The Scandal of God’s Compassion
By Linda Rex
September 20, 2020, Proper 20—Historically, we as human beings have nearly always been good at getting upset when people don’t get what we think they deserve. Some of us take such difficulties as a challenge to ensure that such people do get what they deserve, while others of us either ignore or explain away their offenses, or spend our time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves instead.
The reading for this Sunday from the Old Testament is the passage where the Israelites began to complain to Moses that they didn’t have any decent food anymore. They even would have preferred to go back into slavery in Egypt just to have something good to eat now and then. Here God had just done a great deliverance for them in bringing them safely through the Red Sea and now they were complaining because they were having to struggle a little.
God’s compassion was not appreciated nor was it understood by them. That he was tenderly seeing to their every need didn’t seem to make a difference—when things weren’t how they wanted them to be, they made a big stink about it and made life really hard for Moses. God would constantly have to remind them about who he was—their Provider, Protector, and Deliverer. In this instance, he gave them quail that evening, and in the morning began to provide them with bread from heaven, manna.
What we need to be reminded of, daily it seems, is just who God is. Do we believe he is the God who is compassionate, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness? These are ways in which God describes himself (Ex. 34:6-7), along with being just and full of truth. How does this impact the way we look at ourselves and others? What are our expectations of God, especially when it comes to how he deals with other people and uncomfortable situations?
Another passage from this weekend is from the book of Jonah. Rather than obeying God’s instruction to warn Nineveh of their impending destruction and their need to repent, this prophet took a ship going the opposite direction. He knew God was compassionate and forgiving, and didn’t want to risk that he might forgive this enemy of his people.
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward others of a different people group prevented him from simple obedience. And God did not allow him to continue in his path of resistance to God’s compassion and grace—he even used a large sea creature and a plant to get his point across to Jonah. He reminded the prophet that he should have been just as compassionate as God was in wanting to see the Ninevites not be destroyed—Jonah needed an attitude adjustment about wanting to God annihilate them. He needed to repent and have a change of heart.
Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner who owns a vineyard goes to find laborers to help gather in the harvest. He agreed with this first group of laborers to pay a day’s wage. Later in the day, he hired other laborers, agreeing to give them what was right. All the way up to about an hour before quitting time, he hired people to help with the harvest.
When it came time to pay these people, he began with those he hired last. Giving each of them a day’s wage, he paid the last, the next to the last, and on down the line until those he hired first. These hot and exhausted workers he gave the same amount as he gave the people he hired last—a day’s wage. This infuriated them.
The problem wasn’t in what the landowner did, though, but in their expectations. They believed that since they had worked the longest, they should have received the most. Those who worked a short period of time didn’t expect to get paid as much as they did, but they no doubt, appreciated the benefit they received. Here is the crux of the story—the day’s wage which each person received was a result of the landowner’s kindness and compassion, not due to their diligent performance.
For the kingdom of heaven comes to us not due to our adequate performance as people doing good deeds, but solely as a gift from God. The wages of sin is death, we read, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). Once again, we need to move away from our debit/credit thinking about the kingdom of God into the place of God’s generosity and compassion. We need to not be scandalized by God’s compassionate inclusion of all of humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, including those people who we believe don’t deserve God’s grace.
As image-bearers of the God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, we are called to reflect his nature. We are to have the same compassion for those around us as God has for us. What he did for the 120,000 persons who lived in the city of Nineveh, God wants to do even more so for every human being who has ever lived. In Christ, we find that grace and salvation are available to each person. By faith in Christ each can participate in the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit both now and forever.
Jesus was always stepping on toes with his discussion of doing good to those who do us wrong, praying for those who persecute us, and caring for those whom society considers untouchable and unworthy. His scandalous compassion put him at the same table with sinners, touching the leprous and unclean, and raising the dead. What we see in Jesus, God plants in us by the Spirit—we open our hearts up to the compassion for others that comes from God himself. Why should we resist the Spirit’s longing to care for those who are lost and broken, bound by evil and sin?
Perhaps we should take some time in quiet contemplation of the nature of our compassionate and gracious God. And in doing so, invite him to change our heart towards those who are in need of his grace. How can we pray for them, help them, speak loving truth into their lives? In what way would God want us to express his compassion and concern for them?
Thank you, Abba, that you are compassionate, gracious, and understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you know what it means to be human, to struggle as we do against temptation and the sin which so easily distracts us from loving you and the other people in our lives. Grant us the grace to let you be the God you are and to stop trying to form you into our own image. Form us instead more fully into Christlikeness through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.” Psalm 145:8 NASB
“Then the LORD said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” Jonah 3:10–11 NASB
See also Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2–15, Jonah 3:10–4:11.
Celebrating Divine Deliverance
By Linda Rex
July 26, 2020, PROPER 12—If we were to examine the many apocalyptic films of the last few decades, we would probably find a common thread. Many of these films begin with people living their everyday lives oblivious to the reality that their world is just about to come to a cataclysmic end. Whether by horrific natural disaster, invasion of evil aliens, or angry divine intervention, the result is often the destruction of all the things we value as humans, leaving only a few people behind struggling to survive.
Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we as followers of Christ often assume things about the end of the world that are based more in our culturally held beliefs than they are in what Jesus actually said about how things would end. We read the book of Revelation as a literal reference book on end-time events rather than as what it is—an apocalyptic book of inspiration and encouragement for believers in the midst of persecution and suffering. When someone dares to question our opinion on how things will end, we become upset and angry—we expect God to come and destroy all the sinners, often forgetting that sinner is a good description of everyone on the earth, including us.
We really are no different than the leaders of Jesus’ day. They and the Jewish people had looked for divine intervention for their people for centuries and believed it would come with the destruction of their oppressors. In Jesus’ time, it was the Roman overlords who needed to be conquered so that the kingdom of God would come—and it was the Messiah who was to come and do this. They expectantly awaited the age of the Spirit, when all would bow the knee to God—and this new age of righteousness, they believed, would be brought in by the conquering Messiah, a Jewish deliverer, who would destroy all their enemies and make their people once again a powerful, blessed nation.
When Jesus began to talk about the kingdom of God, he was set up against some deeply engrained views which needed to be corrected. He needed his people to recognize the Messiah for who he really was, rather than them insisting that he fit their preconceived ideas of what he would be like when he came. Because of their wrong view of how deliverance would arrive, they rejected Jesus. He was God in human flesh, the Messiah they longed for, but because he was not bringing in the kingdom in the way they expected, he ended up suffering a horrific death at the hands of those he came to save.
But none of this was a surprise to God. It was in God’s mind before time began to include all of humanity in his love and life no matter how they might respond to his gift. The eternally existing Word, Jesus Christ, is the Creator of everything. He sustains it all, so that like the yeast in dough, he permeates every part of our existence. The yeast creates small pockets of carbon dioxide (like the divine Breath which gives us life), which when heated, causes the dough to rise, and makes the loaf of bread soft and spongy. Jesus explained that the kingdom of God present in his person, was a hidden mystery, like the yeast hidden in dough, and like a tiny mustard seed, which was progressively filling the world and would eventually be fully manifest in glory in the new heavens and new earth, a large tree in which the birds could find safety and rest.
The way that the kingdom of God would be entered into was much different that the expected view of that day. Jesus used the imagery of a treasure buried in a field and a pearl hidden away in his kingdom parables. These are apt pictures of burial, something which he knew would be part of the process of the mystery of the kingdom of God being worked out in his person as the suffering-servant Messiah. The value of all God had made was more than worth the price Jesus would pay in his death at the hands of his people.
But this brings us up against the hardest question of all—are we willing to share in Christ’s death and resurrection? For the only way to participate in the kingdom of God is by participating in Jesus Christ by faith. Any other path only leads to death. Life, real life, is life in relationship with God through Christ by the Spirit—and we are given this gift by faith in Jesus. What are we willing to give up to follow Jesus?
This means that judgment is set on a totally different basis. We don’t judge who is good and who is evil—God does. And he does this in and through Jesus, the one who died humanity’s death and rose bearing humanity into the presence of the Father, sending the Spirit so we could participate in his intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit now and forever. Like the seine which is drawn through the sea drawing everything to shore, God’s love and grace sweeps everything into a new place—slowly, inexorably drawing all towards the climactic ushering in of the new heavens and new earth.
In Jesus’ parable, the net draws everything in the ocean onto the shore. This may include an old shoe, a broken bicycle, hundreds of plastic bottles, and every different type of sea life. In the same way, God is inevitably moving all he has made to an end, bringing about the culmination of his divine purpose and plan and ushering in the new heavens and new earth. Because Christ has been raised from death, every human being will be raised—to face the sorting of the fish who will be thrown back in the ocean or the fish who will join Jesus in eternal life. The one making the decision of who stays and who goes is Jesus, and his angels carry out his divine will. It’s obvious that trash does not belong in the ocean—there is a lot of evil and junk which never belonged in this world—it must be burned up and gotten rid of.
But the fish and other sea life dependent upon the salt water are a different story. Sea life of this kind if left on the shore, will die. In order to be a part of what the fishermen are doing in this parable though, the fish or sea animal has to remain on shore, be placed in a container and carried away, and by extrapolation—die. In the same way, the only way we can have eternal life is to participate in Christ’s death. If we insist on continuing our existence on our own terms, on staying in the ocean and swimming about to our heart’s content, we will miss out on real life—on the new life created for us in Christ Jesus which is only possible through sharing in his death and resurrection.
We must die in Christ to sin, self, and Satan, and share in Christ’s resurrected life—living in the truth of who we are as God’s adopted children. We are members of a new household now. All that was before is gone, having gone to the grave with Jesus. We have new life in him. We are members of Christ’s body, the universal church of believers, who follow Jesus wherever he leads. What we believe is essential, then, and will determine how we face our eternal future.
The kingdom of God, then, is not a political kingdom. It is not a place which honors power, authority, privilege, or any of the temporary human values we venerate, but values humility, service, love, grace, and sharing. The judgment of who is worthy to participate in this kingdom isn’t based on performance, but on grace—on the compassion and mercy of the One who believed each of us valuable enough that he was willing to set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity to bring us into life with himself. This kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and it is even at work in our world today by the Spirit—a hidden mystery which will be fully revealed when Jesus returns in glory. And may that day come soon!
When we look at the kingdom of God in this way, we do not need to be afraid. We can joyously anticipate the day when all Christ accomplished for us is fully manifested. We look forward to when we will shine as stars in the new heavens and new earth. And we live in the kingdom of God now, as citizens of God’s new city, following Jesus wherever he leads, trusting him to finish what he has begun in us. For he will not rest until he has accomplished what he intended before time began. Praise God!
We may need to ask ourselves, then, what is it we believe about the kingdom of God? What do we believe abut Jesus Christ? Do we need to reframe our reference when we think of the end of the world? If everything erupted in nuclear war tomorrow, what would be our response? Would it be fear, anxiety, depression, anger? Or would we remember that God is still at work in this world, death has no power any longer to create fear, and we have hope for a glorious future in and through Jesus our Lord?
Lord, you are the king of the kingdom, and you have drawn us to yourself, to be citizens in your kingdom. Taken from the kingdom of darkness, you have set us in the kingdom of light. Grant us the grace to live fully in the light of your love and grace, to walk in your paths, to give ourselves fully to your will and purposes. We know this is all in and through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 NASB
See also Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52.
The Kingdom, the Baker and Breadmaking
by Linda Rex
Jesus had this way of taking the most everyday tasks and events and turning them into a deeply spiritual concept, especially when he started talking about the kingdom of God. One of those unique parables of Jesus was brought to my attention in a new way this week as I prepared for Sunday’s sermon.
Previously, I hadn’t given much focused thought on the idea that Jesus described God as a baker. And not just a baker, but a woman who baked bread. And she wasn’t a wimpy woman at that—she was able to handle a large amount of dough at once. Three pecks of flour is the equivalent of 16 five-pound bags—enough with about 42 cups of water to make about 101 pounds of dough. That’s a lot of dough!(1)
So, here I see pictured a woman who is doing an everyday task—making bread, and she is physically strong and capable. I like that. How often we women are called on to be physically strong and capable!
I think sometimes that we assume that the Bible and Jesus portray God as being male since most of the language used in relation to him is masculine. But there is a significant difference between human gender and the gender of human language. We have to keep that in mind when we begin to think seriously about the nature of God.
I know that many men are good bakers. In fact, I remember my dad being fond of making unleavened bread. It was something he took up doing late in life that I never expected to find him doing. I tasted some of his products and they were pretty good. But perhaps the culture in Jesus’ day expected a baker to be female—so here God is pictured as a woman.
Breadmaking is something I enjoy doing. In fact, at one point in my life, I started making all our bread by hand because the motion of kneading the dough helped me to heal from an injury to my wrist. It became a therapy that prevented me from having to have surgery. And it worked. And it’s a creative process. I love being creative—I take after the Creator in that way.
But, back to the Breadmaker. The woman with all that flour hides leaven in the flour and it all becomes leavened. One of the simplest recipes I’ve used is for making pizza dough, and it probably resembles pretty closely how bread was made centuries ago. And it got me to thinking about how hiding leaven in flour is related to the kingdom of God.
Most all of the recipes that I can think of for bread start with yeast and water (or milk), a touch of salt and oil. All of that comes first. It is possible that what is meant by leaven in this parable was sourdough starter, which is a small batch of dough that is full of active yeast cultures. Either way, the ingredients that we start bread with—oil, salt, water—along with the yeast, are often used in the Word to describe God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This is worth giving meditative thought to.
In fact, I go back to the beginning of the world and find there hovering over the deep waters, the Spirit of God, who when the Word spoke the will of the Father, brought about our existence. God breathed the Breath of life into all that lives and breathes. All the animals and humans breathe oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. It is carbon dioxide that is created when the yeast in bread begins the fermentation process. And this is what causes the dough to rise. Thought-provoking.
Once these leavening ingredients are blended with the flour, there is no separating of them. The leavening process begins to fill the whole wad of dough, especially when the strong, capable baker begins to knead the dough. I’m not even sure she could stop the process once she started. The leaven is an intimate part of the dough, and this becomes evident as the dough begins to rise, and when it is baked into bread.
The kingdom of God is not something that just appeared when Jesus came to earth. For he was in the person of the Word, present in the beginning with the Father and the Spirit when all was made. The purposes and plans of God have not been derailed, but are gradually being kneaded into the dough. In time the heat of the fire will reveal an awesome loaf of bread.
In the meantime though, we find that the dough isn’t always compliant and responsive to the baker. As she pushes the dough down with her hands, the dough pushes back. The working of the dough and its response both positive and negative are a part of the bread-making process.
We tend to think God’s goal right now is to get rid of everything bad in the world. Just slay all these dragons, Lord! But the thing is that God is allowing the evil here for the moment—though he hates what it does to his children—so that he can accomplish the kingdom work he’s trying to do. He’s allowing us to resist him—though it’s foolish to do so—because he knows that it is a part of the free will and growing up process. He’s big enough, clever enough, perfect enough to deal with evil summarily and completely in his own time and way. But he doesn’t always do it right this minute when we think he should.
The baker decides what the end loaf is going to look like. Dough can be used for many things. In fact it can be divided up and used as individual little loafs we call dinner rolls. It can be used as a base for pizza. It can be broiled, boiled and baked as bagels. It can be fried as fritters or sweetened and spiced as cinnamon rolls. Or it can just be made into a plain, old loaf of bread. That’s the baker’s call.
We don’t know what the kingdom of God is going to look like in the end. We’re not really sure what the divine Baker is doing right now or why he is doing it. But one thing is sure—the leaven is filling the whole loaf. And all that God has created shares his Breath of life and participates in his kingdom life. And God’s not going to quit until he has a perfect loaf of bread. I can’t wait to see how it turns out and what it tastes like. I have a feeling it might taste a lot like the bread on Sunday morning’s communion plate.
Holy God, our Heavenly Baker, we are so thankful that you know what you are doing. We’re grateful that we can trust you to do everything necessary to complete the breadmaking process and to bring to pass the fullness of your kingdom. We trust you to finish what you have begun, and we look forward to sharing the bread of heaven with you in eternal communion. In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.
”He spoke another parable to them, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.’” Matt 13:33 NASB
(1) Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Pg. 100.