By Linda Rex
PROPER 9—This morning the thought came to me that perhaps we as human beings expend way too much energy trying to fix ourselves or even other people. It’s interesting how many books can be found under the self-help and psychology signs at a big bookstore. So many ways to straighten ourselves out!
Indeed, as Christians we can easily be tempted to turn our walk of faith into a self-help program or a means by which we make ourselves good enough that we will be fit for heaven. So often, people speak of their eternal future in question marks, wondering if they will qualify or overcome enough that God will let them in when the time comes.
And even when it comes to our relationship with God, we often believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we can only approach God in prayer if we are on his good side, having behaved properly and not having anything in our lives which might be cause for criticism or condemnation. So much of our lives may be lived by the rule book and living by the rules makes it easy for us to discern whether or not we are on God’s good side or bad side, so we know whether or not it is safe to approach him when we are in trouble. The only problem is, if we are honest with ourselves, no matter how hard we try to keep all the rules, we fail.
The struggle with guilt and shame is real. Some therapists and counselors teach methods of getting rid of guilt and shame as though it weren’t real, while others realize that these are symptoms of something deeper which needs healing and renewal. The truth is, God never meant for us to live oppressed by guilt or shame or any other negative, destructive emotion. God meant for us to live at peace with him and the other people in our lives, and at peace within ourselves. This is why he sent Jesus.
As the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus was full of grace and truth. In Jesus, we see God’s very Word written into our humanity—our way of being lived out in a tangible way here on earth, in a way which we could hear, see, touch, and experience. If we want rules to live by, we need only the Person of Jesus Christ, the law expressed in his very being written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In Christ, the truth of our being was accompanied by grace though, and was expressed fully as Jesus took our humanity with him through the crucifixion into the grave and out the other side in glory.
The problem we have with Jesus is often the reality that trusting in him and in his completed work means we lose control over the final outcome for ourselves and for others. In other words, it becomes a work of faith rather than a work of our flesh. Our acceptance by God is not won by our merit or our efforts, but solely by the Son of God who stood and stands in our place and on our behalf. We cannot boast about anything, as the apostle Paul points out, except “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).
You may remember the story of Naaman, the captain of the army of the king of Aram who was afflicted with leprosy. A captive Israelite girl told his wife he should go to the prophet in Samaria so he could be healed. Eventually Naaman made his way to Elisha’s house. The prophet didn’t talk with him face to face, but rather sent a messenger to tell him if he went and washed seven times in the Jordan River, he would be restored and made clean.
This made Naaman furious. He assumed Elisha would do some great miracle-working action or would speak some fancy words over him. He knew in his mind what it was going to take to get well. Feeling insulted, he reminded himself that his nation’s rivers were better than the Jordan River. It seems he thought his healing should be on his terms—he believed this Israelite prophet was insulting and demeaning him by asking this simple request of him. So he began to head for home.
Thankfully, he listened to his servants when they reminded him that if he had been asked to do something big, he would have done it—why not do this little thing? So Naaman humbled himself and went to the Jordan River and washed himself seven times. In the end he was healed, but only because of this simple act of trusting obedience.
So often we refuse God’s simple instruction to us—wash and be cleansed. We want to follow a difficult plan or program to make ourselves better. It is good to practice spiritual disciplines, but not to make ourselves right with God and not to fix ourselves or anyone else. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, fasting, and worship are ways in which we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. In other words, they are ways in which we simply come and are cleansed in Christ’s perfect work and participate in an ongoing relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit.
God calls us to renewal and says to you and me—wash and be clean. Christ’s blood and broken body are the place where we experience renewal and transformation, healing and freedom from guilt and shame. We can keep trying to free ourselves by our own efforts and in our own way, or we can simply be washed in Christ. In baptism we acknowledge that we died with Christ and rose with Christ—we are made new in him. The Spirit is at work in us bringing this reality to fruition within our beings.
Our efforts do not accomplish this. Rather, they are a participation in what Jesus has already done in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Healing, renewal, and transformation are a gift from God, as the Spirit makes the finished work of Jesus a reality in each of us individually. As we trust in Christ and respond to the indwelling Spirit of God—sowing to the Spirit, not to the flesh—we reap eternal life. We participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba in the Spirit, and find we are cleansed, healed, and made new. And the only thing left for us to do is to give our gratitude and praise to God.
Abba, we thank you for the gift of new life, of healing, renewal, and transformation in Jesus. Thank you for your Spirit, your presence and power at work in us, with us, and for us. We praise you, for you are worthy. Finish what you have begun, even as you have promised. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
“Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, ‘My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, “Wash, and be clean”?’” 2 Kings 5:13 NASB
By Linda Rex
One of the Bible characters I admired most when I was younger was Daniel. I was impressed by the way even though he was overwhelmed with adverse circumstances throughout his life, he still came out on top. His devotion to God in the face of an anti-God culture has always been inspiring to me.
In his day, tyrants and despots ruled the known world. They believed they could move people about like pawns on a chess board (Sound like anyone we know today?). When Judah was conquered by Babylon, many of the people were carried away from their homes and taken to a new location. Daniel, a child of Israelite nobility, was along with others like himself, taken away from his country and family and placed in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace.
Now, true, Daniel was given the opportunity for three years to learn things many other people never had the privilege of learning. He was offered the finest of foods and wines and was being prepared to enter the king’s service. These were unimagined opportunities which no doubt other people longed for, but he had to pay a high price—giving up his nation, his people, and his God.
From the beginning, though, Daniel determined he would not sacrifice his personhood or his faith in God for the sake of this ruler and his political ambitions. He first risked the wrath of the king by asking to alter his diet to match the humble requirements of his faith—and was given permission to make the change. Throughout his life he came up against the simple question, do I do what is politically expedient and participate in evil plans, or do I stand for what is true and just, and do what I believe my God says I am to do?
The unique thing about Daniel is that he understood what his ruler did not fully understand—there is a God, and he is Lord of all. When he was a young child, he was forcibly removed from his family, taken to a new land, and put into a new environment. He had no control over what was done to him during this whole experience. But he did have faith in the God who did have control over it all, that he would work it out in the end for his best. And God did orchestrate Daniel’s life in amazing ways, allowing him and his Jewish companions to participate in bearing witness to the Babylonians about who God was.
We as human beings are often very arrogant. We presume to make decisions and to assume control of things in this world, acting as though we are in total control of the outcome. We have managed our world so well, with our technology and other advancements, that we feel we don’t need a God—God must just be a figment of our imagination. For centuries and even millennia the cry has been, “There is no God.” In this post-Christian culture, believing in God or in the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ is seen as a liability, a problem which creates trouble and bad feelings between people, not as a precious gift which creates healing and unity.
Sometimes leaders or business owners, especially here in the Bible belt, will use Christianity as the means by which they gain the trust of their constituents or customers. You may walk into a business which has a Bible verse prominently displayed on the wall above the counter, expecting to be treated honestly and justly. But beware—what is hung on the wall may have nothing to do with how they do business.
The problem is, when people rule themselves and others in such a way that God is set aside and replaced by dogmas or creeds of their own making, we end up with rulers like Nebuchadnezzar or Hitler. Hitler even went to the point he reconstructed the Bible to fit his agenda and reorganized the German church to fit in with his ambitions and prejudices. And, sadly, many people followed him and accepted his rule, not willing to stand against the evil he perpetrated.
The one who leads and does not acknowledge the living Lord will in the end answer to God for his or her decisions. Even Nebuchadnezzar had to deal with God, spending seven years in insanity before he humbled himself enough to acknowledge the authority of God in the world. Decisions leaders make are held to a high standard by God, because they affect the lives of many people—people who are unable to defend or protect themselves from a powerful government or leader. God will and does hold them accountable for the harm they perpetrate on innocent people and children.
The lives of those who are victims of the evil and/or injustice of such a leader will be redeemed and restored as they trust in the love and faithfulness of God. The story of Daniel reminds us there are ultimately no lost children. God has his hand on the lives and futures of each and every person who walks this earth. Whoever may be in power and whatever decisions they may make will ultimately be made subject to the will and purposes of our Almighty God who seeks our best, and who loves us so completely he was willing to sacrifice what he held most dear—his own unique Son.
In Christ, each and every person has hope. The Jesus who held children in his lap and blessed them is not indifferent to the suffering they have been subjected to in being torn from their families and homeland. They are intimately known and loved by our Abba, who knew them before the creation of the world and counted them as his very own in his Son, and he holds them in the midst of their trials and struggles.
As believers, we have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, and to provide hospitality and welcome to those who are far from home. We are to show mercy, do justly, and walk humbly before the God who created us and redeemed us. These are simple, and yet very difficult things to do, especially in the midst of a culture which seems to have opposing values. And yet, we continue to participate in our Abba’s love and Christ’s redeeming grace by the Spirit as we reach out to provide healing, help, and support to those who have lost home or family.
And we assume responsibility for our leadership of this country as we vote, participate in community leadership, and reflect the light of Jesus in the areas in which we live. And we never cease to pray not only for those who have lost home and family, but also for our leaders. We pray for those who are in positions of responsibility, that we can live at peace and in unity with one another and continue to freely share the good news of Abba’s love and grace expressed to us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ.
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and the grace you have shown us in Jesus. We know you love each and every child and adult, no matter who they are. You hold each of us in your loving hands, whether we are lost or we are found, whether we have been stolen away or we are safe at home with our families. God, please remember those who are mourning the lost of their home and family this day—comfort them and keep your promise to place the lonely in loving families and homes. Lord, your justice is perfect and restorative—judge our leaders and cause them to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the vessels of the house of God; and he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god. Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, the chief of his officials, to bring in some of the sons of Israel, including some of the royal family and of the nobles, youths in whom was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every branch of wisdom, endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge, and who had ability for serving in the king’s court; and he ordered him to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king appointed for them a daily ration from the king’s choice food and from the wine which he drank, and appointed that they should be educated three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s personal service. Now among them from the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.” Daniel 1:1-6 NASB