participation

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.

The Fruitful Seed

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By Linda Rex

July 12, 2020, PROPER 10—Incarnational Trinitarian theology is the basis of what we preach at Grace Communion Nashville. Our understanding of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ begins with seeing the truth Jesus taught us of how God lives eternally as three persons in one being. It is out of this communion of overflowing love God created all things, and specifically the human race to be image-bearers of him.

Knowing humans would turn away from face to face relationship with God, he determined before time began to send the living Word, the Son of God, to take on human flesh and bring us into inseparable union with the Father and Son in the Spirit. In the fullness of time, the Word came in the person of Jesus Christ, living our life, dying our death in the crucifixion, and rising from the grave. In the ascension, he brought our glorified humanity into the presence of the Father, and in sending the Spirit, offers this new life to each and every human being.

It is this point that so many have difficulty with. For in their minds, this is universalism. But the truth is that God gave each human being an amazing and beautiful gift when he created them—freedom—the freedom to love him or reject him, to obey him or rebel against him. This freedom that is a divine attribute is always meant to be kept within the bounds of divine love, but as human beings we have the capacity to move beyond those bounds into areas which are not a part of the light of life and which bring us into darkness.

When the seed, the living Word Jesus Christ, was planted in our humanity, we were given the capacity to participate in the divine life and love. The seed of the kingdom life has been planted in our humanity in that Christ’s objective union of humanity with the Triune God is a spiritual reality. And in the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh which Peter describes in Acts 2 we find that this new life is available to each and every person. In this way the seed, the living Word, has been sown all over the field in every part of it, no matter the condition of the ground or what may be growing there.

The reality is that Jesus, the living Word, is a seed which when planted has within itself the power for new life. There is an inherent fruitfulness in the Spirit as he comes to us to germinate the seed of the Word of God which is to be planted in human hearts. The issue with failing to bear fruit is not a problem with the seed, for in Christ and in the Spirit is life everlasting. The issue is with our human response to the living Word of God, the growing conditions in which the seed is placed and is germinated.

Our failure to respond properly does not earn us some divine retribution in the parable of the sower, but rather creates consequences which impact our participation in the divine life and love and our bearing of spiritual fruit. What we learn in this parable is that our response to the living Word impacts whether or not we experience the joys and benefits of the kingdom of God and how much spiritual fruit we produce.

The four different responses to the planting of the seed embrace the whole human race. On God’s side, he has been very generous with the planting of the Word of God, having made this new life available to every human being. On our side, we can live our life in a variety of ways, each of which produces a different result, but which is the consequence of our own personal free choice as to what we do with Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God he offers us.

Jesus began this parable with the seed sown by the side of the road. This seed which has such potential for fruitfulness lays on top of the well-trod ground and the birds eat it up. The living Word speaks to us by the Spirit and calls us to himself, but there are may other voices in this world which speak more loudly to us—our family, our friends, our culture, our religion, our government, our suffering. The pains and twistings from our past may also inhibit our ability to hear the Word and respond in faith. And so the seed can never produce the fruit it is meant to, since it never is able to germinate fully.

What we know today is that birds eating and expelling seeds is one way they are carried from place to place and are given the opportunity for sprouting in a new location. We may find that it is after many encounters with Christ over our lifetime, when previously the evil one stole away the seed which was being planted in our hearts, that eventually the seed lands in a place where it can begin to grow. As long as the seed is taken way by the lies, distortions, and confusion of the evil one, it cannot bear the fruit it was meant to bear. It needs fertile ground to sink its roots deeply into in order to grow.

Jesus then talked about seed sown on rocky soil—seed which sprouts but has nowhere for its roots to go. When the sun comes out, its roots are exposed and quickly dry up. In our modern world, the proclamation of the gospel reaches into nearly every corner of the world. The announcement that God loves us and this has been expressed to us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension can be heard in a wide variety of ways and media. The living Word may be experienced by people in a meal, a casual conversation, a good deed, or a radio program. People may experience Christ in the beauty of God’s creation, hearing the whispers of the Spirit telling them the truth about who they are and who God is.

There are many ways in which Jesus touches people with the truth that he loves them and wants them to trust in him, to live life in intimate relationship with him. But this good news doesn’t really penetrate deeply into their hearts. Like seed on a rocky soil, even the watering of the Spirit cannot get the roots down any farther than the surface, for the hardest heart has no room for the love and grace of God in Christ. There is no living space available for the indwelling Spirit to settle down into. When difficulties or troubles come, the Word is abandoned for other solutions or addictions and so it cannot bear fruit.

Seed which grew among thorns was next on Jesus’ list. Perhaps last year’s thistles weren’t dug completely up and started growing about the same time as the seed. Here Jesus points out how the worries of everyday life and the subtle deceitfulness of wealth choke the living Word so that no fruit is born. Note that the seed has germinated and is attempting to produce fruit. But there are other things which wrap themselves around the new life and prohibit its ability to flower and produce fruit.

Pay attention to the reality that the living Word is the seed which is fruitful—our problem is with the environment the seed is set in, not the seed itself. The seed when planted, grows and produces fruit. Unfortunately, though, when we embrace Christ, we often embrace other things as well. We draw our life from the temporary things of this life rather than finding our real life solely in Jesus Christ himself.

One of the reasons we as the western Christian church today are so ineffective as spiritual fruit bearers may be because of our obsession with financial and material success. The opportunity for us to bear spiritual fruit is inhibited so often by the many distractions of modern life and our concerns about things we should be turning to Jesus with rather than trying to solve ourselves. And our comfort and safety tend to become more important than the need to right injustices and endure hardship for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus finishes his parable with a description of the seed which falls on good soil—the seed finding root in a person who allows the Word of God to sink deeply into their soul, the roots to penetrate every part of their life. They understand and are being transformed by this gift of new life in Christ. The fruit which is born is unique to each person, since we are each unique in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and in how we participate in him in what he is doing in us and in our world. Fruitfulness is not something we do, but is solely a result of our life in Jesus by the Spirit—his life in us produces fruit as we abide in him.

The spiritual reality of the gift of new life in Jesus Christ, the one who is the seed planted within our humanity germinated by the water of the indwelling Spirit, is one we embrace by faith. Our part in the whole process of fruit-bearing (and the Father is seeking such fruitfulness) is participating in Jesus Christ—trusting in his finished work, participating with him in what he is doing in us and in this world as we walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh. By faith in Christ, this is life in communion and union with the Triune God as the adopted children of the Father, now and forever held in his life and love.

If we were to reflect today on the living Word of God as the seed planted, watered by the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, what spiritual fruit would we see in our lives? How well are the roots of the living Word sunk into every part of our life and being? How well are we nurturing the spiritual growth which is occurring in our life? Is there anything which is choking the Word or distracting us from what he is trying to do? Be encouraged—the seed will grow, fruit will be born. But it’s good to ask ourselves each day, how well are we participating in the process?

Dear God, thank you for the Seed you have planted in our humanity, the new life which is ours in your Son Jesus Christ. Create in us the fertile ground by which we might grow fully into Christlikeness. Grant us the grace to turn away from all the things which distract us, choke our spiritual life, and inhibit our bearing of spiritual fruit. We thank you that you will finish what you have begun in us through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“That day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. And large crowds gathered to Him, so He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd was standing on the beach. And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, ‘Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.’” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 NASB

A Humble Invitation to Rest

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By Linda Rex

July 5, 2020, PROPER 9—When Jesus gave the invitation, “Come to me, … and I will give you rest,” he spoke out of a heart of humble gentleness, calling us into relationship with himself. He had just explained that the only way for any of us to come to know God was through his own relationship with his heavenly Father. It is within the context of this intimate relation between the Father and the Son that any of us are able to begin to know and relate to God in a personal way.

The people gathered at that moment around Jesus had spiritual leaders who taught them that relating to God was first and foremost an issue of right behavior based in the observance of the old covenant law. Seeking to observe all the details of the law correctly, the people labored under a heavy burden from which there seemed to be no relief. Keeping the law did not remove guilt and shame, nor did it help them to keep the law better. If anything, it caused even more distress and despair.

Jesus called for the people to come to him—into a relationship with him in which they were to find rest. We find the idea of rest, of coming into relationship, in several places in the old testament, some of which are part of the readings for this Sunday. I believe they can help us to understand a little of what Jesus is calling us into when he says, “Come to me…. and I will give you rest.”

In Genesis 24, we read the story of Abraham’s servant, who after he died went to seek a wife for Isaac among his relatives. Asking for God’s guidance, he requested a sign, that when he asked for water to drink, the right young lady would also offer to water his camels. When he encountered Rebekah at the well, he asked her for a drink, and immediately she offered to also draw water for his camels. Believing this was God’s answer to his prayer, he inquired as to her parentage. She brought him home to her family who turned out to be relatives of Abraham.

Now Rebekah had a difficult choice to make. She would have to leave her family, her ways of living, everything she was familiar with, to join this servant on a journey back to the Negev to marry Isaac, her betrothed. They asked her, “Will you go…?” I believe this is the question Jesus brings us to when we encounter him. Are we willing to go wherever he goes, to leave behind all that was, and to commit ourselves unreservedly to him, willing to be faithful and obedient to him until death?

This brings to mind the story of Ruth, another woman in the lineage of Jesus. Hers is a beautiful story of redemption. At one point, the widow Ruth is counseled by her mother-in-law Naomi, who tells the young woman, “… shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you” (Ruth 3:1b NASB)? The word for “security” is literally “rest”. Naomi’s wish for Ruth was that she would find real rest in the home of a husband who would care for her, provide for her, and protect her.

We find this same idea of marriage relationship within the Song of Solomon. In many ways it reflects the intimacy between Christ and his Bride, the church. In the passage for this Sunday, we read: “Listen! My beloved! Behold, he is coming, | Climbing on the mountains, | Leaping on the hills! … My beloved responded and said to me, | ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, | And come along. … Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, | And come along’” (Song of Solomon 2:8, 10, 13b NASB)! We find the same idea of the woman being called away from her home and called into close relationship with the man she loves.

Psalm 45, another passage for this Sunday, is a lovely picture of a queenly bride being brought to her king to be made his wife. She is clothed in embroidered gold clothing, beautifully gowned and arrayed. She is told: “Listen, O daughter, give attention and incline your ear: | Forget your people and your father’s house; …. Because He is your Lord, bow down to Him” (Psalm 45:10-11 NASB). We find that the Bride of Christ is meant to leave all behind so we may share in the royal throne with Christ our King, for we are made kings and priests who will reign with Jesus in glory.

All of these pictures show us that there is a rest we are called to, but it is the kind of rest that has to do with resting in humble dependence upon our Lord and King Jesus Christ, who is our husband, our protector and provider. He is humble and gentle in heart and he offers us his tender care as a Shepherd for his sheep. It is within the context of his care and protection that we take on the yoke of obedience—being obedient to the law of the Spirit who dwells within us, transforming our hearts by faith. As Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (NASB).

By faith we rest in the finished work of Christ, knowing that our redemption is complete and is being worked out in us by the Holy Spirit as we respond to his transforming and healing work. Yes, it is a struggle because our flesh seems to believe that sin is still in charge, but the truth is that evil, sin, and death are no longer our taskmasters. The reality is that in Christ we are free! We are free to love God, love our neighbor, live in wholehearted obedience to the voice of the Spirit as Christ lives in us. We are free to live in intimate relationship with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit. (Romans 7:15–25a)

Christ’s yoke is light and easy, for there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! (Rom. 8:1) As we walk in the Spirit, we won’t walk in our old sinful ways. We rest in his perfect relationship with the Father, and participate with him in loving God and loving one another, sharing in his mission in this world. This makes the yoke of commitment to God in Christ an easy and light burden to bear. We share in Christ’s righteousness and as we yield to the inner workings of the Holy Spirit, we experience cleansing, renewal, healing, and growth in Christlikeness. We experience the reality of living as God’s adopted children held in his loving embrace both now and forever.

Perhaps this is a good time to pause and reflect on the precious gift Jesus is offering us. Hear Jesus asking you now, in this moment, “Come to me, … and I will give you rest.” What is standing in the way of you saying yes to him? What are you counting on to get you through instead of simply resting in him, in his love and grace? Perhaps now is a good time to leave all that behind, accept his rests, and join Jesus on his journey—I know he’d love to have you!

Jesus, thank you for including us in your life, death, and resurrection, for sending the Spirit from the Father so we could share in your intimate relationship with him. It can be scary to leave behind everything we are comfortable with and simply follow you. Help us to let go, to surrender ourselves to your love and grace, to simply rest in you. Thank you that all we do is a participation in what you have already done. We trust in you, in your perfect finished work. In your name we pray. Amen.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; | He is just and endowed with salvation, | Humble, and mounted on a donkey, | Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9 NASB

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and ‘you will find rest for your souls.’ For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 NASB

Trusting the God Who Provides

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By Linda Rex

June 28, 2020, PROPER 8—Reading stories from the Old Testament is a good reminder that human beings really haven’t changed that much over the millennia. People still make decisions that hurt themselves and others, and they behave in ways which can be loving, kind, and sacrificial, but also selfish, sinful and at times even grossly evil. Families still for generations pass on traits they have learned from their forefathers—generosity, compassion and creativity, hate and anger, abusive language and behavior, among many others.

These stories from the past tell us, when we look at them closely, of how we as humans so often turn away from God to seek our own ways, inviting the consequence of sin—death—both physical and spiritual. When God meets us in the midst of our broken ways of thinking, believing, and acting, we find we are faced with the reality that apart from his intervention and healing, we will never be truly whole.

We also learn from these stories, if we are attentive, of the love and grace of God. Even in our wrong-headedness, God meets us, draws us to himself, and offers us forgiveness and fellowship, as well as instruction on what it looks like to live in loving relationship with him and others. He allows us to participate in what he’s doing in the world, calling us up into new ways of thinking, believing, and living.

One of the stories in Genesis is that of God encountering Abraham as Abram, drawing him into relationship with himself, and making a covenant with him. He promised him a son in his old age, and after many years of waiting, Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a son whom they named Isaac. No doubt, all those years of waiting seemed as nothing as they reveled in the blessing God had given them of an heir—the child of promise, a gift of laughter in their old age.

One day Abraham believed he heard God tell him to take his son Isaac to a mountain to sacrifice him, to prove his devotion to the God who had given them this precious child. Abraham left immediately the next morning and took Isaac, some servants, and all he needed for the sacrifice and headed toward the mountain.

After three days, they came to foot of the mountain where Abraham believed God said the offering was to be made. Abraham told the servants to wait there, loaded up everything he needed, and he and his son took off up the mountain. Now Isaac was a smart child and knew there was something a little odd about this burnt offering. Up to this point, every burnt offering had involved the sacrifice of a lamb or some animal. But they hadn’t brought any animals with them, and this bothered him.

Isaac pondered the question for a while, and finally ventured to ask his father about this. “We’ve got the wood and the fire, but where’s the sheep for the offering?” he asked. Abraham replied in an almost prophetic manner: “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” Even though at this point he did not tell Isaac what was going on, Abraham trusted God had a reason for what he thought the Lord was asking him to do. He was obeying God in the only way he knew how and was trusting that no matter what happened, the Lord would make it right. The author of Hebrews wrote that Abraham did what he did by faith, trusting that “God is able to raise people even from the dead” (Heb. 11:19 NASB).

As the story continues, we find that Abraham laid Isaac on the altar and lifted the knife to make the horrific sacrifice—the kind of sacrifice forbidden in later years to God’s people—the sacrifice of a human child. This was not how God wanted to be worshiped—it was never in God’s plan for human beings to kill one another or to offer their children to him as a bloody sacrifice, even though many people did this as part of their rituals in the worship of idols.

The intervention of an angel stopped the deadly blade as he let Abraham know that God knew he loved and feared him and that he did not need to make this extreme sacrifice to prove it. The ram Abraham saw caught in a thicket was proof that God had provided an animal in Isaac’s place to be the burnt offering. There Abraham gave God the name YHWH-Jireh, The Lord Will Provide. He learned an important lesson that day about faith, and the love and grace of God.

In many ways, just this experience was a gift to Abraham and to the many generations of his descendants which followed. Abraham was to be the father of descendants more than the number of stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. There would come a time when a child of one of these descendants would offer himself up as a sacrifice on the behalf of all people. This would be the Son of God in human flesh, Jesus Christ. God himself would provide the sacrifice which was needed for all of us to be redeemed and restored.

In the apocalyptic letter to John, the apostle writes about Jesus entering after his death and resurrection into the presence of the Father in the Spirit and how all the holy angels bowed before him. They worshipped him, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12 NASB). This Lamb of God who was the Son of God, humbly laid himself on the altar of sacrifice for all of humanity and allowed himself to be crucified so that all of us could be adopted as the children of God, sharing in his own loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit.

We as human beings have striven to make ourselves right with God, to prove to him that we love and fear him. We have struggled to be good people—so often choosing ways which have turned us away from God’s love rather than bringing us nearer. So often our efforts cause harm to those around us rather than helping or blessing them. Our best efforts, even our most noble sacrifices—the offering of our children, whether real or metaphorical—for the sake of proving our faithfulness and love to God, have always and ever been in vain.

The Lord Who Provides has already, in Christ, done all that is needed for everyone of us to live in right relationship with the Father in the Spirit. We need to trust, as Abraham did, that in the end God is going to make everything right—that he has already provided the Lamb which was needed and that the offering that this Lamb made was acceptable and perfect in God’s sight. Our role in all this is that which we can learn from Abraham—simply, faith—trusting in the finished work of Christ who stands in our place and on our behalf.

This story teaches us much about the miracle of God’s grace and his provision for all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. When we take the time to read these stories and look for Jesus in them, we will find that he is there—always at work in this world, from before the beginning of time even till today—providing all that is needed for life and godliness. May we trust our Lord to finish what he has begun, believing that he will make all things right in the end, so we can be with him in glory forever as God’s beloved adopted children.

Dearest Abba, thank you for providing us exactly what we need to live in loving relationship with you and one another. Thank you for the most precious gift of your Son and your Spirit. Grant us the grace to always trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:21-23 NASB

See also Genesis 22:1–14.