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The Productive Vineyard

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By Linda Rex

October 4, 2020, Proper 22—This week fall begins, the time of year when farmers head out to the fields to see if the crops are ready for harvest. Traveling through the countryside this time of year can be a little tricky, with large combines, trucks and other equipment competing for road space. Looking across the fields as we travel, we may see the dust rising from the equipment as the corn or beans are harvested.

When a farmer comes to his field at harvesttime, he expects to find lots of ripe produce to reap. Whether corn, beans, sorghum, cotton, wheat, or any other crop, his hope is that his efforts to cultivate, plant, and tend the field were not in vain. To have invested so much only to find no return on that investment is a cause for great disappointment, not to mention steep financial loss.

When God drew the ancient nation of Israel out of Egypt and planted her in the promised land, he intended that she become a godly nation through whom the other nations of the world might come to know and obey him. He gave Israel all that she needed to live in covenant relationship with him, providing her with a law, sacrifices, and a place of worship by which she could love, serve, and obey God.

Like all of us as human beings, this nation turned away from God and sought her value, significance, and relational satisfaction from idols, other nations, and materialistic gain. She practiced injustice, greed, immorality, and every other ungodly behavior, rather than simply being the people God created her to be—holy, faithful, obedient, and just. God’s harvest from his beloved people was unfaithfulness, injustice, disobedience, and ungodliness—all ways in which they turned away from God and alienated themselves from him in their minds and hearts. (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15)

In sending his Son Jesus to Israel, God meant for him to take their place—to do for them and in them what they could not and did not do. All peoples had turned away from their Creator and Sustainer, so God the Word took on our humanity and turned us all back to God. In Christ we find that we are restored as image-bearers of God and are able to live in ways that produce good spiritual fruit. In dying our death, rising from the grave and ascending to the Father, Jesus brought us into our true humanity—and sent the Spirit so we by faith could begin to participate in it.

The way that we produce good spiritual fruit is by participating in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The life of Christ lived out in our human flesh by the Spirit is evidence that God is at work in us. The Spirit enables us both to will and do what reflects the image and nature of God. As I have said before, this is not by our human efforts at keeping God’s law—that’s external fleshly work, but solely by the grace and mystery of God, Christ in us by the Spirit—that’s internal spiritual transformation moving outward by faith into action.

As members of Christ Jesus, participants in his body, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are meant to produce kingdom fruit—spiritual fruit such as outgoing love, peace, joy, gentleness, and any other spirit, attitude and behavior which reflects the divine nature. A good description of what the kingdom of God looks like when it is lived out here on earth may be found in Exodus 20—and yes, that is what is commonly called the ten commandments. Let’s look at them properly—through the lens of Jesus Christ and his finished work, through which God gives us life, life in relationship with himself both now and forever.

When we live in loving relationship with God, we acknowledge that he is the only God there is. There is no other person, being, thing, passion, goal in our lives we count on other than him. The one God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is the God who is equal and unique in personhood, and fully one in being. We were created to be image-bearers of this God, to live in the truth of who we are as those made in his likeness to live now and forever bound in covenant love relationship with him.

For this reason, we have no other person, thing, or objective which commands our full attention or allegiance. We live in the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God—this is the focus of our existence. Living in covenant relationship with God comes first—we depend upon him and him alone. All other things in our lives come in second position.

As those made in God’s image, after his likeness, we acknowledge that he is our Father and we are his adopted children. We bear the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. We bear the name of Jesus, the only name under heaven and earth by which we may be saved. For this reason, we honor and respect this name—it is our own family name.

God created us to be stewards of all he has made, to live in the unforced rhythms of grace which involve times of work and times of intimate fellowship with God and one another. All that God has done for us in Jesus and is doing for us today by the Spirit brings us into a place of rest in him. We don’t depend on our own ability to get ourselves right with God or to save ourselves, but trust completely in the finished work of Jesus. Christ is at work in this world by the Spirit making all things new—we participate with him in what he is doing in this world by resting in him.

As image-bearers of God, we were created for relationship—relationship with God and with one another. God created family—a loving bond which reflects the nature and other-centered love of Father and the Son in the Spirit. Parents are meant to reflect the image of the Trinity to their children, teaching them what it means to live in loving relationship with God and one another. As Jesus the Son of God honors his heavenly Father, we honor our human parents. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who gives us the heart to honor our parents.

In God we live and move and have our being. From the beginning God told us to choose life, not death. Every human being is made in the image of the God who is the Source of life, the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For this reason, we walk in life, not in death. God is not willing that any should die—neither are we.

Binding himself to humanity in an unbreakable bond in Jesus Christ, God has declared his covenant love for all of us. What God bound together, let no human being annul—Jesus Christ is God’s pledge to us that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what. In the same way, when a man and woman declare their covenant love for one another in marriage, they bind themselves together in an unbreakable bond which only death can annul. This images what God has done for us in Christ, how God brought us who are creatures into intimate relationship with him who is Creator—two different but made one through Christ in the Spirit, bound together in covenant love.

As we grow in our knowledge of God and in relationship with him, we realize that everything here on earth and even our own lives belong to him. We realize he is Lord of all and we are not. We recognize that whatever we have was given to us as stewards to care for and share with others, not to indulge ourselves or fulfill our own lusts. Indeed, everything belongs to God, even what others have—so we protect, defend, honor, and guard what someone else has rather than stealing it from them.

We understand that we are made in the image of the God of truth, the One who sent his Son Jesus, who is the Truth. When we look at Jesus, we see the truth of who we are—and we know that God has never lied to us nor will he. He sends the Spirit of truth so that each of us may live and walk in truth. As image bearers of Truth, we live truthfully, honestly and with integrity. We are able to live authentically and transparently because we have nothing to hide.

When we see things clearly, we recognize that all we have, all we see around us, even our own selves belong to God. Whatever there may be on earth that we could desire loses its attraction when we stay focused on God and his love for us as expressed in Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. We find that as we set our hearts and minds on the things of heaven rather than on the things of earth, we already have everything we really need. Everything else we simply receive as a gift from his hand in gratitude and praise.

As you can see, when Jesus is the center as he is meant to be and that we are walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh, we find that we begin to reflect the image and nature of God. We become a picture of life in the kingdom of God as we were meant to reflect, showing the world we are Jesus’ disciples by the way we love one another. The body of Christ, which exists in many nations and peoples all over the world, is meant to be the place where human beings can see what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God.

Today, the body of Christ may need to reconsider, what does it mean to live in relationship with God, in other-centered love? Are we as the body of Christ, producing this kind of spiritual harvest which is healthy and abundant? Is our Father delighted with the produce which is being borne in his vineyard? One thing we can be sure of—God is faithful, and he loves us unconditionally. He will finish what he has begun in us. Let us continue to trust him and to participate with Jesus in what he is doing in this world to bring about an abundant spiritual harvest.

Dear Abba, thank you for giving us all we need for life and godliness, for giving us your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for your grace and love, your faithfulness and forbearance. Forgive our resistance to your indwelling Spirit, your efforts to grow us up into Christlikeness. We trust you will finish what you have begun in us so that we will bear an abundant spiritual harvest which will bring you great joy and pleasure, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” Matthew 21:43-44 NASB; see also Matthew 21:33–46; Philippians 3:4b–14.

A Humble Invitation to Rest

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By Linda Rex

July 5, 2020, PROPER 9—When Jesus gave the invitation, “Come to me, … and I will give you rest,” he spoke out of a heart of humble gentleness, calling us into relationship with himself. He had just explained that the only way for any of us to come to know God was through his own relationship with his heavenly Father. It is within the context of this intimate relation between the Father and the Son that any of us are able to begin to know and relate to God in a personal way.

The people gathered at that moment around Jesus had spiritual leaders who taught them that relating to God was first and foremost an issue of right behavior based in the observance of the old covenant law. Seeking to observe all the details of the law correctly, the people labored under a heavy burden from which there seemed to be no relief. Keeping the law did not remove guilt and shame, nor did it help them to keep the law better. If anything, it caused even more distress and despair.

Jesus called for the people to come to him—into a relationship with him in which they were to find rest. We find the idea of rest, of coming into relationship, in several places in the old testament, some of which are part of the readings for this Sunday. I believe they can help us to understand a little of what Jesus is calling us into when he says, “Come to me…. and I will give you rest.”

In Genesis 24, we read the story of Abraham’s servant, who after he died went to seek a wife for Isaac among his relatives. Asking for God’s guidance, he requested a sign, that when he asked for water to drink, the right young lady would also offer to water his camels. When he encountered Rebekah at the well, he asked her for a drink, and immediately she offered to also draw water for his camels. Believing this was God’s answer to his prayer, he inquired as to her parentage. She brought him home to her family who turned out to be relatives of Abraham.

Now Rebekah had a difficult choice to make. She would have to leave her family, her ways of living, everything she was familiar with, to join this servant on a journey back to the Negev to marry Isaac, her betrothed. They asked her, “Will you go…?” I believe this is the question Jesus brings us to when we encounter him. Are we willing to go wherever he goes, to leave behind all that was, and to commit ourselves unreservedly to him, willing to be faithful and obedient to him until death?

This brings to mind the story of Ruth, another woman in the lineage of Jesus. Hers is a beautiful story of redemption. At one point, the widow Ruth is counseled by her mother-in-law Naomi, who tells the young woman, “… shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you” (Ruth 3:1b NASB)? The word for “security” is literally “rest”. Naomi’s wish for Ruth was that she would find real rest in the home of a husband who would care for her, provide for her, and protect her.

We find this same idea of marriage relationship within the Song of Solomon. In many ways it reflects the intimacy between Christ and his Bride, the church. In the passage for this Sunday, we read: “Listen! My beloved! Behold, he is coming, | Climbing on the mountains, | Leaping on the hills! … My beloved responded and said to me, | ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, | And come along. … Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, | And come along’” (Song of Solomon 2:8, 10, 13b NASB)! We find the same idea of the woman being called away from her home and called into close relationship with the man she loves.

Psalm 45, another passage for this Sunday, is a lovely picture of a queenly bride being brought to her king to be made his wife. She is clothed in embroidered gold clothing, beautifully gowned and arrayed. She is told: “Listen, O daughter, give attention and incline your ear: | Forget your people and your father’s house; …. Because He is your Lord, bow down to Him” (Psalm 45:10-11 NASB). We find that the Bride of Christ is meant to leave all behind so we may share in the royal throne with Christ our King, for we are made kings and priests who will reign with Jesus in glory.

All of these pictures show us that there is a rest we are called to, but it is the kind of rest that has to do with resting in humble dependence upon our Lord and King Jesus Christ, who is our husband, our protector and provider. He is humble and gentle in heart and he offers us his tender care as a Shepherd for his sheep. It is within the context of his care and protection that we take on the yoke of obedience—being obedient to the law of the Spirit who dwells within us, transforming our hearts by faith. As Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (NASB).

By faith we rest in the finished work of Christ, knowing that our redemption is complete and is being worked out in us by the Holy Spirit as we respond to his transforming and healing work. Yes, it is a struggle because our flesh seems to believe that sin is still in charge, but the truth is that evil, sin, and death are no longer our taskmasters. The reality is that in Christ we are free! We are free to love God, love our neighbor, live in wholehearted obedience to the voice of the Spirit as Christ lives in us. We are free to live in intimate relationship with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit. (Romans 7:15–25a)

Christ’s yoke is light and easy, for there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! (Rom. 8:1) As we walk in the Spirit, we won’t walk in our old sinful ways. We rest in his perfect relationship with the Father, and participate with him in loving God and loving one another, sharing in his mission in this world. This makes the yoke of commitment to God in Christ an easy and light burden to bear. We share in Christ’s righteousness and as we yield to the inner workings of the Holy Spirit, we experience cleansing, renewal, healing, and growth in Christlikeness. We experience the reality of living as God’s adopted children held in his loving embrace both now and forever.

Perhaps this is a good time to pause and reflect on the precious gift Jesus is offering us. Hear Jesus asking you now, in this moment, “Come to me, … and I will give you rest.” What is standing in the way of you saying yes to him? What are you counting on to get you through instead of simply resting in him, in his love and grace? Perhaps now is a good time to leave all that behind, accept his rests, and join Jesus on his journey—I know he’d love to have you!

Jesus, thank you for including us in your life, death, and resurrection, for sending the Spirit from the Father so we could share in your intimate relationship with him. It can be scary to leave behind everything we are comfortable with and simply follow you. Help us to let go, to surrender ourselves to your love and grace, to simply rest in you. Thank you that all we do is a participation in what you have already done. We trust in you, in your perfect finished work. In your name we pray. Amen.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; | He is just and endowed with salvation, | Humble, and mounted on a donkey, | Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9 NASB

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and ‘you will find rest for your souls.’ For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 NASB

Reflections on a Blood Bath

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by Linda Rex

It’s always distressing to me to hear about another massacre of innocent human beings, and this week’s event in Orlando was no different. How can we, after all we have received of the grace of God, still turn on one another and steal the life God has given and redeemed? The inhumanity, or shall I say insanity, of such an act is beyond comprehension. I hope and pray this event will not end up trivialized like all the others, and just boiled down into a political or religious statement about gun control, human rights or the moral depravity of humanity.

For all the people who had to arrange and attend a funeral for someone dear to them, this is so much more than that. Such unnecessary and horrific loss! To have one’s world so violently rearranged by someone else creates such unimaginable pain and anger.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual happening nowadays. It is still somehow so deeply engrained in our humanity to participate in the evil one’s kingdom in which he comes to kill, steal and destroy. Even our ideologies can be at fault when it comes to the taking of other human lives. But we must go deeper even than that.

We can blame radical Islam for this event, but if we were truly honest with ourselves, we would have to admit, that were the situation right, we could do exactly what this man did. Each of us has the capacity to commit horrific acts of evil, because each of us, at our core, is broken. Each of us has our own demons which we fight. None of us is truly innocent.

As Christians, or even as humans of any creed or belief, we need to be really careful not to assume we do not possess the capacity for evil. Too many people have been hurt and crushed by the infidelity or abuse of someone who claimed to be a Christian. History is full of stories of people who said they were godly men or women, but who turned out to be truly evil at their core.

This morning I looked to see how often the word kill was used in the Bible. The Old Testament is full of stories where people killed one another. Yes, sometimes even God allowed or encouraged it, due to the circumstances involved. But this capacity to turn as one human against another began with Cain and has not ceased since.

As I continued to look at the use of the word kill, I noticed there was a change when it came to the gospels. In the gospels, we see Jesus talking about how the Jewish people killed their prophets and telling his disciples the Jewish authorities would kill him too. We see Jesus telling his followers not to fear people who can and will take their life, but to fear, or respect, the God who gives and takes away life. Jesus stressed giving one’s life, not taking one’s life away. He laid down his life for each of us, and calls for us to do the same.

It is instructive that the Jewish leaders of the day worked very hard to be pious, good people, well-respected by others. But their piety was demonstrated by their determined effort to put Jesus to death. The man Saul, who we know as the apostle Paul in his later years and who held the clothes of Stephen as he was martyred, was a clear illustration of this reality. His effort to be God-fearing resulted in his participating in the death of an innocent man, and the killing and imprisoning of many other people in the early church.

The expansion of the early church into the Roman culture came about not because the believers threatened to kill people who weren’t followers of the Way, but because they willingly laid down their lives for the sake of Jesus. It was through their suffering, loss and death that the early Christians impacted the culture around them. Great change came about because of their willingness to suffer and die rather than give up their relationship with Jesus Christ and the blessing of life in the Spirit.

We need to understand the difference between living by a law or moral code, and living and walking in the Spirit while following Jesus. Paul said when talking about the new covenant in Jesus Christ that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor 3:6) When we are living and walking in our flesh according to some form of ideology, or some moral code, it is easy to justify killing and destroying another human being. But when we are living and walking in the Spirit, participating in the life of Jesus, we have the desire and capacity to give life rather than take it, and may find within ourselves the capacity to lay down our life for another human being who could even be our enemy.

We see the life-giving Spirit of Christ at work in many places and ways in the world. I see the Spirit at work in the hearts and lives of the parents who so faithfully and diligently minister daily to an autistic or disabled child. I see the Spirit of Christ at work in our community as people work to bring about peaceful resolutions to difficult problems. I see the Spirit of Christ at work in the life of the person who works to care for and studies the environment and the wildlife in exotic locations in the world, and in the life of the one who cares enough about the animals in their neighborhood that they make sure they each have safe homes and good health care.

This is the new covenant life Jesus bought for us with his blood shed on the cross and which he made available to us in the gift of his Spirit. We are bathed in his crimson flood so that we can have real life instead of our natural manner of life which so often leads to death. Why should we continue to live life on our own terms when we have been offered something so much better?

In the taking of the Eucharist, in our sharing through the wine and bread of the body and blood of Jesus, we are reminded as Christ wished us to be, that he stands in our place. It is his life, his death, his resurrection, and his life eternal in his glorified humanity which is ours. We are awakened again to the Spirit poured out on us, alive within us, and are renewed in our capacity to share in the divine life and love, even now in the daily ins and outs of life. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who enables us to love the unlovely, forgive the unforgiveable, and to lay down our lives for those who do not deserve it.

Such suffering as is incurred in the terrorist attacks we are witnessing is not going unnoticed. Such destruction and death will not be ignored. It is a violation of the Spirit of life in Christ which we have been given. And Christ promised never to leave or forsake his children—he is here with us in the midst of our pain and suffering and death, and inhumanity of human to human. He grieves and weeps with us, he endures suffering with us, and is hurt and angered by what we do to one another.

But this is also why he came and took upon himself the whole injustice and evil of humanity. This is why he allowed the pious Jews of his day to torture him and crucify him. So every time something like these horrific events happens, we are not alone. He has joined himself to us in our sin and suffering, and has made us one with himself, so we are and can become something we would not otherwise be.

In Jesus we have the hope that evil does not have the last word, and one day will be fully eradicated from our humanity. In the gift of the Spirit, we see Jesus beginning to work his kingdom life out in our world today in the midst of its brokenness. May God grant us the grace to walk by faith, not by sight, looking beyond this broken world and our broken humanity into the true reality purchased for us by the Son of God and made possible for us in the gift of his Holy Spirit.

Dear God, forgive us for all the horrible things we do to ourselves and to one another. Thank you for joining with us in the midst of our brokenness and evil, and raising us up to life with you in Christ and by your Spirit. Please finish what you have begun—do not give up on us. You know how desperately we need you to transform and heal us and our world. May your kingdom come and your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.” John 8:37–40 NASB

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 NASB

But That Was Then

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covenant Relationships and Our God of Grace

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Serene lake
Serene lake

by Linda Rex

One of the most difficult aspects of living in covenant relationship with another human being is coming to grips with the need for unconditional love and grace. Since most of our lives we work and live within the idea of making and keeping contracts, much of our culture is based upon this type of economic and social structure. So when we come to our relationship with God, as well as the covenant of marriage, it is easy to fall back upon this type of thinking and being.

This morning I was listening to Dr. James Torrance ask the question, “Is our God the Triune God of grace or is he a contract God?” His purpose for asking that question was to help his listeners consider the difference between a covenant and a contract. Most of us clearly understand what a contract is—an agreement between two people which can be broken if one or the other does not perform completely the requirements of the contract.

When we mistakenly assume that the covenant God made with Israel and humanity is actually a contract, then what happens is that we put the terms of the agreement in the wrong order: law, consequences, grace. But if we understand that God’s covenant is one of love and grace, and is unconditional, then we understand that the proper order is: grace, law, consequences.

In other words, a covenant looks entirely different from a contract. Torrance uses the example of a marriage covenant to describe the difference. If we think a marriage agreement is a contract (if you do this, then I will do that), then whenever one or the other members of the relationship fail to meet the other’s expectations, then the relationship is broken, and each person can walk away from the relationship at any time. There isn’t really anything to bind two people together if marriage is treated like a contract. You and I both know that at some point in any relationship, someone is going to fail to meet the other person’s expectations. It’s a given, because we’re human.

But in a covenant, unconditional love and grace come first. The commitment to the other supersedes all other considerations in the relationship. Two people agree to love one another no matter what may happen in life, no matter what they each might do. Then there is an understanding that whatever they may do or say to one another will have consequences for the relationship. But the binding of the two people together by unconditional love and grace keeps the relationship intact even when there is a failure at some point to meet the other person’s expectations.

This is what God did with Israel and what he did, in fact, with all humanity. God determined that he was going to draw human beings into relationship with himself. We as human beings have so often broken our part of that covenant just as Israel broke their part of their covenant with God over and over. But God has always been faithful to what he promised. He loved us prior to us loving him. He forgave us prior to us even knowing we needed forgiven. His love and grace are unconditional. This is true covenant.

This is where relationships get tough. Are we willing to forgive the unforgiveable? Are we willing to go the extra mile? Are we willing to keep loving someone who is all prickles and thorns?

You see, God loved Israel unconditionally. Over and over, he forgave his people all of their unfaithfulness to him. Were there consequences to Israel’s breaking of the covenant relationship? Yes—they experienced slavery, oppression and devastation. Even though God allowed them to experience the full consequences of their unfaithfulness to him, he, in time, laid down his life for his people, as well as for all humanity.

God’s love and grace were and are prior to any law. Law describes what a healthy happy relationship looks like and what the consequences are when people don’t live in ways that coincide with a healthy happy relationship. God’s love and grace were present and available even when Israel failed to keep their side of the covenant and experienced the consequences of it. God’s love and grace are also present and available to each of us, in spite of our failures to live faithfully and lovingly in relationship with our God.

Yes, God often allows human beings to experience the pain and devastation that comes with living in ways that break that relationship. And that is where we need to rethink how we handle our covenant relationships. It is easy to believe that in a marriage, if one person loves the other no matter what, then they have to accept whatever behavior the other person does even if it is harmful or involves infidelity or substance abuse. But we need to rethink that.

We are called to love one another unconditionally within the marriage covenant. If a person within the relationship is an addict and is causing destruction to the relationship and to themselves, is it truly loving to allow them to continue in that destructive behavior? No. So they need to experience the consequences of their behavior, but in such a way that the covenant relationship remains intact if at all possible. Love calls the broken person to healing and wholeness and provides a safe place for them to begin to get help. Love does not leave them in their brokenness and enable them to continue their self-destruction. This is when love has to be tough.

When a person is unfaithful in a relationship, there is so much pain involved. The gut level response is to bail out of the relationship. But if indeed unconditional love and grace come first in the covenant—then there must be room, if both parties are willing, to forgive and to rebuild the relationship on a new foundation of grace. When Israel was unfaithful to God, we see the language of divorce in Hosea—yet God did not divorce Israel. Instead, he came in the person of Jesus, laid down his life, and died in her place. Wow! Most of us never get to that place of self-sacrifice and forgiveness in our relationships!

To truly love and forgive is to lay down one’s life for the other so that they can be and become all they were created to be as image-bearers of God. The Triune God of grace teaches us what covenant love looks like—and calls us to live in that relationship with him and with one another. Consequences have their place in covenant relationships. Pain and sin will happen. But unconditional love and grace trumps it all.

God of grace and love, thank you for your faithfulness and compassion. Grow in us the capacity to love and forgive as you do. Teach us what it means to live in covenant love as you do with us. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“I will establish My covenant between Me and you [Abraham] and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7 NASB

More Than Just a Law

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Honeysuckle on the fence
Honeysuckle on the fence

by Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Law of the Heart

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Incarnation by Linda Rex, copyright 2005
Incarnation by Linda Rex, copyright 2005

by Linda Rex

In my last blog I talked about the Ten Commandments and the curses that were to be rehearsed by the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. My point, in essence, was that God was once again renewing his covenant love commitment to Israel and was calling them to love him wholeheartedly in return. This covenant love relationship was to supersede all the rules and regulations given to Israel that were meant to keep them within the bounds of that love.

It is interesting that God was quite frank with the Israelites when he told them that they weren’t going to be faithful to him because they were a stubborn, willful people. He predicted that they would be unfaithful to him, and that even though they were the most blessed people in the world because they had him for a covenant partner, he knew they would still choose to worship the gods of the nations around him instead. God wasn’t fooled by Israel’s empty promises.

And indeed, the nation of Israel over the centuries repeatedly denied the God who redeemed them and chose to suffer the painful consequences of that rejection and rebellion. In time they ended up exiled as God predicted would happen and the Promised Land was overrun by other nations.

But in this prediction of the future of Israel, God also pointed to a time after the exile—a time of repentance, of a change of mind and heart. He predicted that one day, he would “circumcise the heart” of the nation and its descendants so that they would love him with all their heart and all their soul so that they would seek life. He told them that the commandment, to love God wholeheartedly, was not external to them nor was it beyond their reach. Rather it would be in their mouth and in their heart.

The apostle Paul takes this up in Romans 10:4-13 when he contrasts righteousness through the law with the righteousness which is by faith:

“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “DO NOT SAY IN YOUR HEART, ‘WHO WILL ASCEND INTO HEAVEN?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘WHO WILL DESCEND INTO THE ABYSS?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of call, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” (NASB)

He shows that in Christ there is a change at the heart level which involves faith, something that the ancient Israelites failed to have in their covenant relationship with God. They did not believe, therefore they did not obey. They did not believe God and trust in the depth of his love for them, so often they chose to work things out themselves or to rely on other nations or other ways of living and worshiping.

We are reminded by Paul that when God told Abraham he was going to bless him and give him many descendants, Abraham believed him. And God counted that as his righteousness. Abraham trusted that God would keep his word, even when it seemed that there was no hope of it working out the way he said. Thus, God declared Abraham to be in right relationship with him. (Rom. 4:19-22) This is the essence of the love relationship God wants with each of us—to know him to be the loving, faithful God he really is and to trust him completely—to trust God’s love in spite of what we may see, think, or experience to the contrary.

God went out of his way to demonstrate his love for us in coming as the Living Word in human flesh. Jesus Christ lived out the perfection of his divinity within the corruption of human flesh, moment by moment working out our salvation in every situation and circumstance of his human existence. Then he died and rose again. His ascension is key to this whole thing—because in his ascension, he sent from the Father the Blessed Holy Spirit to live in human hearts. This was the circumcision first spoken about by Moses and confirmed by Jesus Christ.

This is the “mystery of godliness” Paul talks about in his letters. It is Jesus Christ, and therefore the Father, living in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In this way we all have a new existence. The people of Israel, as well as all people everywhere, have been given freedom from the confines of the external law because now we have the Law, the living Word, written on human hearts. The external law now takes its rightful place as a pointer to the One who transforms human hearts from the inside out. We have been given a right relationship God where it’s no longer a matter of judgment but rather a matter of grace.

Now God calls us out of this relationship we’ve imagined is based on do’s and don’t’s into a relationship he forged based solely on his love and his grace. He has placed his divine Word, his Law, within human hearts. We are guided and led by his Holy Spirit. We don’t get to call the shots anymore. We don’t get to try to work this out ourselves. He’s already done it all—he just calls us to accept it and enjoy it. He just asks us to believe it and receive it—to enjoy the marvelous thing he has done in bringing us back together with him again.

Like a lover wooing his wandering bride, God has removed all the barriers that we can possibly put between him and us as his people. We can’t use our nationality, our race, our wealth or poverty, our knowledge or ignorance, our human wretchedness, or anything else as an excuse for not surrendering to the blessings and wonder of a life lived in the presence of and to the glory of the God who truly and forever loves us and will not be God without us. All that’s left for us to do is to capitulate—to surrender unconditionally to the love and grace of God. Question is—will we do that?

Father, we praise you that in your steadfast love, you have given us a new heart and soul through the Word written on our human hearts and minds. And that by your Holy Spirit you awaken each of us to new life—life lived daily in your presence. Finish your great work of transformation in each of us—we surrender to your perfect will and your love. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

“Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. …For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Deut. 30:6, 11–14

Balancing the Books

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by Linda Rex

I remember back to my early twenties when I went to a bookkeeping class and learned how to keep track of the debits and credits in an accounting system. As part of the final exam for the class I had to balance the books for a pretend business and complete all the year-end financial statements.

This was a challenge for me. I will have to say that this type of accounting is something I can do, but not something I am good at. It was a struggle to get every debit and credit to balance, but I finally got it to balance, after hours and hours of work. At some point I had inverted two numbers and it took me a long time to find my mistake—time I didn’t have, due to the deadline set before me.

I have come to have a deep respect for those number-jugglers among us who are able to handle debits and credits with finesse and ease, getting them to do their bidding by balancing the books at the end of the month and the end of the year. How they do this without altering or cooking the books is amazing, and as I said, it is a profession worthy of respect.

Jesus told a story about a man who wasn’t quite so up front in how he handled his boss’s books. In fact, this manager had to give an accounting to his boss for his mismanagement of his master’s accounts. His mishandling of the funds meant he was facing the loss of his job. So he did something totally off the wall—he went to each person who owed his boss money and cancelled part of their debt. His motive? To ensure he had friends somewhere when all was said and done. And, amazingly enough, his boss commended him for his shrewdness.

What was so shrewd about what the manager did? What was shrewd was the manager used the one method by which reconciliation can be done honestly, apart from the debits and credits side of the ledger. The only other way in which reconciliation of the books can be done if the debits and credits don’t align, is through the forgiving of the debt. Grace is the only way in which a debt can be removed from the books when it is not paid in full.

Jesus pointed out to his disciples that the true wealth, that of forgiveness or grace, always supersedes the bookkeeping of lawkeepers. If one is focused on the keeping of the law, since it must be kept perfectly, a person always ends up in debt, with no way to ensure payment in full.

When trust is put instead in the goodness and compassion of the One who is the Law, Who kept the law faithfully and fully for us, in our place, we live without debt, for the debt is always and ever, paid in full. With our debt paid in full, we live gratefully and joyfully from a heart filled with God’s love and Christ’s obedience to the Father by the Spirit. We live debt-free. And this is true wealth indeed.

Thank you, dear Father, for paying all debts in full in your Son Jesus, so we might live freely before you, unhindered and unburdened. We offer ourselves fully to you in gratitude and thankfulness that in Christ by the Spirit, we may live a debt-free life that glorifies and serves you, for your glory and praise, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

“‘And he called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.”’” Luke 16:2 (NASB)