many times in life when circumstances and situations are beyond our control. We struggle to do the next right thing in what seems to be an impossible situation. We seek God’s will and guidance and take another step forward. We try to live the best we know how. And still we fall short. Life takes its toll. Relationships are broken or severed. People die. Businesses fail.
We find ourselves wondering how to find the capacity to move on. Life in this broken world is tough. Becoming a Christian isn’t the solution to every little problem in this world. Sometimes becoming a Christian actually makes things even more difficult or painful. The road we walk on as we follow Christ is a path through death to resurrection. There are sacrifices and suffering which go with the Christian life, as well as many deep joys and pleasures.
God doesn’t remove the realities of our human experience. Rather he enters into them with us and walks with us through them. He carries our sorrows, lifts our burdens, and shares our struggles. Sometimes he makes things easier and gives us great redemption in an impossible situation. There are times when he allows us to go through a great trial, but he never intends us to go through it on our own—we are meant to have him present, in us, with us, and for us in every circumstance.
God has covenanted with us in Christ to be ours and has made us his. Nothing can separate us from his love (Rom. 8:38-39). He longs to gather us to himself and to express his great love and devotion. He doesn’t want us to suffer needlessly, so he gives us not only a relationship with himself, but also Christ to follow. Christ is our life (Col. 3:4) and is the substance of our existence. He is the perfected humanity we are being formed into by the Holy Spirit.
The cry of Jesus to the city of Jerusalem is the cry of Abba’s heart to you and to me. He doesn’t want us to struggle or to suffer but rather to rest in his embrace—to be at peace with him. So he has given us this rest, this peace, in Jesus. The Spirit affirms the truth that we are accepted in Christ, we are forgiven children, beloved and always welcome in our Abba’s heavenly home.
When faced with the reality of our failures to love or to be faithful to God, we need not be overwhelmed with failure. Rather we need to focus on the power and love of the God who overcame death through resurrection. Our gracious God can take a situation full of brokenness, guilt, and shame, and turn it into a means of redemption and renewal. He can turn it into opportunity to show to many the glory of his goodness, love and grace.
When we resist his grace and love, when we refuse to allow God to redeem a situation or to bring about redemption and renewal in a broken relationship, we are like Jerusalem refusing to receive and acknowledge their Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. All that’s left to us is our desolate house, our broken life, our shattered dreams.
If God’s purpose is to redeem, restore, and renew all things (which it is) then we want to have open hearts to receive God’s restoration, redemption and renewal. We want to be open to the possibilities rather than resistant to the Spirit’s work. We want to available to participate in God’s work, joining with him as he rebuilds, transforms, and heals.
This is the kingdom life we were included in through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension and in the sending of the Spirit. This is the life of the church, the Body of Christ, in this world as participants in Jesus’ priesthood, his ministry to all humanity. God is at work to heal, restore and renew, and we are included in his mission in this world. May we always be open to his possibilities in the midst of our impossibilities, to his light in our darkness, to his life in our death.
Dear Abba, thank you for the gift of life, grace and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Give us open hearts and open hands that we may receive all you have done for us through Christ and all you desire to give us in every moment. We praise you for your faithful love and abundant grace through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! Behold, your house is left to you desolate; …” Luke 13:34b-35a NASB
“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.” Philippians 3:20-21 NASB
By Linda Rex
I remember when my children were toddlers how difficult it was to help them to understand not to touch the oven door on the stove when I was baking something. I would explain that it was hot. I would tell them “No!” when they reached toward it. And I would tell them they would hurt themselves if they touched it.
Even with all the explaining, instructions, and prohibitions, invariably they would reach out and touch the door of the oven. Then I would have to deal with sore fingers and tears and all the ramifications of their disobedience. I did not want them to get their fingers burned and took every precaution so they wouldn’t, but because of their stubborn willfulness they experienced pain and suffering as a consequence of their decision to touch the hot stove.
At no point, though, did my relationship with them change. They were still my beloved children and I was still committed to their well-being and health. I still did my best to guard and protect them and provide for them in spite of their disobedience and resistance to my will. They may have felt my anger and concern regarding the danger they were facing and the harm their disobedience was causing. But on my side, my love and care and gracious compassion, were unaltered.
There is something about the human heart that leads us into trouble and causes us to do things which in the end cause pain, heartache, and suffering. I don’t believe God has to go around punishing us all the time for “being bad” because most of the time we and those around us already suffer the consequences of the unhealthy and unloving things we say and do. God can quite easily give to us “according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” without lifting a finger. Life deals us all the blows we need and more, and if it doesn’t, we can trust in due time God will see that all is made right.
We know this because of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who stands in our place and on our behalf, experienced the consequences of our sick hearts as humans who turned away from their Creator and Lord and turned toward themselves and the works of their hands. It seems that God was willing to let us be stubborn and willful and to do things our own way even if it meant the Son he gave us died at our hands.
It’s not like God didn’t give us any guidance or instruction. God went to the effort to create a nation whom he bound himself to in a covenant relationship. He taught this people, and in them the world, how to live in loving relationship with him and with one another. We look at the law as being prescriptive—something we’re supposed to do. Rather, the law was meant to be descriptive—it describes what it looks like when people live in loving relationship with God and one another and how gracious God is when we fall short.
This means that God told us what it looks like to participate in the loving relationship he has existed within for all eternity—in perichoretic oneness, in mutual submission, in interpenetrating unity of being—three Persons in one Being. This is the image of God we were created to reflect. This is the image we were made to bear in our own relationships with God and each other.
Even Moses understood that the human heart resists living in this way. He knew that what was needed for the nation of Israel was a change of heart, because their natural human response to God was resistance, rejection, and disobedience. The human heart, our human flesh, when left to itself seeks only its own pleasure and will, not God’s. We, quite naturally, give ourselves over to the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”
God never intended for us to live in this way. He knew we would choose this way of being, so he planned from before time began to provide us with a new heart and mind, a new way of being. Jesus voluntarily offered himself so we could one day be freed from our carnal humanity and be given a new heart and mind grounded in God himself.
Our very act of resistance toward God in crucifying Jesus was part of God’s plan of salvation. Indeed, in dying our death in our place and on our behalf and at our hands, Jesus crucified once and for all our human proclivity towards rebellion, disobedience, and stubborn willfulness. Our sick human heart was regrounded in Christ’s perfect heart of obedience, submission, and service. In Christ, we died to sin and death, and rose to new life. We have been given Christ’s new heart of love—in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit God has, through Christ, given us new hearts and minds.
So the apostle Paul says things like, “put on the new self (Eph. 4:24)”, or “since you’ve been raised with Christ, keep seeking things above (Col. 3:1)”, “put on a heart of compassion, kindness… (Col. 3:9)”. We are “being transformed … from glory to glory… (2 Cor. 3:18)”, as we turn to Christ in faith and the Spirit reforms us in the image of Christ. Who we really are—those perfected in Christ as imagebearers of God—is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). There might not be a whole lot of outward evidence of change, but God’s still at work. On his end it’s a done deal, while on ours it’s a work in progress.
In Christ, God wrote his law, his way of being, on human hearts. As we respond to the work of the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves living in the truth of who we are—God’s beloved children who reflect his likeness, who have his heart and mind. We have been given a new heart and God has written on it through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension a new way of being, which includes a desire to live in loving relationship with God and one another.
There is a new existence we participate in through Jesus in the Spirit. What we struggle with is, we believe we are still slaves to sin. We believe we are evil at our core and so God is opposed to us and against us. This is the lie we have been taught in so many ways. But the truth is, we have always been upheld by God in our human existence, and we have been rescued and redeemed by Christ. Any barrier we or the evil one may have placed between us and God has been removed by Jesus Christ. We have been made, are being made, and will be made one with God through Christ in the Spirit.
We have been given the ultimate cure for the sick human heart—Jesus Christ—and he is written there by the Holy Spirit. We are blessed as we live in the truth of this and so, as we participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Abba in the Spirit, we experience all the benefits of having a new heart and mind. The beauty of all this is the love God puts in our heart for him and one another. He empowers us to live in loving relationships and to do what is kind, compassionate, and truthful. He inspires heartfelt obedience and genuine humility as we turn to him in faith.
In all things, then, he receives the glory and praise. He is the divine Physician—the One who has provided and does provide the ultimate cure to our diseased human heart. If we never acknowledge our illness, it will be difficult for us to experience the cure. We may as well admit to the truth of our need for his transforming work in us. We can participate in his healing work by keeping a daily appointment with him and allowing him to do what is needed to transform our hearts by faith.
Dear Abba, thank you for doing all you can to keep us from unnecessary suffering, pain, and sorrow. We know we are so often the cause of this in our lives. Thank you for giving us your Son so we could be healed of our sick hearts and be given your own heart and mind. May your Spirit continue to transform our hearts by faith and bring us fully into the fullness of Christ. We praise and thank you for your goodness to us and your faithful love through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” Jeremiah 17:9-10 NASB
by Linda Rex
Have you ever had one of those days when no matter where you turned, something horrible was happening or had happened, and someone’s life was shattered and broken? Do you ever have your heart so broken by what’s happening around you you think you will never be able to put it back together again?
There is so much awfulness going on around us today. It seems like there is no end to the horrendous things people do to one another. No matter how hard we try to make this a healthy and happy experience, we still lose dear ones and children. And it can seem like that’s all there is to this world. The possibility of hope in the midst of all this can seem very small.
This time of year during Advent we celebrate the coming into a dark and forbidding world of a ray of light, a beam of hope—the coming of God into our humanity to share our struggles and sufferings and to bring us new life. How fitting it is that our common desire for a messiah, a rescuer, was met with the gift of a little infant who bore the very Presence and Being of God himself.
The problem is we prefer God to rescue us on our own terms. During Jesus’ life here on earth, he was expected to be the Conquering King messiah, when he was really meant to be the lay-down-his-life Suffering Servant messiah. Our expectations of how God should rescue us often drive the way we see him and the way we experience our world, and they need readjusted.
Truth is, while this God/man Jesus Christ was on earth, he healed a lot of people, but he didn’t heal everyone who was sick. He may have thrown some vendors out of the temple, but he didn’t get rid of them over and over while he was here. He may have raised Lazarus and the young man in Nain from the dead, but he did not raise all the other people around him who died while he was here on earth.
It’s hard to picture this about our Savior, but he did not stop the slavery he saw about him. Nor did he intervene in every situation to stop the Romans from crucifying people. No doubt he saw and experienced much suffering and grief while he was here. But he didn’t stop it all and fix it all right there and then. His Father had something much different in mind.
Our way of dealing with things so often focuses on the right-here-and-now. It seems we need to be given an eternal perspective—one which focuses, not on morality or a pain-free life, but on relationship. Relationships can be difficult, messy and painful, and we so often prefer not to deal with the truth of the issues which are going on in our own hearts, much less those going on in the hearts of those around us.
The engagement of human hearts with the Divine Heart of love is something which takes us down paths we don’t want to go. We want peace, joy, love, happiness, hope. But we don’t want a relationship with the One who gives us those things, nor do we want to live in agreement with the truth of the reality for which we were created. I’m just being real here: We prefer to live in our own little bubble of reality, rather than in the truth of who we really are, the humans God created us to be—people who love God and love one another with outgoing, self-sacrificing love and humility.
God—Father, Son, and Spirit—has such a deep respect for our personhood, which reflects the divine Personhood, he does not impose his will on us, but rather invites us to participate in the true reality of life in the Trinity. There is a way of being we were created for which reflects the divine Way of Being, and we can live in this way, or in a way of our own devising.
We can decide for ourselves how we are going to use our bodies, our belongings, our world, or we can surrender to the reality we are not God and begin to use them all in the way God created them to be used in the first place. God has given us incredible freedom, and does not ever impose his will unless it is imperative to accomplishing his ultimate purposes in the world—to bring many children into glory.
So often we want God to straighten up things in the world, but the minute we begin to experience the possibility of him intervening, we get all upset, because he isn’t doing things the way we want him to do them. We struggle with the real dichotomy within our own human hearts—our desire to love and be loved, and our natural human rebellion against allowing God to be the supreme lover of our soul.
This puts us in a very difficult position. We are experiencing the consequences of our human rebellion against the Lord of the universe, but we are angry with God because we are experiencing these consequences. It is not our fault when we get mugged by someone or our loved one gets murdered—we did not do anything to deserve this suffering. It is not our fault someone dear to us developed cancer and died—they were a good person, so why did they have to die—we didn’t deserve this.
And this is all true. So many of us are experiencing the consequences of things others have done and which are not our fault. Others of us seem to get away with everything and never suffer any consequences. It all seems so unfair. And it really is, in one sense.
But from the viewpoint of the Divine grace of God, neither was the suffering and death of the little infant who lay in a manger that Bethlehem night. Here was God’s supreme gift to humanity—his very Person in human flesh. And we did to him what was in our hearts—we rejected him, abused him, and crucified him.
At no point did Jesus refuse to embrace the truth of the evil in our human hearts. Yes, he shed great tears and earnestly sought a different way, but in the end, he surrendered himself to the truth of the darkness in human hearts. And by doing so, he opened a way for Light to enter the world. In his life in this dark world, his suffering and crucifixion, he bore all that we go through, and then he died and rose again—to offer us hope in a new life, a new world to come where we could truly begin to experience life in the Trinity as God intended.
The Light of God entered the world, but then in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we find that the Light of God has entered human hearts. The Spirit has been sent of offer us our new existence in relationship with the Triune God of love. Our experience of the new life Christ has forged for us is found in the midst of this relationship of love—in true community with God and others.
If we were to look around us and even within our own hearts, we might find instead of darkness, the glimmer of the hope created for us in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Opening our hearts to the Light of God, we might find that this Light is shining all around us, in other human hearts, in difficult and painful situations, in the offering of joy and happy relationships in the midst of a dark world. The Light has come into the world—will we open our hearts and lives and embrace the wonder of this precious gift? Or will we continue down our own stubborn path of resistance to the truth of how things really are?
Either way, we have been given a hope, a joy, a peace we did not deserve. God has declared his heart toward us is love and grace. He has ordained peace on earth, in and through his Son Jesus Christ and by the gift of his Spirit. And one day, we will begin to experience the truth of this in a way we cannot even begin to imagine now.
Today and in this moment, we can participate in this gift by receiving it, opening it up, and enjoying the blessings of all God has given us in this gift of his Son. May you each have a very blessed Christmas, enjoying all the blessings of life in Jesus by the Spirit as Abba’s good and perfect gift. Merry Christmas!
Dear Abba, thanks for giving us the best of all gifts, your Son in the form of a baby in a manger. How can it be you love us so much you would give us your very heart?! Forgive us—so often we are unappreciative of your many gifts, especially this One Who was meant to bring us near to you in real, intimate relationship for all eternity. May we set aside all our expectations of you, and receive in true humility all we need for life and godliness—your most precious divine gifts—your Son and your Spirit. In your Name we pray, amen.
“The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the world. He entered our world, a world He made; yet the world did not recognize Him. Even though He came to His own people, they refused to listen and receive Him. But for all who did receive and trust in Him, He gave them the right to be reborn as children of God; He bestowed this birthright not by human power or initiative, but by God’s will. The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us. We have seen Him, enveloped in undeniable splendor—the one true Son of the Father—evidenced in the perfect balance of grace and truth.” John 1:9-14 (The Voice Bible)
By Linda Rex
As many of the members of our congregation know, our pastoral team uses the Revised Common Lectionary as a resource in preparing our sermons each week. This helps us to keep in step with the Christian calendar and enables us to cover a large portion of the biblical text as the year goes by.
This Sunday I hope to preach on one of the passages listed in the lectionary—in particular, a passage in James 5. Several times during my morning commute to my second job this week, I listened to the book of James being read aloud. I don’t know if you ever have this happen when you read God’s Word, but something just jumped out at me as the reader was speaking.
Perhaps I was just in a Trinitarian frame of mind. I don’t know. But what struck me was James was expending a lot of energy talking about what it meant to live righteously. Over and over he described what the godly life looks like and what it doesn’t look like. And it all had to do with relationships.
The relational God, when he lives in us by the Spirit and we are responding in faith to his work in our hearts and minds, moves us to live in ways which build and reflect healthy relationships. It seems to me, when righteousness is discussed in terms of “right relationship” it can be described in just the way James described it.
For example, when James says a person who does not guard his or her tongue is not practicing true religion (1:26), he is showing how what we say or do not say reflects what is going in our hearts and minds. Later he reminds us when we are living out of the truth of who we are in Christ—the spring of living water—what we say will reflect Christ’s wisdom. When we are living out of the acrid, putrid water of our flesh, we will say things which are abusive and reflect a heart full of jealousy and selfish ambition. (3:9-18)
Obviously what we say and how we say it directly impacts our relationships with God and with other people. Speaking out of the abundance of a heart full of evil motives and desires will not achieve the right relationships we wish to have with God and others—it will not produce the righteousness of God.
James says in another place “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”. When we think in terms of relationships and the love which goes on within the Triune God this can seem like a no-brainer. Our flashes of human anger where we are triggered and we blow up at the people around us—usually people we love and care for—do not build relationships but fracture and harm them.
When we are in tune with God’s heart and mind though, living out of the spring of living water Who dwells within us, we will be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger—all of which builds relationships and does not destroy them. When we look at the human life Jesus lived on this earth, we see this very thing occurring in all his relationships. This is the way of being of the God Who lives in and with us through Jesus and in his Spirit. This is what Jesus by the Spirit puts into our hearts and minds.
This is the “wisdom from above” described by James: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” The fruit or result of living out of the truth of who we are in Jesus is right relationships with God and others. How we live with one another—which spring we draw from—determines the seeds which are planted in our relationships and the fruit which is borne as time goes by.
This puts me in mind of a friend whose supervisor is rude, disrespectful and controlling. He creates an unhealthy work environment for those who are unfortunate enough as to have to be his employees. And it never occurs to him that the poor work performance and rotten attitudes of some of his employees may be the result of the way he treats them. The fruit of what he is sowing certainly isn’t right relationships!
Broken, fractured marriages result when spouses live out of the rottenness of their human flesh rather than out of the life-giving spring of living water available to them by the Holy Spirit. Even so, putting two people together in close proximity means there will be misunderstandings, inadvertent hurts, and thoughtless acts. This is why we need something or Someone beyond us interceding between us in all these situations.
Christ living in us enables us to weather relational difficulties and to resolve impossible relational schisms. Time and again I have seen and experienced the healing which comes when we turn to Christ in the midst of these difficult situations and begin living out the truth of who we are as God’s children. Prayer and seeking God’s will and grace are fundamental to the success of any relationship. Why?
Because of the reality Christ is the Mediator in any and every relationship. He is both the Mediator between God and human, and he is the Mediator between each of us as humans because in him God and humanity are joined as one. In all our relationships, he is the center and source of our oneness with each other.
This is the ultimate indicative or basis for every imperative or command we read in James. Because we are connected at the core of our being with the One, Jesus Christ, Who is connected with all others, we have every reason and ability to live in right relationship with God and others. In Jesus Christ, we also find we have, by the gift of his Spirit, the strength beyond our strength, the wisdom from above, to relate properly with God and others when our flesh is calling us to do otherwise.
God never meant for us to be estranged from him or any other person, but for each and all of us to live as one with him and one another. And it was always his desire to share himself with us so we could. And this beautiful thing happened when God came to earth and took on our humanity as an infant born that glorious night in Bethlehem. The God of peace gave us the Prince of Peace so we could live forever at peace with him and one another. Shalom!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit by Who we may have peace with you and one another. May we live out of the abundance of your life in us so we may live in the truth of who we are in you. Through Jesus, our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” James 1:19–20 NASB
by Linda Rex
In my last blog I talked about the Ten Commandments and the curses that were to be rehearsed by the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. My point, in essence, was that God was once again renewing his covenant love commitment to Israel and was calling them to love him wholeheartedly in return. This covenant love relationship was to supersede all the rules and regulations given to Israel that were meant to keep them within the bounds of that love.
It is interesting that God was quite frank with the Israelites when he told them that they weren’t going to be faithful to him because they were a stubborn, willful people. He predicted that they would be unfaithful to him, and that even though they were the most blessed people in the world because they had him for a covenant partner, he knew they would still choose to worship the gods of the nations around him instead. God wasn’t fooled by Israel’s empty promises.
And indeed, the nation of Israel over the centuries repeatedly denied the God who redeemed them and chose to suffer the painful consequences of that rejection and rebellion. In time they ended up exiled as God predicted would happen and the Promised Land was overrun by other nations.
But in this prediction of the future of Israel, God also pointed to a time after the exile—a time of repentance, of a change of mind and heart. He predicted that one day, he would “circumcise the heart” of the nation and its descendants so that they would love him with all their heart and all their soul so that they would seek life. He told them that the commandment, to love God wholeheartedly, was not external to them nor was it beyond their reach. Rather it would be in their mouth and in their heart.
The apostle Paul takes this up in Romans 10:4-13 when he contrasts righteousness through the law with the righteousness which is by faith:
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “DO NOT SAY IN YOUR HEART, ‘WHO WILL ASCEND INTO HEAVEN?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘WHO WILL DESCEND INTO THE ABYSS?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of call, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” (NASB)
He shows that in Christ there is a change at the heart level which involves faith, something that the ancient Israelites failed to have in their covenant relationship with God. They did not believe, therefore they did not obey. They did not believe God and trust in the depth of his love for them, so often they chose to work things out themselves or to rely on other nations or other ways of living and worshiping.
We are reminded by Paul that when God told Abraham he was going to bless him and give him many descendants, Abraham believed him. And God counted that as his righteousness. Abraham trusted that God would keep his word, even when it seemed that there was no hope of it working out the way he said. Thus, God declared Abraham to be in right relationship with him. (Rom. 4:19-22) This is the essence of the love relationship God wants with each of us—to know him to be the loving, faithful God he really is and to trust him completely—to trust God’s love in spite of what we may see, think, or experience to the contrary.
God went out of his way to demonstrate his love for us in coming as the Living Word in human flesh. Jesus Christ lived out the perfection of his divinity within the corruption of human flesh, moment by moment working out our salvation in every situation and circumstance of his human existence. Then he died and rose again. His ascension is key to this whole thing—because in his ascension, he sent from the Father the Blessed Holy Spirit to live in human hearts. This was the circumcision first spoken about by Moses and confirmed by Jesus Christ.
This is the “mystery of godliness” Paul talks about in his letters. It is Jesus Christ, and therefore the Father, living in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In this way we all have a new existence. The people of Israel, as well as all people everywhere, have been given freedom from the confines of the external law because now we have the Law, the living Word, written on human hearts. The external law now takes its rightful place as a pointer to the One who transforms human hearts from the inside out. We have been given a right relationship God where it’s no longer a matter of judgment but rather a matter of grace.
Now God calls us out of this relationship we’ve imagined is based on do’s and don’t’s into a relationship he forged based solely on his love and his grace. He has placed his divine Word, his Law, within human hearts. We are guided and led by his Holy Spirit. We don’t get to call the shots anymore. We don’t get to try to work this out ourselves. He’s already done it all—he just calls us to accept it and enjoy it. He just asks us to believe it and receive it—to enjoy the marvelous thing he has done in bringing us back together with him again.
Like a lover wooing his wandering bride, God has removed all the barriers that we can possibly put between him and us as his people. We can’t use our nationality, our race, our wealth or poverty, our knowledge or ignorance, our human wretchedness, or anything else as an excuse for not surrendering to the blessings and wonder of a life lived in the presence of and to the glory of the God who truly and forever loves us and will not be God without us. All that’s left for us to do is to capitulate—to surrender unconditionally to the love and grace of God. Question is—will we do that?
Father, we praise you that in your steadfast love, you have given us a new heart and soul through the Word written on our human hearts and minds. And that by your Holy Spirit you awaken each of us to new life—life lived daily in your presence. Finish your great work of transformation in each of us—we surrender to your perfect will and your love. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. …For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Deut. 30:6, 11–14
by Linda Rex
I was intrigued by the story of Samson when I was a little girl. Here was a man whose birth was announced by an angel to his barren parents. He was set apart for God from birth, which back then meant he could not drink any juice or wine made from grapes, nor could he cut his hair. As long as he was separated for God in this way, God gave him supernatural strength by which he helped his nation overcome their oppressors, the Philistines.
This was all well and good, and Samson began destroying the enemies of Israel. But he had a small problem. His heart was not fully devoted to God. Many times he gave his heart away to a woman and inevitably ended up in trouble because of it.
In the final scenes of Samson’s life we see the infamous Delilah show up. Delilah stole Samson’s heart, to the place that one night he told her everything that was in his heart. In other words, he told Delilah the secret to his strength. The one thing that God had said was his and his alone, Samson gave to another.
This would not have been a problem, only Delilah was not a safe person for Samson to be sharing his heart with. Delilah took that knowledge, sold it to the Philistine leaders, and cut off Samson’s hair. He became a prisoner then of the enemy. They blinded and shackled him. He could no longer do the work God created him for.
Too often in life we are not careful about to whom or what we give our hearts. Then the people or things we’ve opened our hearts to begin to wound us, destroying the beauty God meant for us to have and our usefulness for his work in this world. We find ourselves trapped in a place God never meant for us to be, bound and shackled. What begins as a moment of pleasure or a relationship of passion ends up as bondage, suffering, and maybe even destruction.
The story of King Hezekiah also tells us about the hazards of opening the heart of one nation to another. In this story the king had recovered from a fatal illness because of God’s mercy. Some Babylonian envoys came by for a visit to share the joy. Now Babylon at that time wasn’t much of a country. And Hezekiah didn’t really think he needed to restrict what they saw. So he showed them everything. He opened the heart of the country completely to them.
There was a small problem with this. What Hezekiah did not realize was that Babylon was on the way up. They were to become the next superpower of the ancient world. And Israel would be one of the nations they would squash. Opening the heart of his nation to Babylonian envoys was not a smart move.
The truth is there is only one person who can be fully trusted with your heart and mine. That is God.
You belong in this universe he created. You were meant to have a place in God’s story. He created your heart for himself and he will do and has done everything he possibly can to protect and care for your heart when you give it to him. He honors your boundaries and will not push himself on you.
If you are willing to receive the gift, he has given you his heart in place of yours. He has given you a whole heart in place of your shattered one. He has given you a strong heart in place of your weak one. Your physical heart may give out and you may die. But his heart in you will live on into eternity.
Heart-sharing. God seeks your heart and mine—he has given his fully to you and to me. The cost of opening himself up fully to us was the suffering we inflicted on Jesus Christ in his life and death. But the payment is everlasting life for us in God’s presence through his resurrection. We need to be careful to whom and what we give our hearts in the world around us. But we can freely and fully give our hearts to the One who completely shared his heart with us. He stands with open hands, his heart fully yours. Will you share?
Lord, thank you for your heart of love that is fully ours in Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace, the courage and faith to share our hearts completely with you. Amen.
“So he told her all that was in his heart and said to her, ‘A razor has never come on my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If I am shaved, then my strength will leave me and I will become weak and be like any other man.’
“ When Delilah saw that he had told her all that was in his heart, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines, saying, ‘Come up once more, for he has told me all that is in his heart.’ Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her and brought the money in their hands. She made him sleep on her knees, and called for a man and had him shave off the seven locks of his hair. Then she began to afflict him, and his strength left him.” Judges 16:17–19 (NASB)
“Then Isaiah the prophet came to King Hezekiah and said to him, ‘What did these men say, and from where have they come to you?’ And Hezekiah said, ‘They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.’’ He said, “What have they seen in your house?” So Hezekiah answered, ‘They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing among my treasuries that I have not shown them.’” Isaiah 39:3–4 (NASB)