By Linda Rex
October 17, 2021, PROPER 24—One of the reasons I find the gospel stories so compelling is that they strike a chord within me. I resonate with the experience of the disciples in their foolish attempts to find significance in being the Messiah’s followers, even though their hearts were filled sincerity in the pursuit of the Christ as he made his way to the cross. Jesus often brought his disciples face to face with their pride, exclusivism, unforgiveness, and other very human traits which badly needed to be removed in his sacrificial offering of himself.
Jesus often does this for us today, bringing us face to face with those things that mar our true humanity. He longs for us to relinquish these aspects of our being that were transformed in his offering of himself in our place on our behalf. But instead of surrendering ourselves to his transformative work, we often try to hide those parts of ourselves we believe he doesn’t like. What we may not realize is that those places we hide, our weaknesses and failures to love, are often the very place where he wants to do his greatest work.
This week, as I was reading the gospel passage for this Sunday, Mark 10:35–45, I was amused to see how the moment Jesus began to tell his followers that he was going to die and rise again, they began wonder who was going to be put in charge. James and John, with the help of their mother, asked Jesus to put them in the right- and left-hand positions when he came in glory. Jesus, of course, asked James and John whether or not they could drink the cup he was going to drink and be baptized with the baptism he was facing. They agreed that they could.
However, Jesus was referring to his upcoming suffering and death on the cross. The disciples probably had no idea that this was what they were agreeing to, but simply thought Jesus was exaggerating his concerns about the upcoming messianic battle with the reigning authorities in Jerusalem. They were still focused on bringing about a new political, militaristic physical reign, while Jesus was centered on the epic spiritual battle he would soon have in his crucifixion against evil, sin, and death. The Lord had his mind on paying the price necessary to ransom the world from its spiritual captivity. The disciples had their mind on the details of a physical reign on earth.
It’s not surprising that the other disciples were indignant when they found out that these two were asking for the best positions—not because they thought James and John shouldn’t have made this request, but simply just because they didn’t get to ask Jesus for those positions first. In reality, the disciples’ motivations and attitudes and behaviors were the very reason Jesus needed to walk the path he was walking toward the cross. Every human being, apart from Christ’s redemption, is caught in slavery to their fallen will, unable to do what is right, loving, and holy. It is Jesus’ work that broke the chains that bind us, and he gives us the Spirit to awaken us to the new life he forged for us. He knew we needed redeemed and came for that very reason—to rescue us and set us free—freeing us to love, serve and obey God, and to love and serve one another.
One of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, in my opinion, is Isa. 52:13–53:12. Here, the prophet Isaiah describes in great detail the ministry of the Suffering Servant who would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. He would take on himself our iniquity, and would be pierced for our transgressions. The ministry of this Anointed One is full of humility, suffering, and quiet endurance. What Jesus did as our Messiah fulfilled this prophetic word and accomplished what no other human could do—justifying humanity, interceding on their behalf, cleansing them of sin and reconciling them with God.
As we come to understand the servant heart of Jesus Christ, illustrated so well in Isaiah’s prophecy, we may begin to grasp what the disciples were not understanding—the Messiah came to serve, not to be served. As we reflect on the servant heart of Jesus, it may be wise to look at our own heart and ask—do I expect to be served or am I focused on serving? What is my motivation for what I do? If I am a leader, or desire to lead, what is my motivation for doing so? Does it reflect the servant heart of Jesus?
Because of what Jesus did in his sacrificial offering on the cross, each of the disciples came face to face with the reality that what they had hoped for and set their hearts on wasn’t going to happen. And they each had to deal with the reality that when they were put to the test, they let Jesus down. And, ultimately, Jesus hadn’t done what they had expected him to do. It was in this place of fear, distress and disappointment that the risen Lord met them. Here, in their loss of all their dreams and expectations, Jesus met them—risen from the grave, breathing his life into them by the Spirit.
Jesus Christ meets us right where we are—in our brokenness, our weakness, our sin, and our shame. He has taken all that on himself and in its place, he gives us his righteousness, his perfection, his renewal. This is the miracle of grace. Jesus stands right at this moment as our high priest, interceding on our behalf before the Father. He knows our weakness and our suffering because he has experienced it himself. He knows what temptation is like because he experienced it too, but without sinning. The cup of God’s judgment against sin was drunk completely by Jesus, as he offered himself in our place so that we might receive forgiveness and reconciliation and redemption—he is our salvation.
Maybe it doesn’t seem intuitive that servanthood would be a blessing and a privilege. But Jesus has made it so. He has humbled himself and served each one of us, bringing us up into his life with the Father in the Spirit. He gives us himself in the Spirit so that we can share his servant heart and begin to humbly serve one another. What we may prefer to hide, when given to Jesus, becomes in him a means by which his kingdom life may be experienced by those still living as though they are captives of evil, sin, and death. By faith in Jesus, we even now and will forever share in his glory, as we come out of hiding and begin to shine with the radiance of his goodness and love by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Loving Abba (Father), thank you for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, for humbling yourself to serve each of us, giving yourself to us as a true self-offering, freeing us from evil, sin, and death so that we might, by your Spirit, be true reflections of your glory and goodness, now and forever. Amen.
“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, | And our sorrows He carried; | Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, | Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, | He was crushed for our iniquities; | The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, | And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, | Each of us has turned to his own way; | But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all | To fall on Him.” Isaiah 53:4–6 (7–12) NASB
“For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’; just as He says also in another passage, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’” Hebrews 5:1–6 (7–10) NASB
By Linda Rex
June 28, 2020, PROPER 8—Reading stories from the Old Testament is a good reminder that human beings really haven’t changed that much over the millennia. People still make decisions that hurt themselves and others, and they behave in ways which can be loving, kind, and sacrificial, but also selfish, sinful and at times even grossly evil. Families still for generations pass on traits they have learned from their forefathers—generosity, compassion and creativity, hate and anger, abusive language and behavior, among many others.
These stories from the past tell us, when we look at them closely, of how we as humans so often turn away from God to seek our own ways, inviting the consequence of sin—death—both physical and spiritual. When God meets us in the midst of our broken ways of thinking, believing, and acting, we find we are faced with the reality that apart from his intervention and healing, we will never be truly whole.
We also learn from these stories, if we are attentive, of the love and grace of God. Even in our wrong-headedness, God meets us, draws us to himself, and offers us forgiveness and fellowship, as well as instruction on what it looks like to live in loving relationship with him and others. He allows us to participate in what he’s doing in the world, calling us up into new ways of thinking, believing, and living.
One of the stories in Genesis is that of God encountering Abraham as Abram, drawing him into relationship with himself, and making a covenant with him. He promised him a son in his old age, and after many years of waiting, Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a son whom they named Isaac. No doubt, all those years of waiting seemed as nothing as they reveled in the blessing God had given them of an heir—the child of promise, a gift of laughter in their old age.
One day Abraham believed he heard God tell him to take his son Isaac to a mountain to sacrifice him, to prove his devotion to the God who had given them this precious child. Abraham left immediately the next morning and took Isaac, some servants, and all he needed for the sacrifice and headed toward the mountain.
After three days, they came to foot of the mountain where Abraham believed God said the offering was to be made. Abraham told the servants to wait there, loaded up everything he needed, and he and his son took off up the mountain. Now Isaac was a smart child and knew there was something a little odd about this burnt offering. Up to this point, every burnt offering had involved the sacrifice of a lamb or some animal. But they hadn’t brought any animals with them, and this bothered him.
Isaac pondered the question for a while, and finally ventured to ask his father about this. “We’ve got the wood and the fire, but where’s the sheep for the offering?” he asked. Abraham replied in an almost prophetic manner: “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” Even though at this point he did not tell Isaac what was going on, Abraham trusted God had a reason for what he thought the Lord was asking him to do. He was obeying God in the only way he knew how and was trusting that no matter what happened, the Lord would make it right. The author of Hebrews wrote that Abraham did what he did by faith, trusting that “God is able to raise people even from the dead” (Heb. 11:19 NASB).
As the story continues, we find that Abraham laid Isaac on the altar and lifted the knife to make the horrific sacrifice—the kind of sacrifice forbidden in later years to God’s people—the sacrifice of a human child. This was not how God wanted to be worshiped—it was never in God’s plan for human beings to kill one another or to offer their children to him as a bloody sacrifice, even though many people did this as part of their rituals in the worship of idols.
The intervention of an angel stopped the deadly blade as he let Abraham know that God knew he loved and feared him and that he did not need to make this extreme sacrifice to prove it. The ram Abraham saw caught in a thicket was proof that God had provided an animal in Isaac’s place to be the burnt offering. There Abraham gave God the name YHWH-Jireh, The Lord Will Provide. He learned an important lesson that day about faith, and the love and grace of God.
In many ways, just this experience was a gift to Abraham and to the many generations of his descendants which followed. Abraham was to be the father of descendants more than the number of stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. There would come a time when a child of one of these descendants would offer himself up as a sacrifice on the behalf of all people. This would be the Son of God in human flesh, Jesus Christ. God himself would provide the sacrifice which was needed for all of us to be redeemed and restored.
In the apocalyptic letter to John, the apostle writes about Jesus entering after his death and resurrection into the presence of the Father in the Spirit and how all the holy angels bowed before him. They worshipped him, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12 NASB). This Lamb of God who was the Son of God, humbly laid himself on the altar of sacrifice for all of humanity and allowed himself to be crucified so that all of us could be adopted as the children of God, sharing in his own loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit.
We as human beings have striven to make ourselves right with God, to prove to him that we love and fear him. We have struggled to be good people—so often choosing ways which have turned us away from God’s love rather than bringing us nearer. So often our efforts cause harm to those around us rather than helping or blessing them. Our best efforts, even our most noble sacrifices—the offering of our children, whether real or metaphorical—for the sake of proving our faithfulness and love to God, have always and ever been in vain.
The Lord Who Provides has already, in Christ, done all that is needed for everyone of us to live in right relationship with the Father in the Spirit. We need to trust, as Abraham did, that in the end God is going to make everything right—that he has already provided the Lamb which was needed and that the offering that this Lamb made was acceptable and perfect in God’s sight. Our role in all this is that which we can learn from Abraham—simply, faith—trusting in the finished work of Christ who stands in our place and on our behalf.
This story teaches us much about the miracle of God’s grace and his provision for all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. When we take the time to read these stories and look for Jesus in them, we will find that he is there—always at work in this world, from before the beginning of time even till today—providing all that is needed for life and godliness. May we trust our Lord to finish what he has begun, believing that he will make all things right in the end, so we can be with him in glory forever as God’s beloved adopted children.
Dearest Abba, thank you for providing us exactly what we need to live in loving relationship with you and one another. Thank you for the most precious gift of your Son and your Spirit. Grant us the grace to always trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:21-23 NASB
See also Genesis 22:1–14.
This morning I had a quiet chat with my daughter as I was preparing to write this blog. When she began to leave the room, she asked why my room smelled like perfume. We had lit a couple of candles while we were talking, but what she didn’t know was that I had lit both candles earlier, long before she came in, and had just blown them out before she arrived. They had filled the room with a combination of the scents “Midnight Oasis” and “Sweet Lavender”, both of which were pretty strong scents.
I like the way some scents hang in the air and give a room a pleasant feel when you enter it. Sometimes a soft, spicy scent can make a room feel pleasant and homey—like the scent of cinnamon that lingers in the air of the kitchen after I’ve finished baking snickerdoodles or apple pie.
I’m not real fond of the heavy scent that I often smell at a flower or candle shop. Usually it is much too overpowering for me to really enjoy. For the most part, a barely discernible scent is more my style.
Speaking of scents, I wonder if we realize that sometimes we leave behind a strong scent—and I don’t mean a physical scent, but the kind that is a feeling or impression. We leave behind something that sticks in people’s minds about us after we’re gone. And I wonder whether or not it is what the apostle Paul describes as “a fragrance of Christ to God” or “a sweet aroma of the knowledge of him.”
Jesus offered himself in our place as a sacrifice, the aroma of which was and is pleasing to God. He calls us to be living sacrifices as well, ones who leave behind the sweet aroma that is our participation in Christ’s fragrance as we share with others the knowledge of Christ. When we walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, we are a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God just as he was.
Have you ever met someone and immediately known that you’d better watch yourself or you would be the brunt of criticism and/or ridicule? Some people just have this air of condemnation about them. They give off an odor of a critical spirit, of impatience and sometimes even cruelty. The air fairly sizzles with negative energy when you get close.
Personally, I know that there are days when I am guilty of walking about with a cloud over my head, dripping raindrops all over everybody I come near. When I have an “Eeyore” day, I’m not much fun to be around. In fact, I can be downright stinky on days like that.
Whether we like it or not, we’re always giving off some sort of aroma, bad or good. Paul counsels us to make it an aroma of love—the fragrance of grace that is shared with us in Jesus. When others are around us, they should catch the scent of God’s mercy and compassion, and be influenced by it. They should experience God’s grace in a real way as they interact with us. And it should linger in their hearts and minds when we leave.
It’s a good thing that it’s Christ in us who is the true fragrance we are to manifest. We share in his perfect life and perfect love. It is his grace that we live and walk in and share with others. He is our life, and we share that life with others. What a blessing that it is all of grace!
How often I have been struggling to keep a good attitude and have found myself in conversation with someone who doesn’t need my junk—they just need a good dose of Christ! Thankfully God hears the quiet prayers of our hearts, for it seems that he gives me just the right thing to say or do in that moment. So in spite of me, there is left behind a gift of his grace and love to minister to the one who is hurting. I am so grateful that he is the true minister, not me in those moments. The fragrance of grace is Christ in me.
No matter what God has called you or me to do in our lives, no matter where we may find ourselves, or what we may be asked to do at any moment, God is present and powerful in us, with us, and for us. His grace makes it possible for us to exhude the very life and love of God himself. We place our trust in him and he goes to work. And then in the end—he gets all the praise and glory, not us. God “manifests through us the sweet aroma” and we are all blessed in the process. Praise God!
Thank you, Lord, that you take our stinky selves and transform us by your grace into sweet smelling sacrifices that are a reflection of your love and mercy. Grant us the grace to let you transform us and make us into people who are a joy to be around and a blessing to others. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us, through Jesus Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.” 2 Cor. 2:14–17
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Eph. 5:1–2