sacrifice

Trusting the God Who Provides

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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.

Abandoned or Beloved and Held?

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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

Loving Others, While Being Betrayed

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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

Pending Judgment–Part III

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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

Letting the Failures Go

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By Linda Rex

Good Friday
I don’t know about you, but some days I wonder whether it was worth the effort to even get out of bed. It seems from the moment my feet hit the floor I am running backwards faster than I am moving forward. On days like this, hot tea or coffee doesn’t seem to help, and I’m hoping that the first person who comes in the door at work will pretend they don’t see me and will walk right on down the hall.

But the phone rings right then and I have to answer it. The cheerful tone in my voice is a little forced, but somehow in the middle of the conversation about who they need to talk to about what I find the capacity to genuinely serve and help someone. A silent prayer of gratitude forms in my heart—it seems there is hope for me after all, but only because of God’s grace and power.

And this is the thing about Good Friday. Here on this day we may ponder the suffering of Christ. We may read the story of him being taken into custody, having been betrayed by one of his very own followers. He did not get a good night’s rest, but spent the hours being grilled, beaten, and falsely accused of things which would never have even crossed his mind.

What really is amazing about this story is in his broken humanity, crushed by the anger and hate of fellow human beings, and weakened by the loss of blood and blows to his body, Jesus was at his strongest and most powerful. Why would I say that? Because he had access to legions of angels and to all the forces in the universe—and he did not call on them to help. What incredible strength of will and depth of humility!

In Hebrews, the writer says Jesus, “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). He did not resist, nor did he regret, what he did in bearing up under the crucifixion. He had his heart and mind focused on the spiritual realities, securely rooted in his eternal relation with his Abba. He knew he was loved, held, and not forsaken, no matter how things appeared at the moment. And he had something he was trying to accomplish—something to complete—the destruction and removal of evil, sin, and death from our humanity and our cosmos.

What a task! To wrestle with the forces of evil requires incredible stamina of mind and will. To resist the temptation to quit or give in demands endurance and perseverance beyond our human capacity. To hang on when even the human body gives way means there was much more needed than just a human being dying on a cross when Jesus was crucified. The very presence of God himself on that cross was what was needed and what Abba gave us in sending us his Son Jesus to stand in our stead.

Because our Jesus was fully God and fully man, he conquered evil, sin, and death completely. There is nothing which was left undone in his gift of himself on the cross. He did it not because he had to, but because he chose to. He did it in love for you and for me.

So, if Jesus did such a good and complete job of conquering evil, sin, and death, why do I still struggle with my attitude and my behavior? Why do we still have people who go around shooting other people? What’s the point of what Jesus has done?

That is a really good question. I could say, Jesus set us an example of how we are to live our lives—as good people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. That’s a nice sentiment, but it lacks any substance. Just ask anyone who has for any length of time tried to really live the way Jesus lived—it’s really hard to do, actually next to impossible for us as humans to achieve in this life. No, there is something more going on than this.

I believe Jesus gave us as human beings the capacity to once again be truly human—to live the way we were created to live—loving God with all our being and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus enabled us to be genuine in our humanity by setting us free from evil, sin, and death, and enabling us to live in intimate relationship with his Abba by his Spirit.

And there it is. We have the capacity to be truly human because of Jesus. He has joined us forever with the Being of God in his Person so we can participate in the union and communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet, it took Jesus dying, rising, and sending the Spirit for this to be worked out in each of our lives individually. We each have been given the gift of God’s Spirit and Presence but are called upon to receive this gift and participate in the life we were created for.

The process of receiving this gift resembles remarkably the events of Good Friday. The Maundy Thursday meal where Jesus offered his body as the bread and his blood as the wine, was meant to help us identify the gift which was being given—Jesus Christ himself—his life for our life, his ways for our ways, his plans for our plans.

We join Jesus in his story on Good Friday as we own the truth of our failures, our missing the mark of who we were meant to be as God’s beloved children, and we lay down our broken humanity and receive his humanity in its place. We embrace the living Christ, who dwells within by his Spirit, surrendering to his Presence and Power.

This laying down that we might rise also means tossing away our feeble efforts at becoming godlike under our own power. Indeed, facing the reality of our failures as humans is healthy and essential to the process. We need to be willing to say, “I didn’t…”, “I can’t…”, and even, “I won’t…”—to admit the truth of our resistance against all which right, true, and holy. We can boldly come to our Abba and say, because of Jesus and our intimate connection with him, “I was wrong. I should not have done that, thought that, or said that.” And we can know in that moment, we are forgiven, embraced, and held. In spite of our failures, we are loved and included in Abba’s life.

As Jesus laid in the tomb on Holy Saturday, it seemed to all those he had grown close to that all hope was lost. In the same way, we can at times be so overwhelmed by the evil, sin, and death of this human existence, we begin to believe all hope is lost. We can live blinded to what is really going on: Jesus Christ is making all things new, and we are included in that great work he is doing right now in this world. All is forgiven and healed in him, but not everyone has embraced Abba’s solution to the problem.

Indeed, God calls on you and me, once in the sacrament of baptism, often as we eat the bread and wine in communion, and moment by moment as we live our lives, to die with Christ and rise with Christ. This is the truth of our existence, so we act like it. We live as though it were true.

In this moment in front of us, we may feel like we’re still rotting in the grave, but when we take a step in faith—trusting we are instead walking out of the tomb into the bright sunlight of God’s love and grace—we’ll find, that’s exactly the case. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are held. We are truly, essentially, and fully human, as God meant us to be.

Thank you, Abba, for including us in your life and love, through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to see how we individually and collectively participate in your story, Jesus, when you walked the road to and through death and resurrection, and to receive this gift of love and forgiveness with open hearts and hands. May we receive and live in the fullness of the gift of our true humanity in and through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Hebrews 10:18 NASB

Peace on Earth

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by Linda Rex

Have you ever had one of those days when no matter where you turned, something horrible was happening or had happened, and someone’s life was shattered and broken? Do you ever have your heart so broken by what’s happening around you you think you will never be able to put it back together again?

There is so much awfulness going on around us today. It seems like there is no end to the horrendous things people do to one another. No matter how hard we try to make this a healthy and happy experience, we still lose dear ones and children. And it can seem like that’s all there is to this world. The possibility of hope in the midst of all this can seem very small.

This time of year during Advent we celebrate the coming into a dark and forbidding world of a ray of light, a beam of hope—the coming of God into our humanity to share our struggles and sufferings and to bring us new life. How fitting it is that our common desire for a messiah, a rescuer, was met with the gift of a little infant who bore the very Presence and Being of God himself.

The problem is we prefer God to rescue us on our own terms. During Jesus’ life here on earth, he was expected to be the Conquering King messiah, when he was really meant to be the lay-down-his-life Suffering Servant messiah. Our expectations of how God should rescue us often drive the way we see him and the way we experience our world, and they need readjusted.

Truth is, while this God/man Jesus Christ was on earth, he healed a lot of people, but he didn’t heal everyone who was sick. He may have thrown some vendors out of the temple, but he didn’t get rid of them over and over while he was here. He may have raised Lazarus and the young man in Nain from the dead, but he did not raise all the other people around him who died while he was here on earth.

It’s hard to picture this about our Savior, but he did not stop the slavery he saw about him. Nor did he intervene in every situation to stop the Romans from crucifying people. No doubt he saw and experienced much suffering and grief while he was here. But he didn’t stop it all and fix it all right there and then. His Father had something much different in mind.

Our way of dealing with things so often focuses on the right-here-and-now. It seems we need to be given an eternal perspective—one which focuses, not on morality or a pain-free life, but on relationship. Relationships can be difficult, messy and painful, and we so often prefer not to deal with the truth of the issues which are going on in our own hearts, much less those going on in the hearts of those around us.

The engagement of human hearts with the Divine Heart of love is something which takes us down paths we don’t want to go. We want peace, joy, love, happiness, hope. But we don’t want a relationship with the One who gives us those things, nor do we want to live in agreement with the truth of the reality for which we were created. I’m just being real here: We prefer to live in our own little bubble of reality, rather than in the truth of who we really are, the humans God created us to be—people who love God and love one another with outgoing, self-sacrificing love and humility.

God—Father, Son, and Spirit—has such a deep respect for our personhood, which reflects the divine Personhood, he does not impose his will on us, but rather invites us to participate in the true reality of life in the Trinity. There is a way of being we were created for which reflects the divine Way of Being, and we can live in this way, or in a way of our own devising.

We can decide for ourselves how we are going to use our bodies, our belongings, our world, or we can surrender to the reality we are not God and begin to use them all in the way God created them to be used in the first place. God has given us incredible freedom, and does not ever impose his will unless it is imperative to accomplishing his ultimate purposes in the world—to bring many children into glory.

So often we want God to straighten up things in the world, but the minute we begin to experience the possibility of him intervening, we get all upset, because he isn’t doing things the way we want him to do them. We struggle with the real dichotomy within our own human hearts—our desire to love and be loved, and our natural human rebellion against allowing God to be the supreme lover of our soul.

This puts us in a very difficult position. We are experiencing the consequences of our human rebellion against the Lord of the universe, but we are angry with God because we are experiencing these consequences. It is not our fault when we get mugged by someone or our loved one gets murdered—we did not do anything to deserve this suffering. It is not our fault someone dear to us developed cancer and died—they were a good person, so why did they have to die—we didn’t deserve this.

And this is all true. So many of us are experiencing the consequences of things others have done and which are not our fault. Others of us seem to get away with everything and never suffer any consequences. It all seems so unfair. And it really is, in one sense.

But from the viewpoint of the Divine grace of God, neither was the suffering and death of the little infant who lay in a manger that Bethlehem night. Here was God’s supreme gift to humanity—his very Person in human flesh. And we did to him what was in our hearts—we rejected him, abused him, and crucified him.

At no point did Jesus refuse to embrace the truth of the evil in our human hearts. Yes, he shed great tears and earnestly sought a different way, but in the end, he surrendered himself to the truth of the darkness in human hearts. And by doing so, he opened a way for Light to enter the world. In his life in this dark world, his suffering and crucifixion, he bore all that we go through, and then he died and rose again—to offer us hope in a new life, a new world to come where we could truly begin to experience life in the Trinity as God intended.

The Light of God entered the world, but then in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we find that the Light of God has entered human hearts. The Spirit has been sent of offer us our new existence in relationship with the Triune God of love. Our experience of the new life Christ has forged for us is found in the midst of this relationship of love—in true community with God and others.

If we were to look around us and even within our own hearts, we might find instead of darkness, the glimmer of the hope created for us in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Opening our hearts to the Light of God, we might find that this Light is shining all around us, in other human hearts, in difficult and painful situations, in the offering of joy and happy relationships in the midst of a dark world. The Light has come into the world—will we open our hearts and lives and embrace the wonder of this precious gift? Or will we continue down our own stubborn path of resistance to the truth of how things really are?

Either way, we have been given a hope, a joy, a peace we did not deserve. God has declared his heart toward us is love and grace. He has ordained peace on earth, in and through his Son Jesus Christ and by the gift of his Spirit. And one day, we will begin to experience the truth of this in a way we cannot even begin to imagine now.

Today and in this moment, we can participate in this gift by receiving it, opening it up, and enjoying the blessings of all God has given us in this gift of his Son. May you each have a very blessed Christmas, enjoying all the blessings of life in Jesus by the Spirit as Abba’s good and perfect gift. Merry Christmas!

Dear Abba, thanks for giving us the best of all gifts, your Son in the form of a baby in a manger. How can it be you love us so much you would give us your very heart?! Forgive us—so often we are unappreciative of your many gifts, especially this One Who was meant to bring us near to you in real, intimate relationship for all eternity. May we set aside all our expectations of you, and receive in true humility all we need for life and godliness—your most precious divine gifts—your Son and your Spirit. In your Name we pray, amen.

“The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the world. He entered our world, a world He made; yet the world did not recognize Him. Even though He came to His own people, they refused to listen and receive Him. But for all who did receive and trust in Him, He gave them the right to be reborn as children of God; He bestowed this birthright not by human power or initiative, but by God’s will. The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us. We have seen Him, enveloped in undeniable splendor—the one true Son of the Father—evidenced in the perfect balance of grace and truth.” John 1:9-14 (The Voice Bible)

Reflections on a Blood Bath

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by Linda Rex

It’s always distressing to me to hear about another massacre of innocent human beings, and this week’s event in Orlando was no different. How can we, after all we have received of the grace of God, still turn on one another and steal the life God has given and redeemed? The inhumanity, or shall I say insanity, of such an act is beyond comprehension. I hope and pray this event will not end up trivialized like all the others, and just boiled down into a political or religious statement about gun control, human rights or the moral depravity of humanity.

For all the people who had to arrange and attend a funeral for someone dear to them, this is so much more than that. Such unnecessary and horrific loss! To have one’s world so violently rearranged by someone else creates such unimaginable pain and anger.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual happening nowadays. It is still somehow so deeply engrained in our humanity to participate in the evil one’s kingdom in which he comes to kill, steal and destroy. Even our ideologies can be at fault when it comes to the taking of other human lives. But we must go deeper even than that.

We can blame radical Islam for this event, but if we were truly honest with ourselves, we would have to admit, that were the situation right, we could do exactly what this man did. Each of us has the capacity to commit horrific acts of evil, because each of us, at our core, is broken. Each of us has our own demons which we fight. None of us is truly innocent.

As Christians, or even as humans of any creed or belief, we need to be really careful not to assume we do not possess the capacity for evil. Too many people have been hurt and crushed by the infidelity or abuse of someone who claimed to be a Christian. History is full of stories of people who said they were godly men or women, but who turned out to be truly evil at their core.

This morning I looked to see how often the word kill was used in the Bible. The Old Testament is full of stories where people killed one another. Yes, sometimes even God allowed or encouraged it, due to the circumstances involved. But this capacity to turn as one human against another began with Cain and has not ceased since.

As I continued to look at the use of the word kill, I noticed there was a change when it came to the gospels. In the gospels, we see Jesus talking about how the Jewish people killed their prophets and telling his disciples the Jewish authorities would kill him too. We see Jesus telling his followers not to fear people who can and will take their life, but to fear, or respect, the God who gives and takes away life. Jesus stressed giving one’s life, not taking one’s life away. He laid down his life for each of us, and calls for us to do the same.

It is instructive that the Jewish leaders of the day worked very hard to be pious, good people, well-respected by others. But their piety was demonstrated by their determined effort to put Jesus to death. The man Saul, who we know as the apostle Paul in his later years and who held the clothes of Stephen as he was martyred, was a clear illustration of this reality. His effort to be God-fearing resulted in his participating in the death of an innocent man, and the killing and imprisoning of many other people in the early church.

The expansion of the early church into the Roman culture came about not because the believers threatened to kill people who weren’t followers of the Way, but because they willingly laid down their lives for the sake of Jesus. It was through their suffering, loss and death that the early Christians impacted the culture around them. Great change came about because of their willingness to suffer and die rather than give up their relationship with Jesus Christ and the blessing of life in the Spirit.

We need to understand the difference between living by a law or moral code, and living and walking in the Spirit while following Jesus. Paul said when talking about the new covenant in Jesus Christ that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor 3:6) When we are living and walking in our flesh according to some form of ideology, or some moral code, it is easy to justify killing and destroying another human being. But when we are living and walking in the Spirit, participating in the life of Jesus, we have the desire and capacity to give life rather than take it, and may find within ourselves the capacity to lay down our life for another human being who could even be our enemy.

We see the life-giving Spirit of Christ at work in many places and ways in the world. I see the Spirit at work in the hearts and lives of the parents who so faithfully and diligently minister daily to an autistic or disabled child. I see the Spirit of Christ at work in our community as people work to bring about peaceful resolutions to difficult problems. I see the Spirit of Christ at work in the life of the person who works to care for and studies the environment and the wildlife in exotic locations in the world, and in the life of the one who cares enough about the animals in their neighborhood that they make sure they each have safe homes and good health care.

This is the new covenant life Jesus bought for us with his blood shed on the cross and which he made available to us in the gift of his Spirit. We are bathed in his crimson flood so that we can have real life instead of our natural manner of life which so often leads to death. Why should we continue to live life on our own terms when we have been offered something so much better?

In the taking of the Eucharist, in our sharing through the wine and bread of the body and blood of Jesus, we are reminded as Christ wished us to be, that he stands in our place. It is his life, his death, his resurrection, and his life eternal in his glorified humanity which is ours. We are awakened again to the Spirit poured out on us, alive within us, and are renewed in our capacity to share in the divine life and love, even now in the daily ins and outs of life. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who enables us to love the unlovely, forgive the unforgiveable, and to lay down our lives for those who do not deserve it.

Such suffering as is incurred in the terrorist attacks we are witnessing is not going unnoticed. Such destruction and death will not be ignored. It is a violation of the Spirit of life in Christ which we have been given. And Christ promised never to leave or forsake his children—he is here with us in the midst of our pain and suffering and death, and inhumanity of human to human. He grieves and weeps with us, he endures suffering with us, and is hurt and angered by what we do to one another.

But this is also why he came and took upon himself the whole injustice and evil of humanity. This is why he allowed the pious Jews of his day to torture him and crucify him. So every time something like these horrific events happens, we are not alone. He has joined himself to us in our sin and suffering, and has made us one with himself, so we are and can become something we would not otherwise be.

In Jesus we have the hope that evil does not have the last word, and one day will be fully eradicated from our humanity. In the gift of the Spirit, we see Jesus beginning to work his kingdom life out in our world today in the midst of its brokenness. May God grant us the grace to walk by faith, not by sight, looking beyond this broken world and our broken humanity into the true reality purchased for us by the Son of God and made possible for us in the gift of his Holy Spirit.

Dear God, forgive us for all the horrible things we do to ourselves and to one another. Thank you for joining with us in the midst of our brokenness and evil, and raising us up to life with you in Christ and by your Spirit. Please finish what you have begun—do not give up on us. You know how desperately we need you to transform and heal us and our world. May your kingdom come and your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.” John 8:37–40 NASB

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 NASB

Growing in Neighborliness

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by Linda Rex

I grew up in the suburbs of metropolitan Los Angeles and know what it’s like to live in a big city. Today I live and work in and near metropolitan Nashville.

I find living in a large city such as Nashville or L.A. has its strong points, and I can see why people would want to live and work in these hubs of humanity. There are many opportunities to be found in close proximity, especially with regards to cultural and recreational attractions, employment opportunities, and educational institutions.

Living in a big city is not what I would prefer, but I can appreciate the benefits of this lifestyle. I personally prefer small town living, but have learned to adapt to the higher stress, less privacy and less relaxed environment of this area. This is because I have learned over the years that whether urban or rural, the people who live in this world are at their heart, the same as you and me—we all are made in God’s image to live together in loving community.

Between these two adventures in big city living, I also lived in rural southeast Iowa, where the closest city of any real size was at least forty-five minutes from home. In that part of the United States of America, it was not uncommon for people to leave their homes and cars unlocked, and for neighbors to enter by the back door.

When I was eight months pregnant and going to town on a hot summer day, my car ran out of gas two miles from the closest town. I was a lot less nervous then about having someone help me than I am today because that’s what people did there when someone was in trouble. Neighbors were neighbors and looked out for one another.

As I’ve gotten to know more of the people who live next door to Good News Fellowship in Nashville, I’ve come to see that same heart of true neighborliness also exists here and there in the community around our church. Many of our neighbors are kind, helpful people who want their neighborhood to be a safe, upbeat, and warm community where old and young people alike can live free from abuse or neglect.

Our neighbors want to be able to walk or run down their streets during the day and the night, and not fear they will get mugged, or simply shot because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They would like to be able to trust that someone will not steal their belongings, or damage their cars, or invade their homes. They would like to live without fear, and to be able to trust others with their lives, their homes and their belongings.

Our neighbors simply want to be good neighbors who live in loving community. They want to help people who need to be watched out for, such as elderly or sick neighbors who can’t get out or who are easily taken advantage of. They want to get together to share a meal or to clean the trash off the streets. Whether or not they realize it, in doing these things in community, they are sharing in the unmistakeable heart of love and compassion which exists within the inner relationship of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.

In our common humanity, whether urban or rural dwellers, we were created to live with one another in this kind of loving community. We were not created to prey on one another or to take advantage of one another. We were created to love one another and to look out for one another. When we don’t live together with love and respect and understanding, all kinds of misery is the result. This is because we are not being who we really are—who we were created by God to be.

True neighborliness which is loving and respectful cannot be legislated. It is not really possible to tell people to be good to one another and expect them to do it just because there are laws which say they should and penalties for when they don’t. External efforts to create loving community are no guarantee such community will come into existence and then stay.

The heart of love and compassion which is at the root of true neighborliness has its source in our God of love—the One who pours his love into us by his Holy Spirit. We find God at work in many places and in many people who we, because of our prejudices and presuppositions, believe are not good people. We need to open our hearts and minds to the reality God is at work in each person’s life and heart—we are all made in God’s image and redeemed by his Son and given the gift of the Spirit who is at work in this world.

Our participation in the work the Spirit is doing in this world to bring the love of the Father and the Son to full fruition is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to pray for, love and respect each person God places in front of us. Those who are so broken as to prey upon us, violate us and steal from us need this love just as much as we need it. So we follow Jesus’ instruction to pray for them, to love and bless them, while guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Sometimes in order to do God’s work of loving others, we need to have and use healthy boundaries.

As members of the body of Christ, we as members of Christian churches have a responsibility to lead others in loving the unlovely, and caring for the broken and downtrodden. We are called to demonstrate through loving actions the real caring and compassion which exists within the Trinity and should exist within the body of Christ. We should all work together, no matter our creed, in the unity of the Spirit and the oneness of Christ, to show the neighborly love of God to others in our church neighborhood.

When we do this, we are entering into a battle for our community. The kingdom of darkness does not appreciate any light we may bring into our neighborhood, and so there is a struggle. But we walk in the assurance that Christ has done what was needed to defeat the darkness. We walk by faith, not by sight. In other words, we keep loving, praying for and showing compassion to those Christ places in front of us, and bear up, by God’s grace, under whatever opposition may come our way. We walk the difficult road of building up community when efforts are being made to tear it down.

Holy Father, by your Son and in the Spirit, empower us to love one another as you created us to. Give us hearts of compassion and respect. Make us “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” as we interact with our neighbors, whoever they may be. God, by your great love, create loving community within our neighborhood so we can experience the same love which exists in your very Being as Father, Son and Spirit. In your Name, we pray. Amen.

“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB

To Hire a Sheriff

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By Linda Rex

Good Friday: There was a time in my life where one of my favorite authors was Zane Grey. One reason I enjoyed his westerns was because he illustrated well both the beauty and depravity of the human heart and spirit. Granted, by modern standards, his writing may have been laborious and tedious at times. And I understand history was much more complex than what was described in the pages of his books. But the whole idea of humans taking on the adventure of settling in a new land and being transformed as they faced the dangers and challenges inherent with such a change has been inspiring and instructive to me.

One of the concerns wrestled with by inhabitants of the newly settled West was that of law and order. Former citizens of the Eastern seaboard took it for granted the average person was bound by an inherent need to do what was best for the community and to live by standards of honesty and decency. Having officers of the law available to enforce these expectations was assumed. But such individuals did not exist in the West in the early years. What did exist was the inner law, however misguided, of the hearts and minds of those venturing out into areas which were unsettled by those not native to America.

As small towns grew up, one of the settlers’ first items of business might have been to begin to enforce law and order. The citizens of these small towns would come together and agree to hire or elect a sheriff. These sheriffs usually weren’t picked because they were nice, friendly folks. Rather, they were almost always men who could draw a gun at lightning speed and track down and bring to justice evil men who preyed upon others. These sheriffs often were just as hard, cold and calculating as those men the townspeople were hoping to get rid of, but that was the price the townspeople were willing to pay in order to have law and order in their community.

If you were to drop down into the midst of one of these stories, you might find yourself standing in front of the general store, facing a ragged-looking pony. Looking up the street you’d see a tall, lean man standing quietly on the dusty road, his body tense, his guns low, and his hands hovering close by his holsters. He’d be intently staring up the road at something.

You’d lean a little to the left to look past the pony, and you’d see a couple of nasty looking fellows, both of whom are sporting wicked leers and heavy artillery on their belts. At this point, you’d decide you’d be much safer inside the general store, especially since all the other residents would have vacated the street several minutes ago.

Imagine at this point if instead of electing a tall, dark gunslinger for sheriff, the townspeople had hired Jesus Christ. Yes, I realize that even trying to imagine this possibility might cause excruciating mental torment, but please bear with me.

These two, twisted, violent men are well known in their community for the horrible things they have done to men, women and children, and for the wretchedness of their character and behavior. They are cold, calculating, and evil to the core. And they are facing a man who looks at them with eyes of compassion and understanding, but who is not wearing any form of law enforcement equipment. What would happen next?

I can’t imagine any author of Western novels creating such a storyline. The West wasn’t “won” by mild-mannered men in robes and sandals. Law and order wasn’t established by someone offering multitudes bread and fish, or by someone telling parables and healing the sick. This isn’t what we associate with the civilizing of early Western America. To even imagine this possibility creates a huge level of disbelief in our hearts and minds.

In the same way, the historical event of Good Friday stands out in my mind as an enormously unbelievable and countercultural event. It seems we as human beings refuse to accept the reality we are more inclined to resolve our issues through the application of force, violence and control than to resolve them by offering ourselves up in humility, service and sacrifice. To handle the depravity and brokenness of human nature by giving oneself over to be beaten, ridiculed and crucified just doesn’t make sense to us. Yet, this is what Jesus did.

God came to earth and we crucified him. It’s as simple as that. When Jesus Christ could have drawn upon all the power inherent within himself to execute deserved retribution on all who hated him, abused and crucified him, he instead offered himself up as a sacrifice. Even though God could have created law and order by forcing people to do everything the way he wanted it done, God gave us instead the freedom to choose and to make mistakes. And the Father even offered us his beloved Son, and we treated his Son shamefully, rejecting his most precious gift by destroying the One who came to save us.

But it was in that very effort of ours to destroy the One who was given to us God did his most amazing work. It was in our rejection of and crucifixion of Jesus Christ that God bound us to himself with inseparable cords of love. Through the resurrection, what was meant for death and destruction has become our salvation and redemption. This is God’s most amazing creation of all—a new humanity built in the midst of and out of the depths of our depravity, evil and brokenness. God said we were worth every bit of suffering and loss the Father, Son and Spirit had to experience in order to bring about his perfect end.

Unlike the perfect Zane Grey ending where the cowboy gets the girl and puts the criminals behind bars or under the gravestones in the local cemetery, God gives us a more perfect ending. He works it out so he has us, with him, for all eternity. He gets transformed, healed, renewed children to share his life and love forever. And in my humble opinion, that is the best possible ending to the story which includes the events of Good Friday. What more could we ask for?

Lord Jesus, I don’t understand how you could just stand there and let us do to you what we did. But you allowed us to do to you whatever we wanted—and it turns out we treated you shamefully, rejecting you and your love, and we tried to destroy the most precious gift your Father could have offered us. It is amazing how your Father took this very act and used it to bind us all to you in an unbreakable bond of love. Now we are yours, God, forever, in the grace offered us in you, Jesus. Thank you for your unfailing love and forgiveness, through Jesus Christ and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?’” John 18:11 NASB

Leaving it All for Love

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Fall in Arkansas
Fall in Arkansas

by Linda Rex

Many years ago I packed everything I owned in a U-Haul truck and left my southern California bungalow for the hills of rural southeast Iowa. It was quite a cultural shock for someone who had grown up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Over the years people have often asked me what in the world made me do this.

At the time, it just seemed the logical and right thing to do. I was in love and had married an Iowa farmer. To leave my home, my family, my friends, my job, and all that was familiar to me seemed to be only a little thing in the face of building a new life based on love.

One of the stories many of us had to read in high school was Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. In this classic story of love and tragedy, we find the age-old question asked, “What would I do for love?” It is a question many of us face in our day-to-day lives as we interact with family, friends and our community. What exactly are we willing to do in the name of love?

Throughout his ministry, Jesus engaged his disciples in conversations that challenged them with this very same question. He walked up to Matthew as he collected the taxes and said to him, “Follow me.” And he dropped everything and followed him. He went to John and James and said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And they left it all and followed him.

Throughout this ministry, the disciples kept being faced with the question: Am I really ready and willing to leave all behind and follow Jesus? At one point they reminded Jesus of all they had given up to follow him, and asked what they were going to get out of the deal. Jesus said they would receive abundantly in the world to come as well as receive some rewards now. But the greatest gift they would receive through it all would be eternal life, in relationship with the God who loved and cared for them.

In his book “The Call to Discipleship”, Karl Barth writes about our tendency to adopt Christianity like we join a fraternal organization—it’s a nice thing to do and it fits in beautifully with our life plans. Sadly, we can tend to treat our call to faith with an indifference borne out of our jaded human experience where we’ve seen it all, done it all and this is just one more thing to do to guarantee a healthy, happy life.

But the call to discipleship is a call to leave all behind and follow Christ. It means letting go of all that has gone before in such a way that we hold loosely to the things of this world and we hold tightly to Jesus Christ, our new humanity. God calls us to let go of all of the things in our life that we identify ourselves by, for our new identity is in Jesus Christ alone.

This can be very difficult, especially when what we need to leave behind is something we have built our whole life around, thinking that it defines us and our humanity. Just what exactly are we willing to do for love? Just what are we willing to leave behind to follow Christ?

Perhaps if we were willing to look at this question from the other way around we might find some compelling reason to leave everything behind.

We need to look intently at Jesus Christ—who is he? Here is One who lived eternally in a relationship of love and companionship in which he was content, fulfilled and complete. He had no need of anyone or anything else. He did not need us, nor did God have any reason to create us other than as an expression of his overflowing, abundant love.

Yet this God, who was rich in every way, set all the privileges and dignity of his divinity aside, and joined us in our humanity. He left everything that was familiar and comfortable, and took up residence in a human body. He allowed himself to be carried about and mothered by Mary, and to be instructed in the temple by the rabbis. He walked about on earth, getting his feet dusty and dirty like every other human being. And he did it all for love.

And that wasn’t enough for him. He even allowed himself to be insulted, abused, shamed and crucified by us. He died an ignoble death with a word of forgiveness and compassion on his lips. Isn’t that the truest expression of love?

Taking all this into account then, how can there be anything we are not willing to give up for him? Love and gratitude for this amazing act of love compels us to drop everything and to do whatever it takes to follow him, even if it means leaving everything we value behind.

It will not always be easy to follow Christ. We will be faced with the decision at some point in our lives—do I cling to what is comfortable and convenient, or do I hold fast to Christ? Is this relationship I’m in more important to me than living in agreement with the One who gave it all up for me? Do I hold fast to my integrity or to the job I desperately need so I can keep my house? Will I hold on to my pride or be willing to eat humble pie and admit to my spouse that I am wrong?

What are we willing to give up for love? Jesus gave it all up for you and for me—perhaps what we need to give up really isn’t that significant after all.

Lord, thank you for leaving everything behind and joining us in our humanity. Thank you for loving us so much that you were willing to give it all up for love. Grant us the grace to give ourselves fully to you and to others in the same way you have given yourself to us. In your name, Jesus, amen.

“Peter said, ‘Behold, we have left our own homes and followed You.’ And He said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.’” Luke 18:28–30 NASB

“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.” John 15:12–14 NASB