By Linda Rex
February 28, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—One of the things brought to my attention recently in a new way was how subtle the temptation is to take difficult situations into our own hands and work them out under our own power. Some of us feel an urgent need to fix things that are broken or not working the way we think they should and often jump in with both feet, not realizing that doing so may not be what God intends in the situation.
Granted, we do need to invest our best efforts in doing what we believe is the right and holy thing for us to do in each instance as we follow Christ. But when we slide into that belief that it’s all up to us, then we are spiritually on dangerous ground. I wonder if sometimes we believe we are caught in a place where we feel we have been abandoned or forgotten by God. Circumstances in our life may be such that we feel as though we are managing just fine on our own, or the opposite, we don’t see any path by which a solution could come to us for our extreme difficulties. Either way, there is a temptation to trust in our own ability to move ourselves forward rather than simply trusting in God’s promises and provision.
As members of my congregation at Grace Communion Nashville know, we are facing some difficult decisions about the future of our congregation. Over the past eight years since I have pastored this congregation, and long before that, our members have diligently worked to serve and love the people of East Nashville. They have provided free meals, prayed for people, and given what they could to help those in need, whether food, clothing, money, or just heartfelt compassion and understanding. We have done our best to provide upbeat, contemporary Christ-centered Trinitarian worship with an emphasis on communion and sharing the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have joined in with our church neighbors in community service opportunities and events, and have participated with our neighborhood association as they served the neighbors, and have cared for those God has brought to our attention who needed extra help.
To be sure, we have hoped that our little congregation might grow some in the process, but I hope that we did not make this an expectation that had to be realized, or believe that to not have done so means we have failed in some way. I believe we need to see things much differently than that. Whatever may happen to us in the future, we do know this—we were faithful, obedient, and loving, and blameless before God in our love and service to him and others. We have trusted him to do what was needed to keep us going, and he has. We have done our best to implement best practices for church renewal so we are relevant to our community. We have asked Jesus for opportunities to serve and he has given them. We have prayed for people and baptized some, and many have experienced healing, renewal, and transformed lives, or are still in process. In my view, our little congregation has God’s handprint of masterpiece creation written all over it.
As I read Romans 4:13–25, the New Testament passage for this Sunday, I was struck by the significance of what Paul was saying there in relation to this whole topic. God gave Abraham the promise of a son and many descendants, the fulfillment of which was not based on his ability to keep the law correctly or to do all the right things, but solely on God’s goodness and grace. Abraham was honest about the reality of his and his wife Sarah’s inability to bear children at their advanced age. Abraham came to the place where he surrendered to the truth that none of this could be realized by his or Sarah’s effort or ability. Even though he and Sarah had moments of uncertainty—we see this in the circumstances around the birth of Ishmael—Abraham was brought to the place where he simply trusted in God’s faithfulness rather than in his own ability to ensure that he would have what God promised. And God counted this as righteousness.
In their book “Transformational Churches”, Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer remind the readers that one of the most critical steps in church renewal is the congregation’s ability to see and accept the reality that apart from God’s intervention, their church will not be transformed, and that God’s ability to bring about renewal and transformation is far more powerful than any obstacle which may stand against them. God’s whole mission is the transformation of our cosmos, our world, into the truth of what he means for it to be—a reflection of his glory and majesty. Why would he not do what was necessary to bring that to pass? The authors remind us that it is “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6b NASB). When real transformation happens to a person, or to a church, it will be obvious who did it—God did, and he will get all the glory and praise.
Every person and every church comes to a point where the reality of what they are experiencing doesn’t measure up with what they know about God and his purposes for them. In this “cathartic moment” they realize they have come to a place where there is no movement forward. Abraham and Sarah experienced this at one point, and took matters into their own hands, thinking the solution was to have a child by Hagar, a concubine. But this wasn’t God’s solution—it was theirs, and created a whole host of unnecessary difficulties which God hadn’t meant for them or Hagar or even Ishmael to have to experience. Abraham and Sarah may have erred temporarily, but in the long run their faith in God’s faithfulness won the day.
We can be honest about our weakness and our limitations without in any way preventing God from bringing transformation and renewal to pass. We can own the reality that without God’s intervention nothing will be any different than it is right now. And we can embrace the crisis in front of us in faith, trusting in God’s faithfulness and provision, allow him to show us what our next steps need to be, and then, however falteringly, take those steps. Yes, as a church, we can continue to provide leadership that is alive and open to what God is doing, express dependency upon God through prayer, and offer wholehearted, inspired worship to God. And we can embrace new relationships and circumstances God places before us where we can share the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. But anything beyond that—let’s be real. That’s all up to God. And he works in his own time and in his own way.
We stand today at a crossroads where we are reminded by the story of Abraham and Sarah that our covenant God is faithful and keeps his word. Their simple decision to trust in God for the promised child was merely a stepping stone on the journey of the Word of God coming into human flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again, bringing all of humanity into a new place where each and every person may by faith participate in the divine union of Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. This childless couple, if they were standing with us, would be overwhelmed seeing the millions who today by faith are their spiritual descendants. What will we see when we look back at our participation in Christ’s mission as we trust God to finish what he began in us? I believe our faith in God’s faithfulness will be abundantly rewarded, far beyond our ability to ask or imagine, both now and in the world to come. Let’s walk by faith, not by sight.
O Faithful One, you who have ever worked to bring us near you, to share in your life and love, thank you for your faithfulness. Keep us ever faithful, trusting that you will finish what you have begun in us and believing we will see you do a new thing—a thing so great, only you could possibly have done it. Even now, in faith, we offer all the glory, honor, and praise to you. In your Name—Father, Son, and Spirit—we pray. Amen.
“Faith is our source, and that makes Abraham our father. When God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he made a public statement that he would be the father of all nations. Here we see Abraham faced with God’s faith; the kind of faith that resurrects the dead and calls things which are not as though they were. Faith gave substance to hope when everything seemed hopeless; the words, ‘so shall your seed be’ conceived in him the faith of fatherhood. Abraham’s faith would have been nullified if he were to take his own age and the deadness of Sarah’s womb into account. His hundred-year-old body and Sarah’s barren womb did not distract him in the least! He finally knew that no contribution from their side could possibly assist God in fulfilling his promise!” Romans 4:16b-19 Mirror Bible
By Linda Rex
June 14, 2020, Proper 6—One of the things that has come out of the most recent events, alongside the killing of George Floyd and others, is a reminder that we as human beings have a tendency to be blind to that which we prefer not to look at. Sad to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we do this all the time, preferring to keep our attention on what interests us or gives us pleasure, or what we are most comfortable experiencing.
A while ago I had the privilege of attending a GCI event in Ohio. During this weekend event, our group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located downtown near the river in Cincinnati, Ohio (https://www.freedomcenter.org/). While most of the museum is dedicated to the history of slavery and its abolition here in America, there is an exhibit on the third floor which I found to be especially moving.
This area was filled with exhibits meant to educate visitors about the current issues in the world today regarding the slavery of men, women, and children. It was hard to see, to accept the reality that so many still live in bondage, but I found I could not turn away from the sights and sounds of those whose voices were seeking yet to be heard. It was almost as if, just by this exhibition being there with people visiting it, those people held in slavery today were given a tiny ability to speak their pain and suffering.
My personal struggle is then, having seen and heard their cries, what am I to do about it? Can I continue to live indifferent to their suffering and their need? But their need is so great, and the work required is so difficult, even beyond my ability! And therein lies the struggle—how do I personally address the needs of those who are still experiencing oppression at the hands of those around them.
The gospel of Matthew tells of how Jesus was going through all the cities and villages in Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. “Seeing the people,” it says, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NASB). That phrase “seeing the people” just leapt out at me today—he didn’t pass by indifferent to their suffering. No, he saw them.
Really seeing these people is what awoke a deep sense of compassion within Jesus and led to him offering them hope and healing. The NIV says these people were “harassed and helpless”. There is a picture created of people who had no one to look after them, to defend or protect them, or to make sure they had what they needed—water, forage, and a safe place to rest. This was the job of the shepherd, and those shepherds they did have were not caring for them, but were preying upon them and oppressing them instead.
Even though Jesus was going about healing and speaking life and hope into these people, he realized the magnitude of what was needed was beyond the capacity of one human being. Even though he was God in human flesh, his purpose was not to do everything by himself—he was mentoring disciples who were learning what it meant to live in other-centered love and service. He meant for his disciples to make other disciples who would make other disciples, and so begin to fill the earth with his compassion, care, and healing, and the good news of God’s love and grace.
As Jesus truly sees the people he is ministering to, he turns to his disciples and says to them that even though there is a great harvest of souls for the kingdom, there were insufficient workers available to do the task. He tells his disciples to pray that God would provide laborers who would participate in this ministry with him. Having truly seen the people in their distress, he longed to set them free and give them new life—Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to help with the harvest.
Jesus himself turned his disciples to the Father as the source of laborers for his spiritual harvest. The heart of the Father toward those who were suffering was expressed by Jesus himself, and he knew the Father’s answer was to bring others to the place where they would be willing and able to help with this task.
And so, in the next scene, we see Jesus sending out twelve disciples in pairs, equipping them with the authority to cast out demons and to heal people, and instructing them to proclaim the kingdom of God. What in the beginning appeared to be a general request to God for helpers ended up being a personal mission for each of these disciples. They were sent out by Jesus and they began to participate in the ministry of God’s love and grace to these struggling people.
In Romans 5:1-8, the apostle Paul tells us that “Jesus is God’s grace embrace of the entire human race” (Rom. 5:2 MB). God saw us while we were still helpless, still sinners, and Jesus died for us. In Christ we find the inspiration to involve ourselves in situations where there are people who seem to be harassed, helpless, confused, aimless, and distressed. There are many more than we can possibly serve ourselves, so we pray God will provide others to come alongside and help. And then we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are the ones God is sending, and we do what we can to offer healing, renewal, and the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to those he places in front of us.
We find in Jesus our own calling as human beings to “see” our fellowman, to hear the voices so often left unheard, and to open our hearts to those who we in the past have preferred to leave our hearts closed to. We draw close to those whom we have pushed aside or ignored, and we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering and need. We have the strength to speak the truth of God’s love and grace into that which is sinful and wretched, and offer the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
These are high ideals. And the bar was set high by our Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ. But he sent his Spirit to infuse us with not only the capacity, but the heart, to meet this challenge. We have a long way to go before every human being is able to live with the plenty and dignity they ought to experience, but we can and must be working to that end. We begin with prayer—that God would send laborers—and then listen to hear God’s call upon our own hearts and lives to participate where we are with his strength and resources to make a difference in this world.
Father, forgive us for not seeing our brothers and sisters who are suffering, harassed, and helpless. Forgive us for diminishing one another, for not speaking life and hope into the lives of those without hope. Forgive us for not living out the truth and grace of Jesus in our relationships with one another. Lord, please send laborers to help with this great spiritual harvest. And if there is a role we are to play in the healing of our family, our city, our state, our nation, our world, please reveal it to us. Send us forth with urgency to heal, bring renewal and to proclaim your kingdom life, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 MSG
“God’s timing was absolutely perfect; humanity was at their weakest when Christ died their death. … Herein is the extremity of God’s love gift: mankind was rotten to the core when Christ died their death.” Romans 5:6, 8 MB
I’ve really enjoyed reading John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on the Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. The parable of Peter walking on the water is full of important messages for us. Particularly, we see that (unlike the other disciples) he actually stepped out into the water. He left his place of comfort and safety and took a step forward.
My concern is too many of us never take that step. We may see Jesus out there on the water, doing miraculous things. We may even be mature enough to call to Jesus and ask him to give us direction (Peter said, “tell me to come out to you”). But I think in some circumstances, we ask, he answers, and we stay in the boat because we’re scared. Or we say, “You know what? On second thought, it looks like you’ve got this water-walking thing under control. I’ll just watch from the safety of my boat, and if anyone asks me what I’m looking at, I’ll be sure to tell them your name.” Or we suddenly play deaf — “What’s that you say Jesus? Huh? Sorry, the waves and wind are a little loud, I’m not sure I heard you right. I better take a nap and wait for the storm to die down. I’ll catch up with you later when things are quiet.”
But most often I suspect we say to ourselves and each other, “I just haven’t heard back yet from God. He hasn’t answered me yet. I’ll just keep waiting on The Lord.” But as a friend likes to say, “Are you waiting on God, or is he waiting on you?” I think we (here I sincerely include myself) use our fear of making a mistake as an excuse for not doing anything. But let’s be honest –How often in the rest of our lives do we go out on a limb and take a chance? How often do we just run out and make a decision and hope it’s a good one? My bet is every darn day, multiple times!
Yet when it comes to sharing Jesus with someone else, or when it comes to simply building a new relationship with someone, or when it comes to just sitting down to listen and help bear another’s burden — we shy away in fear that we’re not skilled, equipped, or trained enough. We forget how often we share things we’re excited about, with people around us every day. We forget about all the chances we have to form a new relationship with people we see and work with every day, however briefly. We forget all the times we hear someone avoid the “how are you doing?” question with a non-answer like “I’m still here,” and we know darn well that person is in pain and could use someone to talk to. –Usually in cases like that, all we really need to do is shut up and listen! I think most of can handle that! But worst of all, I think we forget Jesus’ promise when he sends us out — “I am with you always, until the very end.”
So seriously, what are we afraid of?? We have a God who walks on water, an assignment to spread the good news, and someone to put words in our mouth! He has already invited us out on the water with him. Let’s get out of the boat!