The Humble Path to Unity
By Linda Rex
April 2, 2023, Palm or Passion Sunday—This season of reflection before the events of Holy Week has been an opportunity for us to go deeper in our walk with Christ. The challenges we have faced, whether health concerns, financial and work concerns, or relationship issues, have reminded us of our need for Christ. Perhaps we have ignored this cry of our hearts, or hopefully, we have tuned into it in such a way that we have allowed it to move us deeper into our walk with the Lord.
On this Palm Sunday, we are reminded of Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the city of Jerusalem along with the other pilgrims celebrating the spring Jewish festival season. Christ arrived, seated on a symbol of humility, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, as the long-anticipated Messiah (Matthew 21:1–11). The important question asked of these pilgrims was, “Who is this?”—the very question each of us needs to comes to terms with. Who Jesus Christ is matters, for this is fundamental to the reason he came to earth, and why he ended up where he ended up—crucified.
The apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5–11, tells us something fundamental about Jesus’ identity. Dealing with issues of disunity within that congregation, he points out their need to begin to live in accordance with the truth of who they were in Christ. The fellowship of the Spirit, unity within the body of Christ, is only possible when we each are living and walking in true humility.
Paul then begins to describe what real humility looks like. Christ, as the Son of God, did not cling to the privileges of his divinity, but rather set them aside temporarily in order to join us in our humanity. Taking on our human flesh, Jesus experienced our real human life with all its temptations and struggles, yet remained sinless. Going on beyond this, Christ surrendered himself to be crucified—a death which was utterly humiliating for the Jewish people of that day and total foolishness for the Greeks. What humans deemed shameful and degrading was what Jesus Christ embraced, for our sakes—to free us from evil, sin, and death.
Paul goes on to say that the result of Jesus’ utter humility was that his Father exalted him to reign over all. One day each and every living creature, human or spirit, will bow to Christ, for the glory of the Father. Paul’s point was that humility is the path, not just to glory, but to true unity. If we want to have a true participation in the divine union and communion, it requires the price of humility. We are called to grow up in Christ, by the Spirit to put on his own humility, so that we will live together with one another in oneness and unity.
This makes me wonder whether we have been asking ourselves the correct questions when it comes to what we are struggling with in our world today. How often are our politicians actually willing to take the place of humility and shame for the sake of others? How willing are we as followers of Christ willing to own up to our failures and weaknesses, allowing others to see that we are as dependent upon the grace of God as everyone else? Are those of us who do business willing to do the hard thing and serve others rather than seek our own glory and success?
These are hard questions. It’s impossible to live in this world and do these things the way Jesus did, though the Savior said nothing is impossible for God. Perhaps this Palm Sunday, as we walk the streets with Jesus in his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, we might contemplate his real purpose for entering the city—to assure our redemption and transformation at the price of his own loss of life and dignity because of God’s heart of love and forgiveness toward us. In realizing and confessing our need, we may by the Spirit receive Christ’s heart of humility and service so that we will live in unity with others.
Thank you, Father, for sending your Son for our salvation. Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to humble yourself so completely for our sakes. Heavenly Spirit, grant us truly humble hearts and minds that we might live in true unity with one another, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus ‘every knee will bow’, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5–11 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/03/olitthe-humble-path-to-unity.pdf ]
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Freeing the Bent and Bound
By Linda Rex
August 21, 2022, PROPER 16—Sometimes I long to be able to touch people in the same way Jesus touched them. There’s a person I see on occasion at a store I frequent whose physical condition seems to be a lot like the woman in the story for this Sunday in Luke 13:10–17. I long to be able to touch her so she could stand fully upright again.
The woman in the story Luke tells was bent over severely, probably to the place that she could no longer look up or reach up above her. Luke wrote that she had been bound by this infirmity caused by a spirit for eighteen years. I wonder how many times she had gone to the rabbis, hoping one of them might free her from her imprisonment. Was she told that the reason she was crippled in this way was her fault, because she was a horrible sinner or born in sin? Was she excluded from going to the temple due to her condition? In any case, she was in a really bad situation from which she could not extricate herself.
Luke wrote his gospel in an effort to share the good news of what Christ did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. How fitting is this parable as a picture of what Jesus did for all of us! All of humanity was bound by Satan, doubled over and held captive by evil, sin, and death, unable to free ourselves from our imprisonment.
The Son of God in human flesh, Jesus Christ, came to set humanity free through his sacrificial self-offering. Just as Jesus touched this woman, telling her she was finally free, Jesus touched each of us by taking on our human flesh, becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Jesus set each of us free from all that has bound us, rising from the grave and ascending to the Father, bringing all of humanity home to a right relationship with the Father in the Spirit. He offers us that freedom of evil, sin, and death in his precious gift of the Spirit by faith in Christ.
Just as Jesus was criticized by the synagogue leader for healing on the Sabbath, telling him to only work during the week, we often want to be the ones who tell Jesus what to do with his self-offering on our behalf. We often replace Jesus’ finished work with our own religious rules and requirements, our own spiritual practices which may become more important than caring for others. What is more important, Jesus wants to know: keeping yourself religiously pure and “holy” or helping someone be released from years of bondage and suffering? What is more important—observing your traditions and religious regulations, or participating with God in setting someone free?
Growing up in my religious tradition, I was taught that having a good relationship with God meant praying and studying the bible and going to church, along with obeying all of the legal requirements of the Bible. In later years I discovered that loving God and loving my neighbor is central to my identity as a follower of Christ. There are so many ways of living in relationship with God and loving my neighbor that do not involve religious traditions or rituals! Indeed, our love of God is most effectively expressed by our loving, outgoing concern toward others shown by deeds of service, kindness, understanding and compassion. It is in our other-centered sacrificial care of others that we begin to truly reflect the nature and glory of our Triune God as his beloved adopted children.
I’ve never realized before how often I have been like the synagogue official in this story. Here he had been for eighteen years gathering with the crowd for reading the scriptures and praying together, and working on being holy, and that whole time this woman had been a part of that community. She was suffering acutely and I wonder how many people during that long period of time really touched her in the way that Jesus did when he showed up. She needed the touch of healing and restoration, but how many people during all those years actually prayed for her or offered her a kind word or reached out to help her?
This year Grace Communion International is challenging us to participate with Jesus in his expression of love and care for those who are suffering or are in need. Our tangible acts of compassion can become an expression of God’s love that genuinely touches the lives of others, enabling them to actually experience the love of God in meaningful ways. Rather than simply talking about spiritual things or doing religious deeds, we can intentionally become a part of other people’s lives, sharing in their concerns and easing the burdens they cannot carry on their own.
For some of us, this can be a real challenge. Our tendency is to live in cocoons, protecting ourselves from the evil and danger of the world around us. To open ourselves and our lives up to make room for others is a struggle. But by God’s grace and his Spirit working in and through us, we can begin to participate with Jesus in touching the lives of those who are bent and bound, sharing the good news that freedom is theirs in Christ.
Who are the people God has placed in your life? Who do you encounter as you go about your daily activities? Are there people you meet at the store or the coffee shop you frequent with whom you can begin to have conversations and pray for or help?
Do you have a unique talent or gift that can be a blessing to others? How can you share it in such a way that you don’t do for others what they need to do for themselves, but still bless and help them? What makes you uniquely you and how can you offer that up to make this world a better place in relationships with the people around you?
These are questions I am asking myself as I ponder the next steps in my life. In what way can my faith move beyond religious practice into practical expressions of the love of God in Christ? It is a question worth wrestling with.
Father, thank you for sending your Son to touch us in our bent and bound condition, to set us upright in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Grant us the grace to share your love with others in tangible ways so they might also by your Spirit experience your loving and healing touch, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“And He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there was a woman who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, He called her over and said to her, ‘Woman, you are freed from your sickness.’ And He laid His hands on her; and immediately she was made erect again and began glorifying God. But the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the crowd in response, ‘There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?’ As He said this, all His opponents were being humiliated; and the entire crowd was rejoicing over all the glorious things being done by Him.” Luke 13:10–17 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/freeing-the-bent-and-bound.pdf ]
Walking in Unity With God
By Linda Rex
May 8, 2022, 4th Sunday in EASTER—When we had our Community Café ministry running strong, I remember sitting at the table talking with some of our church neighbors. Around us, busily taking care of all of us, were the Martha’s of our congregation—those with the gifts of hospitality, service, and helping. How tangible was the expression of the love of God through their hands!
I believe this is the significance of the story in Acts 9:36–43 about the disciple named Tabitha (or Dorcas). Luke tells us that she was “abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did.” Apparently, she used to make clothing for people, providing a necessary service for those in her spiritual community. When she passed away, the loss was felt keenly—keenly enough that they call for Peter to immediately come.
Indeed, I think about those who are no longer with us who had this same gift of the Spirit of service and helping. It would be nice if they could have stayed awhile with us so we could continue to enjoy the blessing of their loving care. But this was not God’s best for us or them, and they have moved on.
What we can learn from them, though, is that we help to make Christ visible to others when we serve, help and care for others. These tangible expressions of God’s love enable people to not just hear about Jesus, but to feel and experience his love in a real way that can be life-changing. These expressions of God’s love testify to the truth of the good news of Jesus’ finished work. When we live out what we say we believe, then the gospel, or good news, begins to carry some weight. When we don’t live out what we believe, we dishonor and grieve the Spirit, and make all that we might say about Jesus appear to be false.
The apostle John told about a time when Jesus was walking in the temple during the Feast of Dedication, what we today call Hanukkah. The Jews there gathered around him, hoping to catch him saying or doing something they could use as an excuse to arrest him. They wanted him to plainly tell them that he was the expected Messiah. But Jesus knew their intentions were not honorable and that they did not have his best interests in mind.
Jesus reminded them that he had already clearly told them the truth about who he was. Then he said to them, “…the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me.” Jesus was saying that they should have known who he was by looking at the things he was doing. What he was doing—healing the sick, casting out demons, giving the blind sight and the deaf hearing—was all done in his Father’s name by the power of the Holy Spirit. No one else could do these things in the way he was doing them. His actions quite clearly showed who he was—the Son of the Father, the Anointed One.
Question: do our actions quite clearly show who we are—the adopted children of God? How well are we reflecting our Lord Jesus Christ? We may preach the gospel effectively with our words, but how are we doing with our actions?
This question can be quite intimidating for a pastor. I realize that I stand up each week and preach, telling people what I believe God wants us to hear and do. But it never ceases to amaze me how that very thing I preached on or planned to preach on becomes an object lesson for me personally. God doesn’t want us to just talk about Jesus and his ways. He wants everyone of us to live and walk at all times “in Christ”—so all of life is swept up into walking in the Spirit in such a way that when others look our way, they tangibly experience God’s love—Jesus Christ in us by the Spirit.
Every one of us has opportunities throughout the week to offer help, care, and service to others. When GCI talks about the Love Avenue, this is what is meant. We are each called and gifted by God to love others. God has shed his love abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Participating in the Love Avenue is what we all do, though some of us are more gifted by the Spirit for these specific types of ministries.
And those who are especially gifted in the area of helping, service, and hospitality, I encourage you to be sure to find ways to use your gifts to express God’s love. You are a blessing to this world and I am very grateful for each of you—you are the reason that we have truckdrivers, farmers, caregivers, nurses, cooks, and all of those who work in hospitality, medicine, and many other fields where having people who serve others is essential to our well-being. When you are busy and active using your gifts to serve others as to the Lord, not only are people blessed, but you become a vibrant, tangible expression of God’s love.
Some of us find serving others in this way to be challenging. For all of us, trusting in the Spirit is essential. The apostle Paul said that if we work, we work as if we are working for the Lord. All of life is lived “in Christ” now. Just as Jesus did what he did in his Father’s name, we do what we do now in Jesus’ name and for the Father’s glory. What Jesus did, he did motivated by God’s love, since he was filled with the Spirit. Paul says for us to let the Spirit fill us. And, knowing we are compelled by God’s love, we are to love one another—proving we are Christ’s disciples.
The reason Jesus did the works he did was that he lived in united with his Father in the Spirit. It is because Jesus and his Father were one in will and action that by the Spirit Jesus expressed love so powerfully and profoundly. The reason we do caring, helping, and serving things is because we are united with Christ by faith, therefore united with the Father in the Spirit. It is our unity with God through Christ in the Spirit that we receive the capacity and desire to love and serve others effectively—and God offers this to everyone. May the Lord fully express through each of us by his Spirit the love and grace of our God.
Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us people in our lives who are especially gifted to serve, help and care for others. Thank you for pouring your love into our hearts by your Spirit so each and every one of us can serve, help and care for those you place in our lives. Grant us the grace to love others even as you have loved us, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“At that time the Feast of the Dedication [Hanukkah or Festival of Lights] took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ ” John 10:22–30 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/walking-in-unity-with-god.pdf ]
Grateful for the Gifts
By Linda Rex
January 16, 2022, 2nd Sunday in Epiphany—The sun is shining over my yard filled with snow. There is every reason to be filled with joy, but this morning my joy is tempered with grief at the passing of Bob Taylor. Bob was a mentor to me as well as a support in many ways in our ministry here in Nashville. I still remember how he and Jan made me feel welcome and at home when I was so nervous and anxious about starting my first pastorate. I was a newbie and they were gracious and patient as I learned the ropes of ministry.
I learned a lot from Bob over the years. We did not always agree on things, but he opened my eyes to see things from another viewpoint. Through his eyes I saw my need to grow up and my need to be gracious to those whose strong opinions did not agree with mine. He encouraged me to develop the spiritual gifts of ministry—preaching, leading, administrating. And he supported me in ways for which I am very grateful.
It is significant that this Sunday’s reading from the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 12:1–11. It is the Holy Spirit who gifts people for ministry of all kinds and in the unity of the Trinity, works out the purposes of God in this world. Even though each of us is different and excels in our gifting in unique ways, all our gifts have their source in the one, unique Spirit who is Lord of all.
Bob definitely had the gift of administration and finances. He could do things with numbers that would make my brain fog over. He helped a lot of people over the years by offering up his gifts in service to Christ. Many members recall his visits during the critical transitional years in GCI, and are grateful for the sacrificial service he offered during that time.
At times, when I am speaking with a follower of Christ, they will tell me that they have no spiritual gifts. I certainly do not believe that to be true. In most cases, I have found that it is not a matter of them not having gifts. It’s more a matter of them not having the courage and faith to try something new and discover the latent gifts they do have. Or not being willing to offer up to Christ and his Church the gifts he has given them, but choosing to hide or ignore them instead.
In refusing to believe God has gifted us in any way, we deny the work of the Spirit in our lives. Take for example a mother who chooses to stay at home and care for her children full time. Having done this at one time in my life, I understand the negative messages such a mother may receive from the culture regarding her decision. She may believe she has no spiritual gifts. In reality, she is doing a powerful ministry to her children and family—one that will last on into eternity. Isn’t the ability to love and care for others a gift we receive from the Spirit?
We all have been given unique gifts, talents, abilities, experiences, and educations. The spiritual gifts listed in Scripture are important as well. All of these gracious gifts from God, when gratefully offered up to him, have an impact on our marriages, our families, our communities, God’s creation, and his world. Why would we want to hide what God meant to be a blessing and a joy for him and others?
Developing the gifts, talents, and abilities we do have is important as well. Bob and the church graciously supported my completion of a masters in pastoral studies. This was such an encouragement to me, as it affirmed my worth as a woman as well as a pastor. When someone offers up their gifts to Christ, we can offer our support by coming alongside them to help them on their journey of obedience and service. Often it is the encouragement, financial or physical support, prayers, and help of others that enables someone to courageously step out in faith to offer up the gifts God has given them.
There is also the matter of finding our giftedness and growing in it within the context of community. There are times when we may decide we have a certain spiritual gift, when others around us see clearly that this is not our gift at all. It is important for us to listen to those around us in the body of Christ who love us and know us well. They often see what we do not see. They may call forth a gift in us by pointing it out and encouraging us to develop it. Or they may point out that there are others who are more gifted than we are in an area we believe we are gifted in. In humility, we can receive this information and be blessed by it, for God’s Spirit guides us in the recognition of and development of our gifts as we are open to his leading.
I was thinking about these things and reading the gospel story for this Sunday. It’s the story about Jesus going to a wedding in Cana with his disciples. His mother realized that the host was out of wine—a very embarrassing circumstance in that community. She took the problem to Jesus. His response was, “What does that have to do with us/me? It’s not my time yet.” But she responded by saying to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”
A couple of things popped out as I looked at this. First, why did Mary immediately go to Jesus with the problem? Was she expecting him to pull out his wallet and go shopping? Or did she realize the Spirit had uniquely gifted her Son, and that he could do exactly what was needed in that moment? At times, the Spirit places us in a circumstance in which we are the ones with the gifting which is needed to do what needs done in that time and place. We may not realize that we are the ones gifted by the Spirit to do what is needed, but others will and they will come to us and invite us to be a part of the solution. Has that ever happened to you? What was your response?
The second thing that popped out was what Mary said to the servants. The thing about spiritual gifts is that they are given by the Spirit for a purpose and to fill a need. What has the Spirit prompted you to do? What is the Spirit calling you out to provide in that moment of need? I would say to you what Mary said to those servants: Do whatever the Spirit tells you to do. Follow the lead of the Spirit as he directs you and affirms that direction by the unity of the body of Christ.
Jesus very well could have pulled out his wallet, told the servants to go into town and buy up all the wine they could find. He could have hidden his anointing a little longer if he had wanted to. But he didn’t. He knew that the minute he turned that water into wine, he was headed for the cross. But that did not stop him from doing the one thing only he could do—transform H2O molecules into wine molecules. He offered himself up freely for the sake of others, a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. May we offer our own spiritual gifts up in that same Spirit of self-sacrificial offering.
Thank you, Father, for freely offering us your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for freely offering us yourself. Thank you, Spirit, for coming and filling us, and gifting us so generously. We offer ourselves and all these gifts back to you with gratitude, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” 1 Corinthians 12:1–11 NASB
See also John 2:1–11 NASB.
Finding Our Security in Christ
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.
Leading as a Child
By Linda Rex
September 19, 2021, PROPER 20—There is a title I rarely hear anymore and it used to be commonly used for someone who worked in a public leadership role. Even the president of the United States, our congressmen, and local leaders were given this title in years past. It takes a very special leader to be willing to be called this and lead accordingly, even though it is an accurate description of what a person should be doing when fulfilling their responsibilities in the public sector.
Being called a servant or treated like a servant has such a negative connotation, many people would prefer not to be called a public servant. This is understandable. However, to be a true leader in the way in which Jesus walked before us, one must be willing to be servant of all. One must be willing to serve those they are leading and not lord it over them. Using power and authority to force one’s will on others is not the way of Jesus. His path is much different.
During his last days before his crucifixion, Jesus began to teach his disciples what would happen to him. He told his disciples that the Jewish leaders of that day would arrest him, torture and kill him, but in three days he would rise again. Since Peter had been rebuked for contradicting Jesus when he first introduced this topic, the disciples really didn’t want to ask any questions. But what they began to talk about among themselves shortly afterward was significant.
Jesus knew what they were talking about, but he asked, drawing out of them that introspection they needed so they could learn. They were concerned about who was going to be in charge in the kingdom—who would be the greatest. In their culture, this was very important, especially in the public sphere and in the synagogue. Their position in these areas, their prominence, was essential to their worth and value. What they forgot was that this was the very thing Jesus had over and over rebuked the Jewish leaders for, condemning their obsession with being noticed and fawned over by the crowds, and for throwing their weight around and harming people in the process.
Jesus told the disciples that the person who wanted to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven needed to be the servant of all. To lead, in the way of the kingdom of God, is to serve. It is the way of humility, not the way of self-aggrandizement or pride or power. It is the path of being willing to be less than so that others might be more than. What Jesus needed them to see was that his path, and therefore theirs, was the path down the road of self-sacrifice, of laying down one’s life for the sake of others.
To make his point, Jesus took one of the most inconsequential members of their culture, a child, into his arms. A child, at that time, had no rights and really no value, and was totally dependent upon his or her parents for everything they needed. Jesus told them that their reception of a child in his name was the same as receiving him and his heavenly Father as well. The value Jesus placed on that child was his own value and his Abba’s value. Even an inconsequential child was a treasure. How much more each and every person they might meet?
In last week’s sermon we talked about God’s gift of wisdom in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. God’s wisdom at work in our hearts and minds brings about a new way of living and being—a new way of looking at our value and worth and how we interact with the people in our lives. In contrast with the way of the flesh which moves us toward selfish ambition and jealousy which results in “disorder and every evil thing,” the way of Christ by the Spirit, the divine wisdom, is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (James 3:16-17 NASB).
The apostle James points out that the person who makes peace plants the seed of righteousness. The right relationship we have with God and one another, our righteousness, is a result of the planting of God’s heart and mind in human hearts through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and in the sending of his Spirit. By faith, each and every person can participate now in right relationship with God and one another—there is a peace with God and others that only comes by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work in human hearts and minds. Our issues today with some leaders not being public servants are as a result of them not being willing to trust Jesus—to walk in his way, the way of death and resurrection.
What God calls leaders to is a willingness to lay down their life, their preferences, their benefits, for the sake of those they are leading. It is a real struggle to lead in this society by serving. How much easier it is to take advantage of all the benefits and perks of a leadership position than it is to refuse them, to humble oneself to suffer alongside others who are suffering, to serve next to those who society deems are less than and worthless. We have conflict and quarrels, sad divisions between us, James says, because our desire for pleasure or our envy of others and our longing for what they have outweighs our loving concern for them (James 4:1-3). This is why we need Jesus—we need the Spirit to change our hearts and minds, to bring about a new way of thinking and acting within ourselves as well as within those we lead.
Leadership as a position of service also involves those who follow—they must be willing to be led, and they cannot be led by someone they don’t love or trust. Being a leader carries with it a heavy responsibility. The best leaders are those who lead from a position of humble service, especially in the position of submission to the God who allowed them to have that position of leadership in the first place. Leaders who have forgotten they are public servants need to remember to wash their hands in the blood of Jesus Christ, to surrender to the reality that the only true Lord is the one who was willing to lay it all down for the sake of each of us (James 4:7-8). He calls us to be as little children—the adopted children of God we are, in and through him and by his Holy Spirit—and to trust and depend upon the Father in every circumstance, most especially in the area of leadership and public service.
May we pray for our leaders daily, whether within the church or in the public square, that God’s Spirit would fill them with divine wisdom and a heart of service. Pray that they would serve in humility, setting aside personal interest and privilege, and laying down their lives as Jesus did for the sake of those they lead. Pray also that they might have the strength and grace to be true peacemakers in a world that inevitably is led by the evil one into division and disunity.
Heavenly Father, we need you to pour your heavenly Spirit through Jesus into the hearts and minds of our leaders in every sphere of our lives. We need leaders who are submissive to your will and who are willing to serve and to lay down their lives on behalf of those they lead. Thank you, that we can all share in your servant leadership through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“From there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know about it. For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.’ But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him. They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’ Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.’” Mark 9:30–37 NASB
Wisdom Has the Last Laugh
By Linda Rex
September 12, 2021, PROPER 19—The earth turns slowly on its axis while wobbling through space. Along with its celestial brothers and sisters, it spins around the sun, traveling about in a rhythmic dance with the moon. Because of this, we step out of the house at dawn and watch the sun rise over the horizon. As night approaches, we watch the sun set in glorious array. We don’t sense any movement ourselves, but day by day, we experience the consequences of this movement.
In Psalm 19, King David wrote that the sun rising and setting each day, the magnificent heavenly bodies glittering in the night sky, and the wonders in heaven and on earth are all consequences of the actions of our God. His actions have led to life—life in a myriad of shapes and forms on this earth, in outer space, and in the vast oceans of the earth. God’s heart of love and grace are expressed in a real and powerful way in all he has made, and are a visible demonstration of his glory, his generosity and wisdom.
King David’s son Solomon wrote that wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks to us constantly, calling to each and every person to listen to her and to do what she directs. Why do you want to be ignorant and naïve, she asks, and suffer the consequences of foolish choices and decisions? “Turn to my reproof,” she warns, “Behold, I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you.” Then she says she will laugh in the day when the foolish experience the consequences of their refusal to listen to the voice of wisdom—she did her part but they turned away and chose to take their own path (Proverbs 1:20–33 NASB).
Wisdom, in this passage, involves a knowledge and understanding of God’s ways, his glory and his goodness. We were made in the image of God, after his likeness, to be reflections of his Triune nature of love. If this is our identity as human beings, what does it look like when we live it out? It looks a lot like Jesus.
Wisdom is available at all times—like the air we breathe and the sun coming up each morning and setting each night—it’s a part of our universe, constantly pointing out the reality that there is a better way of living, that there’s more to life than just this. God gave his wisdom in the creation of all things, in the revelation of himself to Israel, and in the giving of the law to his people. But going way beyond that, God has given us his profound wisdom in the person of Jesus Christ. He sent his Son, who took on our human flesh and lived the life we were meant to live. The law of God lived out in a human person, fully dependent upon the Father, in obedience to him by the Spirit, even to the point of giving up his life at the hands of others—this is what it looks like to be truly human and to be the wisdom of God present in this cosmos.
So often we ignore the wisdom God gives us. He tells us the best way to live and we ignore him, choosing our own way, our own path, to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. And then we become angry when we begin to experience the consequences of our choices. But there are consequences to choosing to ignore true wisdom, especially the true wisdom given to us in the person of Jesus Christ and his presence here in this world right now by the Holy Spirit.
God has always wanted us to experience the consequences of obedience to him—the benefits which involve life, a life lived now and forever in union and communion with him in the Spirit. God wants the harvest of our lives to be faith, hope, and love—a joyful experience of union and communion with him and our brothers and sisters, now and forever. He does not want us to, and has never wanted us to, experience the consequence of death. He always and ever wanted us to have life, true abundant life as he has always experienced it in the unity and harmony of the Father and Son in the Spirit.
True wisdom calls to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Come—this is the way you were created to live—in loving, faithful obedience to the Father by the Spirit expressed in loving care and concern for God and others. While the world around us and our broken flesh calls us to the pleasures of this life and to self-centered ways of living and being, Jesus calls us to a better way—a way of self-sacrificial service and humility. “If anyone wishes to come after Me,” he said, “he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” The consequence of following Jesus may, in the immediate sense, require sacrifice, suffering, and/or death, but in the end, it will result in eternal life—life in intimate relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit and in joyful life with others both now and forever as brothers and sisters in God’s kingdom.
The world around me is constantly encouraging me to believe that I am able to do whatever I want without any cost associated with my decisions. I am free, I am told. No one can tell me what to do. But just what is true freedom? Doesn’t true freedom require that we be willing to pay whatever price is necessary for that freedom to exist? Doesn’t true freedom involve other-centered love, limiting oneself for the sake of God and others?
What price are we willing to pay for the choices we are making today? Do we realize the full extent of what we are giving up in our current pursuit of self-absorbed living and self-centered pleasure-seeking? Do we realize the price we are going to pay if we continue to refuse to listen to the voice of Wisdom which is constantly calling out to us to turn from ourselves and to turn to Christ? Are we hearing even now the laughter of Wisdom as the consequences of our stubborn resistance to her are beginning to show themselves in our world and in our lives?
All of us make decisions while ignoring the consequences of those decisions. All of us stubbornly and willfully choose to go our own way at times, even though we know better, and know that it will cost us. Jesus, the wisdom of God present by the Holy Spirit, calls us to come to him, to find our rest in him. He calls us to turn from ourselves and the things of this world and turn to him, finding our true life in him instead. We may, in the short term, have to sacrifice or give up some things we value, but in the view of eternity, they are nothing compared with the glory God has planned for us as we share in his life and love as glorified human beings in the new heavens and new earth.
Dear Lord, everything you have made has been done with great love and abundance of wisdom. Thank you for giving your Son, your wisdom in human flesh, to be the true reflection of your glory and goodness we are to follow and obey. Thank you for planting your wisdom in human hearts by your Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to listen to and obey Wisdom as she calls to us day by day, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Jesus went out, along with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He questioned His disciples, saying to them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ They told Him, saying, ‘John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets.’ And He continued by questioning them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And He warned them to tell no one about Him. And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.’” Mark 8:27–38 NASB
Faith on Our Journey
By Linda Rex
February 28, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN PREPARATION FOR EASTER OR LENT—One of the things brought to my attention recently in a new way was how subtle the temptation is to take difficult situations into our own hands and work them out under our own power. Some of us feel an urgent need to fix things that are broken or not working the way we think they should and often jump in with both feet, not realizing that doing so may not be what God intends in the situation.
Granted, we do need to invest our best efforts in doing what we believe is the right and holy thing for us to do in each instance as we follow Christ. But when we slide into that belief that it’s all up to us, then we are spiritually on dangerous ground. I wonder if sometimes we believe we are caught in a place where we feel we have been abandoned or forgotten by God. Circumstances in our life may be such that we feel as though we are managing just fine on our own, or the opposite, we don’t see any path by which a solution could come to us for our extreme difficulties. Either way, there is a temptation to trust in our own ability to move ourselves forward rather than simply trusting in God’s promises and provision.
As members of my congregation at Grace Communion Nashville know, we are facing some difficult decisions about the future of our congregation. Over the past eight years since I have pastored this congregation, and long before that, our members have diligently worked to serve and love the people of East Nashville. They have provided free meals, prayed for people, and given what they could to help those in need, whether food, clothing, money, or just heartfelt compassion and understanding. We have done our best to provide upbeat, contemporary Christ-centered Trinitarian worship with an emphasis on communion and sharing the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have joined in with our church neighbors in community service opportunities and events, and have participated with our neighborhood association as they served the neighbors, and have cared for those God has brought to our attention who needed extra help.
To be sure, we have hoped that our little congregation might grow some in the process, but I hope that we did not make this an expectation that had to be realized, or believe that to not have done so means we have failed in some way. I believe we need to see things much differently than that. Whatever may happen to us in the future, we do know this—we were faithful, obedient, and loving, and blameless before God in our love and service to him and others. We have trusted him to do what was needed to keep us going, and he has. We have done our best to implement best practices for church renewal so we are relevant to our community. We have asked Jesus for opportunities to serve and he has given them. We have prayed for people and baptized some, and many have experienced healing, renewal, and transformed lives, or are still in process. In my view, our little congregation has God’s handprint of masterpiece creation written all over it.
As I read Romans 4:13–25, the New Testament passage for this Sunday, I was struck by the significance of what Paul was saying there in relation to this whole topic. God gave Abraham the promise of a son and many descendants, the fulfillment of which was not based on his ability to keep the law correctly or to do all the right things, but solely on God’s goodness and grace. Abraham was honest about the reality of his and his wife Sarah’s inability to bear children at their advanced age. Abraham came to the place where he surrendered to the truth that none of this could be realized by his or Sarah’s effort or ability. Even though he and Sarah had moments of uncertainty—we see this in the circumstances around the birth of Ishmael—Abraham was brought to the place where he simply trusted in God’s faithfulness rather than in his own ability to ensure that he would have what God promised. And God counted this as righteousness.
In their book “Transformational Churches”, Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer remind the readers that one of the most critical steps in church renewal is the congregation’s ability to see and accept the reality that apart from God’s intervention, their church will not be transformed, and that God’s ability to bring about renewal and transformation is far more powerful than any obstacle which may stand against them. God’s whole mission is the transformation of our cosmos, our world, into the truth of what he means for it to be—a reflection of his glory and majesty. Why would he not do what was necessary to bring that to pass? The authors remind us that it is “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6b NASB). When real transformation happens to a person, or to a church, it will be obvious who did it—God did, and he will get all the glory and praise.
Every person and every church comes to a point where the reality of what they are experiencing doesn’t measure up with what they know about God and his purposes for them. In this “cathartic moment” they realize they have come to a place where there is no movement forward. Abraham and Sarah experienced this at one point, and took matters into their own hands, thinking the solution was to have a child by Hagar, a concubine. But this wasn’t God’s solution—it was theirs, and created a whole host of unnecessary difficulties which God hadn’t meant for them or Hagar or even Ishmael to have to experience. Abraham and Sarah may have erred temporarily, but in the long run their faith in God’s faithfulness won the day.
We can be honest about our weakness and our limitations without in any way preventing God from bringing transformation and renewal to pass. We can own the reality that without God’s intervention nothing will be any different than it is right now. And we can embrace the crisis in front of us in faith, trusting in God’s faithfulness and provision, allow him to show us what our next steps need to be, and then, however falteringly, take those steps. Yes, as a church, we can continue to provide leadership that is alive and open to what God is doing, express dependency upon God through prayer, and offer wholehearted, inspired worship to God. And we can embrace new relationships and circumstances God places before us where we can share the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. But anything beyond that—let’s be real. That’s all up to God. And he works in his own time and in his own way.
We stand today at a crossroads where we are reminded by the story of Abraham and Sarah that our covenant God is faithful and keeps his word. Their simple decision to trust in God for the promised child was merely a stepping stone on the journey of the Word of God coming into human flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again, bringing all of humanity into a new place where each and every person may by faith participate in the divine union of Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. This childless couple, if they were standing with us, would be overwhelmed seeing the millions who today by faith are their spiritual descendants. What will we see when we look back at our participation in Christ’s mission as we trust God to finish what he began in us? I believe our faith in God’s faithfulness will be abundantly rewarded, far beyond our ability to ask or imagine, both now and in the world to come. Let’s walk by faith, not by sight.
O Faithful One, you who have ever worked to bring us near you, to share in your life and love, thank you for your faithfulness. Keep us ever faithful, trusting that you will finish what you have begun in us and believing we will see you do a new thing—a thing so great, only you could possibly have done it. Even now, in faith, we offer all the glory, honor, and praise to you. In your Name—Father, Son, and Spirit—we pray. Amen.
“Faith is our source, and that makes Abraham our father. When God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he made a public statement that he would be the father of all nations. Here we see Abraham faced with God’s faith; the kind of faith that resurrects the dead and calls things which are not as though they were. Faith gave substance to hope when everything seemed hopeless; the words, ‘so shall your seed be’ conceived in him the faith of fatherhood. Abraham’s faith would have been nullified if he were to take his own age and the deadness of Sarah’s womb into account. His hundred-year-old body and Sarah’s barren womb did not distract him in the least! He finally knew that no contribution from their side could possibly assist God in fulfilling his promise!” Romans 4:16b-19 Mirror Bible