sinfulness

Clearing the Way for Fruit

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By Linda Rex

March 20, 2022, 3rd Sunday in LENT—Today our neighbor is having her fence replaced. One of the blessings that came with it was the removal of a small tree next to our shed which had been holding up her fence. It is amazing how the removal of this one misplaced tree enabled us to clean up some things next to the shed we hadn’t been able to reach, while at the same time facilitated the installation of something new which our neighbor was needing done.

As I was studying the readings for this Sunday, I was struck with how this little event in my day coincided with the Word of God for today. The gospel reading tells us about people coming to Jesus with a couple of stories of how several people lost their lives—some in a Roman bloodbath within the temple grounds, and some when a tower fell on them. The common thought of the day was that if something bad like this happened to you, it was because you were a horrific sinner and you were getting what you deserved.

Jesus told them that this wasn’t the case at all—that’s not how his Father works. Instead of worrying about the spiritual condition of the people who died in these events, Jesus’ listeners were admonished to consider their own spiritual condition. He pointed out that they needed to be sure they were right with God themselves rather than focusing on the sinfulness of others.

Isn’t this typical of us, though? I remember years ago when God woke me up to the reality that I needed to quit focusing on the faults of my spouse and others, and start looking at my own issues. You and I are unable to change another person or fix them. The only person we have any control over is ourself, and there is extreme doubt that we can even regulate ourself—we are utterly dependent upon God making us what we need to be by his Holy Spirit. For that reason, we need to do what Jesus was telling these people here to do—repent. We need to experience a change of mind and heart as well as action—a turning away from ourselves to Christ in faith.

After reminding his listeners of their need to repent, Jesus told a story about a vineyard owner who had a fig tree that, after three years, still hadn’t borne any fruit. The owner told the vineyard keeper to cut it away, removing it because it was occupying space needed for production. It was hindering the growth of everything else by blocking the sun, and was taking up resources that were needed for the other plants and trees to be fruitful. The vineyard keeper, like Christ did for all of us by the way, interceded on behalf of the fig tree. He said he would dig around the tree, fertilize it and give it another year to see if it would finally bear fruit.

The point is, there are things in our lives which may simply not be fruit-bearing. Sometimes the things we believe about God or ourselves are inaccurate, misplaced, or even toxic, and they need to be removed so that healthier patterns and beliefs may take their place, and we may begin to bear spiritual fruit. Sometimes the issues may be so small and seemingly insignificant, we miss them, and don’t realize they are symptomatic of some bigger issues—things we need to face up to and repent of so that God can bring us to a healthier, more wholesome way of living and being.

Sometimes the way we read the written Word of God is part of the problem. We may need to go a little deeper in our own personal study of God’s Word rather than just going by what other people say about it. Let me give a couple of examples, drawn from the readings for this Sunday.

First, we read in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 about how God in Christ walked with the nation of Israel through the wilderness, being the spiritual rock from which they drank and drew their life. When someone is, like I am now, going through a time of intense trial and difficulty, people have a tendency to say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” They believe they are quoting 1 Corinthians 10:13, when it actually says: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (NASB). If you look at the context of this verse, you will find that the apostle Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about difficult times or trials. Jesus is the way of escape from temptations to sin, and he taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13).

A kinder, better statement for someone going through tough times, I believe, is that Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He may not keep us from the flames of fire, but like he did with Daniel’s three friends, he will stay with us in the midst of those flames and carry us through to the other side (Dan. 3). We can be truthful with the text at the same time we are compassionate with the person who is hurting, thereby avoiding toxicity and unhealthy spirituality.

Another passage in the readings for today which leapt out at me is Isaiah 55:6–9. When we are faced with difficult or confusing situations or hard times, I often hear people quote verse 9, pointing out that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

I’m all for God being way beyond anything I could be as a human. But the context of this particular passage is about grace. It’s a call to repentance, to turn back to God. It’s about God not looking at sinful people the way that we look at them, or the way we look at ourselves and God when we fail to live the way we know we ought to. God is offering his grace, his mercy, if only we would just turn away from ourself and turn back to him.

Just like the people Jesus was talking to in the gospel passage for this Sunday, we often get focused away from where God would like our focus to be—turning away from ourself and turning to Christ in faith. I’ve been thinking about why we go to church—is it so that we can get a free meal, or help with our bills, or so that we can feel better about ourselves? Or is it part of a personal relationship with the God who has called us to himself in Christ by the Spirit and is wanting us to be a part of what he is doing in the world? Yes, we need to experience God’s love through the good deeds done for us, but shouldn’t we be going beyond that to sharing God’s love with others, once we have experienced the profound goodness and mercy of God?

God is so incredibly patient and generous with us. He continues to bury us with Christ that we might once again rise with him to new life. Christ was willing to be the fertilizer in the ground, placed in the earth so that we might be given the ability to produce lasting spiritual fruit. He offers himself to us, inviting us to turn from ourselves and to turn to him in faith, allowing him produce spiritual fruit in us by the Holy Spirit, as we open up to One who is the Light of the world. May we respond to him in faith, trusting he will finish what he has begun in us.

Thank you, Father, for not cutting us out, but allowing your Son and your Spirit to intercede for us, drawing us deeper into life with you. Grant us the grace to ever turn to you in faith, trusting in your faithful love and mercy, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ And He began telling this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” And he answered and said to him, “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.” ’ ”      Luke 13:1–9 NASB

[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/clearing-the-way-for-fruit.pdf%5D

Rejected, but Beloved

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By Linda Rex

Creative people such as writers, songwriters, and artists will most likely at some point experience the painful reality of rejection or dismissal of their creative efforts. Sadly, many a gifted person has walked away from pursuing a career in a particular field because a significant person or instructor has rejected or harshly criticized what they have offered.

I remember as a youth I had loved to write little stories and poetry. I thought maybe I might like to be an author someday, but my writing always seemed inadequate and trite. When I first went to college I turned in a paper for an American literature course. The teacher gave me a C, which was a new experience for an A student. I finally got up the courage to ask her why she gave me such a low grade on what I thought was a good paper. She proceeded to annihilate all my efforts at writing. If I had been emotionally healthier, I believe I might have handled her criticism better, but as it was, it took me a long time before I allowed someone else to read or critique my creative writing.

I realize today rejection is a part of our human experience. None of us like it, especially when we have become hypersensitive due to attachment wounds. Rejection can feel very much like a death, because it penetrates down to the core of who we believe we are. We can allow fear of rejection to hamper us and tie us down, even to the place we are immobilized by it in the very areas we are the most gifted.

Rejection is not something we are alone in experiencing, though. Throughout the centuries, our loving God has experienced the rejection of his chosen people, and the rejection of the creatures he created in his own image after his likeness.

I would say in many ways our experience of rejection, whatever it may be, is a sharing in the rejection God has experienced since the first rejection of Adam and Eve. They chose to turn away from him and trust in their own ability to determine what is right and wrong rather than embracing his gift of the tree of life in relationship with him.

If we were to accept our common experience of rejection, we might find ourselves better able to handle rejection when it happens to us. We can be compassionate when it happens to another person, and more thoughtful before rejecting someone else. And if anything, it ought to at least make us sympathetic enough to reconsider our own personal response to God’s personal offer of love and grace to us.

Truly, we are each put in the place of having to make a decision when we encounter Jesus Christ. When we come face to face with the living Lord, we must embrace him or reject him—he does not give us any middle ground.

The story in the Christian calendar which is normally told on December 28th involves the encounter of the wise men from the east with the newly born Messiah. In this story, we see two completely different responses to Jesus Christ’s arrival. The correct response is illustrated by the wise men following the lead of the Spirit and the light of a star, seeking out the Christ child, and upon finding him, worshiping him and offering him gifts. This is the best response any of us can give when we come face to face with the truth of God’s love and presence in the person of Jesus Christ.

The other hell-bent response is illustrated by King Herod. Yes, he sought to know where the Christ child was, ostensibly to worship him, but in reality, for the sole purpose of destroying him and preventing him from fulfilling his purpose for coming into the world. King Herod wasn’t satisfied with ignorance of Jesus’ location, No, his rejection of the Messiah went so far as to include massacring all the boy babies in Bethlehem.

The rejection of the Messiah by King Herod is only the beginning of the many ways in which Jesus was rejected during his lifetime on earth. Though he “grew up healthy and strong” and “he was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him” as a human boy (Luke 2:40), we find out later by some of his people he was considered an illegitimate child only worthy of contempt (John 8:41).

Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus either embraced or rejected by the people he encountered. Indeed, the ones we expect to see him welcomed by are the ones who actually opposed him. Sitting at his feet were the lost, the least, and those rejected by the religious leaders. Those same leaders rejected Jesus’ person and ministry, even though he demonstrated by miracle and acts of love he was the Messiah, the Son of God in person.

Toward the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus began to push the buttons of these leaders. He brought them face to face with the sinfulness of their hearts, and exposed the evil motives which drove them. He brought them to judgment, to krisis, to a place where they would have to choose. He sought to bring them to repentance and faith—but he knew they would not make that choice. He knew the Jewish leaders would reject him, and he warned his disciples this would happen.

We are reminded on Palm Sunday how the crowds welcomed Jesus with joy, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem. And then on Good Friday we are reminded anew of the real extent of all of humanity’s rejection of the Savior of the world as Jesus died at our hands in the crucifixion. It is not enough that Judas Iscariot betrayed him, but then Peter his close companion denied him. You and I stand there in each moment of rejection, betrayal, and denial, and we find ourselves betraying, denying, and crucifying Christ Jesus ourselves.

This should not create an oppressive sorrow, but rather the deep sorrow of repentance which is overwhelmed by the joy of renewal and forgiveness in the resurrection. This rejected One took your place and mine and in our stead gave us new life—the acceptance and embrace of our heavenly Abba.

Jesus Christ, the rejected One, does not reject us—he saves us! Abba, the Father we turned our backs on and rejected, receives us in his Son Jesus Christ—we are accepted in the Beloved. The Spirit is sent to us so we can participate fully in the divine perichoretic relationship of love and grace.

We find in Christ, the rejected One, a unity with God and with one another which would not otherwise exist. In Jesus Christ by the Spirit we find the capacity to forgive those who reject us, and the ability to embrace those we would normally reject.

The beauty of the Triune life in each Person’s unique relationship, equality, and unity begins to be expressed in our relationships with God and one another as we turn to Christ and receive the gift of the Spirit he gives us. This time of year, as we ponder the loss of so many innocent lives both then and now, we are comforted by the gift God gave us in his Son Jesus Christ. As we receive this precious gift and open ourselves up to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, we will find we are not rejected, but beloved and held forever in the Triune embrace of love and grace, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Dearest Abba, thank you for your infinite patience, compassion, and grace toward us in spite of our rejection of you and our refusal to humble ourselves to accept your love as obedient children. Grant us repentance and faith—a simple trust in your perfect love and grace—a turning away from ourselves and a turning toward your Son Jesus, and an opening up of all of ourselves to you and the work of your Spirit of truth. May we walk in love and grace towards one another in Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

“They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11 NLT