When Light First Dawns
by Linda Rex
January 22, 2023, 3rd Sunday in Epiphany—Recently, my husband remarked about my preference for darkened rooms. I’ve always preferred a more dimly lighted room to one that is filled with bright light because of the sensory overload that I experience from constant intense brightness. When the Scriptures speak about the light which is Jesus, I often wonder if our experience of Jesus can also make us prefer a less intense experience of the truth and grace which he brings. For some of us, hiding in the darkness of our human experience is preferable to facing up to the reality that we may have aspects of our person which need redemption and healing.
The good news is that this is the reason Jesus came. He did not come to condemn us, he said, but to save us and give us eternal life (John 3:16-17). His purpose is not to shame or diminish us in any way, but to bring us into the fullness of all that he intended from the beginning, from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3-6), when light first touched this cosmos—life in relationship with God in the Spirit.
In our gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 4:12-23, the apostle quotes a passage from Isaiah 9:1-4, saying that Jesus’ life and ministry in the Galilee area was a fulfillment of this particular prophetic word. When looking back at the history of ancient Israel, we see that this area of the country was constantly invaded as a consequence of their repeated infidelity to God. Because they chose to continue to live in the darkness of sin, they ultimately experienced invasion and deportation by the Assyrians.
In Matthew’s day, the area of Galilee was distained by the people in Jerusalem and much of Judea, for the area was filled with Gentiles and surrounded by Hellenistic Jews who had in many ways assimilated into the Greek culture of their day. That Jesus would grow up in Nazareth and spend much of his life and ministry in the area of Galilee is remarkable and a telling witness to the grace and love of God for his people.
The dawning of the light of God in his birthplace of Nazareth, though, was met with ridicule and disbelief. So, Jesus went to Capernaum to live and work, and traveled around the region of Galilee, preaching, teaching, and healing the people. Here the light of God, Jesus, announced the present reality of the kingdom of God, calling the people to repent. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he was present and active in the lives of those who lived in darkness, calling them into his light, into life in relationship with his Father in the Spirit.
What is our experience when the light first dawns for us? What is our experience and response when first encountering the reality of Jesus and his claims upon us and our lives? Are we one of those who walks over to the light switch and shuts off the lamp because it is blinding us, or are we so blessed by the invasion of light in our darkness that we welcome it?
The issue may simply be that we are not clearly hearing or intently listening to and heeding what Jesus is saying. Perhaps we might want to look a little more closely at this simple message that Matthew puts forth as Jesus’ gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In that brief statement, there is a blinding light being projected, meant to illuminate the darkness which had covered these people for centuries. All of their messianic expectations needed to be revised, and all of their preferences reexamined. And this is why, perhaps, some may simply have preferred to turn the light back off rather than allow it to penetrate into their darkness.
Jesus didn’t focus on the benefits of being one of the chosen people. He didn’t celebrate the religious activities of the elite or promise blessings for obedience. At the same time, Jesus’ call to repent wasn’t a call to shame or guilt. It wasn’t a ridicule or a criticism. Instead, it was a call to a change of mind and heart—an invitation to turn around and go the right direction.
When in a darkened room, it is hard to see another person. If a person lives in darkness long enough, they lose their ability to see anyone or anything. If someone else is in the room with them, they wouldn’t know it, unless perhaps they heard them, because they wouldn’t see them. Jesus was inviting those who heard his message to see the reality that God was with them (in him) and they needed to turn around and get back into the face-to-face relationship with God they were created for. Jesus’ call to repent was a call to come back home, to live in the truth about who they were. Repent, Jesus says, and invites them into warm fellowship with himself, and thus with the Father in the Spirit.
Having reminded his listeners to come back into relationship with God through him, Jesus tells them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven is Matthew’s euphemism for the kingdom of God. In Jesus, God’s kingdom was present and real, being established in a new and real way in his person. As the one through whom and by whom all was created, the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus was the one who ruled over all that was made. As the king of the kingdom, present in person, Jesus was calling all people to turn around and participate with him in the reality of God’s reign over all.
And that’s the catch. That’s where we get up and reach for the switch to turn off the light. We don’t want God invading our space or telling us how to run our world or our own lives. We don’t want anyone dictating to us. And we most certainly don’t want to admit that perhaps we need a power beyond ourselves in order to solve our problems, fix our world and our relationships, or even to change ourselves. We dive deeply into anything we can get our hands on that might possibly solve our problem, or at least anesthetize us from the pain, because we certainly don’t want to have to surrender to God.
What is sad, is that we as Christians are often the most guilty about avoiding the light. We find so many ways in which to bury our heads in the ground or rewire the light switch so that we don’t have to face the reality that we have turned our backs upon our relationship with God or have abandoned our dependence upon the One who has redeemed and saved us.
The good news is that Jesus comes to dark places, places like Galilee, where for a time, darkness reigns. Jesus is the Son of God who temporarily set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity in order to turn us back to God. Jesus says to all of us, “Follow me,” and invites us to live and walk within his own personal relationship with Father in the Spirit. He encourages us to live life in relationship with him day by day, in the humility of total dependence upon him, and daily welcomes us come home. As we are willing, he shines his light into our dark places, bringing renewal, healing, and restoration, and a deeper experience of God’s love.
Thank you, Father, for including us through Jesus in relationship with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to turn away from ourselves and this world and to turn again to Jesus, allowing your light to penetrate down into the deepest and darkest places within ourselves. May we discover that in the blackest places, the light of Jesus already shines. Amen.
“Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a light dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.” Matthew 4:12–23 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/01/olitwhen-light-first-dawns.pdf ]
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Waking Up to Peace
by Linda Rex
December 4, 2022, ADVENT | Peace—We’ve made it through another election season here in America. We have yet to see the full ramifications of our choices. Some prognosticators are predicting worst case scenarios, while others are optimistic and hopeful. We can make lots of predictions, but the ultimate reality is we do not know what the future holds for us as a nation or as individuals.
It appears conflict is one way we exist as human beings. Even though we were designed with differences in mind for the sake of the greater good, we have yet to learn how to bring those differences together as a means of creating unity rather than division. What is meant to bring joy and variety to our lives so often ends up creating stress and heartache. How hard it is for us to learn to live together as unique, equal persons in oneness, peace and harmony!
On this second Sunday in Advent, we read Matthew 3:1–12 and are reminded of how John the Baptizer prepared the way for Jesus, baptizing people in the Jordan River. If we had lived in Jericho in that day, we would have heard the stories told in the marketplace about this strange man who lived in the uninhabited regions near the Jordan, who ate wild locusts and honey, and who baptized Jews—God’s own people who didn’t need to be baptized. We would have heard how he criticized the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and greed, and how he called all people to repent, for the kingdom of God was near.
But John didn’t come just for himself or simply to do an oddball, aesthetic ministry in the wilderness of Judea. No, John the Baptizer was certain he was meant to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah. He was given instructions to point out God’s gift to Israel, which John did when he saw the Lamb of God and baptized him. John knew in the larger scheme of things his own ministry would end, but that of the Messiah would expand to fill the whole universe.
John was not intimidated by people in authority. He told the religious leaders they could not count on their birthright as God’s chosen people to ensure they were in right relationship with God. Just because someone was born into the right family or had a position which they purchased from the Romans, this did not mean that they were right with God. How they lived their everyday lives and how they treated others around them spoke volumes about who they were and what their relationship with God really was. And for that reason, they needed to repent—to turn away from themselves and turn to Jesus, the One who was the king of the kingdom of God, which was being set up in their midst.
The psalmist in Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19 speaks of a king and of his son. Even though it was probably speaking of a human king, the Messianic implications of the psalmist’s poetry are clear:
“Give the king Your judgments, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s son. May he judge Your people with righteousness and Your afflicted with justice. Let the mountains bring peace to the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he vindicate the afflicted of the people, save the children of the needy and crush the oppressor. Let them fear You awhile the sun endures, And as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may the righteous flourish, and abundance of peace till the moon is no more. Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who alone works wonders. And blessed be His glorious name forever; And may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen” (NASB).
What the “king’s son” in this psalm would do is what Jesus did. As the Son of the divine King of Israel, Jesus’ purpose was to fill the earth with his Father’s glory and peace. Jesus, as God in human flesh, ensured that we as the image-bearers of the Triune God would in the end actually reflect God’s glory in the way he intended.
Think about the leaders to whom John the Baptizer was speaking. There must have been some who were really trying hard to do the right thing. But from what John was saying, too many of them were more concerned about the opinion of the people and keeping their positions of authority and prominence than they were about vindicating the afflicted, saving the children of the needy, and crushing the oppressor. And John said that there was someone in their midst, who he wasn’t even worthy to loosen the sandals of, who would do all these things.
The reality is, though, that often we are more like the religious leaders in this story than we are like the Messiah John the Baptizer was speaking of. We wrestle within ourselves, knowing that apart from the grace of God, we are the ones who are too concerned about other people’s opinions and keeping things in our lives how we want them to be. We are the ones who so often are indifferent to the needs and suffering of others. We are the ones seeking glory for ourselves at the expense of others. And this is why we have no peace, either within ourselves nor within our relationship with others and with God.
John’s message is simple, though. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” That message was one that Jesus also carried and passed on to his disciples. As the king of the kingdom, as the Son of the King over all, Jesus has come, is present now by his Spirit, and will return in glory to set up the new heavens and earth where God will dwell with man.
In the end, when Jesus finally returns to finish what he began centuries ago, we will see the culmination of all that began when the Triune God decided to share his loving relationship with those he had created. John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” echoes even today in this world where we still have not learned what it means to live at peace with one another or to be at peace with ourselves and with God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand because Christ has come, has lived our life, died our death and risen, bringing all of us home to his Father to share in that close, loving relationship he has always had in the Spirit.
Do we hear the echo in our own souls of John’s message and of Christ’s answering response? What is it we need to turn away from so that our sole focus is on Christ and what he is doing in our lives and in this world? How is it Jesus is wanting us to join with him in caring for others the same way he has cared for us? Today, in this moment, how will you and I heed the call by the Spirit, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?
Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. We realize that apart from you we have no peace, no hope, or joy. It is your love shed abroad in our hearts by your Spirit which changes us and changes our world. In this moment, Lord Jesus, we again turn away from ourselves and from this world and turn to you. Grant us anew the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.
“Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight!” ’ Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ ” Matthew 3:1–12 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/olitwaking-up-to-peace.pdf ]
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Go and Do the Same
By Linda Rex
July 10, 2022, PROPER 10—This blazing hot summer weather here in Tennessee has driven a colony of tiny black ants into my kitchen looking for water and food. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how busy and diligent they are in their daily business, but on the other rather irritating that I can’t seem to get them to change their mind about being in my house.
So often we find ourselves like the ants, diligently going about our daily business of life, while we don’t seem to realize the difficulties we are creating for others in our lives. We, as humans made to reflect the image of God, are meant to love God with all our being and to love others as we love ourselves. When we don’t do this and it is brought to our attention, our first instinct is to self-justify—to make excuses for or rationalize away our behavior.
It is amazing to what extent I can go in my own effort to justify things I’ve said or done that have caused harm to others. What is especially amazing is how we can even use our efforts to do good or to serve God as an excuse for unacceptable behavior or neglect. Sometimes our efforts at self-justification are so effective, we don’t even see this is what we are doing. What we need is a mirror to show us the truth about ourselves. But would we even accept the truth if we saw it?
The question that the lawyer asks in the gospel story for this Sunday, Luke 10:25–37, is a very good one. But it most certainly exposed the truth as to the lawyer’s stubborn resistance to loving all others, no matter whom they might be. “Who is my neighbor?” is a question that when honestly asked of ourselves, exposes our prejudices and our preferences, and opens us up to the possibility that we may need to repent or turn away from our own self-centeredness.
What about the man in Jesus’ story, who laid beaten, rejected, left for dead by the side of the road? Isn’t that the way Jesus ended up at the hands of those he came to save? Do we understand first of all that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Word of God, who came into our sphere of existence to live as one of us? Indeed, Jesus became a brother to every one of us, making himself our kinsman-redeemer, willing to suffer and die at the hands of those he created and made so that we might be welcomed home to the Father in the Spirit.
Taking this a bit farther, we find in this story that the Samaritan—the one who is considered an outcast and a heathen—is the only one who stops to join with the fallen traveler who laid dying by the side of the road. Our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection necessitates us accepting our own reality—that we are the outcasts, and that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, the only place where we find redemption, restoration and renewal.
When we find ourselves exposed as being unloving and inhumane, self-justifying may seem the easiest and most convenient response. It sure seems to come naturally to us. But its consequences are often bitter, eternal, and not easily remedied. A much more difficult and often painful, but significantly more appropriate and redeeming response, is to speak the truth in love, to confess what we actually did say, think or do, and to receive the grace we need, and to accept the challenge to make amends as is appropriate.
Why is it so difficult for us to be honest about our failures to love? Perhaps it is because we forget that confession and truth-telling are things that we do “in Christ”. It’s all of grace. It’s all an inclusion in what Christ did in sharing in our human flesh and bringing us through his death into resurrection and ascension. It is his confession and truth-telling as to the truth of who we are as God’s beloved children, forgiven and accepted, that we participate in—allowing ourselves to be exposed fully and yet at the same time being held in the midst of Christ’s love and grace.
When Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three men in his story proved to be a neighbor to the wounded traveler, it is interesting that the lawyer could not bring himself to even say the name Samaritan. He bypassed this name and said instead, “the one who showed him mercy.” It must have burned his heart and mind to have to admit that someone so despised and rejected might possibly have done what he knew in his spirit he might not have done had he been in the same circumstance.
Christ was willing to pay the ultimate price for our healing, health, and wholeness so that we, through him, could live in intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Like the Samaritan who told the innkeeper to do whatever was needed and to charge it to his account, Jesus has done all that was needed for each of us to find healing and wholeness, and continues to stand in our place, interceding for us in each moment in our relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
How beautiful is Jesus’ simple command, “Go and do the same”! If showing mercy is God’s way of being, and he has expressed that to us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and gives us his Spirit so Christ’s life may find its full expression in and through us, then we are to be people of mercy just as God is merciful. Our acts of mercy come out of God’s heart poured into ours by the Spirit, and are not limited by any of the distinctions we tend to put upon our interactions with others. As the apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NASB).
This is a challenge for us as followers of Christ. Do we make room for those who don’t know Christ to come to know him and to grow in their relationship with God? Do we make room for people to be who they are, while inviting them to become all God created them to be? This is where love becomes a decision, a choice—an action of our will by the power of the Holy Spirit. To “go and do the same” is to walk in the path Jesus forged for us and gives us by his Spirit. May we bravely and courageously love as he first loved us.
Dear Father, thank you for loving us in spite of all our ugliness and willfulness, and our petty grievances against one another. Thank you for your forgiveness—we desperately need it and receive it humbly and gratefully. Grant us the grace to love others as you have first loved us, for Christ’s sake and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; “Do this and you will live.”’ But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied and said, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.” Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?’ And he said, ‘The one who showed mercy toward him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do the same.’” Luke 10:25–37 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/07/go-and-do-the-sameb.pdf ]
Clearing the Way for Fruit
By Linda Rex
March 20, 2022, 3rd Sunday in PREPARATION FOR EASTER OR LENT—Today our neighbor is having her fence replaced. One of the blessings that came with it was the removal of a small tree next to our shed which had been holding up her fence. It is amazing how the removal of this one misplaced tree enabled us to clean up some things next to the shed we hadn’t been able to reach, while at the same time facilitated the installation of something new which our neighbor was needing done.
As I was studying the readings for this Sunday, I was struck with how this little event in my day coincided with the Word of God for today. The gospel reading tells us about people coming to Jesus with a couple of stories of how several people lost their lives—some in a Roman bloodbath within the temple grounds, and some when a tower fell on them. The common thought of the day was that if something bad like this happened to you, it was because you were a horrific sinner and you were getting what you deserved.
Jesus told them that this wasn’t the case at all—that’s not how his Father works. Instead of worrying about the spiritual condition of the people who died in these events, Jesus’ listeners were admonished to consider their own spiritual condition. He pointed out that they needed to be sure they were right with God themselves rather than focusing on the sinfulness of others.
Isn’t this typical of us, though? I remember years ago when God woke me up to the reality that I needed to quit focusing on the faults of my spouse and others, and start looking at my own issues. You and I are unable to change another person or fix them. The only person we have any control over is ourself, and there is extreme doubt that we can even regulate ourself—we are utterly dependent upon God making us what we need to be by his Holy Spirit. For that reason, we need to do what Jesus was telling these people here to do—repent. We need to experience a change of mind and heart as well as action—a turning away from ourselves to Christ in faith.
After reminding his listeners of their need to repent, Jesus told a story about a vineyard owner who had a fig tree that, after three years, still hadn’t borne any fruit. The owner told the vineyard keeper to cut it away, removing it because it was occupying space needed for production. It was hindering the growth of everything else by blocking the sun, and was taking up resources that were needed for the other plants and trees to be fruitful. The vineyard keeper, like Christ did for all of us by the way, interceded on behalf of the fig tree. He said he would dig around the tree, fertilize it and give it another year to see if it would finally bear fruit.
The point is, there are things in our lives which may simply not be fruit-bearing. Sometimes the things we believe about God or ourselves are inaccurate, misplaced, or even toxic, and they need to be removed so that healthier patterns and beliefs may take their place, and we may begin to bear spiritual fruit. Sometimes the issues may be so small and seemingly insignificant, we miss them, and don’t realize they are symptomatic of some bigger issues—things we need to face up to and repent of so that God can bring us to a healthier, more wholesome way of living and being.
Sometimes the way we read the written Word of God is part of the problem. We may need to go a little deeper in our own personal study of God’s Word rather than just going by what other people say about it. Let me give a couple of examples, drawn from the readings for this Sunday.
First, we read in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 about how God in Christ walked with the nation of Israel through the wilderness, being the spiritual rock from which they drank and drew their life. When someone is, like I am now, going through a time of intense trial and difficulty, people have a tendency to say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” They believe they are quoting 1 Corinthians 10:13, when it actually says: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (NASB). If you look at the context of this verse, you will find that the apostle Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about difficult times or trials. Jesus is the way of escape from temptations to sin, and he taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13).
A kinder, better statement for someone going through tough times, I believe, is that Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He may not keep us from the flames of fire, but like he did with Daniel’s three friends, he will stay with us in the midst of those flames and carry us through to the other side (Dan. 3). We can be truthful with the text at the same time we are compassionate with the person who is hurting, thereby avoiding toxicity and unhealthy spirituality.
Another passage in the readings for today which leapt out at me is Isaiah 55:6–9. When we are faced with difficult or confusing situations or hard times, I often hear people quote verse 9, pointing out that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
I’m all for God being way beyond anything I could be as a human. But the context of this particular passage is about grace. It’s a call to repentance, to turn back to God. It’s about God not looking at sinful people the way that we look at them, or the way we look at ourselves and God when we fail to live the way we know we ought to. God is offering his grace, his mercy, if only we would just turn away from ourself and turn back to him.
Just like the people Jesus was talking to in the gospel passage for this Sunday, we often get focused away from where God would like our focus to be—turning away from ourself and turning to Christ in faith. I’ve been thinking about why we go to church—is it so that we can get a free meal, or help with our bills, or so that we can feel better about ourselves? Or is it part of a personal relationship with the God who has called us to himself in Christ by the Spirit and is wanting us to be a part of what he is doing in the world? Yes, we need to experience God’s love through the good deeds done for us, but shouldn’t we be going beyond that to sharing God’s love with others, once we have experienced the profound goodness and mercy of God?
God is so incredibly patient and generous with us. He continues to bury us with Christ that we might once again rise with him to new life. Christ was willing to be the fertilizer in the ground, placed in the earth so that we might be given the ability to produce lasting spiritual fruit. He offers himself to us, inviting us to turn from ourselves and to turn to him in faith, allowing him produce spiritual fruit in us by the Holy Spirit, as we open up to One who is the Light of the world. May we respond to him in faith, trusting he will finish what he has begun in us.
Thank you, Father, for not cutting us out, but allowing your Son and your Spirit to intercede for us, drawing us deeper into life with you. Grant us the grace to ever turn to you in faith, trusting in your faithful love and mercy, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ And He began telling this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” And he answered and said to him, “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.” ’ ” Luke 13:1–9 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/clearing-the-way-for-fruit.pdf%5D
Preparing for a Royal Visit
By Linda Rex
December 5, 2021, ADVENT | Peace—As a college student, we took a class trip our senior year to Palm Springs, California. This city is located in the Sonoran Desert, so it hot in the summer and very dry. Since growing anything of significance in southern California requires the use of water, which was often in limited supply, it was common to see rock gardens blended with cacti, succulents and palm trees in the front yards of homes and businesses.
There are a variety of stones used to create rock gardens. Today, one can purchase large bags of pea gravel or attractive polished rocks at a do-it-yourself home supply store or even have a truckload of these products delivered to one’s front door. Here in Tennessee, we have contractors blasting rock, digging it out and removing it in order to build a home and create an attractive front yard. There they were filling their yards with rocks!
But this whole discussion about rocks came about because I was thinking about what Luke said John the Baptizer was doing when he came into Judea before the coming of Christ. He said that he was preparing the way before the Messiah. Back in those days, when a ruler was planning to visit a particular place, an announcement was sent ahead, telling the people to prepare the road. They would go out and clear all the rocks off the road so that the visiting dignitary wouldn’t be jostled about, nor end up with a broken axle or wheel on his conveyance.
Having lived some time on a farm in southeast Iowa, I know what it is like to try to travel on a gravel road or, even worse, a dirt road. And this is while driving a car. All it takes is one large rock in the wrong place and you are in serious trouble. Or if the road isn’t level—many times they had a large mound in the middle or a deep, muddy hole a tire could get stuck in—you would end up stuck or broken down, and not being able to get safely where you needed to go.
Since most of us today here in America travel on asphalt, and apart from the occasional pothole, do not face these types of issues, we may find it difficult to understand fully the importance of John’s message. For many of us, the hard work of removing the rocks and leveling the road has already been done. We take for granted that we can safely travel from one city to another at a high rate of speed on interstate highways which extend for miles in every direction. We also assume that we can, apart from road construction or accidents, easily travel back and forth from work, school, or the store.
What we need to realize is that what Jesus did for us was to create this amazing paved road to life in the kingdom of God in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—and then he gave us the ability to travel it by sending his Spirit from the Father to dwell in human hearts as we place our trust in him and his finished work. We celebrate an important step in this amazing work of redemption during Advent as we prepare, in a sense, for the coming of the Messiah in the incarnation. John’s message is important because it reminds us that, apart from the coming of Christ, our road is unlevel and full of rocks and obstructions.
John’s call to prepare the way involves the call to repentance and baptism for the remission of sins. By necessity, we need to discern the difference between just feeling bad because we messed up or sorry because we got caught and are experiencing consequences, and truly being repentant. Biblical repentance involves a change in both one’s mind and heart. It involves a turning away from one’s self and one’s own will, and a turning toward Christ and his will. To repent in this way means a total change in one’s direction and way of living. It’s the beginning of a lifelong journey on the kingdom path of God’s righteousness being worked out in us by the Spirit, as we grow up into Christlikeness.
But this awareness of need and turning away from sin, Satan, and self is a lifelong process. We never want to take this level road Christ has given us for granted. It is good to ponder the message of John and ask ourselves again: What rocks of sin, Satan, and self are lying about in my soul today? What do I keep tripping over or crashing into, forcing my life to come to a complete stop? How deep a rut am I caught in right now that is tearing up my heart and destroying my relationships and my health? Perhaps it would be good to reflect a moment on the message of John—prepare the way of the Lord.
We, as the body of Christ, have often taken this message—prepare the way of the Lord—to mean that we need to preach the gospel in order to hasten the second coming of Christ. It is a good thought, and I would not want to resist what positive affect it may have on our spiritual renewal and preparation for Christ’s return. But I humbly submit that perhaps there is another preparation for the way of the Lord we need to consider—the preparing of our hearts and minds anew to receive the gift of the Christ child—of Christ in us, the hope of glory.
Are we open to the coming and presence of God by the Holy Spirit within our souls right now, in each and every moment? Is there someway in which perhaps we need to take seriously the call to repentance that we have previously ignored? What have we put in the place that only Jesus Christ should have in our minds and hearts? Are we living in the realization that all of our life is in Christ, and that every moment is meant to be filled with his presence and power by the Spirit?
It is hard to move forward in life when we are constantly dealing with the rocks of sin, self, and Satan. Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders of his day was not about their devotion to God and his ways, but for their arrogance in believing they did not need to repent of their sins and be baptized in his baptism in the Spirit. Could it be that our struggle even as followers of Christ today is that we are so sure we are traveling the right path and are rightly related to God that we are missing the simple reminder, prepare the way of the Lord?
Jesus has come, he has offered us the free pardon of grace. He has paved the way. But do we recognize the reality that we are traveling on an unlevel road filled with rocks and holes and ruts? Repent—turn around—go the other way, he calls to us. Trade in your path for my easy path. Make a way—clear a path—these are all the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives. But God calls us to participate by doing our part—repent and believe. Be washed in baptism, if you haven’t taken that step. Then feed on Christ—on his life, poured into you through his Word and by his Spirit, and in joining together with other believers as we share communion. This is the easy path forged for us in Christ. We receive it daily by faith, in gratitude for all God has done, as we travel daily down this road called life.
Dear heavenly Father, thank you for creating in Christ and by the Spirit a path to travel in life that is free from the rocks and obstructions of Satan, sin, and self. As we travel day by day, grant us the grace and humility to remain repentant and to ever make way for your royal coming and presence through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every ravine will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be brought low; the crooked will become straight and the rough roads smooth; and all flesh will see the salvation of God.” ’ ” Luke 3:3–6 (1–6) NASB
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on ‘before the Lord to prepare his ways’; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, ‘to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death’, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:76–79 (68–79) NASB
Finding That Endless Supply
By Linda Rex
August 1, 2021, PROPER 13—There is something about the story of King David that resonates with me today. Here was a man who sought to live his life in a way that showed a dependency on and trust in God that few people experience. The lad who trusted the Lord to deliver him from the lion and the bear is the young man who trusted he could conquer the giant Goliath—and he did, with a simple stone from a sling.
After hiding for many years from King Saul, who sought to kill him, David learned to trust in the Lord’s leading, telling him when to move so that he and his men would be safe. As David took on his role as king over the ancient Israelites after King Saul’s death, he eventually took the city of Jerusalem and made it his own. King David and his army were busy for many years putting the enemies of the nation to flight. He was a charismatic and powerful political leader who for the most part, sought to live and reign with justice and integrity.
As we look at David’s life as king of Israel, though, we find some significant flaws in this hero. On one occasion, David didn’t go to war with his army—he stayed home and got himself into trouble. He committed adultery with the wife of Uriah, and when she became pregnant, he tried to fix it by making the child look like Uriah’s child. When Uriah wouldn’t cooperate, he sent him into battle with a note for the general Joab to put him on the frontlines and make sure he died (which he did).
King David valued the counsel of Nathan the prophet. After Bathsheba mourned Uriah’s death, David married her and their child was born. David had disguised his sin the best that he could, but there were some people who knew the truth of what he had done—his failure was a serious issue for him as a leader. Nathan came to him and tactfully told David a story about a man who stole a favored lamb from a poor man and used it to provide a meal for his guest. King David was infuriated by the story and demanded the greedy man’s death. Intrepid Nathan replied, “You are that man” (2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a).
How often do we come up against the reality, “You are that person”? What excuses, rationalizations, or reasonings do we use to avoid the truth, that we are the one who did that deed or failed to do what is needed or sought our life in places that only ended in death? How do we come to an acceptance of so grave a failure to love or obey the One who created us? It is tough to have the humility to own the truth. And we must. We must be willing to allow God to be the truthful One, the just One—the One who knows us completely, inside and out—and yet, loves us.
So often we live as King David did in that dark time in his life, seeking to feed the hunger and thirst of our soul with tangible, physical things which don’t last and which eventually turn out to be things which hold us captive or drain us of faith, hope, and love, bringing death and destruction into our lives. The king in this story did the right thing though when he woke up, the only thing which could bring any redemption whatsoever into his life—he repented and turned back to God. We see that he moved into prayer, fasting, and great humility, seeking God’s face and his mercy.
Psalm 51 is a song David wrote about his humble and honest acceptance of responsibility for what he had done and his desire to make things right in whatever way he could. What David sought was more than just an amendment of his moral behavior. It was a making right of his relationship with God. This is the key—he trusted in God’s gracious provision of forgiveness and reconciliation, and genuinely sought it out. He committed himself to life transformation at the hands of God, knowing he could never do it himself, on his own.
This brings me to the gospel story for this Sunday. The crowds were thrilled when Jesus fed them bread and fish, and sought to make him their political ruler. Jesus’ wilderness temptation came again as the crowd, satisfied with physical food, began to push for Christ to be king. Instead of yielding to their demands, Jesus sent his disciples away and dismissed the crowd. Jesus understood the profound difference between the physical hunger which drove them and the spiritual hunger in them which needed to be fed. Having poured himself out for them to provide for their physical needs, he sought to be filled anew himself in the one way which had eternal significance—he went up onto the mountain to pray. Jesus knew the true Source of life—and it wasn’t bread and fish.
The next day as the crowds sought him out on the other side of the sea, Jesus told them that they weren’t seeking what really mattered. They wanted him to feed their stomachs—he wanted to feed them spiritual food, food that would last on into eternity. They were seeking to provide for their physical needs in this life, while they needed to be much more concerned about their spiritual need for redemption and salvation. They were asking what works they needed to be doing in order to do the works of God. Jesus replied that there was only one work of God they needed to be doing and that was to believe in him, the One God had sent.
The crowds wanted Jesus to prove that he was greater than Moses. They believed that for forty years, Moses had provided manna, bread from heaven, in the wilderness (Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15). Jesus reminded them that Moses wasn’t the one who had provided food for the people—the “I Am”, their covenant God, had provided it. He was the One who had taken care of feeding them during their wilderness travels. Sadly, in spite of his gracious provision during those forty years, the ancient Israelites did not simply trust God to care for them but often complained and criticized Moses and Aaron instead (Psalm 78).
Jesus emphatically proclaimed that in the wilderness, his Father had provided them with the manna they needed to sustain them, but it wasn’t the bread of life. The One who descended from heaven, he said, is the One who is the true bread who gives life. Then Jesus made, as John records it, one of his signature “I Am” statements: “I am the bread of life.” Jesus wasn’t talking about providing for the physical needs of the crowd, but rather, their spiritual needs—their need for the zōē life of God, eternal life or new life which would be theirs in Christ, who was God in human flesh (John 6:24–40).
Like the woman at the well, the crowds sought an endless supply for their physical hunger and thirst. But Jesus was offering an endless supply for their spiritual hunger and thirst. He was offering himself as the Source of this genuine life. What they needed was not another meal or the fulfillment of their physical needs. What they needed was faith—to come to him and to believe in him. They needed to turn away from solely trying to satisfy their own needs through physical means and to trust him to supply every need they might have.
The Father sent Jesus so that every human being could be offered and receive eternal life in Christ. The genuine bread of life is Jesus Christ, the one who came to live, die, and rise again—taking our humanity into new life, into the presence of the Father now and forever in the Spirit. We find our true sustenance by living in an ongoing, trusting relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit. As we turn away from ourselves and the things of this life and turn to Christ, we find fulfillment, rest and renewal as we grow in Christlikeness. We find, as we trust in him to meet every need, that he is faithful and gracious in his care of us.
Today, not all of us struggle to make ends meet or wonder where we are going to find the money for next week’s groceries. Some of us do. Yes, we need to do our part in providing for ourselves by doing an honest day’s work as we are able to. But our true dependency needs to be on the One who holds all things in his hand, the true Source of our life—the Bread of Heaven, Jesus Christ. We need to turn away from those things we try to find our life in and seek to find our true life in the One who feeds us with his very Self. By faith, we are brought in Christ into a new way of living and being that will last for all eternity as we walk and talk day by day with our Triune God who is love.
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending us the true bread of life, your Son Jesus Christ, and for providing for all we need for life and godliness. Thank you for pouring out your Spirit so that we might participate in your very life, now and forever, as Father, Son and Spirit. Grant us the grace to depend upon you alone for all we need, and to seek first and foremost the true spiritual life which is ours in Christ. Amen.
“Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.’ Then they said to Him, ‘Lord, always give us this bread.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.’” John 6:32–35 (24–40) NASB
God’s Word to a Sinful People
By Linda Rex
January 24, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—One of the fun Bible stories put into film by Veggie Tales was that of Jonah the prophet, who was eaten by a large fish and then spit up on the shore near Nineveh three days later. Not many people today have much faith in the miracle of this story, but it is one of the signs which Jesus said pointed toward his death and resurrection. Beyond Jonah being the big fish’s dinner is an element of the story which touches all of us and speaks to much of what we are facing today as a nation, and as a world.
With the number of deaths due to COVID-19 reaching beyond the two million mark, we are faced with the reality of the transience of human life and the fragility of its existence. We are impacted by the limitations of our circumstances and where we live—we may never see the blessing of a vaccine if we do not live in a country where they are provided and paid for. And if we choose the option to not receive this vaccine, what will be the impact on those around us whom we may infect or be infected by? What has been happening lately illustrates powerfully that what we do as individuals has consequences—not just for us, but for everyone else around us.
The story of Jonah speaks to the reality that every nation or people group, no matter its history or military prowess, has to answer to God for its conduct and the way its citizens conduct their lives. God told Jonah that the people of Nineveh were so overcome by evil and depravity that they were facing destruction—but later explained to Jonah that the people simply did not know their right hand from their left. In other words—they didn’t know any better. Jonah, whether he liked it or not, was sent to the Ninevites to help them see they needed to change—to turn away from their evil ways, and to begin living the way they were meant to live.
The church in many ways has failed our nation and the world by not simply helping people know they are loved and accepted, and that there are healthier ways of being in which we can and should live. So often as believers we have been happy to wish upon others God’s flaming judgment of destruction, just as Jonah sat up on the hill waiting to see God pour down flames of fire on Nineveh in response to their sin. We must never forget that God’s heart is not for any person’s destruction, but rather their salvation. It is more important to God that people see they are wrong, turn away from their sin to him in faith, and begin to live in outgoing love and service, than that they pay a painful and destructive consequence for the evil they are doing.
When Jesus arrived on the scene in Galilee following John the Baptizer’s imprisonment, he told the people that the time was fulfilled, the kingdom of God was at hand, and they were to repent and believe the gospel. He called people to believe and live out the good news of God’s love for humanity expressed in Christ—the One who revealed to us the Triune God who lives in other-centered love, unity, and equality as Father, Son, and Spirit. In Christ’s birth and as he lived here on earth, the Son of God inaugurated the kingdom of God. As the king of the kingdom, he called people to turn away from themselves and their sinful ways toward him in faith. Jesus spent time teaching disciples who were called to create new disciples, who would continue to expand this kingdom with more and more disciples or followers of Christ.
God’s word to Jonah as he sat waiting to see Nineveh get what it deserved is his word to the Church today. Are we waiting for Jesus to come and set everything to rights by bringing death and destruction to everything and everyone we believe is evil? Or do we recognize the simple truth that all people, including ourselves, simply do not fully realize what it means to be God’s beloved, those meant to be his adopted children who were created to love God and one another in other-centered love and humble service?
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward those he believed were unworthy of God’s love initially motivated him to try to avoid going to Nineveh at all. The ship he got on was headed for Tarshish instead. As believers, what ship are we on? Are we seeking the healing, transformation, renewal, and blessing of those who have different ideologies or beliefs than us, or whose background, status, or position in society is different than ours? Do we pray for, encourage, help, support, and speak words of life into those who just can’t seem to get beyond their addictions, poverty, or mental illness? Or do we avoid them, insult them, or even worse, seek their ostracism or destruction?
Jonah told the men on the boat headed for Tarshish as the storm grew stronger and stronger that they should just toss him over the side of the ship. He would rather have died than have done the simple thing God wanted him to do—call a people to repentance so that they would not die. Are we more willing to bury ourselves in our personal interests, agendas, and activities than to help others hear God’s word to them and to know that they are loved, and that God does not want their destruction, but rather, their salvation?
The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 reminds us that the world in its present form is passing away. In time, all that we see around us will be either completely different or entirely gone. We are only passing through—we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom which will last forever, long after everything we see, feel, touch, taste, and hear is gone. Surely, we want to encourage each and every person we know to make a better choice, to choose a better way, than the path to desolation, separation, or isolation they are currently on. There is a way that leads to destruction and death, and then there is a way that leads to life and relationship, healing and renewal.
Jesus says to us, “Follow me.” His call to discipleship, to follow him and his ways, is a call to immediate action. Just as Jonah’s message was emphatic and urgent (within 40 days), Jesus’ message is also emphatic and urgent. Participate in the kingdom life now—don’t wait! This is the heart we are to express toward each and every person in our lives—now is the time of salvation! The kingdom of God has come in Christ and will be established in its fullness when he comes in glory to set up the new heavens and new earth. One precious blessing we will experience then will be life with each and every person with which we have had the privilege of sharing this good news today. What a great reason to get busy sharing the good news right now!
Dear Lord, thank you for your forgiveness of our refusal to share the good news with others. Thank you for resisting and working against our prejudices, our hatred, and our condemnation of others. Grant us the grace to receive your correction, to accept your heart of love and grace toward all people, and to embrace the urgency of sharing the good news of Jesus. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
“Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.” Mark 1:14-20 NASB
See also Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:9–12.
The Boundary of Grace
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.
Pending Judgment–Part IV
By Linda Rex
So far in this series, I have written about how Christ is our reconciliation and perfect relationship with our Abba, but often we seek to hide our sin and brokenness rather than humbly bringing it into the light of God’s love so we can live fully in the reconciliation which is ours in Christ Jesus. I showed how Scripture shows that even though it may seem from our human view that God loves some people more than others and even though our current experience may make us believe otherwise, each of us individually is a beloved child of Abba, included in God’s love and life through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit.
People who do not know God or believe in Christ are still participants in God’s life and love, even as they resist any attempt God makes at drawing them closer to himself. They are still included in God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ and God allows them to be a part of what he is doing in the world. Even though the part they play may be a negative or passive one, Christ still seeks expression by the Spirit through them and God continues to work to bring about his will here on earth as it is in heaven. But these people do not experience the benefits of what Christ has worked out in restoring our right relationship with Abba because they do not believe.
How is it possible for someone who does not believe in God or Jesus to participate in God’s love and life? Well, first of all, no one has any existence whatsoever apart from Jesus Christ. We read in Colossians 1:15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (NASB)” We don’t exist independently of God even though we often act like we do and make decisions as if we do. Our ignorance or disbelief does not stop God from loving us and caring for us. He makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust, and often intervenes in situations because he feels compassion for someone rather than just because they believe or are obedient to him.
Secondly, when the Word took on our human flesh, he joined our humanity with God’s divinity in hypostatic union—a union which is very real, but not participated in or experienced by us as human beings except by faith in Jesus by the Spirit. Our active participation in Christ’s perfected humanity by faith means we are able to experience the benefits of living in Christ’s perfect harmony with Abba by the Spirit. We are able to experience and live in warm fellowship with the indwelling Christ, who with Abba and by the Spirit, takes up residence in human hearts and begins to transform them from the inside out. Someone who does not know or believe in Jesus may be a passive participant, while the reconciliation which Jesus made possible remains one-sided and their relationship with God stunted and incomplete.
God is at work in this world in many ways—just look around. He’s feeding people, teaching people, healing people, protecting people. People participate in what God is doing in this world in ways sometimes they don’t even recognize. I was thinking of that earlier this week as I grabbed some clothes out of the dryer and began folding them. My usual thought is frustration at having to take the time to do this mundane chore. But this time the Spirit snuck right in there and gave me a heart of gratitude that I had clothes to fold. Then the next thought I had was, I am folding clothes with Jesus, participating with him in the care of the home he has given me to use and take care of. All of a sudden, I didn’t mind so much having to get this chore done because I was doing it with Jesus.
When we think in terms of our existence as being entered into by and shared in a real way with our Lord Jesus Christ, we begin to see other people are included in the same manner in God’s life. The garbage truck came by today and gathered up all the garbage in the cans pushed out to the street. Those diligent men participated in Christ’s effort to keep this world a little cleaner. Was what they did exactly how Jesus might do it if he were here? No, probably not. But in many ways, the way we participate with Jesus in things is like the toddler pushing a little plastic mower as he follows his dad pushing the big gas-powered mower across the lawn. Our efforts are feeble and broken, but we share in a real way with what God is doing in this world in and through Jesus Christ. It’s all about relationship—God’s relationship with us is secure in Christ, and we are free to respond or not to in return.
Lastly, when we look at what God is doing in the world, we need to be reminded that God’s thoughts and ways are much different than ours. He is a relational God, and much of what he does is wrapped up in creating and restoring relationships between himself and us and between each of us. When we look at events in the Old Testament, and God’s covenant relationship with Israel, we must remember God’s overall intent was the redemption of all humanity, not just working with a particular person or people.
And we need to remember God exists beyond our human time while at the same time entering into our time in and through Jesus. So we cannot look at God’s involvement in human affairs merely from a linear point of view, with one event happening after the other. We need to grasp the possibilities which were opened up in the incarnation of Christ including the reality of his being the beginning and the ending of all things, the Alpha and the Omega.
The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, spoke about the Jews as stumbling over the stumbling block who is Christ, but only so that the Gentiles could be gathered in. He gives the impression that in due time many who were lost will be gathered in at a later date as they come to understand and trust in the grace of God offered us through Jesus Christ. But he also in that same context, uses the word “remnant” to describe the Jews, as though only a few would be saved.
Jesus made an interesting observation about the people who died when the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by him, as well as those killed in the cities of Tyre and Sidon. He told the seventy when he sent them out to preach the gospel, heal and cast out demons that they should expect to be rejected by some people. In that case, he said:
“But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom than for that city. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will be brought down to Hades! The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (Luke 10:10-16 NASB).
Jesus indicated that given the opportunity, these people who died would have repented if they had seen or experienced the miracles Jesus was doing. They would have humbled themselves and responded to the gospel of Jesus with humility and repentance. He said it would go better in the final judgment for these pagan unbelieving Gentiles than it would for those who had heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and refused it in these places Jesus had sent his disciples.
It is because of these and other passages in Scripture that I have some reservations about condemning all past unbelievers straight into hell. If Jesus believed they would have repented if given the opportunity, why would he ignore that and just reject and condemn them? If Jesus is God’s final judgment on sin and death, perhaps we need to rethink how we approach this whole topic. Instead of approaching it in terms of cause and effect, we should approach it in terms of relationship—the relationship Jesus forged for all humanity with his Abba in his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and which he has made available to all in and through his Holy Spirit. Why assume that God is indifferent to or has rejected each and every idolatrous person throughout history, when his ultimate purpose was to include them all in his love and life?
The apostle Paul wrote: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:32-36 NASB). There is a centrality to Christ which we must keep in mind when thinking about judgment and the ways of God. We don’t want to limit God’s grace and love, but we also must acknowledge there are consequences to refusing to live in the truth of who we are in Jesus. God is not willing that any perish (2 Peter 3:9) but there are some who have clung to the blindness of Satan which has twisted their souls and have refused to turn and repent.
In any case, each and every person is loved by God and forgiven in Jesus, and blessed with the presence of the Spirit in their lives. They are free to receive this or reject it. As they go through life the Spirit continues to work to draw them deeper into relationship with their Abba and to trust in what Jesus has done for them. What God will do for each and every person after they die, then, is fully up to Jesus, for he is both the Judge and the Judged.
Dear Abba, thank you for all you have done for us in Jesus. We are grateful to share life with you and to participate with you in all the things you are doing in this world through Jesus and in the Spirit. May we respond fully with gratitude, humility, repentance, and trust as you draw us to yourself. We give you the praise and glory, and in your Name Jesus, we pray. Amen.
“And the LORD said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.’ Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the LORD. Abraham came near and said, ‘Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not 1spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?’” Genesis 18:20-25 NASB