participation

The Dark Side of Christ’s Advent

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By Linda Rex

December 27, 2020, HOLY FAMILY | CHRISTMAS—A lot of times we include the visiting of the magi from the East in the Christmas story. The wise men followed a star, or angel, to Jerusalem, asked King Herod about the Messiah, and found he was to be born in Bethlehem. Having heard this, they left to find the child in this place. And this is where we encounter the dark side of the Christmas story.

It was significant that these wise men from other nations were seeking out the Messiah, while apparently, the chief priests and elders of the Jews only looked into it when King Herod asked them to. It was tragic that King Herod used the information he was given to have the infants of Bethlehem slaughtered. He didn’t want to risk losing his throne to a messianic upstart. Having been warned ahead of time by an angel, Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaped to Egypt, while the infants in Bethlehem were being killed by Herod’s soldiers. There was horrible loss and suffering that was experienced by so many because of Herod’s evil actions. He had no idea that his violent attack upon Jesus in this way predicted what would happen to Jesus as an adult when he died on behalf of all people, young and old.

But let me go back before this event. We often miss an important part of the story when we focus solely on the magi and the genocide in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem with baby Jesus about forty days after he was born. They, as pious Jews, wanted to be obedient to the law of Moses as they understood it. So, they came to Jerusalem to do three things: 1) They offered the sacrifice necessary for Mary’s cleansing after having given birth to a son—forty days after the birth they offered the sacrifice of poor people of two turtledoves or two young pigeons. 2) They paid the redemption price for Mary’s firstborn son, Jesus, of five shekels. 3) And following the example of Hannah in the Old Testament, they presented their son to God for his service. The parents of Jesus, who was born under the law, fulfilled the requirements of the law as they understood them.

What would King Herod have thought if he had known the real Messiah was present in Jerusalem without his knowledge? It wasn’t like Mary and Joseph snuck in and out without anyone noticing. Luke tells about two elderly Jews who took special note of Jesus, acknowledging and proclaiming that he was the expected Messiah. Simeon and Anna were guided by the Spirit to affirm the special anointing which was on the Christ child. Anna celebrated loudly the redemption of Israel through this child. Simeon said that Jesus would be a light to the nations, but would face great opposition and one day Mary would experience the sharp pain of the loss of her son—there would be a dark side to Jesus’ life and ministry. I imagine the prophetic words of these two elders must have created a lot of talk among the people at the temple.

Somehow Mary and Joseph took care of what they felt was needed at the temple and returned to Bethlehem without raising the attention of the authorities or King Herod. We don’t know what they were doing during those first two years in Bethlehem before their flight to Egypt. Perhaps Joseph was doing work as a carpenter and was able to eventually provide them with a house to live in, for that is where the magi found them. In Christ’s story, we find Jesus identifying with a variety of people—working poor, pious Jews, humble shepherds, and in time, endangered refugees hiding in another land. If we look closely, we can see that as an infant and as a child, Jesus experienced the human condition—what people everywhere, in every nation, go through at some time and in some way.

Sometimes people project onto Jesus some fantasy childhood, where nothing ever went wrong and where his circumstances were always ideal. It could not have been easy for Joseph and Mary to drop everything to go to Bethlehem just because the Roman government was doing a census. What did they face due to Mary’s unexplained pregnancy? When they did arrive in Bethlehem, did they endure criticism or rejection from extended family members? When the baby came, did anyone help Mary out or was she left all alone with Joseph? What was it like for Joseph to be the guardian of his adopted son, knowing Jesus would never be fully his own? When Jesus’ parents knew that they had to flee Bethlehem, did their hearts ache for their friends and neighbors who were facing the loss of their children at the hands of the soldiers?

These are human experiences which can be found in nations all over the world among people of a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities. When Jesus came as a light to the nations, he did not do so externally to all we are as human beings, but as one of us within our humanity. He entered our human existence, to forge within us a new humanity able to share in his close relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. He did not bring a political redemption, but a spiritual renewal and an ushering in of the age of the Spirit—a time when every human being could participate by faith in Jesus’ life of union and communion with the Father in the Spirit.

The prophet Isaiah celebrated this prophetically, saying:

“I will rejoice greatly in the LORD,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (61:10 NASB).

He spoke of our salvation as something God clothes us with—”garments of salvation” and “a robe of righteousness.” These are not things we create for ourselves—our best efforts never gain us a right relationship with God, nor do they save us from the consequences of our sin and rebellion against God. Nor do they free us from evil, sin, or death. Only God could and did do what was needed in and through his Son. He even went so far as to adopt us into his family—to make us his very own children rather than just merely his servants.

But there was a cost to God’s Son coming into our humanity to bind us in himself to the oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit. What those children and families in Bethlehem experienced was the dark side of the coming of God into our humanity—when evil resisted the goodness of God once again, turning the beauty of what God had done for each of us in the Christ child into something horrific and tragic. What Jesus experienced in the wilderness and later on the cross, what he resisted each time he healed someone or delivered them from an evil spirit, was that darkness which from the beginning has resisted and sought to overcome the light of God’s love and life. The reality is that Jesus came and did what only God could do—delivered us from Satan’s hands, freed us from sin and death, and rising from the grave, brought our humanity into a new place in the presence of his Father now and forever.

In our western world today, we often are so comfortable that sometimes we forget what it is like to struggle, suffer, or go without. When a tragedy, violence, or natural disaster occurs, we are faced once again with the reality that we live in a broken world in which evil is still at work. We, in the already/not-yet of God’s kingdom, experience both the blessings of God’s presence and power at work in this world, but also the opposition, oppression, and assaults of the evil one as he opposes every good thing God is trying to do. There is evil at work in this world—but evil is always a parasite on what is good—it has no power that is not derivative. God always and ever has the final word—and this is why we pray, resist Satan and evil, and seek what is good, even when doing so may cost us our life, our financial well-being, or our good standing in the community.

There is a cost to following Jesus. Jesus said anyone who wanted to be his disciple needed to “lay down his life, pick up his cross, and follow” him. The price of doing this is what we may struggle with. But realizing that Jesus went first, and that he includes us in his perfect life of obedience with the Father, can enable us to do the difficult thing. Christ went first—and whatever we do, we do as a participation in his perfect and finished work. This can give us hope and courage when life gets hard, no matter who we are. We are not alone—he is present now and forever by his Spirit—and includes us as adopted children of a loving Father who by his Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are his very own, no matter the circumstances of our lives or the difficulties we face.

Dear Abba, thank you for making us your very own. We look forward to that day when evil, sin, and death are cast into the lake of fire and once and for all removed from our world. In the meantime, hold us close, Abba, and deliver us anew from evil people and the evil one, from the sin which so easily seduces us—we are helpless and hopeless without you. Thank you, Jesus, for sharing in our human existence so fully, and for coming to be with us and in us by your Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.

“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:4-7 NASB

See also Luke 2:22–40 and Isaiah 61:10–62:3.

Rending the Heavens

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By Linda Rex

November 29, 2020, ADVENT | HOPE—Last night I was watching a report by Nashville’s mayor in which he was describing the latest spike in COVID-19 cases and an upcoming mandated reduction in the size of gatherings. As you can imagine, my heart turned over. I’m not looking forward to the isolation and health problems this will bring about for so many, nor am I thrilled about the loss of income, business and other difficulties it will create for those already struggling.

In some ways, I can identify with the prophet Isaiah when he wrote:

“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,
That the mountains might quake at Your presence—
As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-9 NASB)

What is interesting about the rest of this passage, though, is how Isaiah didn’t focus on the glorious entry of God into the human sphere to exact his fiery judgment, but rather on God’s deliverance for us from our human proclivity to sin and our futile efforts to do the right thing. This one-of-a-kind God, who Isaiah describes as the potter, is called upon to do the work only he can do for and in us as his clay (Isaiah 64:1–9).

The psalmist in Psalm 80 acknowledges that the only hope for any of us is for him to smile upon us and restore us. This request is repeated three times—emphasizing a passionate desire for God’s grace and good will to be showered upon us. At the end of this psalm, he writes:

“Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
Then we shall not turn back from You;
Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
O LORD God of hosts, restore us;
Cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”
(Psalm 80:(1-7) 17-19 NASB)

Do you see it? Here is a hint of how God is going to save his people—something related to a “son of man” whom God places his hand on and makes strong. Our only hope for God’s grace, restoration and renewal begins with God himself and his desire for and accomplishment of our transformation and healing through the Son of Man.

In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, when the apostle Paul speaks of the final revealing of Jesus Christ, he affirms that we are found blameless not by our own efforts, but because God is faithful. God’s faithfulness is expressed to us in his gift of grace through Jesus Christ which enriched us in speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts, and in the testimony of Christ being confirmed in us. He has called us into and has ensured we can participate in Christ’s fellowship by the Spirit with his Father.

So often we look into passages regarding the coming of Christ in glory and begin to impress upon them our private expectations and opinions rather than seeing them from God’s point of view. We see the world around us as very messy, filled with evil and sin, and right away call for God to rend the heavens and come down in a dramatic deliverance. We can easily diminish the incredible reality of what God has already done for us in the entrance of his Son into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.

We’re entering into the Advent season, and I am reminded of that beautiful night when the shepherds were quietly tending their flocks on the Judean hillsides. Suddenly an angel appeared—“rending the heavens”—with an incredible message that would change the world forever—the Messiah had come in the person of an infant lying in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem. The angels gathered around and celebrated this good news, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).

Later on, this Savior, as he faced his upcoming death on the cross and resurrection, spoke of the transition which would occur between the kingdom of God which he was inaugurating in his passion and that glorious day when he would come in power, ushering in the new heavens and the new earth. He knew there would be a substantial time lapse between his ascension and the day of his final arrival, and he wanted his followers to stay in a state of continual readiness and diligence, especially with regards to sharing the good news of what Christ did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

What Jesus forged for us in our humanity tore open our cosmos and set it upon a new footing—in the all-ready/not-yet of God’s kingdom, he has made all things new. We have an incredible hope that bursts into our gloomy sin-laden world and lays bare all our futile efforts at being good and forces us to a crisis—where will we put our faith? Will we continue to trust in our human efforts to rule ourselves—to count on our 201 ways to solve our own problems and save ourselves? Will we keep to our own agenda or will we submit ourselves to God’s plan for our lives? Is Christ—the way he really is—good enough for us? Or do we need to add something to the simple reality of his grace and truth?

Our attention does not need to be on some particular plan or outline of end-time events, but solely on Jesus. Christ is our life. We participate through baptism in his death and resurrection, renewing this covenant relation as we take the bread and the wine in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith. We live each day in attentiveness to Jesus’ coming and presence—both in his presence here and now by the Spirit at work in this world, but also in anticipation of his coming glorious presence at the renewal of all things. As things grow more difficult for us, as we struggle to stay the course, we can hold ever more tightly to the reality that Christ has come, he is come now by the Spirit, and one day he will come in glory. We have every reason to hope. Maranatha—even so come, Lord Jesus!

Father, thank you for the grace you have given us in your Son, for the work you already accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and are working out in this world even now by your Holy Spirit. Keep us ever diligent, ever faithful, attentive to the end to our precious Lord Jesus by your Spirit. Amen.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 NASB

See also Mark 13:24–37.

Anticipating the Celebration

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By Linda Rex

November 8, 2020, Proper 27—If I were to ask you to tell me about the day of the Lord, what would you say? The prophet Amos spoke of the day of the Lord. He had choice words for his people who looked forward to this day, thinking it would be a day of celebration and rejoicing.

These people of God were ignoring the reality that injustice and unrighteousness were the pattern of their lives. They didn’t seem to realize they were deciding their future by their everyday decisions. Sadly, Amos said that the day of the Lord wouldn’t be a day of light for them, but one of darkness. He said it would be like a man fleeing from a lion, only to suddenly meet a bear instead. Or maybe when he finally got safely home, leaning his hand against the wall in relief, he was bitten by a snake (Amos 5:18-24). What a picture!

The issue is really, I suppose, our expectations regarding the day of the Lord. What do we think is going to happen when everything comes to an end or even when we die? Do we realize that how we live today impacts our present life as well as our eternal future? No, we can’t earn eternal life—it is entirely a gift from God. But receiving this gift means a change occurs in us and in our lives—we begin to live in the truth of who God created us to be as his image-bearers.

We need to embrace our identity as image-bearers of God. We were created out of out-going love, to love God and love one another—to know and be known, as Jesus describes this life. There is a deep interwoven connectedness in the Godhead, in the relation between the Father and Son in the Spirit. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, wove us into that connection or union—and we participate by faith in this Triune life and love by his Spirit. When we’re living reconciled to God and one another, in the reconciliation Jesus created for us, we are being truly ourselves, being truly human.

Living in ways that are contrary to this isolate us or turn us away from face to face relationship with God and one another. We can say we know Jesus or are Christians, but the evidence of our lives may very well say that the exact opposite is true. And even though Jesus included every human in his life, death, and resurrection, it may be that most of the people we encounter day by day don’t want anything to do with him. They, like the rest of us, will one day face the day of the Lord—which may come through death or through the final apocalyptic struggle. What will we say when we are face to face with our Lord?

Amos wrote to the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, but his words resonate with us today. In the face of their depravity and ungodly living, he says simply, “Seek Me that you may live. … Seek good and not evil, that you may live; | And thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you, | Just as you have said! Hate evil, love good, | And establish justice in the gate! Perhaps the Lord God of hosts | May be gracious …” (Amos 5:4, 14-15 NASB).

It does not matter what nation we may belong to or what people group we are from. Our race, gender, and every other distinction is a moot point when it comes to the day of the Lord. Even now, at this moment, every one of us stands poised on the edge of eternity. The choices we make matter. The things we think, say, and do impact us, the people around us, and the people who come after us. Are we just going through the motions, or are we assuming the responsibility to receive and participate in the gift of grace we have been given in Jesus Christ?

In the story of the ten virgins who are awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom in anticipation of the wedding celebration, we find that both the wise and foolish nod off as time goes by. The difference between the two seems to be that one planned ahead and the other didn’t. It wasn’t like the foolish ones didn’t have time to go get extra oil—it’s more a matter that they waited until the last minute and ended up missing most of the party while they were out shopping.

Christ has done all we need so that we can live in face to face relationship with him and the Father in the Spirit right now. He sent the Spirit so we can participate in his life with his Father both now and forever. But he doesn’t demand this of us—he invites us. He offers his life for our life. We can be like the foolish virgins, ignoring the benefits of this gift until it is too late to do anything about it. We can be preoccupied with our own human efforts at creating a life for ourselves. And then in that final day we will find ourselves knocking desperately on the door, only to hear the bridegroom Jesus say, “I don’t know you.”

Or right now, we can turn to Jesus, trusting in him. His life for our life. His faith, hope, and love for our human, fleshly passions. His justice for our injustice. His goodness for our evil behavior. Whatever it is we are seeking, we do not need to go to the market to find it. The oil of God’s goodness and love, his eternal Spirit, is a free gift by faith in Jesus. The foolish virgins trusted in their own ability to get themselves what they needed, when in reality they needed to trust the bridegroom, turning to the Source of all things in faith, believing that they would have what they needed in that moment to participate in the celebration.

Our participation in the divine festivities, the wedding between Christ and his Bride the Church, is not based upon our performance, but solely upon God’s grace. We receive this gift by faith, participating in Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism—our one-time inclusion in the body of Christ the Church—and in an ongoing way through communion—as we share in the bread and the wine. And as those who have received this gift, we begin to live out the truth of our identity as the Bride of Christ and as the welcome guests at the party by correctly imaging the Source of our identity, God in Christ.

When the nation of Israel entered the promised land, finally establishing their homeland, Joshua addressed the assembly. He asked them who they were going to serve—the idols of their fathers and of the peoples of that land, or the God who brought them out of Egypt, who gave them his love and grace as he brought them into the promised land. Joshua established that he and his family would serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14-15). But what about the rest of the people?

The day of the Lord has an already-not-yet sense to it in that Christ has come, defeating evil, sin, and death—the end is certain and in our favor. But we also anticipate the upcoming celebration of the wedding feast when Christ will marry his Bride the Church and we will live with him, the Father and Spirit in the new heavens and earth. Today we simply have the opportunity to reconsider whether or not we are properly anticipating this event. What are we doing with the gift of grace God has given us in Christ? Are we in tune with the Spirit, following Christ’s lead? Are we walking by faith rather than by sight? Where are we seeking our life—in the things of this human existence or in the spiritual realities?

Dear Father, thank you for giving us your Son and your Spirit so that we might participate in your life and love now and forever. Today, we affirm that we desire to seek our life in you and not in the things of this world. Thank you for your forgiveness and love, for we have fallen so short of all you meant for us to be. We trust in you, Jesus, in your life, death, resurrection, and ascension and not in ourselves. Holy God, we receive the gift of life and grace which you give us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’ Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:10-13 NASB

See also 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18.

The Paradox in Leading Others

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By Linda Rex

November 1, 2020, Proper 26 | All Saints—Recently I started an online course at Grace Communion Seminary on humans and salvation. I remember now why it’s been a while since I took graduate level courses—they take up time and require a lot of work and deep thought. But when I am immersed in this way in prayerful thought of God and his work in this world through his Son Jesus, I find myself wrestling in a good way with my motives and heart in pastoring and preaching the gospel.

One of the failures in the western Church today is that we enjoy all the trappings and benefits of the Christian faith while we miss much of the substance. Being relevant to the culture is one thing—being driven by our need for the approval and acceptance of people is another. When we have leaders claiming to be Christian in order to garner votes while their lives and words deny Christ, we are in a dangerous place, for this is something the Lord abhors.

If there is one thing Jesus criticized about the leaders of his day, it was their hypocrisy—their flaunting of the externals of religiosity and their catering to the approval and applause of the people, rather than humbly living out God’s love and grace. They loved the praise of those they lead and enjoyed the financial benefits and power of their positions, but did not always genuinely care about the suffering and struggles of the poor, needy, and disenfranchised, of those in lower social and economic strata than their own.

But I cannot point the finger at others without finding that I have several pointing back at me. In my own life, how have I been more concerned about the approval and respect of the people around me than I have been about their suffering, difficulty, and need? Do I say all the right things but fail to act on what I believe? Too often this has been the case—not because I don’t care, but because I have not always learned to act on what I believe to be true. There has been too often a disconnect between the spiritual realities I believe and trust in, and my living out of these realities in the world in which I live.

We tend to separate the secular or physical from the spiritual, not realizing that in Christ both have come together and have been joined in his person. In the living Word, God has come to dwell with and in man. He has become one of us while remaining fully himself. He, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings our humanity into the presence of the divine, enabling each of us by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, to participate in that intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Our participation in the Triune life is expressed in the way we love God and love others, walking by faith and in tune with the spiritual realities in a world which clings tightly to the tangible, physical realities.

What does this mean for each of us, me included? Living out the gospel in a gospel-resistant world means I may have to suffer the disapproval of those about me, even those I am close to and whom I love. I may have to give up some dearly held dreams or plans so that others may have what they need and so that God’s word can be brought to those who hunger and thirst for it. I may have to do without things I prefer to have so that others can enjoy the benefits of my loss and expense. Am I more concerned about my own financial and physical security than I am the needs and concerns of others? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that, because I’m afraid the answer just might be yes.

Jesus brings us into the paradox of leadership where we find that we bear the responsibility of leading others but we do it humbly, as servants. We do it from a place of brotherhood—of joining others where they are so that we share in their life and struggles, as unique equals in a fellowship of oneness where we offer ourselves as those who serve, give, share, and help. What does this look like in a self-centered, self-absorbed culture? It looks foreign, like an alien in a new land—we don’t fit in, we are the focus of people’s distain, ridicule, abuse, and even rejection. It looks a lot like Jesus Christ.

Leadership in the way Jesus describes it is a humble laying down of one’s life for the sake of those being served. This willingness to be abased, to be the one to serve rather than be served, does not come naturally to us as human beings. But it is the path to genuine leadership. It infuses our leadership with a genuineness and sincerity that inspires others to follow, not because they are intimidated and forced to follow, but because they are compelled to do for others what has been done for them.

Quite frankly, I don’t blame young people today for rejecting organized Christianity, its denominations, and its distinctions. We are earning the consequence of teaching and preaching a gospel we did not live out individually and collectively in humble service and gracious compassion. We are receiving the full measure of payment for our sin, hypocrisy, and religious pride. We are not all guilty, I am sure, but we all can humbly admit that we need to start anew, in a place of grace and humility, beginning again in a spirit of service to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor, no matter whom they are, as ourselves.

To pause and assess the motives of our hearts is a good thing. As leaders or simply as those who influence others in our lives, we can be so busy living or existing that we don’t take the time to look deeply at what is driving us and why we do the things we do. What is the reason we go to work each morning? Why do we battle the traffic each day? Why don’t we talk with our neighbors or family, or participate in the community barbeque? Could it be that we have never looked beyond ourselves long enough to realize there is a world out there God has included us in that we are called to make better by our humble service, compassion, help, and generosity?

Thankfully, when we experience the reality of our failures to love, give, and share with others, we have the grace of God to cover us and enable us to begin anew. Jesus comes to us by the Spirit to offer us new life, a new start—the ability to begin again in him, living out the reality of who we are as the adopted children of our heavenly Father. Paradoxically, as leaders, we can commit ourselves again to the humble service of others in the Spirit of Christ, turning away from our self-centered preoccupation with ourselves, our own comfort and benefit, toward the care and help of those we lead, and therefore serve.

Heavenly Father, thank you for being our true father, the Source of all. Thank you, Jesus, for being our leader, our teacher, Savior, friend and brother. Grant us the grace and humility to lay down all our hypocrisies, self-centeredness and pride, replacing them with your real presence, genuine love and service. We receive anew your grace and peace, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13 NASB

See also Matthew 23:1–12.

In Christ We All Lead

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By Linda Rex

October 25, 2020, Proper 25—What is your sphere of influence? Is it merely your toddler and four-year-old? Is it the annoying neighbor who never cleans up the trash in his backyard? Is it the guy at the next desk who likes to tell funny stories but doesn’t follow through on his assignments? Perhaps it is simply the boss who comes by your desk each morning to wish you a great day.

We may only have a small number of people we affect each day. But there are some people in this world who have been given a much larger sphere of influence—that of leading towns, cities, states, nations and large organizations or companies. The effect their decisions have on large numbers of people shows the great extent of their influence. Sometimes this influence is for the better and others for the worst. There are people from the past whose lives and choices still affect the world today—we remember them with gratitude or anger, depending on how we have been affected by the decisions they made.

Our spheres of influence, great or small, are places where we have the privilege, even the responsibility, to participate with Christ in furthering his work of healing, wholeness and renewal in this cosmos. We can abdicate this task to others, or we can embrace it as part our identity as humans created to reflect the image of God and to follow Jesus Christ. To be an influencer of those around us by living out the gospel is a way we participate in Christ’s leadership in this world.

Christ first came as a suffering servant, laying down his life for each and every person on earth. He calls each of us to the same type of servant leadership—in whatever sphere of influence we may have. As followers of Christ, we share the gospel with those people who are close to us and we share our lives with them as well. It is our participation in Christ—our dying and rising in him—that gives others evidence of the miracle of grace and makes the gospel come alive, drawing them into the triune life.

As we live in face to face relationship with God as Moses did, we receive wisdom and God’s grace for our lives. Our active participation in the triune life is reflected in the way we live, the choices we make, and how these decisions impact the people in our sphere of influence. Do they see the radiance of God’s glory reflected in our faces, in our attitudes, words, and conduct? When all of these reflect God’s holy, loving nature, then the people around us are influenced to do the same, maybe even to seek the source of our Christlikeness.

Our participation in Christ resembles the other-centered perichoretic giving and receiving of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In the triune life, each pours into the other and receives from the other, as participants in the divine dance. Likewise, every human being has been given a place in this dance in and through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the giving of the Spirit, each may personally join in by faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ. As we trust in Jesus, centering our lives and faith in him, we find the faith, hope and love to effectively influence our family, our community, our nation and all of creation for the better.

In an ideal world, as in the kingdom of God, our leaders would be Christ-centered, seeking the heavenly realities rather than the power, authority, wealth, and popularity of this broken world. They would be seeking the benefit and best of those they served rather than their own pleasure and desire. Even though they are faulty and frail, our human leaders today still can choose to lead out of God’s Spirit of wisdom and love rather than the fleshly values of greed, lust, indifference, and selfishness. But will they?

Our effort, as we make decisions regarding electing our leaders, is to seek out and choose those who will most likely exemplify and support that which is good, true, and holy. This is a challenging task, for we must accept that we are dealing with people who are just as broken and faulty as we are. This is why we seek God’s direction and instruction, and take into consideration the issues and complications involved in electing leaders.

And as we think of our own spheres of influence, how we are we doing in providing leadership which reflects the nature of Christ? Are we holy, as God is holy, living in that loving unity of equal yet different persons we were created to reflect? Do we love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves?

Any change in government, in society, and even in our world, has its roots in the finished work of Christ. For us to experience it within our own sphere of influence, we turn to Jesus and receive his gift of the Holy Spirit. Turning our face away from the values and idols of this world and back towards God is an important start. As our Lord did, laying down our life for the sake of those nearest and dearest to us is another. Accepting that choosing the high road of holiness, service, and obedience to God is going to require a cost, even a sacrifice on our part, is another step. And following Christ in spite of all that may distract or afflict us needs to be our constant decision.

There is a price to pay to have the world we wish we could have. Resisting evil requires effort. Choosing a different path is a great challenge. Continuing in persevering effort is tough. But as we do this individually and collectively, we will find that the people in our spheres of influence will be affected and slowly begin to change. There may be resistance, even severe resistance to any effort on our part to be reflections of God’s goodness, love, and grace in this broken world. But if we hold on to Jesus as he holds onto us, walk in the Spirit and trust in his love and grace, we will find that ultimately the world around us will begin to change for the better.

Holy Father, in our world today, it seems we are too often influenced by evil, sin, and death rather than by your love and grace. We are grateful Jesus, that not only did you come and stand in our stead, offering your life for our life, your death for our death, but you also sent your Spirit to enable us to share even now in your divine life and love. Thank you for forgiving us our sins. Thank you for turning our faces back to yours, Abba. Spirit, thank you that you transform our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses. Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Deuteronomy 34:9-12 NASB

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” … you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.’ ” Leviticus 19:1-2, 19b NASB

“…just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. … Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 8 NASB

See also Matthew 22:34-46 NASB.

The Productive Vineyard

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By Linda Rex

October 4, 2020, Proper 22—This week fall begins, the time of year when farmers head out to the fields to see if the crops are ready for harvest. Traveling through the countryside this time of year can be a little tricky, with large combines, trucks and other equipment competing for road space. Looking across the fields as we travel, we may see the dust rising from the equipment as the corn or beans are harvested.

When a farmer comes to his field at harvesttime, he expects to find lots of ripe produce to reap. Whether corn, beans, sorghum, cotton, wheat, or any other crop, his hope is that his efforts to cultivate, plant, and tend the field were not in vain. To have invested so much only to find no return on that investment is a cause for great disappointment, not to mention steep financial loss.

When God drew the ancient nation of Israel out of Egypt and planted her in the promised land, he intended that she become a godly nation through whom the other nations of the world might come to know and obey him. He gave Israel all that she needed to live in covenant relationship with him, providing her with a law, sacrifices, and a place of worship by which she could love, serve, and obey God.

Like all of us as human beings, this nation turned away from God and sought her value, significance, and relational satisfaction from idols, other nations, and materialistic gain. She practiced injustice, greed, immorality, and every other ungodly behavior, rather than simply being the people God created her to be—holy, faithful, obedient, and just. God’s harvest from his beloved people was unfaithfulness, injustice, disobedience, and ungodliness—all ways in which they turned away from God and alienated themselves from him in their minds and hearts. (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15)

In sending his Son Jesus to Israel, God meant for him to take their place—to do for them and in them what they could not and did not do. All peoples had turned away from their Creator and Sustainer, so God the Word took on our humanity and turned us all back to God. In Christ we find that we are restored as image-bearers of God and are able to live in ways that produce good spiritual fruit. In dying our death, rising from the grave and ascending to the Father, Jesus brought us into our true humanity—and sent the Spirit so we by faith could begin to participate in it.

The way that we produce good spiritual fruit is by participating in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The life of Christ lived out in our human flesh by the Spirit is evidence that God is at work in us. The Spirit enables us both to will and do what reflects the image and nature of God. As I have said before, this is not by our human efforts at keeping God’s law—that’s external fleshly work, but solely by the grace and mystery of God, Christ in us by the Spirit—that’s internal spiritual transformation moving outward by faith into action.

As members of Christ Jesus, participants in his body, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are meant to produce kingdom fruit—spiritual fruit such as outgoing love, peace, joy, gentleness, and any other spirit, attitude and behavior which reflects the divine nature. A good description of what the kingdom of God looks like when it is lived out here on earth may be found in Exodus 20—and yes, that is what is commonly called the ten commandments. Let’s look at them properly—through the lens of Jesus Christ and his finished work, through which God gives us life, life in relationship with himself both now and forever.

When we live in loving relationship with God, we acknowledge that he is the only God there is. There is no other person, being, thing, passion, goal in our lives we count on other than him. The one God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is the God who is equal and unique in personhood, and fully one in being. We were created to be image-bearers of this God, to live in the truth of who we are as those made in his likeness to live now and forever bound in covenant love relationship with him.

For this reason, we have no other person, thing, or objective which commands our full attention or allegiance. We live in the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God—this is the focus of our existence. Living in covenant relationship with God comes first—we depend upon him and him alone. All other things in our lives come in second position.

As those made in God’s image, after his likeness, we acknowledge that he is our Father and we are his adopted children. We bear the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. We bear the name of Jesus, the only name under heaven and earth by which we may be saved. For this reason, we honor and respect this name—it is our own family name.

God created us to be stewards of all he has made, to live in the unforced rhythms of grace which involve times of work and times of intimate fellowship with God and one another. All that God has done for us in Jesus and is doing for us today by the Spirit brings us into a place of rest in him. We don’t depend on our own ability to get ourselves right with God or to save ourselves, but trust completely in the finished work of Jesus. Christ is at work in this world by the Spirit making all things new—we participate with him in what he is doing in this world by resting in him.

As image-bearers of God, we were created for relationship—relationship with God and with one another. God created family—a loving bond which reflects the nature and other-centered love of Father and the Son in the Spirit. Parents are meant to reflect the image of the Trinity to their children, teaching them what it means to live in loving relationship with God and one another. As Jesus the Son of God honors his heavenly Father, we honor our human parents. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who gives us the heart to honor our parents.

In God we live and move and have our being. From the beginning God told us to choose life, not death. Every human being is made in the image of the God who is the Source of life, the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For this reason, we walk in life, not in death. God is not willing that any should die—neither are we.

Binding himself to humanity in an unbreakable bond in Jesus Christ, God has declared his covenant love for all of us. What God bound together, let no human being annul—Jesus Christ is God’s pledge to us that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what. In the same way, when a man and woman declare their covenant love for one another in marriage, they bind themselves together in an unbreakable bond which only death can annul. This images what God has done for us in Christ, how God brought us who are creatures into intimate relationship with him who is Creator—two different but made one through Christ in the Spirit, bound together in covenant love.

As we grow in our knowledge of God and in relationship with him, we realize that everything here on earth and even our own lives belong to him. We realize he is Lord of all and we are not. We recognize that whatever we have was given to us as stewards to care for and share with others, not to indulge ourselves or fulfill our own lusts. Indeed, everything belongs to God, even what others have—so we protect, defend, honor, and guard what someone else has rather than stealing it from them.

We understand that we are made in the image of the God of truth, the One who sent his Son Jesus, who is the Truth. When we look at Jesus, we see the truth of who we are—and we know that God has never lied to us nor will he. He sends the Spirit of truth so that each of us may live and walk in truth. As image bearers of Truth, we live truthfully, honestly and with integrity. We are able to live authentically and transparently because we have nothing to hide.

When we see things clearly, we recognize that all we have, all we see around us, even our own selves belong to God. Whatever there may be on earth that we could desire loses its attraction when we stay focused on God and his love for us as expressed in Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. We find that as we set our hearts and minds on the things of heaven rather than on the things of earth, we already have everything we really need. Everything else we simply receive as a gift from his hand in gratitude and praise.

As you can see, when Jesus is the center as he is meant to be and that we are walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh, we find that we begin to reflect the image and nature of God. We become a picture of life in the kingdom of God as we were meant to reflect, showing the world we are Jesus’ disciples by the way we love one another. The body of Christ, which exists in many nations and peoples all over the world, is meant to be the place where human beings can see what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God.

Today, the body of Christ may need to reconsider, what does it mean to live in relationship with God, in other-centered love? Are we as the body of Christ, producing this kind of spiritual harvest which is healthy and abundant? Is our Father delighted with the produce which is being borne in his vineyard? One thing we can be sure of—God is faithful, and he loves us unconditionally. He will finish what he has begun in us. Let us continue to trust him and to participate with Jesus in what he is doing in this world to bring about an abundant spiritual harvest.

Dear Abba, thank you for giving us all we need for life and godliness, for giving us your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for your grace and love, your faithfulness and forbearance. Forgive our resistance to your indwelling Spirit, your efforts to grow us up into Christlikeness. We trust you will finish what you have begun in us so that we will bear an abundant spiritual harvest which will bring you great joy and pleasure, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” Matthew 21:43-44 NASB; see also Matthew 21:33–46; Philippians 3:4b–14.

Living Water From the Rock

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By Linda Rex

September 27, 2020, Proper 21—As human beings, we cannot escape the reality that our existence is dependent upon water—whether clean water to drink, rain for our crops, water for everyday uses such as cleaning and bathing, or many other needs. Today in America, many are experiencing the lack of water—fires out of control, or too much water—flooding in the southeast with the impact of hurricane Sally. Whether too much, too little, or just enough—water is an integral part of our human existence.

The story of humanity begins with the Spirit brooding over the waters, and then responding to the Word of God by bringing into existence the cosmos, the earth and all that lives on it. The earth was originally watered by streams coming up from the ground. From the garden in Eden flowed a river which separated into four headwaters, flowing into areas nearby. We may recognize some of the names—the Euphrates, Tigris, Gihon, and Pishon rivers.

After Adam and Eve turned away from God to the things of their flesh, choosing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity declined into a place where even God regretted that what he had made had come to such depravity. When he chose to eradicate evil, he sent a flood—an inundation of water that swept away broken humanity and wiped the earth clean. But it was not God’s heart for human beings to die—he desires life for us. So he made the covenant of the rainbow with us as his pledge he will never flood the earth in that way ever again.

When God brought his people out of Egypt from slavery, he brought them through the Red Sea. Moving the large body of water aside, he dried out the riverbed and made a passage for Israel to get to the other side. When they were safely to shore, he allowed the river to flow freely again, wiping out the Egyptian army which had pursued them into the water. Water, for God, is both a means of redemption and a means of cleansing, healing, and renewal.

Sadly, the Israelites did not seem to grasp the significance of what God was doing in their lives. They did not know God well, and did not believe that he loved them and wanted what was best for them. They did not believe, even though they had witnessed such a mighty deliverance. When they were in the wilderness on the way to Sinai, they grew thirsty. They did not simply trust God or turn to him when they grew thirsty, but rather they complained to Moses and demanded that he solve their problem by providing water. By demanding water from Moses, they were demanding proof of God’s presence among them, something he had already made clear to them.

This continual refusal to believe, to trust in the living God as the Source of all that is good and right, marked Israel’s and then Judah’s relationship with God from then on. Even as their refusal to obey and serve God brought them into exile, they still worshiped idols and refused to submit themselves to the ways and covenant love of their Lord and Redeemer.

The prophet Ezekiel warned them to turn away from their rebellion and sin:

“ ‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore, repent and live’ ” (Ezekiel 18:30-32 NASB).

God did not desire their destruction. He sought their repentance—a turning around, a change of mind and heart—something which they could never achieve on their own. They needed to be saved from their hearts made of stone.

The living Word took on our human flesh to be for us the Rock from whom living water would flow. Jesus Christ lived our life, died our death, and rose again, ascending into the presence of the Father to send the Spirit on all flesh. The Rock, the cornerstone on which God would build his church, was struck in the crucifixion, and from him flowed the living stream of grace and mercy we all needed to be freed from evil, sin and death. And beyond that, through Christ and from the Father, came the living stream of God’s very presence and power, the Holy Spirit, who by faith would come to us individually, to begin the process of transforming and renewing us into the image of Jesus Christ.

One of the remarkable things about water is its ability to alter hard objects like rocks. Place a sharp, jagged stone in running water and over a long enough period of time, it will become smooth. Large amounts of water flowing swiftly over land and rock will dig deep caverns and riverbeds, given time. Moving water in an extremely narrow stream at a very rapid speed can be used to clean or cut certain objects. There is great power in water—and the water of God’s love and grace, His Spirit, does mighty things when it goes to work in us and in our lives. As we respond to God in faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ, the Spirit works in us to heal, restore and renew, to reform us into the image-bearers of God we were created to be.

It is fitting that the final image in Revelation is of the presence of God with man on the new earth. From the temple of God’s presence flows a mighty river which provides healing for the nations. What a fitting picture of what God is doing even now beginning with the body of Christ, working in this world to bring about healing, renewal, and wholeness. Washed in the water of God’s love and grace, the body of Christ in which God dwells is to be fullest expression of Jesus possible in this world, being a temple of living stones from which the living Water flows freely to bring healing to all people. We look forward anticipating the day when Jesus Christ will bring the kingdom of heaven into its fullness. Meanwhile, we participate with Jesus today in expressing by the Spirit God’s faith, hope, and love to everyone around us.

Dear Abba, forgive us our hard-heartedness and stubborn resistance to your loving will and purposes. Thank you for offering us yourself, Jesus, as the Rock to be broken on our behalf so that we might be given a new heart and spirit, and turn to you in trust and obedience. Holy Spirit, please finish what you have begun, transforming our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord all for Abba’s glory. Amen.

“ ‘Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.’ And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ ” Exodus 17:6-7 NASB

“He split the rocks in the wilderness
And gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths.
He brought forth streams also from the rock
And caused waters to run down like rivers.”
Psalm 78:15-16 NASB

See also Matthew 21:23–32 and Philippians 2:1–13.

The Scandal of God’s Compassion

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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.

The Boundary of Grace

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By Linda Rex

September 13, 2020, Proper 19—Last night I decided to microwave some fresh green beans for dinner that I had received from one of our members in Cookeville who likes to garden. I washed them and broke them up into a microwavable bowl and cooked them. As I was eating them, my mouth began to burn. It wasn’t until I had eaten several of the green beans that I realized that I had inadvertently cooked a hot pepper with them and made the green beans inedible in the process!

As I sought something to help to relieve the intense burning in my mouth, I thought about how easy it was to go about doing what we believe is the right thing to do and find ourselves in a place where we are broken and hurting instead. This happens so often in our relationships, because we are broken people—we live as self-centered persons rather than as the other-centered persons God created us to be. This includes our understanding of what it means to be forgiving of those who wound us.

The disciples knew what the rabbis said about being forgiving—forgiving someone three times was being very generous and understanding, they said. So, when Peter asked Jesus how many times a person should forgive an offender, he thought he was being excessively generous in suggesting that he should forgive someone seven times.

Jesus took forgiveness to the next level by suggesting that a person should forgive someone “seventy times seven” times—in other words, a ridiculously large amount of times. We should not hold grudges, but be generous in our offering of grace. Then he told a story in which he described what forgiveness looks like within the kingdom of heaven—what it means that God forgives us.

He began with a king who brings his vassals before him to account for his portion of their tax assessments. He is a generous king, apparently, for this one particular vassal owed him the equivalent of twelve million dollars—a sum he could never repay in his lifetime. The king concludes that maybe the only way to get his money back from this man was to throw him and his family into prison (a common practice then) with the possibility that one of his friends might pay his debt.

This vassal begs and pleads for the king to have compassion on him. And the king does. He forgives this huge debt—lets the man completely off the hook. The king writes the debt off the books—he no longer expects any payment from this man. As far as the king was concerned, there was no longer any need for the man to do anything except from that point on, to do a better job at collecting the king’s share of the funds and turning them in.

Apparently, the king’s vassal totally misses the point of what his master had done. He does not admit to nor accept the reality of the immense debt of which he had been forgiven. He doesn’t receive the grace and compassion shown him. He is still, in his mind’s eye, living in the place of collecting on debts and debts needing to be repaid.

So, when the man encounters one of his debtors who owed him about twenty bucks, he grabs him by the throat and drags him off to prison until he paid him back. Do you see the vast comparison in the two debts? The vassal had just been released from a debt of about twelve million dollars, but would not release his debtor for the mere sum of twenty dollars. Jesus was using hyperbole, an exaggeration, to make a point.

This is the type of thing we do to one another in the face of what God does for us. Think about the nation of Israel, who God lived in covenant relationship with. How often had he forgiven them for idolatry, injustice, and trusting in other nations rather than trusting in him? Even when Israel justly ended up in exile, losing their temple and nationhood, God had restored them, giving them a new temple and a new space in which to live, albeit under Roman rule. Even so, they repeatedly rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which he had sent them. In due time, Jesus knew they would even crucify that Messiah, at which point he would pronounce the most gracious words ever given to humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live in the reality of our need for grace and God’s overwhelming generosity in offering it to us. Abba offers us unfailingly the opportunity to start anew, giving us ample opportunity to change by wiping the slate clean and allowing us to begin again. The problem is that we as human beings prefer to live in the debit-credit mode. We may enjoy receiving God’s grace, but we prefer not to have to make the changes which go along with having been forgiven. By necessity, living in the truth of the immense debt we have been forgiven, we must admit our need for that grace, repent of the ways we incurred that debt, and in living out the truth of that repentance and forgiveness, we begin to be equally forgiving toward others.

So often in the gospels, Jesus offers forgiveness prior to repentance. We see the lame man lowered down through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then he tells the man to take up his mat and walk. The lame man hadn’t even asked to be forgiven—but no doubt, he felt he needed it. He probably had been told over and over during his lifetime that the reason he couldn’t walk was because he or his parents had sinned. Jesus affirmed that this was not the case, but that even those sins he had committed were removed. And that he needed to move forward in his life from then on.

In the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ends the encounter by saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ forgiveness was obvious, but he didn’t let anyone off the hook. The accusers needed to repent and so did she. And Jesus did not leave her at that place—he told her to go and do the next right thing, to leave her life of sin. Would Jesus have forgiven her again if she sinned? No doubt, but what he was seeking was not retribution, but repentance and faith—a life change—wholeness and healing, not punishment.

In the story about the king and the debtor, the vassal missed the whole point. He had been forgiven an incredible debt—so he needed to repent, to change the way he did business. He needed a change of heart and mind—to have a heart of compassion and forbearance like his master’s. But instead, he continued on the path of self-deliverance. He was going to work out his own salvation—paying back the debt himself by collecting what others owed him.

The only boundary on God’s grace is the one we set by refusing to see our need for it and to receive it as an undeserved gift. We are the ones who make forgiveness something which needs to be earned instead of receiving it humbly and then offering it to others. We are the ones who ignore the reality of the huge debt to God we could never repay and focus on the petty inconveniences or miserable pains those around create in our lives. If God could forgive us for an unpayable debt, shouldn’t we do that for others?

Maybe there is some hurt or grudge that’s been festering in your heart lately. Or perhaps you are holding something against yourself that seems unforgiveable. Why don’t you bring these to Jesus right now and ask him to give you his heart of forgiveness instead. Allow him to provide you with a willingness to forgive that is grounded in him and his sacrificial offering, and to move you and the forgiven one into a new place of wholeness and restoration. May you find true freedom living in this place of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord in the Spirit.

Abba, thank you for your limitless forgiveness and grace which is expressed to us in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for your patience with us when we are not forgiving, but are judgmental, condemning, and punitive. Grant us the grace to ever participate in Christ’s forgiving Spirit that we might forgive as you forgive us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, | Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. | He will not always strive with us, | Nor will He keep His anger forever. | He has not dealt with us according to our sins, | Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. | For as high as the heavens are above the earth, | So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. | As far as the east is from the west, | So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:8-12 NASB

See also Matthew 18:21–35.

Feeding on the Crumbs

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By Linda Rex

August 16, 2020, Proper 15—If there is one thing we are good at as human beings, it is finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other people. We seem to find ways to elevate ourselves while demeaning others, or including ourselves while excluding others. One of the worst things we as Christians do so often is to use the Word of God and our religious faith to create unhealthy boundaries between ourselves and other people.

The one place where we as followers of Christ should find common ground is at the table of thanksgiving—communion. Here we each acknowledge anew with gratitude that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we find our true life in him. Here every person who trusts in him is bound to the community of faith, no matter his or her race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social status, or any other type of differentiation we might come up with.

The gospel passage for August 16th tells the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. Unfortunately for her, orthodox Jewish people of that day believed they had to separate themselves from the Gentiles. This meant she was excluded from any connection with the Jewish rabbis or synagogues. The fact that she sought help from Jesus showed an understanding and appreciation for who Jesus was that the Jewish authorities had denied. They ridiculed any possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Messiah.

Previous to his encounter with this woman, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees. They had criticized Jesus’ disciples for not observing careful ceremonial washing before they ate. Jesus pointed out their nitpicking observation of their traditions actually prevented people from obeying God and loving others as they were supposed to. For example, they said if a person gave to the temple coffers the support which was meant for the care of their dependent parents, that it was acceptable. But Jesus said that doing so broke God’s command that parents be honored and cared for by their children.

Later Jesus explained to his disciples when they were alone that it wasn’t what a person put into their bodies that made them unclean, but what came out of their hearts. Whatever we eat eventually gets used or discarded by our bodies. But what comes out of us in what we say and do is often what defiles us. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”

Matthew, in his gospel, says that after this conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and made his way into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Was he trying to avoid more of these provocative conversations so he could focus on teaching his disciples? Perhaps. But what is interesting is that their next experience was meeting this Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on my daughter, Son of David!”

Here we have someone who is excluded from the Jewish fellowship who is calling Jesus “Son of David”, a title only appropriate for the Messiah. Why did she call him this? Was she a Gentile proselyte? In any case, she seemed to be much more in agreement with who Jesus was than the Pharisees were.

The disciples, though, seemed not to have learned much from their previous experience with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish scriptures spoke of the day God’s salvation would be known among all nations. A foreigner coming to Jesus and asking for mercy was welcome—it said so in the writings they read in the synagogue. But it was their traditions regarding the Gentiles which created the barrier between them and caused them to resist including this woman in what they were doing.

Yes, Jesus was sent first to his people, Israel or the Jews, but not to the total exclusion of others. Jesus came to his people first so that when all was said and done, every human being would have a place at his table—all could come to him in faith and be received.

Jesus’ comment to the woman about taking the table food and feeding the dogs could have been an insult. But she knew that in a family, even the pet dogs had a place at the table, picking up the scraps off the floor. Even today, we often consider our pets to be part of our family, included in our life and worthy of at least a few choice leftovers after the meal. Speaking in this way, the woman touched Jesus’ heart, and so, in compassion, he healed her daughter.

Jesus remarked on her faith. While the disciples were busy trying to avoid having her bother the Messiah, the Messiah was busy being who he was—the bringer of salvation to all people, both Jew and Gentile. She trusted him to be compassionate and gracious, and so he was. She asked for mercy and she received it, because she trusted him to provide it.

What joy there must have been as this woman’s daughter was finally free from what had brought such chaos, pain, and suffering in her family! What Satan had meant to steal, kill, and destroy was replaced by the love, healing, and mercy of God—the renewal of the family bonds. This was but a small reflection of Jesus’ eternal intimate bond of love with his heavenly Father in the Spirit.

Perhaps it would be helpful to take a few moments to reflect on what barriers we may have at work in our lives which need to be replaced by love, compassion, and mercy. Who do we know who needs the tender touch of our Savior? Perhaps instead of criticism, condemnation, or isolation, today we may offer prayer, understanding, and a kind word or smile. What barrier can we replace today with God’s love and grace?

Holy Spirit, grant us the heart of Jesus towards each and every person we encounter in our lives. Enable us to see them as you do—one whom you came for, Jesus—one whom you love, Abba. Grant us the grace to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us ill, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is only possible through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. In your Name we ask this. Amen.

“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, | To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, | To be His servants, ‘every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath | And holds fast My covenant; | Even those I will bring to My holy mountain | And make them joyful in My house of prayer. | Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; | For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ | The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB

“That Your way may be known on the earth, | Your salvation among all nations. | Let the peoples praise You, O God; | Let all the peoples praise You. | 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; | For You will judge the peoples with uprightness | And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.”
Psalm 67:2-4 NASB

See also Matthew 15:21–28.