Israelites

Matters of the Heart

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rose

by Linda Rex

There are some things in life we just don’t like doing, and not everyone shares the same dislike of doing certain things. For much of my life I haven’t liked washing dishes, probably because it was a household chore forced on me as a child and it involved washing an entire counter’s worth of dirty dishes. Today washing dishes is something I’ve learned to tolerate, and I thank God for my dishwasher all the time because it is such a blessing to me. I doubt I will ever grow to love the task of cleaning the grime off dishes, but I do remember on occasion to thank God I even have the dishes to wash and the food to wash off of them.

And that’s what got me to thinking. What about those things in life we just don’t like doing, but we know doing them is the right thing to do—something God wants us to do? We run up against these things all the time—it’s a part of our human existence. Sometimes we feel we don’t have the heart to do what we know we need to do. But maybe we’re wrong.

The Israelites stood on the shores of the Jordan River and Moses began to talk with them about the journey they had been on with their God, how he had created them and then redeemed them by bringing them out of slavery, and how he would bring them into their new land. And Moses gave them the directive God had placed in his mouth: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5)

The evidence of Israel’s travels through the wilderness show they did not and didn’t seem to be capable of truly loving the God who created and redeemed them. They seemed to always drift back towards their days in slavery or over into the idolatry of the nations they encountered. They definitely did not have the heart to obey God, much less love him wholeheartedly. If anything, their heart was turned away from God and not towards him.

There were times in my life where I felt it was monstrously unfair for God to expect Israel to love him with their whole heart when they weren’t capable of doing it. It seemed horribly unjust.

But as time has gone by, I have come to know God a little better. I have learned to look at these stories from a different perspective. In the context of this directive to Israel we hear Moses describing all the ways in which God had shown his love and faithfulness to them, and how he was going to continue to faithfully fulfill his covenant love relationship with them as they moved on into the promised land.

The basis of God’s request Israel love him wholeheartedly was within himself, in his love and faithfulness. It was not something they had to drum up on their own—which is what they kept trying to do. God had called them into relationship with himself, had given them all the ways in which they needed to live to fully and joyfully participate in that relationship. By his love and grace he would ensure their relationship with him would last and they would indeed love him with all their heart and soul and might.

As time went by, God sent prophets to Israel to call them back into their covenant relationship of love. We read in Hosea and other places of the heartache this nation continually caused God by their infidelities and indifference and outright rebellion against him. But God was faithful to them in spite of their unfaithfulness. God was loving and gracious to them in spite of their ingratitude and rejection of him. The prophets told the people one day God would give them a new heart and a new mind which would enable them to love their Redeemer with their whole hearts. He would make it possible for them to do what they were created to do—to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another.

This should be a comfort to you and to me. We know in our heart of hearts we are incapable of truly loving God and each other as we ought. All we have to do is listen to the daily news to understand how true it is—people cannot and do not love God wholeheartedly, much less love one another. Even the ones we expect to be truly loving people—pastors, preachers, teachers, caregivers—turn out to be just as selfish, greedy and cruel as the next person. And we see within ourselves the reality of our own inability to love God or others as we should. And it scares us.

It is important for us to see our capacity and desire to love God wholeheartedly comes from God himself and is not something we do under our own power or by our own efforts. It is all of grace.

The reason God came to earth in human form was so each of us could one day share in God’s very own capacity to love and be loved. In Jesus Christ we are each taken up through his life, death, resurrection and ascension into the very life and love of God himself. When the Father, through Jesus, sent the Spirit to humanity, he gave each of us the capacity to love with God’s love. He gave us the heart to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another. We have a new heart, a new mind and a new soul—we share in Christ’s capacity to truly love.

God is gracious and allows us to choose for ourselves what we will live out of—the broken and diseased heart which died with Christ, or the new heart bought and paid for and given to us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and in the gift of the Spirit. The evil one likes to keep us focused on the old dead, evil heart, and does his best to destroy the heart God created within us in Christ. He likes to distract us with all the old ways of being and doing, making us think we are incapable of loving God or others.

But nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ—in God we live and move and have our being. (Rom. 8:38-39; Acts 17:28) God’s love is as much a part of us as Christ is, for he shares fully in our humanity even now. The Spirit awakens us to faith in Christ. He gives us the capacity to be the loving people we are in Christ. He grows us up into Christ and enables us to love God wholeheartedly and to love others with Christ’s love. He works to change us, to transform our hearts by faith.

God does not ask us to do what he does not give us the capacity to do. He continually is the basis of our relationship with him, and he pours himself into us through Jesus in the Spirit so we can grow in our love for him and our love for one another. Our freedom to resist and reject his work within us is also a part of his gracious loving act, for he will not have robots in his family—only adopted, loving children who love him wholeheartedly out of a love which has its roots within himself, in the perfect perichoretic love which exists between the Father, Son and Spirit.

So this whole thing of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength is not a matter of our efforts, but rather a matter of faith—of trusting in the love and faithfulness of God and relying upon his gracious work in us through Jesus and by the Spirit to create within us a desire and willingness, and even a passion, to love God completely and entirely with a deep, everlasting love.

In a way, I suppose, it’s kind of like me putting the dishes in the dishwasher, throwing in the detergent and turning the dial to “normal”. All I’m doing is participating with the dishwasher in getting the dishes done. I don’t have to do them, I just have to bring them to the dishwasher and allow the dishwasher to do its work.

Thank God that he is not like a machine which breaks down and does only what I tell it to do. Instead he is a loving, compassionate Being who is faithful and has already taken care of everything through his Son and by his Spirit. I just get to be a part of what he’s doing. I can rest fully in him and trust he will give me the heart to love him wholeheartedly, and when I don’t, I can trust I’m already forgiven and accepted in Christ. Isn’t that just great? I just love that about him!

Thank you, God, that you never give us anything to do which you do not give us the capacity to do through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Do finish what you have begun in us—we trust you will enable us to love you wholeheartedly and follow you wherever you lead. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray, amen.

“And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’” Luke 10:27 NASB

“They shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. I will rejoice over them to do them good and will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul.” Jeremiah 32:38–41 NASB

But That Was Then

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By Linda Rex

Lent: Awhile back it seemed that everywhere I went, someone was talking about the upcoming lottery. There was quite a bit of money at stake and a lot of people were hoping they might be the lucky one to win it all.

Some of the people who had aspirations of winning the jackpot had some great ideas of how they would spend the millions which would come their way. They would take care of family needs and give some of their new funds away to charity. They might put their children through college and they would probably buy a new car or two.

All of these are good things to do. The change in their financial position would no doubt alter their lifestyle in some way. But altering their circumstances and changing the financial condition of their lives would alter all of their relationships, and it would make demands of them which would require strong character and wisdom. Sadly, not everyone is able to handle this type of dramatic change.

This is because, even with the positive changes that come with being financially solvent and wealthy, there are some things that would not change. They would still be the same people they were before they won the lottery. Their character and nature would not change for the better just because they were well off. Indeed, they may even change for the worse. We hear too often of those whose family and personal life disintegrated after winning the lottery.

Believe me, I’m not criticizing or making fun of those who play the lottery. I’m merely using it to illustrate a point.

I’ve been preaching about temptation during this Lenten season. The reading for last Sunday was 1 Cor. 10:1-13. This passage talks about all the ways Israelites fell prey to temptation while they traveled in the wilderness under the guidance and provision of the Lord.

They had been rescued from slavery, and walked through the Red Sea while the Egyptians who were chasing them drowned. They were brought into relationship with the Lord of the universe who made a covenant with them to be their God while they would be his people. It seemed that Israel had won the jackpot. They had everything they could possibly want at their disposal.

With one caveat: Now they no longer called the shots. From now on they were not slaves of another nation, but neither were they their own masters. Instead, they were the children of Israel, sons of the Most High God. And being children of God meant that they were to live in accordance with the truth of who they were. They were made in the image of God to reflect him, both in their love for one another, and in their love for and devotion to God. God had redeemed them and adopted them as his children. And God wanted them to live like it.

And this was what they wrestled with throughout their history. Many of them wanted to choose to live their own way, as humanity has done since the dawn of creation. And even when they did try to keep the law, they did it in such a way that they developed their own list of rules and methods of interpreting the law. These Jesus eventually criticized because they actually kept people from obeying God’s will in the way God intended.

Even though Israel’s circumstances changed dramatically when they were rescued from Egypt, they themselves did not change. It seems that the external differences in their lives did not alter their character. They were more comfortable with who they thought they were—defined by the onions, and leeks and pleasures of their old life in Egypt. Changes in their circumstances and lifestyles did not suddenly create an understanding of who God was and who they were in relationship to him. And it didn’t immediately instill a faith in God or a devotion to him.

This was something that God worked to grow in them during their travels in the wilderness. He took care of their need for food by providing bread from heaven. He took care of their thirst by giving them water from a rock. He guided them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He worked constantly to teach them what it meant to live in relationship with one another and their heavenly Father. He strove constantly to show his faithful love and compassion even when they rejected him and disobeyed him.

Ultimately, it was in the gift of his Son Jesus that Israel was given what they had needed all along—a new heart and mind. The Word of God took on our humanity and lived the life we all fail to live, died the death we deserve to die, and then rose from the grave. After ascending to the Father, Jesus sent the Spirit to dwell in human hearts—offering us the transition from our old ways of living and being into that of the Triune life.

First Jesus was human in the same way you and I are. He knew what it was like to take a deep breath of springtime air, and he knew the smell of smoke from a campfire. He knew what it was like to be cold, and what it was like to be so hot he could hardly stand it. He was as fully flesh as you and I are.

But then he died and was resurrected. His resurrected body didn’t cease to be human—it just was glorified. He now holds in himself the glorified humanity of each of us. He is what we were meant to become as glorified human beings. The apostle Paul wrote that that just as Jesus is no longer what he used to be, so we are made new as well. In Christ we are new creatures.

This means, like Israel, we are in a totally different situation than we expected. We have all of the beauties and wonders of heaven before us because the God of the universe has called you and me and everyone else his very own. He has adopted us into his family—we are children of God. The old ways of being and living are gone—God calls the shots now.

This means we are not our own masters. We are not captains of our own fate. God has declared our destiny in Christ. But we are fully free to choose to love God and follow Christ, or to reject or ignore him. Our decision does not alter the reality of God’s decision to love us and include us in his family. But it does affect how we experience that reality both now and in the world to come.

God has brought us through Jesus’ baptism just as he brought Israel through the Red Sea. He has delivered us from our old ways of living and being, and freed us from those things that held us captive, just as he freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. God brought us into a covenant love relationship with himself just as he did with Israel, and he nourishes us with bread from heaven in Jesus Christ and water from the Rock in the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been given all we need to become all that God has declared we are.

As we respond to this gift of Jesus Christ and open our hearts and minds to the work of the Spirit, we will find ourselves changing. This will not be an external change, but rather a change of heart and mind. Our circumstances may not change—they may even grow more difficult—but we will be transformed. God will take us on wilderness journeys and will grow us up in Christ. Over time, we will find ourselves in agreement with God in ways we never thought possible before. When God goes to work, we change.

And the change God brings about in our being enables us to begin to live in accordance with the truth of who we are as children of God, made in his image and redeemed by Jesus Christ through the Spirit. We begin to live now as residents of the kingdom of heaven—loving God and one another in the same way that the Father, Son and Spirit have lived for all eternity. This is what we were created for—and God is working in us by the Spirit to form Christ in us so we can fully share in his Triune life and love forever. And that, to me, makes each of us the real lottery winners, no matter who we are.

Thank you, Father, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit by whom you are working to transform us and grow us up into your image. Grant us the grace to respond fully and obediently to the Spirit’s work so that we may grow up into Christ as you wish. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:16–17 NASB

More Than Just a Law

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Honeysuckle on the fence
Honeysuckle on the fence

by Linda Rex

A while ago I wrote a blog “The Curses and the Ten Commandments” in which I talked about our assumptions regarding the nature of God and the curses and law he gave to Israel. I believe God’s intent was to call his people to a deeper way of thinking and believing that involved a relationship of covenant love with him and with one another rather than to just obey a list of do’s and don’t’s.

In my daily readings I’m in the book of Joshua now, and in chapter 8 I came across the circumstance where Joshua and the nation of Israel actually put into effect what Moses instructed them to do at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. It is interesting that it says that they did it “just as Moses the servant of the Lord had given command at first to bless the people of Israel.” (v. 33) God’s intent from the beginning was to bless Israel, not to curse them. His heart toward them was love.

Here at this place the entire law was read to the people of Israel and the strangers who were among them. The law of Moses was also written on stone at this place. Was this just the Ten Commandments, or was it a summary of all the laws we find in the Torah? I guess I would need to look back into the traditions of the nation to find out the answer to that question.

But the point here is that after the long journey in the wilderness in which the older generation passed away and the new generation came across the Jordan into the Promised Land, Israel renewed their covenant relationship with God. They heard what it looks like to live in a loving relationship with God and with one another. They were told what would happen if they chose to live out of sync with who they were as God’s covenant people. The new generation was called to love God and love one another as they entered into their new life in their new land.

It is instructive that this event occurred after what happened at Ai. After Israel had crossed the Jordan River, God had toppled the walls of Jericho, allowing the Israelites to completely demolish the city. The Israelites were on such a high from their success that they took off to Ai and attacked that city as well. But there was a small problem—they didn’t ask God first. And so they were routed at their first attempt and suffered a humiliating defeat.

What they didn’t realize was that somewhere in the midst of their nation was a person who had violated the covenant relationship. This person had insulted the God who was the nation’s Warrior by taking things from Jericho which had been devoted to God, and hiding them among his personal belongings. Achan had stolen from God. Sure, it was a little thing, but God is in the little things as well as the big things. All of life is open to and revealed to the God who lives not only in heaven but who also is omnipresent—around, in and with us moment by moment.

After this issue was resolved, then God gave the nation instructions on how to attack the city of Ai. And it was defeated, just as he told them it would be. God knew that if the Israelites took on the people of Canaan on their own, they would be destroyed. But in relationship with him, no one could defeat them. He was committed to their success, not their failure. But only as they participated in his plan for their lives. Only as they lived in loving relationship with him.

It seems pretty gruesome to us today to think that God would instruct one nation to destroy another nation. But he had his reasons and that’s food for an entirely different discussion. Israel had a reason for her existence—to be the womb of the Messiah, and there were things that had to be done to prepare the way for the events of that sacred Bethlehem night when Jesus was born. All these people who lived and died were taken up in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Messiah—so God made it all right in the end.

The key thought here is though, God doesn’t exist in a vacuum somewhere out in space or up in heaven, isolated from us as human beings. True, he is transcendent—completely other than we are, and we only know his immanence or nearness as he chooses to reveal himself to us. But he also chooses to be in relationship with us as human beings. He chooses to relate to us one on one. And he proved this by coming and existing in our humanity as the man Jesus Christ.

We are often so busy living our lives, doing what we do to survive, that we don’t stop and sit in the stillness with God. We don’t sense God in the quiet and in the active moments of our lives where he is truly present all the time. We, who were created to live in relationship with God and were given that relationship freely through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, live as though God doesn’t exist. But he does—and we would know it, if we would just make room for him in our hearts and lives.

So, perhaps, like the Israelites, we need to take the time to sit and listen to the words of love God has for us in his Word and by his Spirit. Perhaps we need to climb up on our divine Daddy’s knees and nestle against his chest and feel his divine Breath against our cheek.

Maybe we need to sense his presence with us as we mow the lawn and close that business deal. Just possibly, we might realize he’s smiling too as we see our child score the winning goal for the soccer team. For he loves each and every one of us and he waits with open arms to embrace us and hold us close anytime we choose to run to him. Maybe even now would be a good time to begin this new way of living life—in close companionship with the One who loves us with a never ending love.

Our heavenly Dad, who not only lives in eternity but is also present in us, with us and for us at each moment, thank you for your great unfailing love. Remind each of us today how much you love us. Show us that we are precious in your sight. Teach us how to create room for you in our lives and hearts. We want to participate in all that you are doing—to share life with you now and forever through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. Amen.

“He wrote there on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written, in the presence of the sons of Israel. All Israel with their elders and officers and their judges were standing on both sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, the stranger as well as the native. Half of them stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the LORD had given command at first to bless the people of Israel.” Joshua 8:32-33 NASB

The Irrevocable Blessing

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by Linda Rex

One of the most unbelievable and amusing Bible stories is the one about the talking donkey and Balaam the seer. As a child I would imagine what it was like for the prophet to be riding along, trying to get his donkey to go where he wanted, even striking him to force him through a narrow passage. And then, all of a sudden, the aggravated donkey started talking: “What have I ever done to you that you have beat me these three times?” What a start that must have given Balaam!

This story from Numbers 22-24 captures the imagination of children and adults alike. But by focusing on the more unbelievable aspects of the story, I think we can miss a fabulous expression of the love and devotion of God to his people and to all humanity that is hidden in these passages.

Balak, the king of Moab, was getting nervous. The huge multitude of Israelites was traveling through the plains near him. The Amorites had attacked them, but they had defeated the Amorites, taking away from them land and cities that had once belonged to the Moabites. Balak feared that his nation would soon be overwhelmed by the Israelites and be defeated as well.

So Balak sent a message to the seer Balaam and requested that he place a curse on the Israelites. Balaam’s reputation was such that the people of his day believed that whoever he cursed would be cursed and whoever he blessed would be blessed. Balaam countered this by saying he could only do what God allowed.

As the story progresses, we see that every time Balaam tried to curse Israel, he ended up pronouncing a blessing over them instead. Balak, of course, was offering Balaam great wealth to do as he asked. But Balaam was unable to curse the nation of Israel. God had determined that Israel would be blessed and not cursed. And no prophet, king or anyone else was going to reverse God’s will.

Finally, after three tries, Balak and Balaam gave up. Israel not only had a blessing declared over her three times, but in the midst of this blessing, God predicted the coming of a scepter rising from Israel—this statement we understand today to be a reference to the coming Messiah.

It was God’s will that Israel be blessed because God had chosen Israel to be his very own people. He was in covenant relationship with them. And one day all people would be blessed through them—this was a promise he made to Abraham, their forefather. God had determined that Israel would be blessed and through them in their Messiah, all humanity would be blessed. And nobody can curse what God has determined to be blessed.

Even though in the future Israel would sin over and over again, turning away from God to the local gods of the nations around them and participating in their sins, God did not revoke his commitment to send a Messiah. He did not stop loving them and working for their ultimate blessing and the blessing of all humanity in Christ.

Israel, and all of humanity for that matter, have rejected God and disobeyed him, yet none of this has annulled our eternal relationship with God in Christ. God in Jesus took on our humanity and joined himself to us forever. Our relationship with God is secure—we are “blessed … in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3 NIV) God may chasten us as sons (Heb. 12:7 NIV), but his love and blessing do not change. We are reconciled to God in Christ—we live in union with him. It is now a question of fellowship or communion, not union.

We are all God’s children, in Christ. Our badness or goodness does not alter God being for us, with us and in us. It does, however, alter our experience of this reality. When we deny who we are as God’s children, made to reflect his image, and we attempt to live outside the divine life and love, we experience alienation from God. We believe we are outside, excluded from God’s household, when in reality we are included, having been created and renewed in Christ to live in relationship with God and each other. So we experience fear and anxiety instead of God’s love, power, and self-control.

God has included all humanity by making a place for each person at the wedding supper of the Lamb. And he has handed to each person the appropriate wedding garment, Jesus Christ. We can choose to not even show up at the banquet. Or we can refuse to trust in Christ at all and depend solely upon our own ability to put together the perfect wedding ensemble to wear. Or we can choose to put on Christ instead of our old garments of self-justification and carnality and fully experience the joy of the wedding party. God has given us the freedom to choose. What will we trust in? What do we believe to be true about ourselves and about God?

God has determined to bless all humanity and not to curse us. He has determined to bless us with salvation, with an intimate relationship with himself in Christ through the Spirit. All the efforts of the evil one and his cohorts to curse you and me or to destroy that relationship are futile in the face of God’s heart toward us in Christ, which is good. We are all under God’s blessing, not his curse.

And with that being the case, shouldn’t we guard against ever cursing another human being? There ought to only be praise on our lips, for God has determined that they are his chosen ones as well, and they are under his blessing, not his curse. The evil one and our sinful nature may find many ways to lead us into sin, but none of these change the reality that we are reconciled with God in Christ and are held forever in an intimate relationship with him in the Spirit.

Holy God of Glory, God of Israel and of all humanity, I thank you that you have chosen us as your people, and you have done and are doing everything in your power to ensure that all humanity might share in your blessings forever. Renew in each of us a vision of who we are in Christ, and grant us the grace to experience for ourselves and to share with others the wonder of the intimate relationship you have given to us in Jesus Christ. In whose name we pray. Amen.

“He took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? … Then he took up his discourse and said, “Arise, O Balak, and hear; Give ear to me, O son of Zippor! “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? “Behold, I have received a command to bless; When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it.” … “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth.” Numbers 23:7–8, 18-20; 24:17

“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. James 3:9–12