By Linda Rex
November 14, 2021, PROPER 28—The other day as I was driving home from Charlotte, NC, I heard an old song by Clay Crosse called “He Walked a Mile.” This song really spoke to my soul that day, and I found it resonating throughout my memory for a long time afterward.
This song reminds me that what Jesus did for us is so much more than simply dying on the cross for our sins. The profound dignity he gave us as human beings by taking our humanity upon himself is overwhelming. God had always meant for us to live in intimate relationship with himself, and he was not put off by our turning away to the things of this earth and our self. He knew the cost to himself in creating and redeeming us before he ever breathed life into Adam—and he gladly paid it.
We live in a culture today which tells us that if we purchase the right product, take the right medicine, or purchase the right car, or use the right credit card, we will be happy, healthy, sexy, rich, and blessed. Our political leaders tell us that if they are elected, they will solve all our problems and usher in a new government which will bring prosperity, peace, and other benefits. Sadly, even our religions have embraced this marketing technique, offering us just the right combination of Bible, preaching, and outreach to ensure we will be good Christians and live forever in heaven.
I’m always amazed at how easy it is to take for granted that we are able to solve our problems ourselves. I agree that we have been given a lot of tools for figuring things out and taking care of things ourselves. And yes, we should do our part. But it seems to me that the one thing we all struggle with is coming to the realization that we cannot do what is needed in every situation all on our own without any help from God. We try to all the time, and many times we succeed—at least for a time. But then there comes a crisis. And we find ourselves floundering.
It is ironic that Jesus told his disciples over two thousand years ago to beware less they be misled by those who would promise they were the longed-for deliverer of the people. He knew our tendency to put our faith in our own efforts, in people or systems or ideologies, rather than simply putting it in Jesus our Messiah. It is so easy to be misled, especially when what we hear or see plays right into our deepest longing or need.
It is also ironic how we have spent a lot of effort over the centuries trying to determine exactly when Jesus would return in glory, when he told us no one knew the day or hour. Every time there is a great war, or threat of a great war, there seems to be someone who declares this is the final battle before the return of Christ. But Jesus told us there would be wars and even rumors of wars, but it wasn’t yet the end. He also told us there would be famines and disease outbreaks—which there have been over and over since his time—but it still wasn’t the end.
These are the beginning of birth pangs, Jesus said. As a mother, I know what birth pangs feel like. They are very painful, and there is a point in the delivery process when a mother wonders whether she will ever be free from the intense pain she is going through. But this pain is a necessary part of the birth process. And for humanity, these world troubles are a necessary part of the rebirth process all of God’s creation is experiencing as the children of God are being birthed into Abba’s family.
We must never forget that the first and most excruciating birth pain was experienced by Jesus Christ as he offered himself up in our place on our behalf. He walked a mile—from his birth, to the cross, and through the cross to the tomb, and through death into life everlasting, taking each of us with him on this painful yet triumphant journey.
No matter what we may experience in this life, no matter how many pandemics, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wars we may experience in this life—we are all caught up in Christ’s cruciform suffering. This necessary part of the process of rebirth becomes for us an opportunity for Jesus to forge within us by the Holy Spirit, his way of being. The trials and pains of life, when offered up to Jesus in faith, become the means by which Christ is formed in us, by which we are sanctified, refined, and cleansed. Whatever Satan may mean for evil, as we turn to Jesus, God redeems and restores it, using it for our good.
The good news is our redemption and deliverance are complete in Christ and are being worked out in us and in this world by the Holy Spirit. There are going to be difficulties, struggles, and even great suffering at times, but we never go through any of these alone. Jesus is always present by the Spirit, granting us the grace to share in his life and love, and to bear at times even his suffering so that we may share in his glory.
All of these birth pangs will, in God’s good time, come to fruition as God ushers in the new heavens and new earth. When we experience the completion of our rebirth, when Jesus finishes making all things new, these birth pangs we experienced will be infinitesimally small in comparison to the glorious freedom we have as the children of God.
When we are told to give thanks in all things, we are not expected necessarily to be thankful we are suffering. But rather we can be grateful that in the midst of our suffering, Christ is present and at work, holding us in the Father’s love and by his Spirit drawing us deeper into his life and love. Our gratitude then becomes an expression of our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, of our grateful embrace of our union and communion with God now and forever through Jesus in the Spirit. Rather than being misled by all the false messiahs in our existence, we are led instead by Jesus in the Holy Spirit as the beloved children of the Father.
Thank you, Father, for giving us your Son and your Spirit, and for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, that we can trust in your faithfulness—knowing that you will return and take us to be with you forever. Keep our hearts and minds by the Spirit on things above, so that we will not be misled by those who would turn us away from you. Maranatha—come soon, dear Jesus! Amen.
“As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.’ As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?’ And Jesus began to say to them, ‘See to it that no one misleads you. Many will come in My name, saying, “I am He!” and will mislead many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.’” Mark 13:1–8 NASB
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:(11–14, 19–22) 23–25 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 7, 2021, PROPER 27—One of the hazards to being a pastor is having to sit before God’s Word, letting it penetrate to the core of one’s being, while maintaining one’s ability to speak that Word to others. The Lord showed me years ago that when I read the Word, I must let him speak to me first by the Spirit through it, and then speak to the congregation. This means that the Word applies first to myself and then to those I am responsible for ministering to. I am often convicted by God’s message, cut to the heart and broken, but find I still have to preach that message in such a way that others may also experience God’s penetrating ministry. Thankfully, this is the work of Jesus Christ by the Spirit in me.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Mark 12:38–44, Mark brought up two significant and powerful lessons which were intertwined into a central theme—false religiosity contrasted with humble, sacrificial giving. First, Jesus spoke to the crowd, warning them about the scribes, whose ostentatious displays of religious observance hid hearts full of greed, pride, and self-aggrandizement. Secondarily, Jesus showed the profound difference between giving out of one’s abundance and giving out of one’s poverty.
On the one hand, the scribes, who were often the ones entrusted with the financial wellbeing of the widows and handled their legal affairs, many times worked it out so they were, through the temple, the beneficiaries of the widows’ livelihood. Those they were to protect and defend ended up being taken advantage of and made dependent upon others due to the scribes’ clever manipulation of their affairs. Even though the scribes feasted upon the adulation of the people, enjoying the notoriety of special greetings in the marketplace and the seats of prominence in the synagogue and banquets, and gave lengthy showy prayers, these scribes were facing acute condemnation due to the true state of their hearts. They looked great on the outside, but their inner beings desperately needed cleansed and restored.
Then, as Jesus sat and watched the people enter the women’s court in the temple and place money in the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles, he pointed out the profound difference between the size of the gifts given. On the one hand, the wealthy entered the temple and poured extremely large amounts of money into the boxes. What they gave was impressive and, no doubt, brought them admiration and praise for their generosity. But Jesus was not that impressed.
What caught Jesus’ eye was the widow who came into the area and went to place her gift in the receptacle. She, possibly a victim of the scribes’ graft and greed, poured the last two coins in her purse out into her hand. These two lepta, the smallest of the Roman coins, were all that she had left. But she placed them in the box. Jesus was deeply moved by this woman’s willingness to lay all she had at God’s feet, trusting he would care for her and provide for her. She did not think about how the money might be mismanaged or misused. She simply gave, from the heart, all that she had to God.
On both of these levels, we see that the central issue is a matter of the heart. Who has the heart Jesus is looking for? Obviously, the widow. She is the one who best resembles her Lord, the One who would soon lay himself down on the altar of sacrifice, offering all of himself in our place and on our behalf. Jesus shunned the notoriety, ostentation, and prominence that the scribes thrived upon. He preferred to be humble and self-effacing, displaying a servant’s heart throughout his life and ministry, willing to give it all up for our sakes.
We often struggle with the idea of the kind of generosity the widow displayed. It is instructive that her generosity provided a teaching moment for Jesus to use with his disciples. Some of us would say that she was very unwise, and should not have given her last bit of funds to the temple. Some of us would say that she would have been better off using those few coins to provide for herself in some way. But she seemed to understand something many of us struggle to understand and it is simply this—God knew exactly what that widow’s situation was, knew exactly what she needed, and was already working in that moment to provide for her and take care of her needs. Her security was not in her money, but in the God who was trustworthy, dependable, and faithful.
In 1 Kings 17:8–16, we read of when Elijah was told by God to go to Zarephath and find a certain widow. This widow was in dire straits, having only a little flour and oil left, enough for one last meal for her and her son. There was a famine in the land, so it was a real struggle for her to find anything for them to eat. Directed by God, Elijah asked the woman to give him a piece of bread before she fed herself and her son.
What was the widow to do? Logically, it would have been insane to give the last of what she had to the man of God simply because he asked for it. Why should she risk death by starvation any sooner than necessary?
But, as we see in this story, the woman did not put her faith in the oil and flour. She did not put her faith in her ability to stretch what little she had out as far as possible. She simply trusted that what Elijah said was true—that once she served him first, she would have a continuous supply of oil and flour from then on. She trusted in the Lord’s provision, even though what she had been asked to do didn’t make any sense at all.
God has a special place in his heart for widows and orphans. He knows how hard it is to hold everything together when it’s just you. He also understands the intensity of the temptation others face and fail to resist of taking advantage of the weakness, poverty, and defenselessness of these vulnerable ones, and he offers them his grace. And he sees the heartfelt self-sacrifice and service of those left at the mercy of others that so often exemplifies the heart of God expressed in his own self-offering in Christ.
Mark’s gospel message resonates within me on all levels, calling me to reexamine my heart and my motivations for what I do. Why do I get up each day and do the work of a pastor? Are my motives self-seeking or are they self-sacrificing? Do I depend upon myself or others for my security and worth, or do I simply trust in the love and grace of my heavenly Father, and in my kinsman-redeemer Jesus Christ to meet my every need? These are matters of the heart—and Jesus came to write God’s law and ways on our hearts, enabling us to be and do what does not come naturally to us. He is the One who with a pure heart, offered himself in such a way that each of us by faith can have his heart living within us by the Holy Spirit.
Today is a good day to pause and look at our loving Savior, asking him to renew by the Spirit his heart of humble service and self-sacrifice within us. We can practice his presence and trusting in his provision by praying a simple breath prayer. Breathe in: “Trustworthy Father;” breathe out: “I trust you.” Or, breathe in: “Jesus, pure of heart;” breathe out: “I rest in you.” May you find comfort and peace in the presence of the one who knows our hearts and loves us still.
Heavenly Father, thank you for caring so tenderly for us, and for reminding us of what really matters to you. Grant us the humble, serving, self-sacrificing heart of your Son. By your Spirit, may we worship and serve you whole-heartedly, for your glory and praise, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you?’” Ruth 3:1 (2–5, 4:13–17) NASB
“And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Hebrews 9:(24–26) 27–28 NASB
“In His teaching He was saying: ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.’ And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.’” Mark 12:38–44 NASB
By Linda Rex
September 26, 2021, PROPER 21—Recently I was reflecting on memories I have of going to the beach with my friends. We would go in the late afternoon, find a spot with a firepit and roast hotdogs and marshmallows as we watched the sun go down over the water. Even today I can almost smell the scent of saltwater and seaweed, feel the rough sand between my toes, and hear the cries of the seagulls as they hover over the water.
At times we would do bodysurfing and ride the waves in to the shore, finding ourselves at times shoved under the water and pounded by the waves. Even though I’d always regret getting sand in my swimsuit, I loved swimming in the ocean and riding the waves. The water that I sometimes inadvertently drank when I got knocked over was very salty, too salty to swallow, and it burned my eyes.
It is amazing to me that there are creatures and plants which can live in an environment like the ocean even though the water is extremely salty. Salt, we have learned over the millennia, works well as a purifier, preservative and in helping wounds heal. Salt has been so valuable at times that it has been used as coinage for trading. Today salt is used in a myriad of ways, being essential in the manufacture of a wide variety of products. And in spite of being villainized as the culprit in high blood pressure and other health issues, people still season their food with salt.
If you want to ruin a batch of biscuits or cookies, though, just add too much salt to the recipe. Salt is meant to be used in limited amounts as a seasoning, to add flavor and zest to otherwise bland foods. When Jesus said that his followers were the salt of the earth, he meant that they added something pleasant and enjoyable to the world. If they became just like everyone else in the world, they would have lost their zest and tastefulness, and become worthless and unbeneficial.
Jesus was incredibly patient with his disciples. They were focused on who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus reminded them that they needed to be like little children—humble and dependent rather than arrogant and prideful. The measure of a person was not determined by their greatness in the human scheme of things, but by their spirit of humility and service, of laying down their lives for the sake of others.
The disciples saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name (which they had recently tried to do and failed) and insisted that the person stop. The man wasn’t part of the twelve Jesus had chosen, so they assumed he wasn’t supposed to be using Jesus’ name, even though God was honoring his efforts. Jesus told them they were wrong. They needed to stop excluding people Jesus was including in his ministry and life. They needed to stop attempting to resist and quench the Spirit at work in the lives of those other than themselves.
In Leviticus 2:13, the priests were instructed to season every grain offering with salt, “so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (NASB). The apostle Paul wrote that we are to present our bodies as living and holy sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), as an expression of true and proper worship. Our lives are not to be spent solely for our own glory and our own pleasure, but in love and service to God and others. This is why Jesus told the disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Jesus told his disciples that everyone would be seasoned with fire. The context of this particular statement is in the midst of several teaching sessions in which Jesus instructed the disciples about what would be soon happening to him—that he would suffer and die on behalf of the world for their salvation. The salt he was seasoning the world with was his own self-offering, and they needed to be willing and prepared to walk that same road with him. They needed to give up their human way of thinking about things and surrender to the spiritual realities of life in the kingdom of God. To truly live, we must be prepared to die—die to self, sin, Satan, and the things of this world.
Jesus used strong hyperbole or metaphorical language to make a point. He said that we must be prepared to eradicate or cut off anything in our lives that keeps us from participating in the kingdom of God. We want to enter into life, eternal life, that life in relationship with God that we were created for. But in order to do so, certain things in us must die with Christ—greed, lust, pride, selfish ambition, jealousy—these must be burned away by the baptism of fire Jesus offers us in the Spirit. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we are given new life—but it is an invitation, one offered to every human, that we receive and act upon.
What price are we willing to pay to receive that new life and begin to live in it? For the kingdom of God is both a present and a future reality. We begin even now, by faith in Christ, to live and walk in the way Christ forged for us. We live and walk daily by the Spirit in close relationship with God, and in warm fellowship with others God has called to himself. God’s purpose for our lives in Christ by the Spirit is not division or exclusivism, but unity, harmony and peace. As we are salted with the heart of Jesus by the Spirit, we will live in peace with one another. This was Jesus’ point.
We may be pounded by the waves and tossed about in the water of life’s experiences, but our certainty is in Christ. He is at work in us and in this world by his Holy Spirit purifying, healing, and preserving. As we respond to him in faith, we participate in his mission and work in this world, and act as a pleasant seasoning in a world devoid of true spiritual flavor. Our service and sacrifice brings a taste or a hint of the glories of the kingdom of God which we will one day experience in its fullness. In the meantime, we turn to Jesus, trusting in his finished work and living day by day as salted sacrifices offered in true worship to God.
Heavenly Father, thank you for washing us in the water of your Word, Jesus Christ, and for sending him to purify, heal, and preserve us. Grant us the grace to let go of everything that may get in the way of us walking freely as your beloved children, allowing ourselves to be living sacrifices, salted with your indwelling presence through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.
“John said to Him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, …. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, …. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’” Mark 9:38–50 NASB
See also Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29.
By Linda Rex
March 28, 2021, PALM SUNDAY—LENT (EASTER PREP)—Etched into my memory from my childhood in southern California are avenues of palm trees of all different shapes and sizes. There is something about the tall, stately trees, bending slightly in the ocean breezes that speaks to me of salt water and sand, hot summer sun, and tropical flowers.
On this special Sunday in some churches, small palm fronds are handed out in memory of the branches laid on the road as Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem. The songs of “Hosanna” we sing today echo the shouts of the pilgrims as they entered the city in celebration of the Messiah’s arrival. In many ways we also anticipate with glad rejoicing the coming of King Jesus into our world to restore all things.
In John’s version of this story, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt and the people threw down branches of palm trees. They shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” “Hosanna” is a phrase which in essence means “O, save!” This greeting resonates with the Hillel psalms often sung or recited by the pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem. Psalm 118:25, which we read on this Sunday, says “O Lord, do save, we beseech You; O Lord, we beseech You, do send prosperity!”
When looking forward with the travelers entering Jerusalem, excited about the possibilities present in the Messiah they thought Jesus was, it is understandable that they would lay out palm branches as though a victorious king were entering the city. It makes perfect sense that they would be praising and celebrating such a momentous event. How wonderful it would be to finally be free of their oppressors!
The problem was that they were mistaken in Jesus’ intention and purpose for being there. They neglected to attend to the other parts of the scripture which included predictions about his suffering and death. For example, in Psalm 118:27 we read, “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” There was to be a sacrifice made, but it wasn’t going to be an animal offered on the altar, but the humble king who was at that moment entering the city on a lowly colt of a donkey. Jesus had no illusions about what faced him as he entered the city. They might glorify him as a conquering king now, but in a few short days, he would be hung on a cross.
As I recently read the passages for Good Friday, I was struck by the interrogation Pilate did right before Jesus was sent out to be crucified. Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of the Jews. As they spoke to one another, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, otherwise his servants would be fighting. Pilate asked him again if he was a king and Jesus affirmed it, saying that it was the reason he had come into the world. At the end of the interrogation, Pilate went out and told the people he found no guilt in Jesus, and offered to exchange him for a robber named Barabbas.
Jesus was scourged and again placed before the crowd with Pilate’s pronouncement that he was not guilty. But the people cried out for him to be crucified, as Jesus stood there with a crown of thorns on his head and a purple robe draped around his shoulders. The Jewish leaders affirmed that he had to die because he claimed to be the Son of God. This alarmed Pilate, who, no doubt remembering his wife’s strange warning, asked Jesus where he was from. But he would not answer. When Pilate warned him that he had the authority to have him killed, Jesus merely replied that Pilate had no authority but what was given him from above. At this, Pilate attempted again to free Jesus, but the Jews threatened to report him to Caesar for treason. In the end Jesus was led away, carrying his cross beam to be crucified on Golgotha.
What a contrast between the two pictures of Jesus. First, he is praised joyfully with loud hosannas as a celebrated deliverer. The second, he is led away, dripping with blood, bruised and torn, to the abuse and ridicule of the crowd. How can he even be the same person? But this is Israel’s king, the King of the Jews, as Pilate so aptly wrote on the nameplate which hung over Christ on the cross.
Historically, if we were to look at the King of the Jews, we would see that Jesus on the cross is a fitting description of the way the true ruler of Israel, Adonai, had often been treated by his covenant people. His covenant love for them had weathered their long history together when at one moment God would be their beloved deliverer and in the next was traded in for the gods and kings of the nations, and the people’s preference to follow their own ways. Even the efforts of the leaders to be more faithful in their obedience ended in rigid restrictions and rules that isolated and excluded people rather than bringing all people deeper into relationship with God.
Lest you think I am speaking merely of the ancient Israelites, I would like to point out that it is a human proclivity to love God when he is good to us and to drop him with disinterest when something more enticing shows up on the horizon. We are all just as vulnerable to missing the truth that there is, and should only be, one king in our life and it’s not us, and it’s not any other human being even though we may live under the authority of human government.
Jesus Christ invites us to go with him through the gates of grace into death and resurrection because this is where we were created to go. We were meant to enter into the gates of righteousness in participation with Jesus in his perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit. There really is no other directive in our life which can and will give us true peace and freedom than that of surrendering to the lordship of Jesus Christ, allowing him by the Spirit to reign supreme in our lives.
Celebrate Palm Sunday in gratitude and praise for the King, our Messiah, who has come as God in human flesh to die and rise again, is coming right now by his Holy Spirit, and will one day come in glory to establish the new heavens and new earth. Choose to walk with him all the way into death and resurrection. What is he asking you today to lay down in honor of him, in humble submission to his reign in your heart and mind? How might you enter with him now into the gates of grace so that you may experience new life?
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending us your Son to save and deliver us from evil, sin, and death. Thank you for sending us your Spirit so we might participate in your divine life and love, through Jesus Christ our Lord and eternal King now and forever. Amen.
“On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, ‘Hosanna! “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, even the King of Israel.’ Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, ‘“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him.” John 12:12–16 NASB
“Open to me the gates of righteousness;
I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
The righteous will enter through it.” Psalm 118:19–20 (21–29) NASB
By Linda Rex
March 7, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—While taking a walk with my son this week he surprised me by showing me a colony of herons who were nesting high in a tree over the Cumberland River. On our walk we also saw a couple of deer next to the path, squirrels hunting nuts, and many other types of birds flitting here and there. The frogs in the water-covered ground were singing their hearts out. It almost felt like springtime.
I love being out in creation, and am truly grateful God gave us so many marvelous gifts when he made everything. One of the books I’ve been reading lately is called “Care of Creation” and is a collection of articles centered on the topic of the stewardship of God’s creation. In recent years, I have been learning about stewardship in a lot of different aspects of life—finances, health, creation, and personal belongings are some of these areas. Stewardship recognizes that we are not the owners of what we are caring for, but are merely stewards or caretakers of what we have been given by God.
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, we find Jesus entered into the area of the temple where there were moneychangers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. He drove the animals out, overturning the tables and telling the people to stop making his Father’s house a place of business. Mark, the author of the gospel, wrote that this fulfilled an Old Testament scripture which said, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus’ actions in the temple were on behalf of his heavenly Father.
As stewards of the temple, the place of worship, the Jewish leaders had allowed people in to do what they believed were necessary transactions to accommodate the worshippers. But what happened was that making money at the expense of the people became more important than facilitating worship of Israel’s God. Jesus’ indignation was well-founded, as his Father was not being honored, since worship of God was being supplanted by greed and extortion.
We do not want to be like these Jewish leaders of that day who were more concerned about what authority Jesus had to do these actions than they were about the “whitewashed tombs” they had become (Mt. 23:27). They did not seem to realize they were needing to have the greed and other sins in their hearts driven out—and this is why Jesus was there among them. Temple sacrifices did not remove sin from the human heart, and our proclivity to return to sin even when we have forgiveness offered us shows that we need something deeper and more permanent. Jesus removed sin by one sacrifice for all time for all. His death on the cross permanently removed all sin, therefore all need for sacrifices (Heb. 7:27).
The leaders asked Jesus by what authority he drove out the money changers and he simply told them, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days.” It wasn’t until after the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection that the disciples understood that the temple Jesus was talking about wasn’t Herod’s temple, but Jesus’ own body. When Christ told the Samaritan woman that the day was coming when true worshipers of God would worship him in spirit and in truth, he was meaning this very thing. The place where we go to worship God would not be a building, but a person—Jesus Christ.
Jesus forged within our humanity a space for true worship, where the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in human hearts, transforming us from the inside out. Jesus lived our life, died our death and rose again, sending us the Spirit so we could participate in his own intimate relationship with the Father. When we turn to Christ, trusting in his finished work, we are joined with Jesus and begin to experience the reality of God dwelling in us by the Spirit. When we worship God, Jesus stands as the high priest, mediating between us and the Father in the Spirit, so that all our worship is received and accepted by God.
The temple of the Spirit today is not only each of us individually, but more specifically the body of Christ, the church. God indwells the community of believers—those who follow Christ, leading and directing them by his Spirit. As believers gather for worship and to serve others, they are brought together by the ministry of the Spirit. What is the focus of our attention as we gather together? Specifically, worship is to be Christ-centered and Trinitarian in focus. And our discipleship is also designed to draw us in relationship with others more deeply into the life and love of the Trinity.
What Jesus forged for us is a place in human hearts for God to dwell in by the Spirit. At this time of year, we can ask the Spirit to show us those things we have introduced into our lives and hearts that have supplanted the place meant only for God himself. We can invite Jesus to chase the usurpers out of our hearts, making more room for the Spirit to work in our hearts and lives.
If we do this, though, we need to realize that it will require us participating in the process Jesus described to the Jewish leaders—destroying the temple and rebuilding it. There may be things Jesus asks of us—denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following him. We trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection—symbolically participating ourselves once through baptism, and then in an ongoing way through taking the bread and wine in communion. We receive what God has done for us in Jesus, allowing the Spirit to form Christ in us. Stewarding the new life God has given us in Christ involves our full participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, living and walking in the Spirit, trusting in the finished work of Jesus and allowing him to do as he wishes with us and our lives.
A good question to contemplate as we move toward remembering the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus is, what consumes us? Is it zeal for the presence of God in us and in our lives? Or is it something a whole lot more self-centered and temporal? Perhaps it is time to reconsider how well we are stewarding the gift of eternal life God has given us in Jesus Christ his Son.
Heavenly Father, thank you for demonstrating your great grace and love by giving us your Son and your Spirit. Enable us to faithfully steward these gifts. We offer ourselves to your transforming touch, Jesus—drive out anything that does not belong here. Fill every corner of our hearts with your very presence, precious Spirit, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18(–25) NASB
“His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” John 2:17 (13–22) NASB
By Linda Rex
June 28, 2020, PROPER 8—Reading stories from the Old Testament is a good reminder that human beings really haven’t changed that much over the millennia. People still make decisions that hurt themselves and others, and they behave in ways which can be loving, kind, and sacrificial, but also selfish, sinful and at times even grossly evil. Families still for generations pass on traits they have learned from their forefathers—generosity, compassion and creativity, hate and anger, abusive language and behavior, among many others.
These stories from the past tell us, when we look at them closely, of how we as humans so often turn away from God to seek our own ways, inviting the consequence of sin—death—both physical and spiritual. When God meets us in the midst of our broken ways of thinking, believing, and acting, we find we are faced with the reality that apart from his intervention and healing, we will never be truly whole.
We also learn from these stories, if we are attentive, of the love and grace of God. Even in our wrong-headedness, God meets us, draws us to himself, and offers us forgiveness and fellowship, as well as instruction on what it looks like to live in loving relationship with him and others. He allows us to participate in what he’s doing in the world, calling us up into new ways of thinking, believing, and living.
One of the stories in Genesis is that of God encountering Abraham as Abram, drawing him into relationship with himself, and making a covenant with him. He promised him a son in his old age, and after many years of waiting, Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a son whom they named Isaac. No doubt, all those years of waiting seemed as nothing as they reveled in the blessing God had given them of an heir—the child of promise, a gift of laughter in their old age.
One day Abraham believed he heard God tell him to take his son Isaac to a mountain to sacrifice him, to prove his devotion to the God who had given them this precious child. Abraham left immediately the next morning and took Isaac, some servants, and all he needed for the sacrifice and headed toward the mountain.
After three days, they came to foot of the mountain where Abraham believed God said the offering was to be made. Abraham told the servants to wait there, loaded up everything he needed, and he and his son took off up the mountain. Now Isaac was a smart child and knew there was something a little odd about this burnt offering. Up to this point, every burnt offering had involved the sacrifice of a lamb or some animal. But they hadn’t brought any animals with them, and this bothered him.
Isaac pondered the question for a while, and finally ventured to ask his father about this. “We’ve got the wood and the fire, but where’s the sheep for the offering?” he asked. Abraham replied in an almost prophetic manner: “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” Even though at this point he did not tell Isaac what was going on, Abraham trusted God had a reason for what he thought the Lord was asking him to do. He was obeying God in the only way he knew how and was trusting that no matter what happened, the Lord would make it right. The author of Hebrews wrote that Abraham did what he did by faith, trusting that “God is able to raise people even from the dead” (Heb. 11:19 NASB).
As the story continues, we find that Abraham laid Isaac on the altar and lifted the knife to make the horrific sacrifice—the kind of sacrifice forbidden in later years to God’s people—the sacrifice of a human child. This was not how God wanted to be worshiped—it was never in God’s plan for human beings to kill one another or to offer their children to him as a bloody sacrifice, even though many people did this as part of their rituals in the worship of idols.
The intervention of an angel stopped the deadly blade as he let Abraham know that God knew he loved and feared him and that he did not need to make this extreme sacrifice to prove it. The ram Abraham saw caught in a thicket was proof that God had provided an animal in Isaac’s place to be the burnt offering. There Abraham gave God the name YHWH-Jireh, The Lord Will Provide. He learned an important lesson that day about faith, and the love and grace of God.
In many ways, just this experience was a gift to Abraham and to the many generations of his descendants which followed. Abraham was to be the father of descendants more than the number of stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. There would come a time when a child of one of these descendants would offer himself up as a sacrifice on the behalf of all people. This would be the Son of God in human flesh, Jesus Christ. God himself would provide the sacrifice which was needed for all of us to be redeemed and restored.
In the apocalyptic letter to John, the apostle writes about Jesus entering after his death and resurrection into the presence of the Father in the Spirit and how all the holy angels bowed before him. They worshipped him, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12 NASB). This Lamb of God who was the Son of God, humbly laid himself on the altar of sacrifice for all of humanity and allowed himself to be crucified so that all of us could be adopted as the children of God, sharing in his own loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit.
We as human beings have striven to make ourselves right with God, to prove to him that we love and fear him. We have struggled to be good people—so often choosing ways which have turned us away from God’s love rather than bringing us nearer. So often our efforts cause harm to those around us rather than helping or blessing them. Our best efforts, even our most noble sacrifices—the offering of our children, whether real or metaphorical—for the sake of proving our faithfulness and love to God, have always and ever been in vain.
The Lord Who Provides has already, in Christ, done all that is needed for everyone of us to live in right relationship with the Father in the Spirit. We need to trust, as Abraham did, that in the end God is going to make everything right—that he has already provided the Lamb which was needed and that the offering that this Lamb made was acceptable and perfect in God’s sight. Our role in all this is that which we can learn from Abraham—simply, faith—trusting in the finished work of Christ who stands in our place and on our behalf.
This story teaches us much about the miracle of God’s grace and his provision for all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. When we take the time to read these stories and look for Jesus in them, we will find that he is there—always at work in this world, from before the beginning of time even till today—providing all that is needed for life and godliness. May we trust our Lord to finish what he has begun, believing that he will make all things right in the end, so we can be with him in glory forever as God’s beloved adopted children.
Dearest Abba, thank you for providing us exactly what we need to live in loving relationship with you and one another. Thank you for the most precious gift of your Son and your Spirit. Grant us the grace to always trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:21-23 NASB
See also Genesis 22:1–14.
By Linda Rex
April 10, 2020, GOOD FRIDAY, HOLY WEEK—Lately, nothing has turned out as I had planned earlier in the year and none of what I had expected to occur has occurred. I’m watching the unravelling of everyday life as new patterns of living are being created day by day as we try to live in the middle of these unique circumstances. Pastoring my congregations has become challenging in new ways as I work to find ways for us to stay connected while being apart.
This season of preparation for Easter has been full of opportunities to examine the inner workings of my heart and mind as I deal with this uncomfortable reality of so many things being beyond my control. Not that they haven’t always been that way, but in these days so much is not by choice but by necessity. Simply choosing between products at the supermarket has become a new experience now that my options are reduced to buying what’s left on the shelf or not buying the item at all.
I’m sure that my grandparents, were they still alive, would be able to tell me stories about how they had to ration items, reuse and recycle things, and do without much in order to survive the Depression years ago. I think of my own parents and how they handled anticipating 2000 by stockpiling dry goods in aluminum trash cans and have a more tender understanding heart than I did when I first had to find a way to dispose of pounds of moth-laden flour and grains.
We can sometimes get a sense that things will never change—that we will be stuck in this place forever. That is really hard on those of us who are always in motion—this fast-paced world doesn’t favor slowing down to a snail’s pace. We must produce, succeed, move forward, press on—doing any less is to fail, to lose all that one has. Right now, we are in a place in our society where so many of the things we used to be able to control are out of our ability to manage. And this can make many of us very uncomfortable.
As I read John 18-19, the gospel reading for Good Friday, I find myself immersed in a story in which the main character finds himself in a place where it seems he has no control over what was happening to himself. He may have been the Messiah, but he voluntarily surrendered himself to the will and wishes of a group of people who had only in mind his death by crucifixion.
What about the disciples who were walking this road with Jesus? Can you imagine how upset and probably even confused Peter was when, trying to protect his rabbi and friend from arrest, Jesus told him to put his sword away? Here Peter is trying to do the right thing and he gets in trouble instead, and then Jesus heals the man he injured? What’s going on? It was no wonder, that when he was asked if he was one of Jesus’ followers later that night, Peter vehemently denied him three times.
In time, Jesus found himself in the presence of Annias, somebody who was a powerful Jewish religious leader, who acted as though he were God’s gift to his people. The truth is, however, that God never meant any high priest to be a political leader. Nor did he mean for the Romans to choose the Jews’ high priest. God ordained the lineage of the high priest, who was responsible for tending to the nation’s relationship with their Creator and Redeemer.
How poignant it is that Jesus was illegally interrogated by a man who was more interested in his being able to market products on the temple grounds than he was ensuring that he and the people were welcoming their Messiah. Was he seeking revenge for Jesus upsetting the tables and casting out his moneychangers?
It is remarkable to me that these particular leaders were more intent on getting rid of Jesus than they were genuinely loving and serving God. They were so intent on having him cursed by Roman crucifixion that they broke their own rules and even, when pushed, said that they had no king but Caesar. Their emphatic denial of who Jesus was as the Son of God caused them to, whether they would have admitted or not, deny the very God they so piously served.
When Pilate sought to find the reason for their efforts to kill Jesus, he could not find any fault in Jesus. John records three times that Pilate said Christ wasn’t guilty. The Roman leader even sought to find a way to let Jesus go, but eventually succumbed to the will of the Jews. Jesus, yielding himself to the course of these events, told Pilate that if he as the king of the Jews had wanted to, Jesus could have stopped the whole process immediately. But he didn’t.
I have a hard time getting my mind around the voluntary surrendering of oneself to the will of those who wish to destroy you when you have the ability to stop it. We do this sometimes when we are in toxic relationships and don’t have the life skills to oppose controlling people. But this was something entirely different. Jesus was intentionally walking down a road that had been planned out before the beginning of time and he knew this was the only way that he could accomplish what God intended from the beginning—to unite our humanity with his divinity and take it through death into resurrection, purchasing for us an eternal bond of oneness with God that nothing could break.
We may think that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was something the Father did to Jesus, but in reality, the fault lies with us as human beings. It is our turning away from God that required Jesus turning us back in his sacrifice. The alienation we feel in our relationship with God was keenly felt by Jesus in his humanity, expressed in his cry during his last moments, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But as the rest of Psalm 22 shows, he had every reason to trust his faithful Abba—to know that he was present with him in that agonizing moment on the cross. As Jesus breathed his last, he entrusted his spirit into his Abba’s care—nothing, not rejection, not abuse, not crucifixion, and not even death, could separate Jesus from the love and unity which existed between the three Persons of the Trinity.
Jesus is well-versed in what it feels like to have people and circumstances impacting his life, bringing it to a place he would prefer not to go. Jesus told Abba he wanted to avoid “the cup” if at all possible—but relinquishment is what he chose. We don’t go through these times of crisis well if we are unwilling to relinquish control to Jesus and allow him to do for us what we could not otherwise do. We need to remember that we are not alone, but are held in the grip of grace, in the love and life of God himself—included in his embrace. As we trust in Christ and receive by faith the never-ending love and grace of God, we will experience the reality that we are not abandoned—we are beloved and held.
As we go through this time of crisis, of change and loss of control, let’s remember to pause for a time with Jesus on the cross, knowing that we are held in the love of God and nothing can separate us from that love. On this Good Friday, we can celebrate with gratitude the incredible gift Jesus gave in his surrendering to the cross and the grave so that we could share in his resurrection. May this give us great comfort and peace in these difficult times.
Dear Abba, thank you that your love never fails. Thank you, Jesus, for walking the road to crucifixion and death so lovingly and faithfully, humbly willing to give all for our sakes. Grant us the grace to walk this road with you, offering grace and love to our fellow travelers as we go, for your sake, Jesus. Amen.
“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, | And our sorrows He carried; | Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, | Smitten of God, and afflicted. | But He was pierced through for our transgressions, | He was crushed for our iniquities; | The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, | And by His scourging we are healed. | All of us like sheep have gone astray, | Each of us has turned to his own way; | But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all | To fall on Him.” Isaiah 53:4-6 NASB
“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest. Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel. In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.” Psalm 22:1-4 NASB
“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.” Hebrews 4:7 NASB
By Linda Rex
April 9, 2020, MAUNDY THURSDAY, HOLY WEEK—As our local government steps up its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a concern by many that some people are still not observing the guidelines for staying safe at home. Apparently, the need for most people to restrict the space between themselves and others to prevent the spread of this disease is not being taken seriously.
My husband, who works as a truck driver, recently watched as many travelers entering Florida were being stopped at the border—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut already have travel advisories in place. Even though this coronavirus’ deadly effect is becoming more and more well known, these people still felt the need to travel and vacation in another state.
Since I have inherited my mother’s weak lungs and pulmonary system, and wrestle at times with fibromyalgia (which is an autoimmune disorder), I am one who is in the at-risk population. But there are many in my congregation and extended family who are even more vulnerable than myself. How can I say that continuing to act as though nothing is wrong and allowing myself to be around many other people without restrictions is an act of faith? I find it difficult to do so. I believe I would be testing God.
Nor do I believe it is the best expression of God’s love. I personally feel there is a need to use the wisdom God has given us to create a healthy space around ourselves and others so we do not spread this disease. Even our human bodies and the cells within it teach us the wisdom of having healthy boundaries in these situations.
We’re coming up to Holy Week, and the passage I am writing about today is where Jesus and his disciples sat down to eat the Passover meal together. Jesus interrupted the meal because he wanted to demonstrate to his disciples what it means to express love for others. When we have our own agenda in mind, we often ignore the things which really matter. We may not intend to do so, but it is easy to get so focused on moving forward in life that we lose sight of the true realities.
Earlier Jesus had caught the men disputing as to who was the greatest, and it was imperative that they came to understand that life wasn’t about social position or personal promotion or one’s own personal agenda. The disciples, in their wrestling for power and position, were doing the very thing that Jesus had pointed out over and over as flaws in the Jewish leadership. The disciples knew better, but there they were, acting just like the others—seeking the glories of this human society while dismissing as unimportant, the real glory they were created for. There was a deeper, underlying purpose at work in life and Jesus needed them to see it and understand it so they could participate in it.
Jesus’ love for the disciples was not deterred by their failures. When he rose from the table, he girded himself with a towel, got a basin of water, and began washing their feet. Appalling as this may have been to the disciples—it was work only the lowliest servant would do—they watched Jesus do it for each of them. Peter told Jesus that he wasn’t going to allow him to stoop to that level. Jesus merely replied that then Peter would not belong to him. At this, Peter jumped to the other extreme, telling Jesus to wash all of him.
Jesus’ point was not so much the washing as it was the act of what he was doing. He was willing to stoop to whatever level was necessary to include the disciples in his life and ministry. He girded himself with a towel and took on the task of cleaning their feet. What Jesus would do in the following hours after this meal would involve a task of cleaning which would be even more degrading than washing dusty feet—he would cleanse our humanity once and for all from the dirt and grime of evil, sin, and death. This was a much more serious cleansing, one which only he could do. And he was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve it, even going all the way through death on the cross into the grave.
I believe that it is significant that Jesus washed every disciples’ feet. This means that Judas Iscariot most likely was present and received the gift of grace in the wiping of his feet. But Jesus knew that the washing of Judas’ feet would not wash his heart—he had already given himself over to the evil one by making the decision to betray Jesus to those who were seeking to kill him. This is why Christ said, “Not all of you are clean.”
In the offering of himself in sacrifice, Jesus did not leave anyone out. He included every human being in his offering on the cross, but the truth is, not everyone receives the gift he gives in his humble sacrifice. Humility is a gift we give to others and shows our willingness to stoop to the lowest level necessary to include others in our love and life. Jesus taught us in this simple act that we need to be willing to love one other in humility, service, and sacrifice. It is in this way that we express in the deepest way our love for God and one another.
Jesus faced the crisis of his human life on this evening, knowing he would shortly be hanging on a Roman cross, by stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. He was willing to do even the most menial task so that others could one day share in his intimate relationship with his Father. No greater love can be shown than that of laying down one’s life for another and Jesus began this laying down of his life by humbly washing the feet of his disciples.
The truest expression we have of genuine humanity is to love one another—to care enough about the other people in our lives that we do not unnecessarily put them at risk. We set aside our own agenda on behalf of the needs of others. We are willing to serve even if it means losing the approval and acceptance of those around us or it inconveniences us. We are open to giving of ourselves when others would not deign to dirty their fingers for fear of contracting the disease. We are willing to work at tasks which we would not ordinarily do so that others may be helped and cared for.
There is a wideness to the love and mercy of God which includes the broad spectrum of human kindness we are called to express during this difficult time in our history, in the midst of our own crisis. As human beings, the truest expression of our humanity is to love one another. Some of us will do this by treating those sick with this disease, putting themselves at risk for our sakes. Others will do this by continuing to provide essential services, risking the loss of their interaction with their loved ones during this time. And all the rest of us can do this by being careful of each other’s space, and by seeing that those who are most vulnerable have what they need when they are unable to get it themselves.
What is most beautiful about a crisis as is before us today is that we can see the face of Jesus in each of us as we humble ourselves to serve, love, and sacrifice for one another. The Spirit of God’s love and grace flowing through people all over the world is evident as we rise to the occasion of battling this coronavirus and do so in such a way that we set aside our own personal agenda for the sake of those more vulnerable and less fortunate than ourselves. May God’s grace through Jesus and by his Spirit continue to enable us to truly love one another.
Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take the humblest place so that we might rise with you, sharing in your eternal glory through your death and resurrection. Grant us the grace to truly love one another as you have loved us, to humble ourselves to serve and sacrifice, and to be willing as we need to, to lay down our lives for one another in your Name. Amen.
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. … ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’” John 13:1-4, 34-35 NASB
By Linda Rex
When it comes to God’s judgment, we saw last time that God has done all that is necessary for our salvation. God frees us in Christ to participate fully in this gift of grace, enabling us by the Spirit to live in the truth of who we are as God’s beloved children. At the same time, though, we are free to embrace or reject the gift God has given us in his Son Jesus Christ.
In essence, we judge ourselves—we come into the Light of God’s penetrating gaze and allow him to cleanse and restore us, or we turn from him and continue to walk in darkness, thereby experiencing the consequences of turning away from Christ.
Adam, and all humanity since his time, has turned away from God—but God, in Christ, has turned humanity back into face to face relationship with himself. Jesus Christ is the right relationship each of us has with our heavenly Father.
But God does not force us into relationship with himself. He has secured our relationship with himself in Christ, but does not force us to participate in it. Rather, he invites us. He woos us. By his Spirit, he draws us to himself. We are beloved, held, cherished, and yet free to turn and walk away.
I do not know why people choose to resist and walk away from this awesome relationship, but they do. And if a person insists on resisting and turning from this relationship, God will eventually yield to their decision, while at the same time never ceasing to love and forgive them.
What’s interesting is that people who do not know or believe in Christ are still participants in God’s life and love. They do not recognize or concede that this is so, and may even resist any attempt God makes at drawing them closer to himself, but they are still included in God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. God allows them to be a part of what he is doing in the world, even if the part they play is a negative one.
The struggle we have with reading the Old Testament is seeing God at work among the nations, allowing the destruction of people groups, wars, and genocide. We find it difficult to accept God ordering certain people to be killed or allowing others to suffer famine and other hardships. If the God of the Old Testament is just like Jesus Christ, then why did he allow or cause these things to happen?
The modern-day Jesus is often portrayed as soft, kind, gentle, and loving. Our pictures of the long-haired, white American Jesus give us the impression he was full of compassion, understanding, and was sensitive to every possible issue and feeling of the human heart. He loved little children and working with his hands. Yes, he might have had a moment of anger in the temple when dealing with the buyers and sellers, but this wasn’t his usual response to such things.
We don’t usually get the impression that the Jesus of scripture is a real, flesh-and-blood man who was strong, decisive, and oozing masculinity. It seems that the Jesus we think of who is powerful and comes to deliver and help is the One who sits in glory ready to condemn and judge the world, who in his second coming is expected to punish and eliminate all the evildoers in the world. This Jesus more closely resembles the God of the Old Testament.
Jesus favored the use of “I am” statements during his time here on earth. He made it quite clear that he was the God of the Old Testament here in human flesh—the “I Am” in person. Over and over he went out of his way to show the truth of this, and that he was the perfect embodiment of God in our humanity. And this is where we begin to struggle. Just who is Jesus, and just how does he jive with the God of the Old Testament? They almost seem like two different people.
There also seems to be a dichotomy between the Jesus of the first coming and the Jesus of the second coming. And this also reflects on how we view the God of the Old Testament. There are inconsistencies between each of these God-views because we do not see Jesus Christ clearly, and we do not see God himself through the correct lens.
And we see events almost always in terms of this life alone. We don’t usually keep a kingdom perspective about things. When someone dies, we think or feel that’s the end, even if we believe in an afterlife. But the apostle Paul tells us we need to keep our minds and hearts on heaven, not on things of the earth which are passing and fleeting. What happens in this life needs to be kept in the context of eternity and the eternal purposes of our Living Lord.
This is the same perspective we need to use when looking at the events in the Old Testament. We need to realize that this is God’s story. It is the story about all he did in preparation for and in bringing about the salvation of the world in and through his Son Jesus Christ. God’s ultimate judgment on sin and death was fully taken up in Jesus Christ and resolved once and for all.
The Old Testament tells the story of God’s covenant relationship with the people of Israel from whom the Messiah came. These scriptures tell about God’s love for his people, and indeed for the whole world, and his deep compassion as they wandered away from him, and his longing for them to be faithful and obedient to him. It tells how he defended and protected his people, providing for them in the midst of difficulty and struggle, and in the midst of hostile, pagan nations. It also tells how he allowed them to experience the consequences of turning away from their covenant relationship with him, while he still called them back and sought their change of heart and mind toward himself.
Everything which happened as recorded in the Old Testament must be viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ, and from the perspective of God’s eternal purposes. God judged all humanity worthy of the gift of his very own unique Son—Jesus Christ is God’s judgment on sin and death. God’s redemption of his own chosen people Israel set the stage for his redemption of all humanity.
In Hebrews 9:26 we read that Jesus, rather than being offered over and over like the temple sacrifices were, was offered just once “at the consummation of the ages.” When the time was exactly right, after specific events and circumstances had taken place, and after certain prophecies had been fulfilled or were prepared to be fulfilled, Jesus came and offered himself in our place. This was to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” Jesus took care of sin once and for all—so we do not have that hanging over our heads any longer. Romans 8:1 says, “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” In Jesus Christ we are free from sin and death.
Judgment, for those who are in Christ, is not a thing to be feared. In Hebrews 9:27-28 we read, “…inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Christ’s coming is meant to be a celebration. It’s meant to be the time when we all gather together, rejoicing in his return, and having a merry time at his banquet, clothed in his garments of righteousness. Death is not to be feared, but to be celebrated as the transition between this life and the life in eternity Jesus purchased for us to be spent with our loving God and all those near and dear to us.
Jesus Christ, being God’s judgment on sin and death, is the One we welcome with open arms and happy faces when we see him in glory, because we are trusting in all he did on our behalf. But it is equally possible that in that moment—in death or at Christ’s return—our hearts might condemn us. We may, when face to face with the glorified Jesus, be like those described in the book of Revelation who try to run and hide from him. We may come face to face with the glorified Savior in that particular moment and realize our way of being is a far cry from that ordained for us by God in creation as made in his image, and renewed by Christ in his redemption. And we have nowhere to turn if we refuse Jesus Christ since he is our salvation, and he is God’s judgment on sin and death. And so, our hearts will be filled with fear, fear of God and fear of his punishment.
But fear is not what God meant for us to have in that moment. In fact, God meant for his perfect love for us expressed to us in Christ to cast out all our fear. God has reconciled us to himself in Christ, and merely asks that we be reconciled in return. How often God has said to us as humans, “Don’t be afraid!” God means for our response when we see Christ in glory to be receptive, heart-felt love not fearful dread—this is why Jesus came and did all that he did and this is why God sent his Holy Spirit into human hearts.
This unhealthy response to God was something he battled with from the very beginning. Case in point was when Israel came to Mt. Sinai and God spoke with them. They were terrified and begged to have Moses speak in God’s place. And while Moses was receiving the terms of the covenant, Israel decided to play with idols. These people who were very special to God never really grasped the real nature of God. God wanted them to get to know him, but they constantly set up barriers between themselves and him.
God called the patriarchs and then the nation of Israel into covenant relationship with himself. He would speak to them through prophets. He would speak of bringing them to the place where they would “know” him—come to be intimately aware of and obedient to his loving will. He defended and protected them. He chastened them, and allowed them to stubbornly go their own way even when it was to their detriment. God’s heart from the beginning has been eternal life—this knowing and being known intimately as Abba and his Son in the Spirit.
We need to understand that God’s judgment ultimately is meant to restore, renew, and heal broken relationships—between us and God, and between us and each other. The purpose in judgment is not to destroy or punish so much as it is to bring us into truth so we can experience the true freedom which is ours in Christ. We were meant for life, real life, in fellowship with God and one another—and God’s purpose is for us to experience that both now and forever. We are free to refuse to participate in this kingdom life—but we will experience the consequences of having done so—and that is another conversation altogether.
Abba, thank you for your loving heart and the gift of eternal life in your Son Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to embrace all you have done for us in Jesus. Let us turn away from ourselves and the things of this life and place our dependency fully upon Christ. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Hebrews 9:26-28 NASB