sinners

Mirror of the Human Heart

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By Linda Rex

August 29, 2021, PROPER 17—I have been in tears lately over the reality of the inhumanity with which we as human beings exist in this world. I am sick of the betrayals, the deceptions, and the manipulative messages meant control, use, and steal from innocent, trusting individuals. How low can we as humans go? Apparently, after all these millennia we still have not plumbed the depths of the human depravity we are capable of.

All of the evil I see around me right now is nothing new—we’ve been going at this inhumanity to humanity thing since we were first created. Perhaps our capacity to self-destruct and to destroy our planet is greater than it ever has been. But what we as humans do to one another that is evil and depraved is nothing new. It is birthed out of the heart of the evil one which we have too often given heed to and followed since the beginning of time.

Sadly, I find that we as followers of Jesus Christ can be just as bad or worse than those we like to point our fingers at and declare to be sinners. Too often, we are simply just more effective at disguising or hiding our failures to love God and others. In our gospel reading for this Sunday, we see Jesus taking some Pharisees and scribes to task for their hypocrisy. They may have been very religious, but their oral traditions actually enabled them to look like they were good people when in reality they were avoiding their responsibility to their fellow human beings.

Jesus was not unfamiliar with the depravity humans are capable of. His point was that it is not the external things which make us unclean or unacceptable to God. Not washing our hands a certain way or not doing a certain religious ritual correctly does not determine our uncleanness or unacceptability to God. It is the things that are birthed in our hearts and pour out from us which defile us. Jesus said things such as “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness” come from within and are what make us unclean (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21–23 NLT). Our only hope with regards to these things is for God to give us a new heart and mind.

When we focus on our failures as human beings to love one another as God meant us to, we can become very angry or depressed. Focusing on the evil human beings dump all over one another does not resolve the issue. We need to remember the admonition the apostle James gave us regarding looking into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who is the exact representation of the Father in human flesh, the perfect image-bearer of God each of us is created to be. He is the One we are to keep our eyes on, for he is the living Word of God present in our humanity by the Holy Spirit, ever at work transforming human hearts and minds.

In Christ we have been given a new heart and mind. When we look into the mirror who is Jesus Christ, the One who kept the law of liberty fully and completely as we should, do we see only the broken humanity which is caught in the cesspool of evil and sin? Or do we see the resurrected crucified Lord, who took all that evil and sin upon himself, died our death, and rose from the grave, ascending into the presence of the Father, bearing our glorified humanity now and forever. In the beloved Son of the Father, through whom we are forgiven, accepted and beloved children of God, we find our life is hidden with Christ in God.

As we gaze into the face of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we find we have a choice. We can refuse to believe and accept who he is for us and what he has done for us in giving us himself. We can walk away and resume our old ways of thinking and living. Or we can begin to live into the truth Jesus has revealed to us about who we are as the beloved, forgiven and accepted children of God. We can live and walk in truth, or we can continue in the self-deception, corruption and stubborn willfulness of our lives as disobedient children.

James reminds us that the superficial gloss of religiosity is valueless and is despised by God. Jesus, on many occasions, condemned hypocrisy in self-proclaimed religious people. Saying the right words, even getting the rituals right, is meaningless if it is not backed up by the evidence of our faith in Christ. True religion that is acceptable before God comes from a heart filled with the presence and power of Jesus by the Holy Spirit which is expressed in the care of those who are not able to care for themselves and a life lived out of the truth of who we are in Christ.

The struggle to be what we were meant to be rather than what we find ourselves so often being is a real one. In every moment of every day, we are called once again to turn away from ourselves and to turn to Christ. We are called again to lay down our lives, pick up our cross, and to follow him. We are reminded by the Spirit to gaze again into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus, so we can remember whom we are and begin anew to live out the truth of whom we are in him by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Self-deception is easy. We can always find ways to excuse or rationalize our behavior or our failure to live as we know we ought to live. Those of us who share the good news of the gospel find it a tough challenge to really live out the good news of Jesus Christ in a world which is constantly tempting us to turn away from him, and is ever pulling us back into our old ways of thinking and living. It is so easy to put on the façade and never let anyone know how far we have fallen from the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.

But that is why we are called into fellowship with other believers. The point of gathering with other believers is to grow in our relationship with God and one another, and to grow in Christlikeness. There are many ways in which we gather together—whether at church for worship and hearing the Word, or in a small group for learning and fellowship, or coming together for the simple purpose of praying together as brothers and sisters in Christ. In these spiritual communities, we are living in a small way the kingdom life we were each created for and in which we will live forever when Jesus returns in glory. We have the opportunity right now to express true religion day in and day out as we interact with the people God puts in our lives, offering kindness, service, and humble obedience to the will of God by genuinely loving and caring for them in the name of Jesus.

Sincere, heartfelt love and care for others is a reflection of the nature of Jesus Christ himself, as God in human flesh. He is the mirror we gaze into—and which we want to reflect as we live day by day in this world which has drifted so far from what God meant it to be. Not everyone appreciates a mirror, nor do they care to have reflected back to them how far they have fallen from what they were meant to be. There are places in this world today where people are suffering deeply from choosing Christ and living his way. When the time comes for us to make that same choice, what will we do? Are we willing to be true reflections of the mirror that is Christ, no matter the cost to ourselves?

Heavenly Father, how far we have fallen from all you meant us to be! Thank you so much for not leaving us here forsaken in our darkness. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us and bringing us out into the light, and for sending your Spirit so we can share in your life now and forever. Grant us the grace to worship you, Father, in spirit and in truth, as accurate reflections of your glory and goodness, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”     James 1:17–27 NASB

Not So Different After All

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By Linda Rex

October 27, 2019, Proper 25—Standing next to my husband at my mother-in-law’s visitation, I listened as he spoke with a family friend. He had grown up with these people and as part of a small farming community, they were each connected in a variety of ways, most specifically by their common history of family farms. As I listened to him talk, I realized the radical difference between someone who is isolated from and unfamiliar with death, and someone who sees death as the normal outcome of any creature’s existence, whether human or animal.

When someone has cared for animals, as farmers do, he or she has often experienced the life cycle from birth to death and understands that death is the normal end to any creature’s existence. But death is also devastating and destructive, and it is often fought with every weapon available. Because we value life and reject death, we often spend thousands of dollars to attempt to prevent or postpone a death which in the end is going to happen anyway. This can be one of the greatest struggles we face as humans—dealing with the reality of death and dying.

Indeed, it is a tragedy when we lose someone dear to us, when our life is shattered by the loss of someone who gave us great joy, love, and companionship. When we wake up each morning without our spouse or loved one, we are faced anew with the pain of our loss and the deep grief which goes with it. It is especially tragic when death takes away a baby or a child—someone who was just beginning their life—it seems so unfair and unjust. These are great losses, and they pierce us down to the depths of our heart, and they don’t just go away over time.

I believe the reason it hurts so much to lose someone to death is because this was not what we were created for. God intended us to eat of the tree of life and to live forever. He never wanted us to experience death and the separation that goes with it. But we made that choice—and continue to make that choice—as we choose to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, and we continue to believe and live out the lie that God doesn’t love us and doesn’t want what is best for us.

I would not want to think that I choose death, but when I reflect upon my life and the choices I have made about different things, I find that death is often the ultimate outcome of the choices I have made. Perhaps it is healthier, though, to recognize and acknowledge this than it is to believe that I have only chosen life. The gospel passage for this Sunday tells a story which reminds us that we need to see ourselves with clear vision and not to ignore our capacity to choose death over life.

Jesus told this parable, according to Luke, to “some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” He told of the Pharisee, a very righteous man who prided himself on following the law and keeping every rule established by the Jewish leaders. This man stood, as a good Jew would, and praying to himself, told God how grateful he was that he wasn’t like the tax collector who stood at the other end of the room. He named all the things he wasn’t and reminded God of all the things he did right.

He started out his prayer saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” What he failed to see or acknowledge was the simple truth—he was just the same as everyone else on the planet. He was just as much a sinner as the tax collector—he just didn’t see it and certainly didn’t want to admit it. One day he would die just like every other human being—and then what? What good would all his efforts be then, when he would be faced with the reality that he was a sinner just like everyone else?

A companion passage for this Sunday’s message is 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, where Paul has a frank conversation with his protégé Timothy, letting him know he is nearing the end of his life. Paul embraced his death, not fearing it, but rather looking forward to the receiving the “crown of righteousness” he would receive from Jesus in that day. He knew that the source of his righteousness did not lie within himself, but solely in the Lord Jesus. He did not fear death, but bravely walked toward it, trusting in the love and faithfulness of God in the midst of whatever situation he found himself. He knew in his next moment of consciousness he would be with Jesus and would live forever in glory with him.

The transformation of the solely pagan Roman Empire into one which accepted Christianity was partly due to the way in which early believers treated death. Many, when faced with torture or death for not renouncing Christ, chose to happily, with a song or word of praise on their lips, go forward into death. They did not fear it, but chose it over abandoning their faith in Christ. Death was not seen as an enemy but as a conquered foe, and as a passage into real life, life evermore in the presence of Jesus Christ.

They could do this because they were honest with themselves about the reality that they were sinners saved by grace. They knew the source of all life, of all their hope for the world to come, lay in the Lord Jesus who had entered into our suffering and death as God in human flesh, and had risen again, bearing our humanity into the presence of the Father. He brought all of us out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light—from death into life—giving us an eternal hope in the face of death and dying.

But the struggle we have as human beings is coming to the place where we are willing to say, “I’m no different than any other man—I too am a sinner.” We each need to come to the place where we acknowledge our need for what God has done for us in Christ.

We are each in the garden again, and God is inviting us to eat of the tree of life—choose Christ! What we don’t want to do is to continue to choose death by insisting on our own path of self-justification, of deciding for ourselves what is right, what is wrong, and how to get our own selves right before God. Jesus did all that is necessary—he invites us to turn to him in faith, trusting in him for all that we need.

Come to Jesus Christ and allow him to share with you his right relationship with his heavenly Father. In Christ, you are a forgiven, accepted, beloved “sinner”—a child of God. Believe it. Receive it. Embrace it. Live!

Dear Abba, heavenly Father, thank you for giving us life in your Son Jesus Christ and sending us your Spirit so that we may participate in this divine gift. May we humbly confess we are sinners who are in need of all Christ has done, is doing, and will do—free us from our self-justification, our self-righteousness, our stubborn resistance to life and insistence on the ways of death. Thank you for your faithfulness and love, and that you will finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.’” Luke 18:9–14

Changing Our Inner Lens

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By Linda Rex

September 15, 2019, Proper 19—The parable about the lost coin nearly always brings to my mind the many times when I have lost something important and have searched all over in my attempts to find it. As I get older, I’m discovering that it’s getting easier for me to lose things and harder for me to find them. I confess that on occasion I have had to use my landline phone to call my cellphone because I could not find it anywhere.

My daughter dreads hearing me say that I can’t find my glasses because she knows they could be just about anywhere. She immediately checks to make sure they are not on my head—sometimes things are not as badly lost as we think they are. Sometimes we just need to change our viewpoint or our perspective, or what we believe to be true.

This parable of the lost coin shows the heart of our loving Abba, who is willing to go to great lengths to ensure that each of his children has a place at his table. It’s bad enough that we believe he’s looking for reasons to exclude us, but then we also often believe that he is indifferent as to whether or not we’re even present in his life. Neither are true.

The coin the woman searched for was a drachma, worth about a day’s wages. Back when I was an hourly employee earning minimum wage, losing a day’s wages was equivalent to not having any water that month or not being able to put gas in the car. When I lost a day’s wages or lost a valuable check, I was concerned. I needed every penny I earned. I had bills to pay and kids to feed and care for.

The diligence with which the house got searched increased with the value of the item lost. The urgency with which this woman searched her house was a reflection of the value she placed upon that lost coin. It is a reflection of the passion with which our Abba searches for his lost ones. Finding those who are his lost ones and bringing them home to be with him was very important to Abba—so important that the Word of God, his Son, came into our cosmos, shared in our humanity and our suffering, and brought us home to be with Abba forever.

There is no person today who is completely and totally lost, who is not found in Christ. On God’s side, he has searched out and found each and every one of us—including us in the humanity of our risen Lord. Our lostness is a matter of unbelief, not of spiritual reality. What we believe about God, about ourselves, and about who Jesus is and what he did, is critical. If we believe we are lost, forsaken, and abandoned, we will live as though that is true. But if we believe Christ has come and brought us home to his Father (which he has), then we will live as though that is true, and live in the joy, peace, and hope of God as we participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit.

Now sometimes we can be so sure of our own goodness and righteousness that we don’t realize we have wandered away from the God who loves us. This was what Jesus faced when the scribes and Pharisees began to criticize him for eating with sinners. When we begin to delineate between righteous people and sinners, including ourselves in the righteous group, we are in a dangerous place. We are declaring ourselves as having no need for Jesus and for what he did for us. We are denying reality.

Jesus emphasized our need to see ourselves accurately—as sinners in need of grace. As long as we believe we are righteous and do not need to be saved, we have no need of Jesus. We can live in this place of denial all our lives, but there will come a point where we will need to face the reality that apart from Jesus, we are lost. Apart from his finished work in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, we don’t have life today or hope for the future. We need to accept the truth that our eternity, and our present, are wrapped up in Jesus—he is our life. He is our right relationship with God and others.

There is great joy in heaven, Jesus said, when someone throws away the blinders and begins to see themselves with clear vision. Confessing the truth about ourselves paves the way for us to begin to live and walk in truth, in the spiritual realities in which we were included when Jesus came in our place on our behalf. And living in the reality that we are sinners saved by grace, beloved adopted children of the Father, changes how we treat those around us.

Instead of focusing on the failures, faults, and weaknesses of those around us, we focus on Christ—on him being at work in each person and in their lives by the Spirit, helping them come to see and believe that they too have been found and brought home to the Father. Rather than offering ridicule, criticism or condemnation, we offer encouragement, comfort, and understanding. Rather than rejecting or belittling them, we pray for them and offer them appropriate support.

It is in these ways that we participate with Jesus in searching for the lost and bringing them home to the Father. God has already done the hard part in the finished work of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. Now we get to join in as we follow Christ and the lead of the Spirit as God works in each person’s life to bring them to faith. We pray for them and share the good news with them. We share the love of God, extending the grace and mercy of Jesus, and trust God to finish what he already has begun in each person’s life.

So, today, how do we need to reconsider the way we look ourselves and the people around us? Are we using a clear and accurate lens? Do we see things through the lens of Jesus Christ? We may need to ask Abba for new glasses—or maybe we just need to clean the grime off of them so we can see things the way they really are. Either way, we may just discover that what we believe is lost has already been found.

Dear Abba, thank you for so diligently searching for us, finding us, and bringing us home to you. Give us clear vision, the lens of your Son Jesus Christ. Fill us anew with the Spirit of truth so we not only see the spiritual realities, but also the truth about those you have placed in our lives. Enable us to love them as you have loved us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’… I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance….In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’” Luke 15:2, 7, 10 NASB