By Linda Rex
June 14, 2020, Proper 6—One of the things that has come out of the most recent events, alongside the killing of George Floyd and others, is a reminder that we as human beings have a tendency to be blind to that which we prefer not to look at. Sad to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we do this all the time, preferring to keep our attention on what interests us or gives us pleasure, or what we are most comfortable experiencing.
A while ago I had the privilege of attending a GCI event in Ohio. During this weekend event, our group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located downtown near the river in Cincinnati, Ohio (https://www.freedomcenter.org/). While most of the museum is dedicated to the history of slavery and its abolition here in America, there is an exhibit on the third floor which I found to be especially moving.
This area was filled with exhibits meant to educate visitors about the current issues in the world today regarding the slavery of men, women, and children. It was hard to see, to accept the reality that so many still live in bondage, but I found I could not turn away from the sights and sounds of those whose voices were seeking yet to be heard. It was almost as if, just by this exhibition being there with people visiting it, those people held in slavery today were given a tiny ability to speak their pain and suffering.
My personal struggle is then, having seen and heard their cries, what am I to do about it? Can I continue to live indifferent to their suffering and their need? But their need is so great, and the work required is so difficult, even beyond my ability! And therein lies the struggle—how do I personally address the needs of those who are still experiencing oppression at the hands of those around them.
The gospel of Matthew tells of how Jesus was going through all the cities and villages in Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. “Seeing the people,” it says, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NASB). That phrase “seeing the people” just leapt out at me today—he didn’t pass by indifferent to their suffering. No, he saw them.
Really seeing these people is what awoke a deep sense of compassion within Jesus and led to him offering them hope and healing. The NIV says these people were “harassed and helpless”. There is a picture created of people who had no one to look after them, to defend or protect them, or to make sure they had what they needed—water, forage, and a safe place to rest. This was the job of the shepherd, and those shepherds they did have were not caring for them, but were preying upon them and oppressing them instead.
Even though Jesus was going about healing and speaking life and hope into these people, he realized the magnitude of what was needed was beyond the capacity of one human being. Even though he was God in human flesh, his purpose was not to do everything by himself—he was mentoring disciples who were learning what it meant to live in other-centered love and service. He meant for his disciples to make other disciples who would make other disciples, and so begin to fill the earth with his compassion, care, and healing, and the good news of God’s love and grace.
As Jesus truly sees the people he is ministering to, he turns to his disciples and says to them that even though there is a great harvest of souls for the kingdom, there were insufficient workers available to do the task. He tells his disciples to pray that God would provide laborers who would participate in this ministry with him. Having truly seen the people in their distress, he longed to set them free and give them new life—Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to help with the harvest.
Jesus himself turned his disciples to the Father as the source of laborers for his spiritual harvest. The heart of the Father toward those who were suffering was expressed by Jesus himself, and he knew the Father’s answer was to bring others to the place where they would be willing and able to help with this task.
And so, in the next scene, we see Jesus sending out twelve disciples in pairs, equipping them with the authority to cast out demons and to heal people, and instructing them to proclaim the kingdom of God. What in the beginning appeared to be a general request to God for helpers ended up being a personal mission for each of these disciples. They were sent out by Jesus and they began to participate in the ministry of God’s love and grace to these struggling people.
In Romans 5:1-8, the apostle Paul tells us that “Jesus is God’s grace embrace of the entire human race” (Rom. 5:2 MB). God saw us while we were still helpless, still sinners, and Jesus died for us. In Christ we find the inspiration to involve ourselves in situations where there are people who seem to be harassed, helpless, confused, aimless, and distressed. There are many more than we can possibly serve ourselves, so we pray God will provide others to come alongside and help. And then we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are the ones God is sending, and we do what we can to offer healing, renewal, and the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to those he places in front of us.
We find in Jesus our own calling as human beings to “see” our fellowman, to hear the voices so often left unheard, and to open our hearts to those who we in the past have preferred to leave our hearts closed to. We draw close to those whom we have pushed aside or ignored, and we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering and need. We have the strength to speak the truth of God’s love and grace into that which is sinful and wretched, and offer the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
These are high ideals. And the bar was set high by our Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ. But he sent his Spirit to infuse us with not only the capacity, but the heart, to meet this challenge. We have a long way to go before every human being is able to live with the plenty and dignity they ought to experience, but we can and must be working to that end. We begin with prayer—that God would send laborers—and then listen to hear God’s call upon our own hearts and lives to participate where we are with his strength and resources to make a difference in this world.
Father, forgive us for not seeing our brothers and sisters who are suffering, harassed, and helpless. Forgive us for diminishing one another, for not speaking life and hope into the lives of those without hope. Forgive us for not living out the truth and grace of Jesus in our relationships with one another. Lord, please send laborers to help with this great spiritual harvest. And if there is a role we are to play in the healing of our family, our city, our state, our nation, our world, please reveal it to us. Send us forth with urgency to heal, bring renewal and to proclaim your kingdom life, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 MSG
“God’s timing was absolutely perfect; humanity was at their weakest when Christ died their death. … Herein is the extremity of God’s love gift: mankind was rotten to the core when Christ died their death.” Romans 5:6, 8 MB
By Linda Rex
November 3, 2019, Proper 26—Imagine being hired for a job and being told that your best efforts were going to be futile and no matter how hard you tried, you would not succeed. Would you still take the job and be willing to go all the way with it, no matter what might possibly happen in the future?
Isaiah’s prophetic book records his encounter with the Triune God, where he was overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of the Lord’s divine majesty. When the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?” Isaiah volunteered, saying, “Here am I. Send me!” It is then that he heard how the people would respond to his message—they would be deaf and blind, resisting the good news Isaiah sought to share with them (Is. 6).
Throughout the years of his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic message spoke on the one hand to the sinfulness of the nation and called them back to their covenant relationship with God. On the other hand, the Lord also shared through Isaiah the hope for a redemptive future through a suffering servant messiah who would deliver his people and change their hearts and minds so they would finally love and serve their God.
This prophet faithfully fulfilled his calling, speaking words that apparently no one wanted to hear. He recorded the Lord’s words, telling his nation and many others what the consequences would be for their choices and the way they were living. Isaiah was never celebrated during his life, but according to tradition was sawn in two—an ignoble death for one dedicated to the service of God.
The key to Isaiah’s devotion to such a seemingly futile enterprise lay in his relationship with God himself. When faced with the holiness of the Triune God, he saw himself as a man of unclean lips living among an unclean people. But God offered him grace, taking away his iniquity and cleansing him from his sin. Isaiah’s faithfulness to such a seemingly fruitless task wasn’t for his own glory, but in gratitude to God for his gracious redemption.
Thankfully, Isaiah’s efforts weren’t totally in vain. Whatever he did write, whether or not others contributed to it, was preserved for us to read today. If we were to look in the new testament, we would find Jesus himself quoting the words of Isaiah. The gospel writers were happy to show how Isaiah’s prophetic words were fulfilled in Christ. Even Luke, when recording the book of Acts, tells about Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian who was reading the book of Isaiah and wanting help to understand the words he was reading. This led to the man’s baptism.
Sharing the word of God is not always a comfortable experience. What we forget, or at least I do, is that people don’t necessarily want to hear the truth, especially if it will make them uncomfortable or help them see that they are wrong. An innocent statement, couched in the context of one’s relationship with God, may cause an extreme reaction in someone who is resistant to the Spirit’s work in their hearts and minds. We may blame ourselves for not saying things better, but in reality, it may have nothing to do with us and everything to do with that person’s refusal to respond to the Spirit’s work in their heart and mind.
The closer Christ comes to us, the more we see our need for redemption. But for some of us, this may mean the faster we run the other direction or the harder we fight to resist the pull of grace. We cannot coerce anyone with the gospel—that is not God’s way at all. The gospel is an invitation which can be rejected, ignored, or torn up and thrown in the wastebasket.
So, sharing God’s love and his gospel good news must always be done in the context of prayer. We need the presence and power of the Triune God in the midst of our sharing of God’s grace and love. He is the One who changes hearts and minds. He is the one who takes our scarlet sins and makes them white as snow.
We also need to remember how Jesus approached people. The way we talk with them and about them needs to reflect the nature and goodness of our gracious God. In the story of Zaccheus, we find Jesus heading through town, and this man of short stature climbing a tree in an effort to see him when he would pass by. Jesus goes to him and tells him that he must stay at Zaccheus’ house.
In any case, this started the townspeople talking, for Zaccheus was a notorious “sinner”, a tax collector. Jesus did not see the man in this way. He saw him as a redeemed “son of Abraham” and someone who was lost who needed to be found. The approach of Jesus was redemptive and welcoming, speaking to and of Zaccheus as if he was already forgiven, accepted, and found. His gracious acceptance was lost on the townspeople who had their minds set on the sinfulness of the tax collector, but for Zaccheus, they were life. He immediately sought to express his gratitude by making amends.
Our sharing of the good news is a natural outworking of the Spirit’s redemptive work in our hearts and minds, and our lives. We bear witness to what Jesus has done to transform, heal and renew. We may experience resistance—let it be only because we are reflections of the glory, grace and love of God. Let it not be because we have sought to coerce or manipulate or use others. Let it not be because we have maligned the word of God due to our hypocrisy or unloving actions or words.
And let us pray—for open hearts, open doors, open paths for the gospel to spread. Pray for individual people we have met or gotten to know. Pray that they will encounter the Triune God, the living Lord Jesus, and be baptized in the Holy Spirit’s fire of love and grace. And courageously, let us speak the words of life, no matter the result. Someday, maybe in eternal glory, we may be surprised at what God has done with our simple efforts to share his words of life.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, for including us in your mission in this world, to tell everyone of the gracious love of our heavenly Father. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for working to bring each of us to see and know the Father and Son more intimately, and to transform our hearts by faith. Do bring these, our brothers and sisters, to faith in Christ so we can share together in fellowship and unity both now and forever. Amen.
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:10 NASB
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ | Says the Lord, | ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, | They will be as white as snow; | Though they are red like crimson, | They will be like wool.’” Isaiah 1:18 NASB
“How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, | Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, | And in whose spirit there is no deceit! When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away | Through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; | My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to You, | And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; | And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; | Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; | You preserve me from trouble; | You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.” Psalm 32:1–7 NASB
by Linda Rex
I’m sure most people have heard the argument as to whether or not a glass of water is “half-empty” or “half-full.” A person’s temperament often determines how they see the glass. An optimistic person may view the glass as being half-full, expressing gratitude that at least there is something in the glass to drink. A person with a more melancholy temperament will tend to see the glass as half-empty, being concerned that there may not be enough in the glass or that the water will run out before their thirst is quenched.
Having a “half-empty glass” mentality is often seen as a bad thing. “Be more optimistic!” people say. It’s a good thing to be optimistic, but in kingdom of God terms, being empty is actually considered a better state of being than that of being full. For example, Jesus said that it would be the “poor in spirit” who would be the ones who inherited the kingdom of God. (Matt. 5:3) He said it would be those who lost their lives who would find their lives. (Matt. 10:39; 16:25) It would be those who left everything behind and followed Jesus that would find real life in him. (Matt. 16:24-26). These are not our everyday modern life values—these are kingdom values, God’s values.
Jesus spoke these values out of the heart of who he was as the Son of God. As the Son of God and the Son of man—in other words, as the divine Word who became human flesh—Jesus knew and understood that God (Father, Son, and Spirit) lives in love and has for all eternity. By the Spirit the early church fathers came to see that God was revealed by Christ’s incarnational (God in human flesh) ministry to live in relationship, a relationship of being they called “perichoresis” or “circumincession.” They worked for centuries to find the best way to describe how it is that the Father, Son and Spirit are each distinct and yet are one—they are God. They live in self-emptying, self-giving oneness where there can be no division between the Persons of God, and yet they are each unique in their Being and in the relation they have with one another.
What is important to understand about this? Well, if you see the key concept I’m talking about in this blog—it is their self-emptying, self-giving oneness. It is the nature of God’s Being to be self-emptying. By definition “perichoresis” involves each Person of the Godhead “making room” or “making space” for the other. They fully indwell one another. Their nature is to make room for one another, and to make room for us by creating us and drawing us up into relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit.
So is it better to be half-full or half-empty? From what I’ve shared so far, I’m seeing that there is real value in being less than half-full and more than half-empty. It sounds like the real value is in being fully empty of self and self-concern. For when we are fully empty, God moves to fill that space with himself in Christ by the Spirit. It is in pouring ourselves out to God and to others that we find true fullness.
One of the places in which we can pour ourselves out is in the place of prayer. This is an excellent “emptying place” because prayer is our communication with the One who has and will pour himself out into us and for us in Christ through the Spirit. C.H. Spurgeon once wrote:
“…a true prayer is an inventory of wants, a catalogue of necessities, a revelation of hidden poverty. While it is an application to divine wealth, it is a confession of human emptiness. The most healthy state of a Christian is to be always empty in self and constantly depending upon the Lord for supplies; to be always poor in self and rich in Jesus; weak as water personally, but mighty through God to do great exploits; and hence the use of prayer, because, while it adores God, it lays the creature where it should be, in the very dust.” 1
The blessing of walking in a daily, moment by moment attitude of prayer is that we participate in the Holy Trinity’s divine self-emptying love and life. In pouring ourselves out in prayer for other people and about the problems going on around us, we participate in God’s work of changing other people’s hearts and lives and transforming the world we live in. As we do this we may find ourselves being more optimistic about the water in that glass, thanking God that it is half-empty so that he can fill it to the brim and overflowing.
Holy God, thank you so much that you are always pouring yourself out into us and for us moment by moment as we go through our lives. Grant us the grace to pour ourselves out into and for others as you do. It is your nature, your heart of love we need. We praise you for it, Father, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, in your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.
1 Spurgeon, C. H. Morning and evening: Daily readings (Complete and unabridged; New modern edition.). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.