By Linda Rex
August 23, 2020, Proper 16—Recently, one of the hardest things for me as a pastor was to have to stay at home on Sunday mornings when I would much rather have been at church among the dear people of my congregation, talking with them face to face. I missed the laughter, singing worship songs together, and praying with people carrying heavy burdens needing lifted. We were so blessed to be able to still gather online, but there were so many faces I was not able to see and voices I was not able to hear since the quarantine began.
It is hard to watch the church in exile in this way, and I’m glad so many congregations like our own are beginning to be able to gather again. It is good to remember, though, that it is in times like these that the seeds of God’s greatest work are often planted. It is when the church is resisted or pressed against that it expands and grows in exponential ways.
This brings to mind the Old Testament reading for August 23rd (Exodus 1:8–2:10). Here we find the fledgling people of Israel have been in the land of Egypt for over three hundred years. Over the centuries, the rulers of the land have forgotten the history of this people and how Joseph helped to save Egypt from starvation. Now they only see the people of Israel as a threat to the present regime, so they are enslaved, forced to help the building of Egypt’s great cities.
As the numbers of the Israelites grew, the ruler of Egypt made an edict that every one of their boy babies was to be killed at birth. He increased the toil in their slavery and pressed harder and harder upon them. But no matter how hard he tried to restrict, reduce, or diminish Israel, the more they grew in numbers. In time, God even sent a deliverer, a baby boy placed in a rush basket in the Nile river who was adopted by the king’s daughter. He would, in God’s good time, deliver his people from slavery in Egypt.
This story is a good reminder that no matter how hard any of us try, we cannot resist the purposes and plans of our mighty God. He had made a covenant with Abraham, renewed it with his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob (whom he named Israel). He had told Israel that his people would be in Egypt for four hundred thirty years, and sure enough, when that time was up, God ensured that they were brought out of Egypt and into the new life he had in mind for them in the promised land.
The redemption of the nation of Israel began, in this sense, with the revelation to Moses of who God was—the I Am. He was their deliverer, their redeemer, and he was faithful to them in all their ups and downs, even when they turned from him and fell back into their idolatry and rebellion. The I Am was faithful to them, and even when they ended up in exile because of their turning away from him, he ultimately brought them back to their homeland in Judea.
But the nation of Israel Jesus came to had been through so much. The scribes, Pharisees, and leaders of the nation had made significant changes to how they worshiped God while they were in exile. They had put so many traditions and rituals into effect to ensure their purity that they had actually placed the Jewish people into a new form a slavery. Instead of a joyful relationship with their redeemer, they often found they could not do everything that was required of them. And when it came to temple worship, there were levels of exclusion, with women and proselytes being relegated to the outer courts, and Gentiles of any nation being excluded from table fellowship with the Jews.
This obviously was not God’s intent. We find Jesus near the end of his ministry asking his disciples who people were saying he was (Matthew 16:13–20). The common person believed Jesus was some type of prophet. There hadn’t been prophets for centuries up until the time of John the Baptizer and there weren’t supposed to be any more until the end of the age. This was a significant assumption on their part—the messianic deliverance of their people must be near since now Jesus was present and doing healings, miracles, and feeding the multitudes.
Jesus’ then asked his disciples who they thought he was. This is a good question even for you and me to ask ourselves. Do we imagine that Jesus is just a prophet—a good man who did a lot of nice, miraculous things and taught people how to live? If this is the case, we are missing out on the whole point of Israel’s story. We are missing the message of scripture—in the fullness of time, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Deliverer, not just of his people but of all people everywhere. Jesus, the I Am in human flesh, the Messiah who lived our life, died our death, and rose, ascending into glory, is so much more than just a prophet!
Jesus is the one who establishes in his person our identity as human beings. When Jesus said, “But you, who do you say I am?” he was asking them to accurately ascertain what it meant that he was their Messiah. It did not mean he was a political leader set to take over by powerful, military means. What it meant was that he would allow circumstances to take their course, submitting himself to the evil plans of the leaders of his own people, knowing it would result in his crucifixion. He knew this was the path that was going to be necessary to reconstitute the people of God, Israel.
Peter’s response, given to him by our heavenly Father, acknowledged who Jesus was as the Son of the living God, the Messiah. He may not have understood the distinction between who the Messiah Jesus was and that kind of messiah which the people hoped he was. But his answer pointed to a new reality.
Jesus, in response, took the Jewish rabbis’ authority to ratify what was bound and loosed in heaven and gave it to the apostles, with Peter as their representative. He gave Peter, and the apostles, the keys to the kingdom—and we see in the book of Acts how Peter and the apostles first opened the doors to the kingdom through their proclamation of the word on Pentecost after the resurrection, and subsequently when the gospel was received by the Samaritans, and later the Gentiles at Cornelius’ home. The doors of the church were opened wide to receive all nations and peoples, with all worship and obedience centered in Jesus Christ alone.
Jesus told the disciples that not even death could stop the expansion of the kingdom of God. Death would not prevail against the church, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ was assured and it happened just as Jesus said it would. Yes, he did have to die on the cross and enter the gates of death, but death could not hold him! And neither can it hold us any longer.
Whatever effort the evil one may make to silence or kill the church will fail. We know this because love never fails. Our God, who is love, has come, given himself to us and for us, and has risen from the grave. He has bound all humanity to himself in an unbreakable bond and sent the Spirit to draw us together into a community of faith, a body of believers, the church. By the Spirit we are given special gifts for each member to participate in the edification of the church and the proclamation of the gospel.
Our calling today is to cease giving ourselves over to the ungodly ways of this broken world and to embrace who we are as the called-out ones—the children of God. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds—informing ourselves of the will and purposes of God and living accordingly, participating fully in the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit (Romans 12:1-8). And we can rely fully on Jesus’ assurance that what he has begun in his church, he will finish, even to the end of this cosmos.
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you are Lord of your church, and that death did not, cannot, and will not prevail against it, for its existence is bound up in your very self. Thank you, Spirit, for your giftings and blessing—grant us the grace to edify your church and proclaim the good news with boldness, courage, and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Look to Abraham your father | And to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; | When he was but one I called him, | Then I blessed him and multiplied him.” Isaiah 51:2 NASB
“’Had it not been the LORD who was on our side,’ | Let Israel now say, ‘Had it not been the LORD who was on our side | When men rose up against us, | Then they would have swallowed us alive, | When their anger was kindled against us; | Then the waters would have engulfed us, | The stream would have swept over our soul; Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.’ … Our help is in the name of the LORD, | Who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 124:1-5, 8 NASB
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; | You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, | And Your right hand will save me. | The LORD will accomplish what concerns me; | Your lovingkindness, O LORD, is everlasting; | Do not forsake the works of Your hands.” Psalm 138:7-8 NASB
By Linda Rex
So far in this series, I have written about how Christ is our reconciliation and perfect relationship with our Abba, but often we seek to hide our sin and brokenness rather than humbly bringing it into the light of God’s love so we can live fully in the reconciliation which is ours in Christ Jesus. I showed how Scripture shows that even though it may seem from our human view that God loves some people more than others and even though our current experience may make us believe otherwise, each of us individually is a beloved child of Abba, included in God’s love and life through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit.
People who do not know God or believe in Christ are still participants in God’s life and love, even as they resist any attempt God makes at drawing them closer to himself. They are still included in God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ and God allows them to be a part of what he is doing in the world. Even though the part they play may be a negative or passive one, Christ still seeks expression by the Spirit through them and God continues to work to bring about his will here on earth as it is in heaven. But these people do not experience the benefits of what Christ has worked out in restoring our right relationship with Abba because they do not believe.
How is it possible for someone who does not believe in God or Jesus to participate in God’s love and life? Well, first of all, no one has any existence whatsoever apart from Jesus Christ. We read in Colossians 1:15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (NASB)” We don’t exist independently of God even though we often act like we do and make decisions as if we do. Our ignorance or disbelief does not stop God from loving us and caring for us. He makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust, and often intervenes in situations because he feels compassion for someone rather than just because they believe or are obedient to him.
Secondly, when the Word took on our human flesh, he joined our humanity with God’s divinity in hypostatic union—a union which is very real, but not participated in or experienced by us as human beings except by faith in Jesus by the Spirit. Our active participation in Christ’s perfected humanity by faith means we are able to experience the benefits of living in Christ’s perfect harmony with Abba by the Spirit. We are able to experience and live in warm fellowship with the indwelling Christ, who with Abba and by the Spirit, takes up residence in human hearts and begins to transform them from the inside out. Someone who does not know or believe in Jesus may be a passive participant, while the reconciliation which Jesus made possible remains one-sided and their relationship with God stunted and incomplete.
God is at work in this world in many ways—just look around. He’s feeding people, teaching people, healing people, protecting people. People participate in what God is doing in this world in ways sometimes they don’t even recognize. I was thinking of that earlier this week as I grabbed some clothes out of the dryer and began folding them. My usual thought is frustration at having to take the time to do this mundane chore. But this time the Spirit snuck right in there and gave me a heart of gratitude that I had clothes to fold. Then the next thought I had was, I am folding clothes with Jesus, participating with him in the care of the home he has given me to use and take care of. All of a sudden, I didn’t mind so much having to get this chore done because I was doing it with Jesus.
When we think in terms of our existence as being entered into by and shared in a real way with our Lord Jesus Christ, we begin to see other people are included in the same manner in God’s life. The garbage truck came by today and gathered up all the garbage in the cans pushed out to the street. Those diligent men participated in Christ’s effort to keep this world a little cleaner. Was what they did exactly how Jesus might do it if he were here? No, probably not. But in many ways, the way we participate with Jesus in things is like the toddler pushing a little plastic mower as he follows his dad pushing the big gas-powered mower across the lawn. Our efforts are feeble and broken, but we share in a real way with what God is doing in this world in and through Jesus Christ. It’s all about relationship—God’s relationship with us is secure in Christ, and we are free to respond or not to in return.
Lastly, when we look at what God is doing in the world, we need to be reminded that God’s thoughts and ways are much different than ours. He is a relational God, and much of what he does is wrapped up in creating and restoring relationships between himself and us and between each of us. When we look at events in the Old Testament, and God’s covenant relationship with Israel, we must remember God’s overall intent was the redemption of all humanity, not just working with a particular person or people.
And we need to remember God exists beyond our human time while at the same time entering into our time in and through Jesus. So we cannot look at God’s involvement in human affairs merely from a linear point of view, with one event happening after the other. We need to grasp the possibilities which were opened up in the incarnation of Christ including the reality of his being the beginning and the ending of all things, the Alpha and the Omega.
The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, spoke about the Jews as stumbling over the stumbling block who is Christ, but only so that the Gentiles could be gathered in. He gives the impression that in due time many who were lost will be gathered in at a later date as they come to understand and trust in the grace of God offered us through Jesus Christ. But he also in that same context, uses the word “remnant” to describe the Jews, as though only a few would be saved.
Jesus made an interesting observation about the people who died when the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by him, as well as those killed in the cities of Tyre and Sidon. He told the seventy when he sent them out to preach the gospel, heal and cast out demons that they should expect to be rejected by some people. In that case, he said:
“But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom than for that city. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will be brought down to Hades! The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (Luke 10:10-16 NASB).
Jesus indicated that given the opportunity, these people who died would have repented if they had seen or experienced the miracles Jesus was doing. They would have humbled themselves and responded to the gospel of Jesus with humility and repentance. He said it would go better in the final judgment for these pagan unbelieving Gentiles than it would for those who had heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and refused it in these places Jesus had sent his disciples.
It is because of these and other passages in Scripture that I have some reservations about condemning all past unbelievers straight into hell. If Jesus believed they would have repented if given the opportunity, why would he ignore that and just reject and condemn them? If Jesus is God’s final judgment on sin and death, perhaps we need to rethink how we approach this whole topic. Instead of approaching it in terms of cause and effect, we should approach it in terms of relationship—the relationship Jesus forged for all humanity with his Abba in his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and which he has made available to all in and through his Holy Spirit. Why assume that God is indifferent to or has rejected each and every idolatrous person throughout history, when his ultimate purpose was to include them all in his love and life?
The apostle Paul wrote: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:32-36 NASB). There is a centrality to Christ which we must keep in mind when thinking about judgment and the ways of God. We don’t want to limit God’s grace and love, but we also must acknowledge there are consequences to refusing to live in the truth of who we are in Jesus. God is not willing that any perish (2 Peter 3:9) but there are some who have clung to the blindness of Satan which has twisted their souls and have refused to turn and repent.
In any case, each and every person is loved by God and forgiven in Jesus, and blessed with the presence of the Spirit in their lives. They are free to receive this or reject it. As they go through life the Spirit continues to work to draw them deeper into relationship with their Abba and to trust in what Jesus has done for them. What God will do for each and every person after they die, then, is fully up to Jesus, for he is both the Judge and the Judged.
Dear Abba, thank you for all you have done for us in Jesus. We are grateful to share life with you and to participate with you in all the things you are doing in this world through Jesus and in the Spirit. May we respond fully with gratitude, humility, repentance, and trust as you draw us to yourself. We give you the praise and glory, and in your Name Jesus, we pray. Amen.
“And the LORD said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.’ Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the LORD. Abraham came near and said, ‘Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not 1spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?’” Genesis 18:20-25 NASB
by Linda Rex
This season of year has its ups and downs. It can be so heartwarming and inspiring, while at the same time full of stress and anxious care about shopping and decorating and family complications. I have a special fondness for this time of year since God has awakened me to the wonder of its deep meaning. Understanding the mystery of the incarnation (can one truly understand a mystery?) carries me through all the hassle and frustration which can come from the external efforts to celebrate Christmas.
At this time of year I’m especially mindful of the time in my life when I distained Christmas as being a pagan holiday we should not celebrate if we are true Christians. While I’m still trying to determine exactly what a “true Christian” is (as compared to a “false Christian”), now I see a whole lot more clearly how we can get so caught up in a religious paradigm we cannot see what is right in front of us. We can be so focused on the “truth” that we miss seeing the living Truth who has entered our world and has begun to transform it from the inside out.
Today is Epiphany, and the gospel reading from the lectionary for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Here we read about the magi from the east who traveled many miles seeking to find a newly born king of the Jews. They followed a star and ended up in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was quite unnerving for King Herod to have these men asking about a king he knew nothing about. And no doubt it made him feel quite insecure about his throne.
So Herod called all together the chief priests and scribes—the ones who were supposed to know the Hebrew scriptures and history—and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. The high priests and scribes were the ones who probably would know the answer to the magi’s question, so Herod addressed the question to them.
They told the magi to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem. Now, it seems to me, if they had a real interest in knowing about the Messiah or in seeking him out, they would have been alert to what was really going on. They would have joined the search party, or would have maybe even led it. But King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and told them to look for the child and to tell him if or when they found him. And the magi left all by themselves, with no Jewish people in their party.
These people who were trusting in astrology to guide them, who were in essence, pagan Gentiles, were seeking to find a child who was Jewish. Now there were some Jews who were pagan enough that they believed the stars ordained certain events. But the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles, and because of this they missed something very important which was happening in their world. Their religious paradigm did not allow them to believe that someone other than a Jew might know something about the Messiah they had been expecting for centuries.
Is it possible to have the light of God available to you and still wander around in darkness? Apparently so.
The gospel story we read in the Bible shows us that these Jewish leaders were a whole lot more interested in retaining their positions of power and influence and in restoring the Jewish nation to prominence than they were interested in finding out if the messiah had arrived and had something important to say to them as his people. Their paradigm assured them the messiah would appear in a certain way, he would do certain things, and he most certainly would not look, talk or behave anything like Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, I was told a lot of things about the Christmas holiday and what it meant and why it shouldn’t be observed, but no one ever told me the truth. I was told a lot of superstition, a lot of hearsay, and a lot of heated explanations of why observing Christmas was a sin, but none of those things turned out to be based on facts or on a mature, well-examined explanation of Christian history.
I remember one afternoon sitting in the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium listening to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. It stirred something deep within me. I knew the event of Jesus Christ coming to us and dying on the cross was significant, but I still missed the crucial point—God came into human flesh to live and die and to rise again, and now he bears our perfected humanity for all eternity in the presence of the Father. Forever, we are with God, in Christ by the Spirit. We are embraced, held, in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by God’s infinite grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
We can focus on whether or not something is pagan, and miss the light of God in the midst of the darkness. Whatever we observe as human is bound to be pagan in some way because we are all broken people. All our righteousness ends up being filthy rags to God—we must never forget God reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus.
Whatever we offer to God is broken and flawed—our efforts to get it right are feeble at best. This is why we follow the lead of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We count on God’s grace to carry us. We need to be alert to the living Truth in the midst of all our darkness and brokenness. The Light has come—we need to pay attention, turn to the Light and allow him to show us what is really going on, and to follow where he leads us rather than stay in our misguided paradigms.
Who we listen to is crucial. The magi listened to God when he spoke to them in a dream (would we ever consider doing that)? These people who the Jews distained listened to God and obeyed him, and went home a different way, and in the process, they were kept safe from King Herod’s evil plot. They had followed the light of a star, had worshiped the Light who had come and offered him gifts, and by the light of the revelation of God in a dream, found their way safely home.
When Jesus grew older, the scribes, the high priests—this group of people who should have known, recognized and received him as the Light of God—were the very ones who rejected him and crucified him. As John wrote in his gospel: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:9–11 NASB) Their preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be, and their preoccupation which the things of this life—money, power, prestige—blinded them to the true Light which was in their midst.
On this day of Epiphany, it would be good to pause for a moment and to consider this Light of God who has entered our world and brought to us a whole new way of being—the life of God in human flesh. It would be good to ponder the ways in which we close our eyes to the light he wishes to bring into our world: What paradigms do we need to set aside? What old ways of thinking and believing do we need to suspend in order to embrace the possibility we could be wrong or might need to change? What things are we trusting in which have nothing to do with God’s values and God’s desires and what he wants to accomplish in this world?
God’s Light has come, and he is renewing our broken world and existence from the inside out. We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace this New Year in a new frame of mind and heart—one in which Christ is the center rather than us. May your 2017 be full of an abundance of all God’s blessings in Christ!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the gift of a new year ahead of us. You are always working at creating new beginnings. Grant us the grace to keep our life and our being centered in your Light, in Christ your Son, and to stay in tune with and obedient to your Spirit of Life, through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.” Isaiah 60:1–3, 19 NASB