When I was growing up, I learned at an early age that God had rules for everything. He decided what I could eat and what I could not eat, when I could eat certain foods and when I couldn’t. He decided what I should wear and what I shouldn’t wear, and when certain things should be worn and when they shouldn’t. In fact, it seemed as though God was making sure I did everything exactly right so he could bless me and I could be happy, or punish me if I went astray.
I suppose, looking back, there was something helpful about having some order to my existence. But I realized early on I had an inner resistance to this constant dictation as to what I had to do or not do. There was a rebellion deep within me to being controlled in this manner. And of course, this was seen as being sinful and evil. I did a lot of repenting and I worked really hard at “being good.”
The irony in all of this was I wasn’t made any better or any worse by all this effort. If anything, I was so busy putting on my appearance of having my life in order, I was missing out on real life—real relationship with God and with others. It was only in those relationships where I dropped the façade—with my high school buddies, for example—and where I was genuine and transparent I actually experienced true communion with others. The rest was just pretense.
When God finally got through to me with the reality of his grace and Who he actually was for me, with me and in me, I realized I was one of those people Jesus quite adamantly criticized when he was here on earth. I was a Pharisee—a white-washed tomb—a viper in the woodpile.
To come to the realization that you have all the glitz but none of the reality is a painful, difficult process. It takes experiencing the loss of all the things you cherish and coming to the end of all the things you count on to carry you through and to make you “good enough.” It means discarding all your previous notions about Who God is and who you are as his creature. And this is a tough road to travel, because our humanity and the culture we live in encourage us to stay where we are—in the façade.
One of the things I had to learn about God was he is truly free—free to be Who he is, apart from my expectations of him or preconceived notions about him. He is free to do whatever he wants in this world—which is often the exact opposite of how I was taught and believed he would act in certain situations. God is free to be Who he is, not Who I think he is. The Lord of the universe is truly that—Lord—and I am not (shockingly enough!).
But that freedom God has is always tempered by his boundless, deep love, which surpasses our comprehension. The God I grew up with was punitive and angry. And it was not helpful my personal experience of a father reinforced this belief in many ways. But when God revealed himself to me in Christ by the Spirit, I came to see this wasn’t Who God really was. The God of grace and love has always loved me and you and meant for us to be included in his divine life. This is amazing!
The other amazing thing is God gives each of us freedom—freedom to choose, to embrace or reject him, to live in harmony and unity with him and others, or to live in opposition to everything which is good and honorable and to experience the consequences of living in that way. It is hard to image God doing that, but he did and he does. Freedom to live in loving communion with him and each other, or not—it’s as simple as that.
One of the topics which kept coming up last night at a social gathering I attended was the way each of us has a unique history or genesis, but we are all intertwined and interrelated in some way. Indeed, it seems a person cannot assume someone they do not like is not at all connected with them because we have, as the centuries have passed, intermingled our DNA with one another. We are all bound together in a common humanity.
The joys of fellowship and community are a consistent thread throughout human existence. And this is what we seem to cherish most about our family and community celebrations such as Christmas. At the core of our being, we are drawn to one another in ways we don’t even realize—we are created for community and so we are drawn to it as a part of our very being.
This type of loving community, this interweaving of lives with one another in harmony and grace and peace, cannot be built by making rules and enforcing them. This is a work of the Spirit which takes place in the heart. God does not control us or force us into relationship with him and others, but invites us, draws us close, and compels us by his deep, perfect, and gracious love.
I pray you will each experience the blessing of true spiritual community this Christmas in many ways in your lives. I pray your families will experience healing and comfort and encouragement in the midst of all which pulls us apart and divides us. And I pray you will have a blessed and wonderful Advent season, through Jesus, our Lord, and by his Spirit. Amen.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1–3 NASB
By Linda Rex
Lent: Awhile back it seemed that everywhere I went, someone was talking about the upcoming lottery. There was quite a bit of money at stake and a lot of people were hoping they might be the lucky one to win it all.
Some of the people who had aspirations of winning the jackpot had some great ideas of how they would spend the millions which would come their way. They would take care of family needs and give some of their new funds away to charity. They might put their children through college and they would probably buy a new car or two.
All of these are good things to do. The change in their financial position would no doubt alter their lifestyle in some way. But altering their circumstances and changing the financial condition of their lives would alter all of their relationships, and it would make demands of them which would require strong character and wisdom. Sadly, not everyone is able to handle this type of dramatic change.
This is because, even with the positive changes that come with being financially solvent and wealthy, there are some things that would not change. They would still be the same people they were before they won the lottery. Their character and nature would not change for the better just because they were well off. Indeed, they may even change for the worse. We hear too often of those whose family and personal life disintegrated after winning the lottery.
Believe me, I’m not criticizing or making fun of those who play the lottery. I’m merely using it to illustrate a point.
I’ve been preaching about temptation during this Lenten season. The reading for last Sunday was 1 Cor. 10:1-13. This passage talks about all the ways Israelites fell prey to temptation while they traveled in the wilderness under the guidance and provision of the Lord.
They had been rescued from slavery, and walked through the Red Sea while the Egyptians who were chasing them drowned. They were brought into relationship with the Lord of the universe who made a covenant with them to be their God while they would be his people. It seemed that Israel had won the jackpot. They had everything they could possibly want at their disposal.
With one caveat: Now they no longer called the shots. From now on they were not slaves of another nation, but neither were they their own masters. Instead, they were the children of Israel, sons of the Most High God. And being children of God meant that they were to live in accordance with the truth of who they were. They were made in the image of God to reflect him, both in their love for one another, and in their love for and devotion to God. God had redeemed them and adopted them as his children. And God wanted them to live like it.
And this was what they wrestled with throughout their history. Many of them wanted to choose to live their own way, as humanity has done since the dawn of creation. And even when they did try to keep the law, they did it in such a way that they developed their own list of rules and methods of interpreting the law. These Jesus eventually criticized because they actually kept people from obeying God’s will in the way God intended.
Even though Israel’s circumstances changed dramatically when they were rescued from Egypt, they themselves did not change. It seems that the external differences in their lives did not alter their character. They were more comfortable with who they thought they were—defined by the onions, and leeks and pleasures of their old life in Egypt. Changes in their circumstances and lifestyles did not suddenly create an understanding of who God was and who they were in relationship to him. And it didn’t immediately instill a faith in God or a devotion to him.
This was something that God worked to grow in them during their travels in the wilderness. He took care of their need for food by providing bread from heaven. He took care of their thirst by giving them water from a rock. He guided them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He worked constantly to teach them what it meant to live in relationship with one another and their heavenly Father. He strove constantly to show his faithful love and compassion even when they rejected him and disobeyed him.
Ultimately, it was in the gift of his Son Jesus that Israel was given what they had needed all along—a new heart and mind. The Word of God took on our humanity and lived the life we all fail to live, died the death we deserve to die, and then rose from the grave. After ascending to the Father, Jesus sent the Spirit to dwell in human hearts—offering us the transition from our old ways of living and being into that of the Triune life.
First Jesus was human in the same way you and I are. He knew what it was like to take a deep breath of springtime air, and he knew the smell of smoke from a campfire. He knew what it was like to be cold, and what it was like to be so hot he could hardly stand it. He was as fully flesh as you and I are.
But then he died and was resurrected. His resurrected body didn’t cease to be human—it just was glorified. He now holds in himself the glorified humanity of each of us. He is what we were meant to become as glorified human beings. The apostle Paul wrote that that just as Jesus is no longer what he used to be, so we are made new as well. In Christ we are new creatures.
This means, like Israel, we are in a totally different situation than we expected. We have all of the beauties and wonders of heaven before us because the God of the universe has called you and me and everyone else his very own. He has adopted us into his family—we are children of God. The old ways of being and living are gone—God calls the shots now.
This means we are not our own masters. We are not captains of our own fate. God has declared our destiny in Christ. But we are fully free to choose to love God and follow Christ, or to reject or ignore him. Our decision does not alter the reality of God’s decision to love us and include us in his family. But it does affect how we experience that reality both now and in the world to come.
God has brought us through Jesus’ baptism just as he brought Israel through the Red Sea. He has delivered us from our old ways of living and being, and freed us from those things that held us captive, just as he freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. God brought us into a covenant love relationship with himself just as he did with Israel, and he nourishes us with bread from heaven in Jesus Christ and water from the Rock in the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been given all we need to become all that God has declared we are.
As we respond to this gift of Jesus Christ and open our hearts and minds to the work of the Spirit, we will find ourselves changing. This will not be an external change, but rather a change of heart and mind. Our circumstances may not change—they may even grow more difficult—but we will be transformed. God will take us on wilderness journeys and will grow us up in Christ. Over time, we will find ourselves in agreement with God in ways we never thought possible before. When God goes to work, we change.
And the change God brings about in our being enables us to begin to live in accordance with the truth of who we are as children of God, made in his image and redeemed by Jesus Christ through the Spirit. We begin to live now as residents of the kingdom of heaven—loving God and one another in the same way that the Father, Son and Spirit have lived for all eternity. This is what we were created for—and God is working in us by the Spirit to form Christ in us so we can fully share in his Triune life and love forever. And that, to me, makes each of us the real lottery winners, no matter who we are.
Thank you, Father, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit by whom you are working to transform us and grow us up into your image. Grant us the grace to respond fully and obediently to the Spirit’s work so that we may grow up into Christ as you wish. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:16–17 NASB
By Linda Rex
I’m sure by now that many of you have fallen off your January resolutions for self-improvement and life improvement. And I’m sure many of you are currently in the process of self-flagellation, beating yourself up because you didn’t meet your own expectations, whatever they were.
It is a given that we are broken human beings and we struggle with habits and behaviors that often are not healthy and life-giving. And most all of us want to improve ourselves, have better relationships, and grow as individuals. Now I’m all for New Year’s resolutions, but too often they are our own attempt at self-discipline, rather than a lifestyle change rising out of the deep inner power and conviction of the Holy Spirit, which is the spiritual gift of self-control.
When we look at the Scriptures which talk about being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), and we are reminded at this time of year when we celebrate Christ’s transfiguration that we are being transformed from our human glory to the glory that is Christ’s, I think it is real easy to look at transformation as being something solely behavioral. What I mean is we often think that our transformation means that we will be better people who will act in better ways.
Indeed, God wants to transform our behavior, but I believe that he wants to go much deeper than that. I believe God wants to transform our inner being. And he wants to transform our relationship with himself—so that in relationship with him we become the people he created us to be—his adopted children who live eternally in intimate relationship with him and one another for all eternity.
It occurred to me this morning as I contemplated the transfiguration that what Jesus said about this process was significant. When he prayed to the Father the night before his crucifixion, it is recorded that he asked that the glory he was given by the Father would be given to those who were his so “that they may be one, just as we are one”. In other worlds, the purpose for sharing in Christ’s glory, in Jesus’ mind, was not so much that we become good people, but that we could and would share in the unity, the intimacy, the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
Jesus’ prayer was a request with regards to unity and oneness. Going on, he said, “I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity.” This has to do with our sharing in the divine perichoresis or mutual indwelling of the Father, Son and Spirit. This is a relational oneness that we struggle to have with almost everyone in our lives.
Apart from the grace of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, it is difficult or next to impossible for us to have the relationships in our lives the way we should have. We don’t realize how often the Spirit is at work interceding between us with one another and in our relationship with God so that we can have unity, peace and harmony. I think if we did, we would be a whole lot bolder and consistent about asking the Spirit through Jesus to intercede in every relationship in our lives, whether individually, as communities, or as nations.
Indeed, it is our rejection of our Father, Jesus and the Spirit who indwell human hearts that creates such havoc in our lives. When we are fully in control of all that happens in a relationship and insist that others behave in the ways we think they should behave—we create havoc and destruction in those relationships. When we suffocate the people in our lives because we expect them to take the place only God should take in our lives, we reap the consequences that go with such behavior. When we demand things from others that only God can do for us, we create relational holes that are impossible to fill.
God created us for relationships. They are important and essential to our human existence. Introvert or extrovert, we all need people in our lives to love us, to affirm us, and for us to share life with. Some of the saddest people I know are those who have shut out everyone and have holed up in a place all by themselves. The twisting of the human soul often comes with the significant relationships in our lives harming or attempting to destroy us. And it is only through loving, healthy relationships with God and one another that we find true healing.
Our behavior is often a reflection of what is going on inside of us. It rises out of the depths of our being—the being that we really are inside, not what we project to everyone around us. There are times when we find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do and we can’t figure out why.
This is because there are depths to our being we push down or hide away, or reject because either we don’t want to face them, or we are afraid to let them surface because we may not be able to control what happens when we do allow them to come to light. Indeed, there are times when it would be good to see a counselor or therapist to get help with these deep issues of the heart. And in other cases, to be in a spiritual community where we can be authentic, transparent and accepted is essential.
But other times it’s more a matter of inviting the divine Counselor, the Holy Spirit, to go with us into the dark places and inviting him to bring the healing light of our divine Physician Jesus Christ there. And God will heal us as we ask and cooperate with him in our healing.
Transformation of our lives begins first by the transformation God gives us through Jesus and in the Spirit in our relationship with himself. God draws us near so that we can draw near to others.
When we have a strong foundation in our lives of a deep, intimate relationship with God through Jesus and in the Spirit, we will find that our relationships will begin to reflect that change. Sure, some of them will fall away because there is no room for God or the divine realities in them. But others will begin to heal and blossom and grow. And as we choose to respond to God’s guidance in making healthy choices in our relationships, we will find ourselves in the midst of a healthy spiritual community, and we will find ourselves beginning to heal.
It is in our healthy relationships with God and one another that our true being is reflected back to us in such a way that we begin to change. This change comes not by following a list of rules, mind you, but by God’s work of transforming us by his Holy Spirit.
Our relationships, when they are filled with God’s love and grace, begin to influence us and change begins in our hearts and our minds. True, it is good to study the living and written Word of God so that our minds are renewed in the true realities, but it is God through the Spirit who brings about our true transformation. We are merely participants in the work God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. May it be our new resolution to receive this gift of transformation God has given us and to actively participate in what God is doing in our hearts and lives.
Dear loving Father, thank you for the gift of yourself through Jesus and in your Spirit through which we may experience loving relationship with you and one another. Please finish the work of transformation you have begun in us, and grant us the grace to fully participate with you both in listening to the living Word and obediently following the Spirit as he leads us, so that we might ever walk in step with Jesus. May we be fully transformed by grace through faith. In your Name we pray, amen.
“The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:22–23 NASB