But That Was Then
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
By Linda Rex
Ash Wednesday/Lent: Yesterday I was reading about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (from which the forty days of Lent is drawn), and it occurred to me that each of us comes to times in our lives where we live in wilderness places. There may appear to be wild animals who might devour us at any minute, and we may feel the intense hunger which comes from not having our needs met in the way we expect them to be met. We may wander about in our sins or our sorrows, aching because there seems to be no relief in sight.
Many times our wilderness experiences are as a result of our wandering off the path God places before us. We may have made foolish decisions, or been in unwise, unhealthy relationships that have taken us places we never meant to go. We may be dealing with the consequences of things other people have done to us, and we’re not sure we’ll ever get over what happened.
And oftentimes, this is when the tempter shows up. He’s happy to keep us in these miserable places, or to even help us get even more lost and despairing than we already are.
Being in the real wilderness is a thrilling and invigorating experience for me. I love being out in nature in this way. One can feel very close to God out in an open field with the big blue sky over her and the beauty of creation all around. The silence, the sun shining down, the wind blowing through the trees and the grass, all make you feel the presence of God and his glory and greatness.
Yes, there is some concern for me regarding rattlesnakes and mountain lions, but I realize that one must go prepared, and one must be careful. But I’m sure if I was out there for 40 days with no supplies, I imagine I would be quite hungry, and things would indeed look pretty bleak toward the end. I would genuinely be set up for the right person to suggest I do something to help myself have something to eat.
Isn’t it interesting that Satan suggested Jesus turn stones into bread, but when Jesus fed the thousands bread, he didn’t use stones. He just took what he had—a few loaves, and multiplied them. He didn’t need to do an ostentatious miracle in order to help people. And he refused to do one to help himself.
In each of the three temptations put before Christ, he was asked to do two things: 1) to question the love and character of the Father, and to presume upon it; and 2) to renege on his covenant relationship with humanity and his calling by the Spirit to walk in penitence with us—sharing Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and sharing our wilderness journeys as well—by walking in repentance and faith with us and for us.
When we are walking in a spiritual, mental, emotional wilderness, where it seems we have been abandoned by God and everyone else, we will find ourselves assaulted in similar ways. Often times the struggles we have and the things we are wrestling with cause us to question the love and character of God. Does he see and does he really care? How can he leave us like this if he really, truly loves us?
“Why?” is a really good question and often haunts us. And we can often entertain the idea that it would be better to be rescued from our struggles immediately than to walk in faith and trust in reliance upon our covenant relationship with the Father, through Jesus and in the Spirit.
We are tempted to take matters into our own hands and come up with our own solution to the problem instead of waiting on God. We may see good reason to make a little agreement with the devil through compromise or embellishing the truth rather than being willing to do the hard work of integrity, transparency and authenticity. Or we may cast ourselves headlong down an unwise path “trusting” that God will uphold us because that’s what he’s supposed to do.
What we can forget in the midst of our wilderness wanderings is that we are not alone. God is present with us and in us. And he cares about everything that is going on in our lives. He feels our pain. He shares our sorrows. His love for us is not altered by the circumstances in our lives.
Our wilderness wanderings are the perfect opportunity for us to go deeper with God. We can begin to learn a deeper trust in the faithfulness of God. And we can grow in greater spiritual maturity as we learn to wait on God and give him space to do the things that only he can do. We can grow in our sensitivity to the Spirit and to his small, still voice guiding us, encouraging us and teaching us. We can learn true obedience to the Spirit and the Word of God as he leads us along the broken pathways of our lives.
The Spirit had a reason for leading, even throwing, Jesus out into the wilderness. God wasn’t planning to abandon Jesus out there. He didn’t go anywhere. Jesus learned obedience by the things which he suffered (Heb 5:8)—and so will we, as we turn to God in the midst of our struggles and trials and begin to see with the eyes of faith, not the blind eyes of fear, anxiety, guilt and shame.
It was after the wilderness struggles and his determination to be faithful to his Father and to keep his identification with all of us, that the angels came and ministered to Jesus. God the Father responded in compassion and understanding, and relieved Jesus’ hardships after the testing was over. We may have to wander in the wilderness for a while, and we may have some tough decisions to make, and some dangerous temptations to resist, but when all is done, God will be sure to mend, heal and comfort in every way that is needed.
Following Christ doesn’t mean everything in our lives will always be wonderful. Yes, we will experience an abundant life we have never experienced before, but it will be in terms of our relationship with God and our relationships with others. When it comes to loving and being loved by God and others, the beauty of true communion is unsurpassed.
But sometimes the Spirit calls us out into the wilderness because he has something he wants to do in us and in our lives. We may not enjoy every facet of the experience, but when we turn to Christ and go deeper in our relationship with God in the midst of it, we will come out as Jesus did, filled with the Spirit and empowered for greater ministry. Drink in of the wonder of God as you wander about—he is faithful and will bring it all to a good end.
Heavenly Father, thank you for your faithful love. Thank you that even when your Spirit leads us into a time of testing and trial, you are with us in the midst of it, and through Jesus you share in it with us. Thank you for bringing us safely to the other side as we trust in you, and allow you to hold on to us and carry us through. May all our wilderness wanderings draw us closer to you, open new reservoirs for the Spirit and make us more aware of Christ in us, who is our hope of glory. In his name, we pray. Amen.
“Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Mark 1:12–13 NASB (See also Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)
Reaching for Joy
By Linda Rex
This time of year can really be difficult for some people. It seems that the songs we listen to, the Christmas movies we watch and the stories that are told tell about all this lovely holiday joy we should have. And yet, so many of us struggle just to put one foot in front of the other and make it through another day.
I don’t think God expects us to walk around all day, every day, with a big smile on our face. That’s actually kind of creepy, you know. Because it’s not real. God gives us our humanity back renewed in Christ and it’s a humanity that feels things deeply, that sorrows and grieves as much as it laughs and sings for joy.
I read a devotional this morning from New Life Ministries that reminded me the psalms in the Bible are filled with expressions of the whole spectrum of our human existence. There isn’t an emotion there that Christ didn’t feel. It is good to read them and experience God’s heart joining with our heart within the full expression of our humanity.
The psalms tell us that the trees and the animals and all creation sing for joy in praise to God. Over and over we are called to rejoice even in times of persecution and difficult circumstances. If it was left up to us to find the joy to do this, we couldn’t do it. Because, humanly, we tend to allow our situations and struggles to define our emotions rather than the other way around.
But the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus counted his sufferings—the cross and its shame—as joy. He was able to do so because he looked beyond them to the glory that was to come, not just for him, but for us as well. He went first so that we could follow.
We find our joy in Christ. He lives forever in the divine joy he shares with the Father in the Spirit. He calls us to look beyond this life to the life he purchased for us and gave us in the Holy Spirit. He lives in us today and gives us his joy. He gives us the eyes to see beyond our present circumstances into the kingdom of God he brought in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
This is why the apostle Paul repeatedly reminded people to keep their eyes on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3:1-4). We need to keep a spiritual vision of there being so much more to life than this everyday human existence we currently have. Our joy comes from knowing this is not all there is to life. There is somethings very transcendent going on and we get to be a part of it right now.
One of my favorite hymns of joy came to mind this morning. It is a classical piece that causes my heart to overflow with joy as it is sung. It reminds us that our joy comes from beyond us and overflows in our hearts from Christ in the Spirit. It is my prayer for you this holiday season, that you experience God’s divine joy in a profound way through Jesus and by his Spirit. Amen.
Hymn to Joy
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!
All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.
Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.
Mortals, join the happy chorus, which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us, brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us Sunward in the triumph song of life.
Henry J. van Dyke, 1907
Sung to “Hymn to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1–2 NASB
When Truth of Being Hurts
By Linda Rex
In this discussion about truth and the truth of our being, it occurs to me that just having truth or being people who value truth is insufficient. God, who is truth, has sent the Spirit of truth through Jesus who is “the way, the truth, and the life” to us to dwell in human hearts. So we have the Spirit of truth available to us at all times.
But the reality is that even though we have the truth at our disposal, we also need a huge helping of God’s grace to go with it. Truth without grace and love is dangerous and destructive. Being truly open about one’s self or being authentic about who we are can bring about deeply painful and horrific consequences when it is told to the wrong person, and/or at the wrong time, and/or in the wrong way. Anyone who has been the victim of malicious gossip or Internet bullying is well aware of this fact.
Living out the truth of our being does not automatically ensure that the people in our lives are going to accept or embrace this reality when it appears. Jesus lived authentically his whole life and look how he ended up!
Sincerity, integrity, authenticity were a part of his nature, but the people around him often did not appreciate this, especially when it exposed their own hypocrisy, insincerity and deceitfulness, and their own prejudices. In fact, whenever we find Jesus pointing out the truth of who he was and the truth that the listeners were not living in agreement with their truth of being as God’s children, we also see them plotting his death and destruction. In these situations we see the huge contrast between, as Paul puts it, the expression of fleshly wisdom and the administration of the grace of God through holiness and godly sincerity.
Fleshly wisdom in this area is the natural human response of self-preservation and self-protection through image-management, manipulation of others, pretense and hypocrisy. Soon we become like the white-washed tombs which Jesus talked about—they look great on the outside, but on the inside is only death and dead men’s bones. We may think we’re fooling everyone else, but we’re really only fooling ourselves.
Because all the pretense, image-management and spinning of the truth in the world cannot remove the reality that we are completely and thoroughly known and loved by a God who knows us down to the very depths of our soul. The Spirit of truth doesn’t just dwell in heaven, but in human hearts—and he knows the truth of who we really are. In fact, the Spirit of truth is the very Breath of God who breathes life into our human bodies so we live and breathe every moment of every day.
The reality is, if he decided to do so, the Holy Spirit could just stop breathing life into you or me and we would simply die. When Peter pointed out the truth to Ananias and Sapphira they both had conspired to lie to the Spirit of truth, they died on the spot—their breath left them. They had been trying to be something they were not by impressing the early church with how generous and good they were when in reality they were hedging their bets because they didn’t truly trust God to care for them and provide for them if they donated all they had to help others.
I don’t know about you, but I know that I have on occasion been equally guilty of image-management and being generous under false pretenses. It has only been due to the love and grace of God that I am still breathing and doing ministry today. I’m reminded by all this to treat the Spirit of truth with a great deal of respect—honoring him by being sincere and truthful—but I am also reminded that in the end, it’s all of grace.
So in receiving God’s grace to be sincere, authentic and a person of integrity, I also receive the grace to love and forgive others who are insincere, inauthentic and lacking in integrity. In receiving God’s love in the midst of my mess, which is who I really am, I am able to offer to others the freedom to be the beautiful mess they truly are.
God is always at work to bring the truth to light, because it is in his nature of truth. He is the Spirit of truth, and Jesus is the truth of our being. God will not stop working to bring us all to the place where we are people of integrity, honesty and authenticity, because he is conforming each one of us to the image of Christ, who is truth. This is why we put our faith in Jesus Christ, in the Truth, and not in ourselves or in any one or anything else. May God complete his work in each of us to bring us into all truth, and may he grant us the grace to love and forgive others as well.
Thank you, God, that you are our God of truth, our Spirit of truth, our Messiah who is the way the truth and the life. Thank you that you are gracious and loving at the core of your Being, for we are fully dependent upon your grace and love. Thank you, Spirit of truth, that you overlook our shortcomings, for without you we would not live and breathe. Finish, Lord, all your work of transformation so that we may reflect you as you really are, in truth. In your name, Father, Son and Spirit, we pray. Amen.
“For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.” 2 Cor. 1:12
The Kingdom, the Baker and Breadmaking
by Linda Rex
Jesus had this way of taking the most everyday tasks and events and turning them into a deeply spiritual concept, especially when he started talking about the kingdom of God. One of those unique parables of Jesus was brought to my attention in a new way this week as I prepared for Sunday’s sermon.
Previously, I hadn’t given much focused thought on the idea that Jesus described God as a baker. And not just a baker, but a woman who baked bread. And she wasn’t a wimpy woman at that—she was able to handle a large amount of dough at once. Three pecks of flour is the equivalent of 16 five-pound bags—enough with about 42 cups of water to make about 101 pounds of dough. That’s a lot of dough!(1)
So, here I see pictured a woman who is doing an everyday task—making bread, and she is physically strong and capable. I like that. How often we women are called on to be physically strong and capable!
I think sometimes that we assume that the Bible and Jesus portray God as being male since most of the language used in relation to him is masculine. But there is a significant difference between human gender and the gender of human language. We have to keep that in mind when we begin to think seriously about the nature of God.
I know that many men are good bakers. In fact, I remember my dad being fond of making unleavened bread. It was something he took up doing late in life that I never expected to find him doing. I tasted some of his products and they were pretty good. But perhaps the culture in Jesus’ day expected a baker to be female—so here God is pictured as a woman.
Breadmaking is something I enjoy doing. In fact, at one point in my life, I started making all our bread by hand because the motion of kneading the dough helped me to heal from an injury to my wrist. It became a therapy that prevented me from having to have surgery. And it worked. And it’s a creative process. I love being creative—I take after the Creator in that way.
But, back to the Breadmaker. The woman with all that flour hides leaven in the flour and it all becomes leavened. One of the simplest recipes I’ve used is for making pizza dough, and it probably resembles pretty closely how bread was made centuries ago. And it got me to thinking about how hiding leaven in flour is related to the kingdom of God.
Most all of the recipes that I can think of for bread start with yeast and water (or milk), a touch of salt and oil. All of that comes first. It is possible that what is meant by leaven in this parable was sourdough starter, which is a small batch of dough that is full of active yeast cultures. Either way, the ingredients that we start bread with—oil, salt, water—along with the yeast, are often used in the Word to describe God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This is worth giving meditative thought to.
In fact, I go back to the beginning of the world and find there hovering over the deep waters, the Spirit of God, who when the Word spoke the will of the Father, brought about our existence. God breathed the Breath of life into all that lives and breathes. All the animals and humans breathe oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. It is carbon dioxide that is created when the yeast in bread begins the fermentation process. And this is what causes the dough to rise. Thought-provoking.
Once these leavening ingredients are blended with the flour, there is no separating of them. The leavening process begins to fill the whole wad of dough, especially when the strong, capable baker begins to knead the dough. I’m not even sure she could stop the process once she started. The leaven is an intimate part of the dough, and this becomes evident as the dough begins to rise, and when it is baked into bread.
The kingdom of God is not something that just appeared when Jesus came to earth. For he was in the person of the Word, present in the beginning with the Father and the Spirit when all was made. The purposes and plans of God have not been derailed, but are gradually being kneaded into the dough. In time the heat of the fire will reveal an awesome loaf of bread.
In the meantime though, we find that the dough isn’t always compliant and responsive to the baker. As she pushes the dough down with her hands, the dough pushes back. The working of the dough and its response both positive and negative are a part of the bread-making process.
We tend to think God’s goal right now is to get rid of everything bad in the world. Just slay all these dragons, Lord! But the thing is that God is allowing the evil here for the moment—though he hates what it does to his children—so that he can accomplish the kingdom work he’s trying to do. He’s allowing us to resist him—though it’s foolish to do so—because he knows that it is a part of the free will and growing up process. He’s big enough, clever enough, perfect enough to deal with evil summarily and completely in his own time and way. But he doesn’t always do it right this minute when we think he should.
The baker decides what the end loaf is going to look like. Dough can be used for many things. In fact it can be divided up and used as individual little loafs we call dinner rolls. It can be used as a base for pizza. It can be broiled, boiled and baked as bagels. It can be fried as fritters or sweetened and spiced as cinnamon rolls. Or it can just be made into a plain, old loaf of bread. That’s the baker’s call.
We don’t know what the kingdom of God is going to look like in the end. We’re not really sure what the divine Baker is doing right now or why he is doing it. But one thing is sure—the leaven is filling the whole loaf. And all that God has created shares his Breath of life and participates in his kingdom life. And God’s not going to quit until he has a perfect loaf of bread. I can’t wait to see how it turns out and what it tastes like. I have a feeling it might taste a lot like the bread on Sunday morning’s communion plate.
Holy God, our Heavenly Baker, we are so thankful that you know what you are doing. We’re grateful that we can trust you to do everything necessary to complete the breadmaking process and to bring to pass the fullness of your kingdom. We trust you to finish what you have begun, and we look forward to sharing the bread of heaven with you in eternal communion. In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.
”He spoke another parable to them, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.’” Matt 13:33 NASB
(1) Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Pg. 100.
The Irrevocable Blessing
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
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