By Linda Rex
July 4, 2021, PROPER 9—We are currently going through “ordinary” days on the Christian calendar. During this particular time of year we reflect on the life and ministry of Christ and how God is at work in the ordinary things of our lives. We turn our attentions to the day-to-day experiences of God’s presence as we go about our jobs, caring for our loved ones and simply doing life.
When something is ordinary, we can take it for granted. When people get to know you well, they can easily dismiss anything you do as ordinary and unimportant. When we do the same things over and over every day, those things can lose our interest and attention. We can even begin to take for granted those we love when we get caught up in the routines and expectations and demands of our everyday life. Life in relationship can become ordinary and lose its attraction and appeal.
Unfortunately, this is also true of our relationship with Jesus. In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Mark 6:1–13, we find Jesus returning to his hometown. He went to synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom, and stood up to read. His reputation for miracles was impressive and his wisdom in explaining the scriptures was evident, but the people of his hometown couldn’t get past the ordinary. This was an ordinary man, a carpenter of questionable lineage, whose brothers and sisters and mother they knew well. How could he do the things he did?
Jesus was amazed at their inability to see beyond the ordinary. They were offended rather than amazed by the anointing of God which was evidently upon him. They could not reconcile his miracles and preaching with him being an ordinary man from an ordinary family in an ordinary town in Galilee. They were scandalized by the idea that he might be the Messiah, so could only attribute his gifts and signs to the evil one.
I wonder whether when such things happened Jesus was reminded of the ministry of Ezekiel. This prophet was told by God at the beginning of his ministry that he would speak the truth to God’s covenant people, but they would reject his message (Ez. 2:1–5). We can be inspired by God, empowered by God, but still be offensive to and rejected by those to whom we are sent. We can follow Christ, allow his Spirit to transform our lives, but still be considered profane and worthless by those who will not believe that God has redeemed and restored us.
We need to be careful not to fall prey to the lie that how well we live out the Christian life immediately determines peoples’ response to the message. Yes, our lives should reflect Christ—as image-bearers of the divine, we should be living expressions of God’s love and grace. But Christlike living does not guarantee us a welcome response. Nor is walking about with a façade of perfected holiness needed here. What is truly needed is a genuine expression of humble dependency upon God’s mercy and goodness, which reflects the reality of God at work within the ordinary.
The apostle Paul reminds us that God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Cor. 12:2–10). God’s grace is sufficient in the midst of whatever we may be wrestling with. To touch other people’s lives effectively, we need to be genuine and real about the work God is doing in our own life. Being honest about our struggles, our failures and need for grace, and how God is redemptively at work in us, is a powerful witness to the gospel. Evidence of what God is doing by the Spirit is seen when we are pushed beyond our human ability and are struggling with issues we cannot handle, and God intervenes in unexpected ways.
What is ordinary becomes glorious when Christ is in it. We open ourselves up to the work of God’s Spirit and amazing things can happen. But if we are focused on the ordinary to the exclusion of the divine, we may find our outlook becomes much dimmer. We may not experience the real personal presence of God when we are focused merely on the everyday to the exclusion of our relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit.
Like the people in Jesus’ hometown, we can become so focused on the ordinary in situations and circumstances that we miss the reality that God is present and at work by his Spirit. We can become offended by evidence of Jesus’ power and grace because it doesn’t fit our preconceived ideas of what it should look like. We can be scandalized by the grace God shows to people we believe are worthy only of condemnation. We need to be careful not to get so in tune with the ordinary that we forget the miracle Jesus has done for each and every one of us, drawing us into his intimate relationship with the Father and enabling us to participate in it by the Spirit.
When God goes to work, things happen. Changes occur. Lives are transformed and healed. People who are spiritually asleep wake up. Those who have always been alone suddenly find they have to learn how to live happily in relationship. Those who are weak suddenly find the strength to do and say those things which in the past always seemed to escape them. Those who are hateful and resentful suddenly find they are compassionate and caring towards others.
What is our response? Do we mock these changes as mere flukes in our human experience? Are we offended that God might be doing something new or different which we don’t agree with? The ordinary days on the Christian calendar are a good time to evaluate how attentive we are to what God is doing in this world, in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Are we attending to, rejoicing in, and bearing witness to Jesus and his ministry by the Spirit in us, our community, and those around us? Or are we offended, scandalized by his goodness, mercy and love?
Thank you, Father, for never turning away from us, but rather embracing us in the midst of our rejection and rebellion and turning our face back to you, in and through Jesus and by your Spirit. Enable us to see clearly your presence and power at work in us and in this world, and to actively share this good news with those you have placed in our lives, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at Him.” Mark 6:3 NASB
“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor. 12:2–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?
Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?
We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?
Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.
And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.
A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.
This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.
Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.
Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.
Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?
So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.
Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?
This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?
It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.
May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.
Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB
“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB