By Linda Rex
September 20, 2020, Proper 20—Historically, we as human beings have nearly always been good at getting upset when people don’t get what we think they deserve. Some of us take such difficulties as a challenge to ensure that such people do get what they deserve, while others of us either ignore or explain away their offenses, or spend our time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves instead.
The reading for this Sunday from the Old Testament is the passage where the Israelites began to complain to Moses that they didn’t have any decent food anymore. They even would have preferred to go back into slavery in Egypt just to have something good to eat now and then. Here God had just done a great deliverance for them in bringing them safely through the Red Sea and now they were complaining because they were having to struggle a little.
God’s compassion was not appreciated nor was it understood by them. That he was tenderly seeing to their every need didn’t seem to make a difference—when things weren’t how they wanted them to be, they made a big stink about it and made life really hard for Moses. God would constantly have to remind them about who he was—their Provider, Protector, and Deliverer. In this instance, he gave them quail that evening, and in the morning began to provide them with bread from heaven, manna.
What we need to be reminded of, daily it seems, is just who God is. Do we believe he is the God who is compassionate, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness? These are ways in which God describes himself (Ex. 34:6-7), along with being just and full of truth. How does this impact the way we look at ourselves and others? What are our expectations of God, especially when it comes to how he deals with other people and uncomfortable situations?
Another passage from this weekend is from the book of Jonah. Rather than obeying God’s instruction to warn Nineveh of their impending destruction and their need to repent, this prophet took a ship going the opposite direction. He knew God was compassionate and forgiving, and didn’t want to risk that he might forgive this enemy of his people.
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward others of a different people group prevented him from simple obedience. And God did not allow him to continue in his path of resistance to God’s compassion and grace—he even used a large sea creature and a plant to get his point across to Jonah. He reminded the prophet that he should have been just as compassionate as God was in wanting to see the Ninevites not be destroyed—Jonah needed an attitude adjustment about wanting to God annihilate them. He needed to repent and have a change of heart.
Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner who owns a vineyard goes to find laborers to help gather in the harvest. He agreed with this first group of laborers to pay a day’s wage. Later in the day, he hired other laborers, agreeing to give them what was right. All the way up to about an hour before quitting time, he hired people to help with the harvest.
When it came time to pay these people, he began with those he hired last. Giving each of them a day’s wage, he paid the last, the next to the last, and on down the line until those he hired first. These hot and exhausted workers he gave the same amount as he gave the people he hired last—a day’s wage. This infuriated them.
The problem wasn’t in what the landowner did, though, but in their expectations. They believed that since they had worked the longest, they should have received the most. Those who worked a short period of time didn’t expect to get paid as much as they did, but they no doubt, appreciated the benefit they received. Here is the crux of the story—the day’s wage which each person received was a result of the landowner’s kindness and compassion, not due to their diligent performance.
For the kingdom of heaven comes to us not due to our adequate performance as people doing good deeds, but solely as a gift from God. The wages of sin is death, we read, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). Once again, we need to move away from our debit/credit thinking about the kingdom of God into the place of God’s generosity and compassion. We need to not be scandalized by God’s compassionate inclusion of all of humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, including those people who we believe don’t deserve God’s grace.
As image-bearers of the God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, we are called to reflect his nature. We are to have the same compassion for those around us as God has for us. What he did for the 120,000 persons who lived in the city of Nineveh, God wants to do even more so for every human being who has ever lived. In Christ, we find that grace and salvation are available to each person. By faith in Christ each can participate in the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit both now and forever.
Jesus was always stepping on toes with his discussion of doing good to those who do us wrong, praying for those who persecute us, and caring for those whom society considers untouchable and unworthy. His scandalous compassion put him at the same table with sinners, touching the leprous and unclean, and raising the dead. What we see in Jesus, God plants in us by the Spirit—we open our hearts up to the compassion for others that comes from God himself. Why should we resist the Spirit’s longing to care for those who are lost and broken, bound by evil and sin?
Perhaps we should take some time in quiet contemplation of the nature of our compassionate and gracious God. And in doing so, invite him to change our heart towards those who are in need of his grace. How can we pray for them, help them, speak loving truth into their lives? In what way would God want us to express his compassion and concern for them?
Thank you, Abba, that you are compassionate, gracious, and understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you know what it means to be human, to struggle as we do against temptation and the sin which so easily distracts us from loving you and the other people in our lives. Grant us the grace to let you be the God you are and to stop trying to form you into our own image. Form us instead more fully into Christlikeness through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.” Psalm 145:8 NASB
“Then the LORD said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” Jonah 3:10–11 NASB
See also Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2–15, Jonah 3:10–4:11.
By Linda Rex
If Jesus is indeed the exact representation of the Father, does that mean that our heavenly Father is a really nice guy who never did or does anything in anger or that might be hurtful to us as human beings? If we look at the Old Testament and our Abba through the lens of Jesus Christ, does that mean that God never did any of those things such as burning up cities or killing people? What does it mean that God is love, and that he is gracious and forgiving, and yet is also just?
I have said before that if the God we see in the Old Testament is different than Jesus Christ, then we need to consider if perhaps we may have misunderstood something about Jesus Christ or God himself. However, we cannot discard or throw out scriptures just because they don’t agree with the picture of God which we believe we see in Jesus. It is entirely possible that those who wrote millennia ago saw God through the lens of the angry-must-be-appeased God, but that does not exclude their writings, for as the apostle Paul wrote, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Cor. 10:11 NASB) We can learn from the failures and mistakes of others, and also learn from these events and people about the goodness and faithful love of our God.
Moses recorded a conversation he had in which God described himself. In Exodus 34:6-7, we read: “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” It’s interesting that God described himself as being very gracious and forgiving, but also as a person who does not leave the guilty unpunished. In fact, Moses wrote, whole generations experience the consequences of people’s disobedience to God.
I find this quite interesting, because during Jesus’ ministry, one of his disciples consistently sinned against the rest of the group, and was left unpunished by Jesus—sort of. The apostle John writes, “But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?’ Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it.” Judas was a thief, and Jesus allowed him to continue in his thievery up until the end of his life. He offered him rebukes, but Judas did not turn away from his sin.
Now granted, Judas was included in the twelve disciples for the very reason that he would one day betray his Lord. In the listings of the disciples Jesus chose after spending all night in prayer is this man who would be a traitor, who would betray Jesus into the hands of those who wanted to crucify him (Lk. 6:12-16; Matt. 10:2-4; Mk. 3:16-19). The apostle Peter, after Jesus’ resurrection wrote, “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” (Acts 1:16-17 NASB)
Jesus was a great a scholar of the Hebrew scriptures, as the teachers in the temple indicated he was, so he would have known the prophetic word about the one who would betray him in such a way that he would be crucified and die. Every one of his disciples was capable of betraying Jesus, yet Judas is the one who did it—the one who never dealt with the truth of his thievery by repentance and faith in Jesus. If you or I were running a non-profit business and we found out someone was rifling the petty cash every chance they could, we would most probably fire them the minute we discovered the truth. But this was not Jesus’ way.
Jesus’ view of justice and judgment comes straight from the heart of the Father—to restore the one who has estranged themselves by sin to a right relationship with Abba and those they have hurt. He told Nicodemus:
“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
Often God doesn’t need to judge anyone, because we are so good at judging ourselves—hiding in the darkness rather than coming into the light of God’s love and grace in Jesus. Hiding in the darkness eventually leads to painful and difficult consequences, some of which may lead to suffering and even death. Sadly, the outcome of Judas Iscariot’s hidden sin was his betrayal of his Lord, his subsequent remorse, and his tragic end of life by suicide. If Judas had only come to the Light—to Jesus—and received the grace which was his, owning up to the truth of his unloving behavior and allowing Jesus to restore him, his life may not have ended so tragically.
Peter wasn’t much better than Judas. He quite vocally denied Jesus three times—emphatically, with curses—because he was afraid of being arrested. After all his earlier promises to the contrary, when the chips were down he refused to identify with Jesus in his moment of greatest need. What might have gone through Peter’s head when Jesus caught his eye during his final denial? I can only imagine. Whatever it was, it led to Peter’s great repentance, and his urgent desire to reconcile with his Lord on the shores of Galilee after the resurrection.
Hiding in the darkness rather than coming into the light of God’s love is evidence of our lack of participation in our covenant relationship with our heavenly Father. Refusal to face the truth of our broken ways of living and being keeps us in the place of judgment. We have been given forgiveness and acceptance in Jesus Christ, but we can refuse it and live as though it isn’t true for us, and subsequently experience all the consequences due to us for having done so.
We can hide our “dirty deeds” in the darkness and pretend all is okay—living in the “freedom” of doing our own thing—and never receive the grace God has provided for us in Jesus. God has set us free from sin and death through Christ and empowers us by his Spirit to live in the truth of this and to share this truth with others. By refusing to receive what God has given to us in Jesus Christ, refusing to trust in God’s love and grace, we are judging ourselves.
We are placing ourselves outside the door to God’s kingdom which Jesus opened up for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and are saying to him that we can’t or won’t go in. The door is unlocked and even standing wide open—but we have no interest in entering. If Jesus is our true humanity, and he is the door through which we enter, the only exclusion which occurs is that which we choose for ourselves. God doesn’t have to stand with a big book of deeds either good or bad, deciding who goes in and who stays out. We do a pretty good job of doing that on our own.
Our entering in of the kingdom of God does not just happen at the end of our physical life. We live even now in the already-not-yet of God’s kingdom. This means we participate, or don’t participate, in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Abba right now, in this life today, as well in the world to come. We experience only glimpses of eternity right now, but we can begin to experience the blessings of the world to come in the midst of the struggles and difficulties in the world which is our today.
There are many things we need to learn about who Jesus is, and in learning about Jesus, come to understand about who Abba is. This will help us in our understanding of what was written in the Old Testament scriptures. I would like to talk more about this in next week’s blog. In the meantime, I encourage us all to find anything in our lives which we are trying to hide away from the view of Abba, and to bring it into the Light, so that through Jesus we may receive the reconciliation which is ours in him.
Thank you, Abba, for your perfect love and grace. Thank you that we can come to know you and your great love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Give us understanding of what it means to live and walk in the Light, exposed fully to your loving gaze, hiding nothing. No matter how broken we may be, you have redeemed us and set us free in Jesus. May we receive this gift with open hands. In your name, Jesus, we pray. Amen.
“The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Exodus 34:6-7 NASB
By Linda Rex
This morning I was listening to the You’re Included interview with David Torrance “The Grace of the Finished Work of Christ” (https://www.gci.org/yi/dtorrance104) and “Already Forgiven” (https://www.gci.org/yi108). I was struck once again by the significance of all that Jesus did for in his life, death and resurrection, specifically in regards to our ability to forgive the unforgiveable. And he calls for us to do just that, because being forgiving people properly reflects who we are as image-bearers of God.
I’m beginning to see that much of the mental anguish we go through in life has its basis in our inability or unwillingness to forgive wrongs done to us. Many of us go through life with deep emotional, mental, even spiritual wounds caused by significant people in our lives. We carry the hurts from our childhood into adulthood or from relationship to relationship, and they twist our thinking and feeling, holding us hostage in ways we don’t even realize or may even be willing to acknowledge.
It is inevitable that at some time in our lives we are going to be faced with the challenge of forgiving someone a wrong that we just can’t let go of. When that event comes back over and over in our mind and colors the way we think and feel about what’s going on in our life today, that is the time when we need to take seriously Jesus’ command to forgive.
But facing the challenge to forgive does not begin with us. We, of ourselves, are inadequate for the task. Even if we knew we needed to forgive and wanted to forgive, we may find ourselves unable to. The hurt or wrong may just keep rehearsing itself in our minds and hearts and we are unable to let it go.
This is especially true when there is a significant injustice involved. Forgiving may feel like we are letting someone off the hook for a very real wrong they have done.
But this isn’t the case at all. What a person may have done or said that violated us in some way is not ignored or passed over. Rather, it is put in its proper place—in the hands of a loving, just God, who is both our Judge and the one who was judged in our stead. Instead of us seeing that justice is done, we place this issue into the hands of the One best qualified to handle it—he is impartial and he is gracious, and he will deal with the issue in his own time and way.
Yes, there are times when we have to take action to protect ourselves and others from future harm. But, even so, we need to do so in a spirit of grace. Forgiveness does not require us to turn our backs on justice, but asks that justice be executed with mercy and compassion.
Placing our hurts and wrongs into the hands of a loving, just God, not only frees us from the need to make someone pay, but it also enables us to approach our need to forgive within the context of community. God does not ask us to forgive all on our own, under our own power.
God is the one, who since the beginning of time, forgives. If God had executed justice without mercy every single time one of us humans had done something wrong or hurtful, the human race would have long ago become extinct. Thankfully, forgiveness is God’s nature.
Because God knows we can’t forgive the way we should and need to, God gave us his forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, in his life and death, experienced some tremendous violations of his personhood and was horribly abused. There is nothing that we as humans experience that he cannot and does not sympathize with. Yet, his final words on the cross included these: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
This same divine capacity to forgive is ours. God has given us in Christ and by his Spirit all that we need for life and godliness. (2 Pet. 1:3) Therefore we are able to forgive—in Christ. It is Jesus’ forgiveness that we draw upon and live out.
Jesus taught his disciples that forgiving others is something we need to do so that we are able to participate in God’s forgiveness of us. (Luke 17:3-4) It’s a relational thing, something we do in community with God and each other. We forgive and we are forgiven. We are forgiven and so we forgive. This is what it looks like to live joyfully and lovingly within the Triune relationship of Father, Son and Spirit and with each other. It is our nature as God’s children to forgive, so we forgive.
So in the midst of whatever we are struggling with, we acknowledge the reality that forgiveness is not going to be something that is humanly possible on our own, but is instead, a divine reality that we participate in. We agree with God that forgiveness is not something we are able to do on our own, but is something we need from him—we need Christ’s forgiving heart and mind. We need the forgiving Spirit of God to change us from the inside out and enable us to forgive.
And God will do that. We make the choice to forgive and we seek from God the power and ability to forgive. God will begin, as we participate with him in the process, to change our hearts and minds and enable us to forgive. And we thank God for the gift of forgiveness that he gives us from his Son Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit.
This gift of forgiveness is life-transforming and healing, and we participate in it gratefully throughout our lives, in every situation we may find ourselves needing to be forgiving or forgiven. It is God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. May you experience and share with others the grace of God’s forgiveness in your life today.
Forgiving God, thank you for the gift of forgiveness. May we be as forgiving of others as you are of us. Thank you that in Jesus and by your Spirit we participate in your divine life and love, sharing in your forgiveness just as we share in every other part of your divine nature, through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives…. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 2:14-15, 17 NASB
by Linda Rex
Often we read the sermons of Jesus in which he advocates doing good to our enemies rather than giving them what they deserve (Matt. 5:39). Our natural response may be to say how ridiculous it is to even think of trying to do this in real life. What we experience in the normal course of events is most often the exact opposite.
A story I came across the other day in the Old Testament popped out at me, because it actually illustrated this specific principle at work. Of course, it was many millenia ago, and involved two kings who were at war with one another, and a prophet who was diligently doing the will of God.
The story goes like this. The nation of Aram was at war with the nation of Israel. Every time the king of Aram went to attack the nation of Israel, the prophet Elisha would warn the king of Israel about the ambush. This kept the Israelites safe from attack.
After a while, the king of Aram got ticked off, and began searching for a traitor among his officers. Apparently their military intelligence was working properly this time, because one of the officers told him about the prophet Elisha and what he was doing to inform the king of Israel about their plans of attack.
So early the next morning, Elisha’s servant woke up to find his beloved city of Dothan surrounded by the Aramean army with its soldiers, horses and chariots. Needless to say, he was terrified, and anxiously asked Elisha what they should do.
Elisha first asked God to give his servant an assurance of his presence in the midst of this terrifying situation. So God enabled Elisha’s servant to see that God’s army with its horses and chariots covered the hills around the city. They were perfectly safe in the midst of this danger.
Then Elisha asked God to cause the soldiers of Aram to be blinded so they couldn’t see where they were or where they would be going. Then he proceeded to tell the commander that he would lead them to the city and person they were looking for. And off they went to Israel’s capital city of Samaria.
There in the middle of Samaria with the Israelite army surrounding them, Elisha asked God to give the Arameans back their sight. Now they saw that they were totally at the mercy of the Israelites, their enemies! At that point the king of Israel asked if he should kill them.
How simple it would have been to kill all of those enemy soldiers! They had no hope of escaping, and they were guilty of harassing the Israelites with their constant attacks. It certainly would have been just, if looked at from that point of view.
But Elisha pulled out the “do good to your enemies” principle and told the king of Israel he should give them food and water and send them back to their master. So the king held a great feast, made sure they were all well supplied and then sent them home.
What’s interesting is the small statement at the end of this story—the soldiers from Aram quit raiding the Israelite territory. Now if the king of Israel had gone ahead and killed all those soldiers from Aram, it would have probably been the “just” thing to do, but it would have only escalated the tension between the two countries. It would have initiated real war. But in doing good to their enemies, the Israelites, guided by God through Elisha the prophet, invoked the power of grace and service. And hearts were changed, at least, for the time being. So how is it possible to really do this in real life?
First, we see that Elisha was living in a relationship with God in which he was in tune with God’s heart and mind, and he was trusting in God’s love, grace and protection. He was living in obedience to God, doing as God asked, even when it was difficult or dangerous.
Secondly, we need to see beyond the physical into the realm of God’s kingdom life. There is a spiritual reality that exists beyond our humanity. We participate in the spiritual realm through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. God is with us, in us and for us. We have no reason to be afraid.
Thirdly, we need to follow God’s lead, and allow him to take us wherever he wishes us to go. He will give us the ability to see what’s really going on when the time is right. He will help us to know what to do to best resolve the situation without revenge or violence.
Lastly, we need to choose grace and service rather than revenge or cold justice. Looking at the situation through the eyes of Christ, we can ask, what would be the most gracious, hospitable thing to do? How can I offer this person God’s love in the midst of this?
The reality is that even our efforts to do good in response to evil may end in suffering, loss and abuse. Christ called us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. There is a need for caution, wisdom, and seeking counsel and help from others in the midst of dangerous or potentially harmful circumstances. But at the same time we can apply God’s principle of grace and service in the midst of it all, and experience God’s blessings as a result.
Father, thank you that you are faithful in the midst of difficult and dangerous circumstances. Grant us the heart, wisdom and strength to do good to others, no matter their response to us. Grant us courage, faith, and obedience so we will follow you wherever you lead. Show us how best to love others with Christ’s love through the Spirit in the midst of adversity. In Jesus’ name, by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:20–21 NASB
(You can find the story in 2 Kings 6:8-23.)