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
Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at Good News Fellowship, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?
What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.
These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.
God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.
The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.
For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.
We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.
Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.
Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?
That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.
Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.
So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.
Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.
We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.
Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5