Where Death Reigns, Grace Triumphs
by Linda Rex
February 26, 2023, 1st Sunday in Preparation for Easter | Lent—I’ve been pondering the way in which we as human beings so often trade in our relationships with God and others for things that ultimately don’t satisfy. I believe this began in the garden of Eden, in that conversation Eve had with the serpent who deceived her. He told her that when she ate the forbidden fruit, her eyes would be opened and she would be like God, knowing good from evil.
When reading over that part of the creation story, we often miss the subtle detail of what Adam and Eve turned their back on when they chose to disregard God’s instruction to leave alone the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What we fail to see and appreciate is the magnitude of what Adam and Eve had from the beginning—a personal relationship with the God who created them, a warm fellowship characterized by walking and talking together, sharing life in union and communion with Father, Son, and Spirit.
It is instructive that the serpent or Satan told Eve, and she believed it, that being “like God” meant that she would know good and evil. The knowing that she and Adam were created for was not this kind of knowing, but that which involved both the knowledge of who God was, but also knowing God in an intimate and personal way. Walking and talking with God, living in face-to-face relationship, is what humans were created for, and Adam and Eve traded this in for the knowledge of good and evil.
When their eyes were “opened,” what they saw wasn’t the truth any longer. Sin had entered their existence, and with it, death, and when they encountered God again in the garden, they couldn’t face him anymore. So, they hid. And human beings have been hiding from God ever since. Shame, guilt, and blindness kept them from seeing that God had not changed at all—they were the ones who were so alienated in their minds that they could no longer see the truth.
What the apostle Paul shares in the New Testament reading for this Sunday, Romans 5:12–19, is the lengths to which God went to make this whole situation right. Because of the one man, Adam, sin entered the world, and therefore death entered the world. Adam set the course of humanity on the path to death and destruction—returning back to the nothingness out of which God had made everything. But God, being God, was not content to allow this to happen without doing what was needed to restore and renew all things.
In the garden of Eden story, following their rebellion, God walks into the garden looking for Adam and Eve, but they are hiding. What does God do? He seeks them out and calls them back into relationship with himself. When he sees they are uncomfortable with their nakedness, he, through the shedding of animal blood, clothes them. He tells them the consequence of their choices—the result of sin, but then offers them hope in his promise of a redeemer.
In the fullness of time, God kept that promise, in the person of Jesus Christ. Here, a human being, who was the Son of God in human flesh, came to live a genuinely human life in face to face relationship with Father in the Spirit. Jesus did what Adam did not do. In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Matthew 4:1-11, we learn about the new Adam, Jesus Christ, and his encounter with “the serpent” Satan during his time of testing in the wilderness after forty days of fasting.
During this spiritual battle, Satan challenged Jesus in three ways, what the apostle John calls “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16 NIV). Looking back to Eden, we find these same temptations are a common occurrence in our human flesh. The consequence of our yielding to them in sin is and has been death. When we try to resolve these on our own, through law keeping or even ignoring them, we find ourselves even more enslaved by sin. It is only in Christ that we have any hope of redemption.
The wonder of what God has done to resolve what occurred in Adam, is seen in the one man Jesus Christ, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and even in the sending of the Spirit by which all of us can individually participate in his intimate relationship with Father in the Spirit. We, by faith, can now experience the union and communion we were created for—coming to know not just about God, but to know him personally and relationally as his adopted children. We can live now and forever triumphant over evil, sin, and death because of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ’s obedience in the face of profound temptation from the evil one has undone Adam’s, and therefore humanity’s, disobedience and sin. Jesus’ righteousness, or right relationship with God, has become our own righteousness. Jesus’ justification has undone our injustice and rebellion, restoring us and making us one with God. Death itself has been defeated, such that we participate now and forever in the eternal life Jesus spoke of, that of knowing the Father, and him whom he sent (John 17:3). Every one of us is invited to live this out, as we trust in Jesus’ perfect work in our place and on our behalf, and receive his gift of the Spirit of life everlasting, embracing our place as beloved children of our Father.
Thank you, Father, for your great love and faithfulness. Thank you, Jesus, for coming for us, facing temptation, and triumphing over evil, sin, and death. As we live in face-to-face relationship with you, dear God, may your heavenly Spirit, manifest anew in and through us all the righteousness and goodness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:12–19 NASB
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Expectations of Deliverance
By Linda Rex
Sunday, April 5, 2020, PALM SUNDAY, 6th SUNDAY IN LENT—As I sat on a bench with my husband on the greenway at Fontanel this afternoon, I watched families and couples taking advantage of the opportunity to get outside to walk in the fresh air and sunshine. Everyone we met smiled and shared hellos with us as they went by. Even the guys in the catering van that drove by greeted us and smiled.
In the real world away from the social networking and politicized news reports, it was comforting to experience some real human connection, even if it was brief and from a distance. Perhaps this is the real takeaway from all that is going on right now—we were created for relationship, and anything that tries to prevent that or destroy it in the end will fail. We are interconnected with one another as human beings in ways which go beyond the physical—we are connected at a deep level which extends beyond the limits of evil and death.
The reason I say this is because so often our suffering and struggle in this world is caused by unhealthy or estranged relationships or ways of relating, and our healing is equally so often found in the rebuilding and renewing of relationships. Today we are normally too busy to go deep with one another and are unwilling to do the difficult relational work that is necessary for true connection. We have many distractions which prevent us from sharing at an intimate level with most people in our lives, and many of us prefer to avoid the discomfort of dealing with interpersonal issues when they come up.
Maybe if we gave serious thought to how Jesus lived when he was here on earth, we might think differently about how we live our lives. At that time, Jesus lived in a culture and setting in which life was slow enough that people really knew everything about everyone else. They knew their family and their neighbors, and all the people they interacted with on a daily basis. In a big city like metropolitan Nashville, it’s easy to hide. It’s easy to pretend we have it all together just long enough that people think the best of us and trust us. Our social networking is very convenient for creating facades which impress people without risking their criticism or disappointment.
But what happens when we slow down long enough for people to really get to know us? What happens when people begin to find out who we really are? We can only pretend for so long. Eventually as people get closer, they begin to figure out our flaws and those things which we do poorly and how we fail or fall short. What we do then reveals how deep our true humanity goes. To love and be loved is to be truly human, as is to forgive and be forgiven. To do any less is the sphere where inhumanity flourishes and poisons our existence.
The disciples and others traveling with Jesus into Jerusalem on that day celebrated his arrival with shouts of “Hosanna!”, calling out to him their hearts’ cry for deliverance from their Roman oppressors. Luke records in his gospel the messianic tone of this celebration, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; | Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” This resonates with the angelic chorus at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in the highest, | And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).
The cry, “Hosanna!” is the cry “O, save!”, the crowd’s call to a deliverer to rescue and save them. Laying out garments before Jesus as he humbly rode in on the colt of a donkey showed their willingness to be his subjects and to allow him to rule. It is significant that as Jesus rode through the city, not everyone was taken up in this celebration of his arrival. As we read in the other gospels, there were those who told Jesus to shut the mouths of those shouting “Hosanna!” These people did not want the Jesus to be their deliverer or savior, and would one day soon participate in having him crucified.
The real question of the day on the people’s lips is a question we each need to come to terms with though, “Who is this?” Indeed, who is Jesus Christ? What right does he have to ride into Jerusalem and be celebrated as the expected messiah, the deliverer of his people? What makes Jesus so special, so worthy of people’s adoration and trust? Isn’t it enough that he is a prophet?
Actually, no; there is so much more going on than this, and we need to come to terms with it. We need to accept the reality that when we are faced with the catastrophic events in life, with the economic and political distresses of our culture, our efforts to make things right are flawed and ultimately ineffective. Indeed, we cannot count on our government to always do what is right and most helpful for everyone in these situations—they are going to let us down. Our scientific advancements have limitations—there is a learning curve, and a need to balance our technology with human kindness and wisdom, which we so often don’t do.
No matter which way we turn, we come up against the reality that we as human beings face so many things in life where we end up saying, “hosanna” and often don’t even realize what or who we expect salvation from may very well, in the end, fail us.
Maybe instead of seeking deliverance from our problems or sufferings, from the fearful things we face in this world, we should work towards an honest assessment of what’s really going on. Let’s be truthful about all this: in this moment, as we sit in silent reflection, what is the foundational issue at work in all that is happening around us? Could it be that we do not understand who we are? Is it possible that we do not understand who our deliverer and savior really is? Indeed, where are we placing our faith? Who is it we are counting on to deliver us?
The capacity to reach out and help others while risking our own health and economic well-being comes from an inner wellspring which has its source in the living Lord. This is the God/man who rode that foal into Jerusalem, allowing the people to celebrate his arrival. He was not afraid of what he faced, but was willing to allow events to take their course, for the hatred of his foes to reach its peak, so that he would experience the crucifixion that was necessary so humanity could be freed once and for all from its efforts to be its own savior and redeemer.
As God in human flesh, the person Jesus Christ took a place of humility—receiving the praises due him but refusing to allow these to determine which path he trod. He didn’t seek, nor did he need, human approval and praise, even though it was rightfully his. He sought, rather, to know those he met and to bring them to the place where they knew him, not as a politically motivated strong-arm deliverer, but as a humble brother who was willing to lay down his life and allow himself to be mistreated and murdered for the sake of every human who has ever lived.
Our need to control what is happening in our world, to ensure a positive outcome of what is happening around us, causes us to live so often in fear—fear of what might happen, fear of what is happening around us right now, fear of what others may say or do. Our fear so often governs our decisions and the way we run our lives and our world. Perhaps it is time to lay down our fear and allow God’s love to cast out our fear once and for all.
God’s perfect love casts out all fear because it was expressed in our Lord Jesus Christ laying down his life for us. He lived our life, died our death, and rose again so that each of us may by faith and in the Spirit participate in his perfect relationship with our heavenly Father and in loving relationship with one another. Turning to Jesus means turning away from our trust in anything other than God himself as the solution to our difficulties and problems. It means not having the answers, but trusting that in God’s perfect time, the answers will come or will be found. It means we may not experience the resolution to our issue that we seek, but may need to be willing to receive the one that is there or the one that will one day be ours in eternity.
During this time of upheaval, while hard decisions are needing to be made, while sacrifices are asked of us, and relationships are held at a distance, let’s seek to go deeper with God and with each other. Let surrender our efforts to be our own savior and humble ourselves to allow Jesus to be who he is—our Savior and Lord—allowing him to guide and provide what is needed in this time of crisis. Let’s turn away from ourselves, from the things and people we count on, and turn to the one who was willing to and did lay his life down for us—Jesus our Lord.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to us, to share life with us and to offer yourself in our place and on our behalf. Thank you for allowing us as human beings to pour out on you all the horrors of human depravity and inhumanity, while through death and resurrection bringing us to participate in your holy relationship with your Abba in the Spirit. Grant us the faith to trust, not in our own human abilities and efforts, but solely in your faithful love, that all may be to God’s glory and praise, in your holy name. Amen.
“The crowds going ahead of Him, and those who followed, were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David; | BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; | Hosanna in the highest!’ When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.’” Matthew 11:9-11 NASB
“O LORD, do save, we beseech You; | O LORD, we beseech You, do send prosperity! | Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD; | We have blessed you from the house of the LORD. | The LORD is God, and He has given us light; ….” Psalm 118:25-27a NASB
In Death, Coming to Life
By Linda Rex
March 29, 2020, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT—Tuesday, as my son and I made our normal every-other-week trip to the grocery store to update our pantry, we found many of the shelves empty. Things which you and I take for granted were not available and I discovered I would have to buy brands of food I wouldn’t normally buy just so we had what we needed. I also realized after looking in more than one store that there was no hope of taking any toilet tissue home that day.
As we did our best to honor the social distancing cues, I felt an atmosphere in the store of a quiet bustle mixed with anxiety. As people went about looking for items to purchase, it seemed as though there was a common effort to keep things as normal as possible in a setting which was anything but normal. There really wasn’t any conversation, and even the cashier seemed a little distracted.
It’s hard to keep track of all the details regarding the COVID-19 outbreak since they are constantly changing and people express such a wide variety of opinions on what is going on and what our response should be to the crisis. When faced with the possibility of an extreme number of deaths resulting from this virus, it is instructive that for the most part, the average person doesn’t want to die, nor do they necessarily want others to die.
I found myself asking the question this week—do I really, sincerely care whether other people around me live or die? Whether we like it or not, how we act in this crisis tells a lot about us and whether or not our love for others is genuine and real. Who is our neighbor? Truly our neighbor is that person we have never met who is vulnerable and could easily catch the disease and die. She is also that person who just lost their job or business because their place could no longer stay open due to quarantine restrictions.
My neighbor, whoever he or she may be, is a person who like myself, is facing the reality of death, whether actual death, or death to a business, or financial stability, or the comfort of family and friends. Each of us is walking step by step through “the valley of the shadow of death”, not knowing what the next month or two may bring. Our life may never be the same again. We may never be blessed in the same way we were blessed before this all began. Death is an evil which so often brings about traumatic change and leaves us wounded and broken.
Whatever may happen in the next few months, we can be certain of this—death does not have the last word. Our faith in Christ teaches us that death is not an end—it is a beginning. It is the place where Jesus meets us and brings his resurrection life to replace our death. We can look at death as a welcome birth into new life, both now through our spiritual rebirth and one day in a glorified body in the age to come.
In the Christian faith, baptism and communion are expressions of the spiritual reality that we died with Christ and are risen with Christ—he is the determining factor of our existence. He is our life. Our eternal life—the intimate knowing and being known which exists between the Father and the Son in the Spirit in which we participate in Christ—has been solidly established in Jesus Christ and been given to us by the gift of the Spirit. God’s presence in us and with us affirms that we are alive in Christ—death no longer has any hold over us.
In Ezekiel 37:1–14, a companion passage to this week’s lectionary pericope, we read about the prophet’s encounter with God in the middle of a valley filled with dry bones. These bones represented a morally bankrupt and alienated nation who had rejected their covenant relationship with God and who had, like so many of us, found themselves spiritually dead, with no hope at all of any life in or connection with God.
Standing in the middle of death in this way, Ezekiel must have felt overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the situation. But God said to him that he was going to cover the bones with sinews and flesh—and he did. Then God breathed his life into these lifeless pieces of human flesh—a simple reflection on what God did in the beginning when he first gave life to humankind. Without God’s breath in us, without the zōē life, we are but lifeless pieces of flesh, with no ability to know or be known. It is God’s Breath or Spirit breathed into us through our Lord Jesus Christ (who is the resurrection and the life), who gives us the capacity for intimate relationship with our God and one another.
Another companion passage (Romans 8:6–11) tells us that apart from the Spirit at work in us, we cannot please God. As long as we continue to focus on our fleshly human existence, we reap the consequences of that existence—death—and we are unable to live in loving relationship with the God who formed us to love and be loved. The apostle Paul says, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace”. He goes on to say that apart from the Spirit we will not live in godly ways. In fact, we cannot.
Our natural proclivity is to choose those ways which lead to death. So Jesus came and lived our human life in such a way as to transform our humanity—to reform our human existence into one which resembles the divine life and love. Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the reality of what it means to truly live, as he is intimately connected with the Father and compassionately connected with his human brothers and sisters in the Spirit.
We read how closely Jesus connected himself with us in many stories told by the gospel writers. John tells us of one such story, when Jesus was notified that a very dear friend was seriously ill. After hearing the news, Jesus surprised his disciples by not immediately leaving to go heal him, but remaining where he was. Later, when he prepared to go to Bethany, he was asked about Lazarus, and he told them Lazarus was dead. On face value, it would seem as though Jesus was indifferent to the suffering of these close friends. But we need to look closer at what really was going on.
What is Jesus’ response to death and dying? In this case, Jesus was setting in motion a plan to bring many people, including his disciples, into a deeper understanding of and belief in his person as their Messiah. Mary and Martha both implied their disappointment in Jesus delaying his coming by reminding him he could have healed Lazarus and prevented his death. But Jesus had greater things in mind—he was focused not on death, but on resurrection.
In his conversation with these beloved sisters, Jesus reminded them of who he was—the resurrection and the life. Life was found in him—a life unbounded by the limits of our human existence. Jesus pointed them beyond the moment of loss and grief to another of hope and joy, reminding them that death is not the end. In this case, death was only a temporary problem which was going to be superseded by the resurrection of Lazarus to his former human existence.
Jesus had the opportunity, because of Lazarus’ death, to glorify his Father by raising Lazarus from the dead—thereby demonstrating the reality of his personhood as the One with power over death, the One who gave life to all things. This would set in motion a series of events, due to the fear and hatred of the Jewish leaders, which would culminate in Jesus’ own death on the cross. He knew he must die, so that all humanity might live—and he was willing to start the process by raising Lazarus from the grave.
Who is our neighbor? According to Jesus, every human being was his neighbor—someone he was willing to die for so that they could live. As it has been written, “God didn’t want to be God without us”, so he came and joined us in our humanity, lived our life and died our death, rising again to bring our humanity into the presence of Abba forever. In the sending of the Spirit, we participate in that divine life by faith in Jesus Christ.
In the midst of this time of uncertainty, while facing the reality of illness and death, we can be sure of one thing—we are not alone. As the shepherd king David wrote, we have no reason in the midst of this “valley of the shadow death” to fear evil—for God is with us. Immanuel—our Lord—has traversed this path before us and is walking this path with us. In the Spirit he is present, sharing our sorrow, grieving our losses, carrying us into a new place of healing, renewal, and restoration. It may be dark and difficult for a while, but he promised never to leave us or forsake us—and he will keep that promise. For he is faithful.
Blessed Lord, thank you for walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” before us in your death and resurrection, but also for walking with us through this difficult time of uncertainty, suffering, and death. Pour on us anew your life-giving Spirit. Give us healing. Refresh us in your Zōē—your very life, your being Jesus, for your name’s sake. Amen.
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’” John 11:25–26 NASB
He Knows Me?
By Linda Rex
One of the prophecies in the Old Testament which I find to be most interesting is in the book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah wrote about Cyrus years before he became the conquering king written about in the history books.
Ironically, even though he played a type of messianic role for the Jewish people, he was not a Jew. It speaks volumes that God would work through and with a non-Jewish king to rescue his people. In Isaiah’s prophecy, God says through Isaiah that even though Cyrus didn’t even know God, God still singled him out, called him by name, and gave him a special job to do. And it wasn’t for Cyrus’ sake God did this, but for the sake of God’s relationship with his covenant people, the Israelites.
Even though Cyrus was not acquainted with the God of Israel and worshiped gods who were not real gods, he was still equipped by God for this special mission and blessed by God as he performed it.
Cyrus was indeed responsible for conquering and killing a lot of people as he took power and invaded nations. I’m sure such bloodshed was not in God’s heart—it was something in Cyrus’ heart and was his way of doing things. Yet God chose to work in and through Cyrus in the midst of all this so that he, the God of Israel, would be made known as the one and only true God, who creates and sustains all there is in heaven and on earth, and his people would be returned to their promised land to prepare the way for the real messiah.
A lot of times we differentiate between good people and bad people, assuming God only works with, in, and through good people. We figure if God is going to do something significant in this world, he’s going to do it through people who are moral, righteous people or who are people who share a particular faith or belief system.
God is a Being who can and will work out his plans to love and care for his covenant people and to accomplish his purposes in the world by whatever means he feels are necessary. He can do and sometimes does do this all on his own. But it seems more often than not he includes human beings in the process. He likes to have us participate with him in what he’s doing in the world.
Our participation in what God is doing in the world often looks much different than what we assume it should look like. Sometimes humans do evil and horrible things. But God takes these things and in spite of them, or by transforming and redeeming them, he draws us all deeper into real relationship in and with him, into life eternal within the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.
And those of us who participate with him in his work in this world are not always aware of the significance of how we are participating with God while he works out what he is trying to do. Many times, we go through life like little children, believing it is all about us, about what we are trying to accomplish, and what we are wanting to do or what we believe is important. We can be quite narcissistic in how we approach life and living. But that doesn’t keep God from finding ways to include us in what he is doing.
I don’t know how many times in my life I have realized after the fact something I said or did turned out to be a significant event in another person’s life. It may have been to me a simple, unimportant thing I did. It may have actually been a thoughtless word or deed. It could have just been an offhand comment. But in some way, it impacted another person or impacted some situation in such a way it completely altered the direction it was headed. And really, I was unaware of it at the time—I was just doing what I was doing, being me, and this amazing thing happened in spite of me.
For those of us who are trying to live good Christian lives it may be a challenge to take our focus off our efforts to do good and be good. It is easy to get caught up in whether or not we are being good people, and whether or not we are pleasing God. We can get so focused on how well we are living our lives we miss the real point of it all—that God knows us and loves us completely and thoroughly, and calls us into relationship with himself in and through Jesus Christ. God wants us to know him and love him, and to come to the place we really know and love one another as well. There is a relational focus to life in Christ which is a far cry above just being good, moral people.
Instead of being focused on how well we are performing, or whether or not we are achieving success in some enterprise or conquering some country, maybe we need to be focused on getting to know the real God—the One who made all things and sustains all things by the Word of his power. Maybe this has more to do with growing in our relationships of love and grace with God and our fellow human beings than about exactly what we are doing in a specific moment. Maybe what is really significant is living each moment of our lives in the presence of and in real relationship with our God, and acknowledging the truth of who he is and who we are in Christ.
I don’t think any of us truly understand the significance of Jesus sharing in our humanity. There is something about him as God being here in human flesh which is important to our day to day existence. He shares in our particular profession or human activity, and we can participate in some way in what God is doing in the world while we are doing it.
Yes, we need to consider whether or not it is a real participation in what God is doing in the world. Is Jesus in the midst of it and does it reflect his nature and way of being? Is it life-giving and life-sustaining? What does it mean to have real life in and with the Father, Son, and Spirit—and how is doing this particular thing a sharing in God’s life?
But we also need to remember it’s always more about our relationship with God and with those around us than it is a matter of perfect behavior, abundant production, and material success. It’s learning to walk through life knowing and believing God is in you and with you in the midst of whatever you are doing in every moment.
We live in and with our God, and he is always at work in us and in our world, and he invites us to come along and participate in what he’s doing. We may not know him fully yet, but he knows us thoroughly and completely, and loves us, and calls us to live in and with him both now and forever, and we can do this in and through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit.
Dear Abba, thank you for inviting us to share life with you in and through your Son Jesus Christ and by the gift of your Holy Spirit. Enable us to focus less on our material success and physical accomplishments and more on living in loving, gracious relationships with you and all those we encounter day to day. Enable us to do all things in a way which is a real participation in your love and life through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“God’s Message to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he took by the hand to give the task of taming the nations, of terrifying their kings—He gave him free rein, no restrictions: “I’ll go ahead of you, clearing and paving the road. I’ll break down bronze city gates, smash padlocks, kick down barred entrances. I’ll lead you to buried treasures, secret caches of valuables—confirmations that it is, in fact, I, God, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. It’s because of my dear servant Jacob, Israel my chosen, that I’ve singled you out, called you by name, and given you this privileged work. And you don’t even know me! I am God, the only God there is. Besides me there are no real gods. I’m the one who armed you for this work, though you don’t even know me, so that everyone, from east to west, will know that I have no god-rivals. I am God, the only God there is. I form light and create darkness, I make harmonies and create discords. I, God, do all these things. Open up, heavens, and rain. Clouds, pour out buckets of my goodness! Loosen up, earth, and bloom salvation; sprout right living. I, God, generate all this.” Isaiah 45:1-8 MSG
Clinging to Life
By Linda Rex
On top of the two wardrobes opposite my mom’s bed are a group of family pictures. Periodically my mom will lie quietly and gaze at the portraits of the people who are dearest to her. After a while she may remark on how well my dad looked that day in his dark gray suit. And she will ask again whether I have everything ready for when she goes.
All the complications of life have been sifted through and brought down into the simplicity of breathing in and breathing out, of eating and sleeping. There isn’t much to say or do any more that hasn’t already been considered and tossed out as being unimportant or unnecessary to her present existence.
Through her eyes I can see that when it comes down to it, there isn’t anything that really is of earth-shattering importance now when life is down to the basics.
With the little energy that she has left, my mother struggles to make another phone call. Calling her sister to say some last words to her is of paramount importance. She tries to talk to the few people she has left in her life. And cherishes the last moments she has with her family members.
Isn’t it interesting that what matters most to her now is her relationships? It made me think about how often in our lives we give ourselves over to pursuing some dream while our important relationships end up in shambles. We take our spouses for granted and neglect our children because we are caught up in the daily grind of working out the plan of our lives. We forget how transient these opportunities to share God’s love are until one day they are taken from us.
It is good to cling to life, but I’m beginning to ask myself, what is the life I’m clinging to? And what am I doing to seek out that life?
When Jesus prayed to his Father that last night before his death, he said that eternal life was intricately bound up in our knowing of God and of his Son Jesus Christ. He had earlier told his disciples that life comes through our partaking of the body and blood of Christ. There is something very central in Jesus Christ that is integral to our finding and living out true, lasting life.
It’s in the midst of our union with God in Christ that we find life that is meaningful and lasting. In sending his Spirit to us, Christ shared with us his very life and being. We are reminded of this reality when we share with one another during communion in our Eucharistic thanksgiving as we eat the bread and drink the fruit of the vine.
In Christ we are brought near to God and near to one another. There is a connection that goes deeper than even our connections by blood or by community or organization. This union is something than can never be severed, however much we may ignore, deny or neglect it.
It is worthwhile, I am seeing, to pause in the midst of our daily experiences to reflect on how all of us are joined together with God and one another in Christ and by the Holy Spirit. When we make the effort to do this, we may begin to see that some things just don’t really matter in the long run. And we may begin to value the people God has placed in our lives in new ways.
The apostle Paul stressed the importance of setting our minds and hearts on things above rather than on things on the earth. We can focus on temporary belongings and activities that in the end will come to nothing. We can value importance, power, money, and a million other things that will not follow us beyond death. Preoccupied with all this, we can miss the very things that give life its depth and meaning, and that will last on into eternity.
As another day draws to a close, I am comforted by the thought that even though there are a lot of things in my life I would like to have and don’t, I have a lot of the things that really matter. And for that reason, I find that my best response is simply gratitude. And that’s enough.
We thank and praise you God for life, breath and our human existence, but most especially for all the relationships you have placed in our lives in which we share your love with one another. Grant us the grace to appreciate and cherish them while we can, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:1–3 NASB
“So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’” John 6:53–54 NASB
Savoring the Moments
By Linda Rex
A late night, early morning and little sleep is par for the course lately. Anxious questions and urgent concerns that have already been addressed and readdressed try my patience. A prayer wafts from my heart that I will have the grace to cherish the moments rather than ruin them with self-pity or frustration.
Another concern is raised. What can I answer other than the truth—we don’t know the day or the hour. We just know that the end is near. You will be going home to Jesus and I will be staying.
Out of my mouth, the Spirit speaks the words of comfort: “Mom, this is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” She nods with a smile and says, “Yes, we will.”
After a while it is time to take the dog out back, so I wander out, my bare feet in the cold, wet grass. I feel for a moment as though I’m walking in the Garden of Eden, with the presence of God near me, offering me his comfort and peace. I hear the echo in my mind and heart of the Spirit’s word, “This is the day the Lord has made…” and I feel a sense of gratitude for God’s comfort and encouragement.
Sitting again at her side, we talk about life and death, family and the things that really matter. We make sure there’s no unfinished business between us. These are precious moments—sacred moments, really. I choose to drink them in rather than just let them pass me by.
After an hour or so I go to my room to take care of something and pause to read today’s devotion out of a book on my desk. I smile as I read the familiar words: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I think I know what God’s word is for me today.
Thank you, Lord, for another moment and another day with the people who mean the most to us. Thank you for the relationships you have given us in which we know others and they know us. We are especially grateful that you know us down to the core of our beings and have brought us to this place of knowing you. There is an indescribable joy in this knowing and being known. We anticipate the time our time in eternity with you through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24 NASB
God In the Midst of the Dying
In the Midst of Dying audio by Linda Rex
by Linda Rex
I’m seeing more and more that what we unconsciously say and do often reflects a belief about who God is and who we are in relation to him that is unhealthy and even wrong. Even our language as followers of Christ is often filled with a deep anxiety that God’s not going to come through for us. Deep down we believe that if we don’t get things exactly right, the outcome is not going to be good.
I hear this a lot of times when people are talking about the growth and development of things they believe God wants them to be doing, such as ministries or churches, or even families. There is an underlying belief that if they just get all their ducks in a row, so to speak, then everything will turn out wonderful. If they follow this particular plan or complete these specific tasks in the correct order, then something awesome is going to happen. And if they don’t, all hell will break loose.
This God-concept also shows up when I talk with people about the darkness or chaos in their lives. And truly, how can I blame someone for seeing God in this way, when everything they are experiencing or have experienced in their life tells them it is true? What could I say that would convince them otherwise?
I know what it feels like to have everything you believe in fall into pieces at your feet. I know the pain of deep betrayal by those you trusted and counted on, including God. I know how it feels to be surrounded with mountains of problems that can’t be climbed. The despair that goes with such hopelessness can be overwhelming.
Whether we like it or not, we are faced with these ultimate questions over and over in life: Is God trustworthy and good? Does he really love me? Will God come through for me when I need him? Can I count on him? Does he really forgive sinners?
For whatever reason, we are never fully satisfied with the truth about who God is and who we are in relation to him, no matter how many times we are told it. It seems as though we have to experience the truth before we allow it to shape us and transform us. God spends our lifetimes bringing us through one circumstance after another, showing us the truth of his goodness, mercy and love.
It is refreshing to come to the realization that the whole issue about the success or failure of anything isn’t whether I’m doing it right, or someone else is doing it correctly, or whether we’re just letting God do it all himself. The real foundational paradigm is participation—sharing in relationship—doing it together. It’s not really about what you’re doing, but about doing it together, in relationship with God.
We get worried about the goodness and badness of things, and are agitated about having everything fulfill the perfect plan (whoever the architect may be). But God is interested in the process and in sharing life with us. It’s the conversations we have with him as we are doing this, the building of intimacy with him, that he cares about. It’s the knowing and being known that matters.
I read somewhere that what children remember most about their childhoods is not necessarily the gifts they were given, but the special times they spent with certain people doing things that were meaningful. It was the relational sharing, the sacrifices made, the unconditional love and grace in the midst of brokenness that was most significant.
Likewise, it is the abusive and harmful significant relationships that are so devastating to children. When authority figures or trusted people do not image God’s love and grace, but the brokenness of our humanity to children, it causes them to question these very core beliefs about God and who they are in the midst of such a dangerous, chaotic world.
We find ourselves then, as grownups, faced with all the same stuff, and our response hinges upon these fundamental beliefs about God, ourselves, and each other. William Paul Young said recently at Grace Communion International’s Converge 2015 conference that it took him 55 years to get the face of his father off the face of God. Personally, it has taken me much of my own life to see God in some way other than how I believed a father was, since my only experience with a father was with my own dad.
Thankfully, as we grow in our relationship with God, he works to change how we think and feel about him as Father, Son and Spirit. That’s what’s involved in repentance—changing our minds and hearts about God, who he is and who we are in relationship with him. We begin to see how we were totally wrong and we turn around and go the other way.
It takes great faith to be caught in the midst of devastating circumstances and still be able to say to God, “I trust you.” It takes a deep assurance of God’s love to stand strong in our relationship with God when it looks by all appearances as though he has turned and walked away. It takes great humility to allow God to work out circumstances in whatever way he thinks is best, when we would rather take the easy road, or go our own way.
This Holy Week teaches us that Jesus paved the way in all these areas. Even though he asked his Father to find a way different than the cross, Jesus yielded to his Father’s will and wisdom and took the high road to the cross. His final words to God, even when he was experiencing the silence of our humanity, was that he entrusted his Spirit to the Father. He knew his Father well enough to know that he was not leaving him or going away. Nothing can or will divide the Trinity.
There is a deep rest that Jesus created for us in his relationship with the Father by the Spirit. He proved that even in the midst of dying and death, there is resurrection. Our God can be completely and totally trusted. His love never fails. However bleak things may look or feel, the truth is that God’s got it. He’s going all the way with us, to and through the cross and tomb, to the glory of the resurrection. In the end, all that matters is that he was with us through it all and will be with us forever.
Thank you, Father, that you are indeed who Jesus showed us you are, and that your Spirit never stops working to show us the truth about who you are. Thank you that we are held each moment in life and in death in your loving embrace, and that you have given us the hope of the resurrection. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us, just as you finished what you planned before time began through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.” Ps 22:24 NASB
Stop Hiding and Start Finding
This morning I was thinking about how when they were little my children loved to play the game of hide-and-seek in the dark. Although they loved to play outside, some of the best fun we had as a family was playing hide-and-seek in the dark in our old two story house with all its closets and hidey-holes.
It was always a challenge to try to find a place to hide where you could not be found. So often we reverted to subterfuge to confuse whoever was looking so that they would not think to look where we were hiding. They wouldn’t think to look under the clothes in the closet—so that’s where we would hide. They wouldn’t think to look in the bathtub, so that’s where we hid, and we’d sneak out at the end so they wouldn’t know where we successfully hid and find us the next time.
It seems that in the game of hide-and-seek, it was always a problem to get someone to be “it,” to be the finder. We all loved to hide, but who wanted to do the finding, especially when someone might jump out of a dark corner and scare us half to death?
I think in many ways this game of hide-and-seek has translated into adulthood in the context of our relationships. In our complex society today, I believe too many of us are busy hiding—behind our jobs, our weight, our addictions, our toys, and many other things—and very few of us are doing the looking. Building relationships that are deep and lasting is fast becoming a lost art in the midst of our technology-driven culture.
It is no wonder that marriage has lost its appeal to so many people. Marriage requires intimate knowing, transparency and vulnerability—all which are very difficult to do when a person is trying to hide. It necessitates both parties being willing to be “it” all the time and that takes effort, time, commitment, humility and grace.
As I think about this I’m reminded of the God who created all things and placed within us the heart that loves the game of hide-and-seek. He plays “it” all the time and doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he came himself as the Word into our time and space to live among us. He found us, experienced our human existence and opened us up to life with him. In Christ he comes out of hiding and lets us find him. And he invites us into a transparent relationship with himself where each of us is fully known and loved. He flips the light on and calls us to come out of hiding and be fully exposed.
But coming out of hiding, being authentic and real with each other and with God is a scary business. That’s why God gives us grace. He invites us to trust in his love for us—that he won’t jump out of a dark corner and shout “Boo!” He invites us to live openly with him—moment by moment in real relationship with him. He calls us to be real, to truly be who he created us to be, without any fear that he’s going to sneak up behind us and frighten us.
And God calls us to live in community with one another in the same way. He brings us together in the unity of the Holy Spirit in love relationships where each person is able to be authentic and transparent, without fear of rejection, criticism or betrayal. In a relationship or spiritual community where the Holy Spirit is actively working, each person is not trying to control, manipulate, use or abuse the other. There is mutual submission, humility, service, cooperation and respect instead.
But this all takes effort. And it requires a commitment to stop hiding and to be willing to play “it” for a while—or to a least allow Jesus to be “it” in our place. To know and be known is essential to our humanity—it’s what we’re created for. We need to have relationships with God and with each other that are healthy, transparent and committed.
Jesus said that true life, life that is everlasting, is life in relationship—knowing and being known. He has included us in his relationship with the Father in the Holy Spirit. And he has bound us together with one another in his humanity, serving as the divine Mediator between each of us, and between us and God. There is a Home Base, or shall I say, a Person, where we are fully known and fully loved and even our best efforts at hiding are futile. Maybe it’s time to call the game over, flip on the lights and have a group hug. “All outs, all in free!”
I’m so thankful, God, that you know us completely, inside and out, and still love and care for us. You have revealed yourself to us in Jesus and you do not hide yourself from us, except in those ways that are appropriate to your divine glory. Thank you for including us in your eternal love relationship of the Father with the Son in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to truly love one another the way you have loved and made yourself known to us in Jesus. In his name, we pray. Amen.
“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3
“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:25–26
“Then Jesus cried out in the temple, teaching and saying, ‘You both know Me and know where I am from; and I have not come of Myself, but He who sent Me is true, whom you do not know. I know Him, because I am from Him, and He sent Me.’” John 7:28–29