By Linda Rex
SUNDAY, MARCH 1, 2020, ASH WEDNESDAY/1ST SUNDAY IN EASTER PREP—Recently, I was chatting with someone about current events and they were telling me about a program they heard on the radio. The person they were listening to was saying that the current issue with child abuse imagery has multiplied into millions of cases worldwide since the time of Clinton’s presidency. The implication was that his moral failure with Monica Lewinsky was the root of this alarming increase in the use of pornography. Personally, I would be more inclined to believe that this extreme numerical increase is more directly related to the use the internet as well as the ability to track the use of pornographic material on the internet. But that is not the point I feel led to make.
Over the decades our nation has been at certain times more concerned with particular sins than with others. I was reading a historical novel the other day which was set in the time of this nation when temperance and prohibition were promoted as the solution to all of the ills besetting the nation. I agree that the misuse and abuse of alcohol and/or drugs leads to many other sins, but there is so much more at stake. It is a greater issue that we can become so obsessed with a certain sin that we lose sight of our proclivity for living as though we are in charge and able to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil.
The story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden eating the forbidden fruit cuts down to the root of all human behavior from that time to today. We are all created for an intimate relationship with the God who made us and we can, at any time, walk and talk with God if we so desire. We may not experience this relationship with God in the same way they did, but it is what we were created for. However, we often trade this direct relationship with God we were given in Jesus Christ for a substitute relationship—dependency upon and reveling in the things of this human existence. Or as followers of Christ, we may even substitute church attendance, rule-keeping, moral purity, and community service for an intimate walk with our living Lord.
The truth is that we often are more concerned about repenting our mistakes or moral failures than we are repenting the bent we have toward rejecting God himself. What we need to do is to acknowledge the reality that we wish to live as though we are self-sustaining individuals, as little gods who run the universe the way we want it to be run. Let’s be honest with ourselves—we don’t want to have to answer to anyone for what we say or do—we want to create our own rules to live by and not have any consequences for our choices or behaviors.
So we come to the time on the Christian calendar called Lent (or Easter preparation) which begins on Ash Wednesday. This is the time when we honestly assess and confess our genuine and deep need for the Lord Jesus Christ. For, if he did not stand in our stead and on our behalf, we would have no interest in or desire for, nor the ability to have, a relationship with the God who made us and who cares for us. We don’t just draw up a list of sins and tell God about them. No, we go much deeper—down to the core of our being—down to the heart which turns away from God toward the things and people of this human existence.
God calls us to return to him. To return is to go back to the place where we started. We began at a place in which we were fully included in God’s life and love. And then we turned away. When God as the Word took on our humanity, he turned us back to his heavenly Father.
As Jesus stood in the waters of the Jordan River with the baptismal waters dripping off his frame, he heard the Father’s words of love—“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased (Matt. 3:17 NASB).” On the mountain where he was transfigured, we again hear the affirmation of his heavenly Father—“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him (Matt. 17:5 NASB)!” In Christ, we are beloved children. We are God’s pleasure and joy. God calls us to rend our hearts—to quit with all the religious externals and to get down to the core of our being: What drives us? What is the focus of our inner conversation? What directs our decisions and choices? Where does God fit in our lives? Does he even have a place in our heart?
The process of examining our hearts is not meant to be discouraging or depressing. Rather, as we take God’s hand and walk down the corridors of our inner sanctuary, we begin to see in a greater way our need for deliverance, redemption, and forgiveness. We see our need for a Savior. We begin to put God back in his rightful place as Lord of our existence. And most of all, the closer we get to the heart, we discover that waiting there all this time has been Christ himself by the Spirit.
For Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save us. He entered our human existence, not to destroy us, but to reconstruct us back into the image-bearers of God we were created to be. We do not look to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday with dread or to Holy Saturday with sorrow, but to Resurrection Sunday with anticipation and joy. What was meant for our evil, the destruction of our souls, God turned to good—the deliverance of all people. Jesus came to live our life, die our death, and rise so that the Spirit would be sent—so we would receive the very life of God within ourselves.
When we are called to return—to turn about, we are called back into the relationship which was ours from before time began. God has always meant to include us in his life and love, and even though we managed to turn away from this to the things of this world and ourselves, God has in Christ turned us back to himself. Receive the gift which has been given. Come to yourself, your true self. For Abba loves you dearly and is pacing on the porch, looking down the road, anticipating your return. Run to him!
Dearest Abba, thank you for not rejecting us because of our rejection of you, but giving us your Son in our place and on our behalf. Turn our hearts back to you again. Renew in us a desire for your will and your ways, but more importantly, for your very presence—to affectionately tend to your heart as you tend to ours. We praise you that this is all possible through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, | And with fasting, weeping and mourning; | And rend your heart and not your garments.’ | Now return to the LORD your God, |For He is gracious and compassionate, | Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness | And relenting of evil.” Joel 2:12-13 NASB
“For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:17-19 NASB
By Linda Rex
LENT—As we move into the season of Lent, I have been wrestling with the call Jesus has on my life right now to live in his grace and love in each moment. Letting go of old, incomplete, or inaccurate ways of thinking or believing regarding what has happened in the past is a struggle. The father of lies loves to blur the boundaries between what is true and what is false, so much so that it is hard to live and walk in the truth sometimes. Indeed, it is much easier to hold on to wrong and unhealthy ways of thinking about things than it is to embrace the reality that I may have misunderstood or may have (perish the thought!) been wrong.
Ooch! How much easier it is to wallow in my pride and self-defensive self-justification than it is to admit that I messed up and need a big dose of forgiveness! It is much easier to point the finger elsewhere or to blame someone else for what happened. But no, I must embrace the integrity and humility of Jesus which calls me to agree with the truth and to walk with him through his death and resurrection into the new life he bought for me and gave me in the Spirit.
Even though this season of Lent is an opportunity to reexamine the reality of our need for Christ, it is also an opportunity to see more clearly the spiritual reality of our inclusion in Christ. As we stand in front of the mirror, Jesus Christ, who is the exact representation of the Father, and see ourselves mirrored in him, we cannot help but see how far short we fall from being the perfect image-bearers of God. This can, at times, feel overwhelming and can lead to feelings of guilt and shame.
First, we need to ask ourselves—is this genuine guilt I feel? Or is it that imitation guilt and shame which the father of lies and his companions like to dish out to make us feel unworthy, unloved, and separated from God’s love and grace? Sometimes the events of our childhood or the way we’ve been treated by significant people in our lives create in us constant feelings of guilt and shame that aren’t in any way related to the truth of our actions or thoughts. When we tell the truth about these feelings, that their root is in a lie, we often find freedom and peace. But we may find ourselves wrestling with them for a time until that root is completely eradicated and replaced in our hearts and minds with the truth of our inclusion in Christ.
True guilt though is meant not to tear us down, but to bring us to the realization that we have moved away from our center in Christ. Because of Christ’s finished work, there really is no reason to wallow in guilt nor is there any reason to feel ashamed. Jesus has drawn us up into his intimate relationship with the Father, covered all our guilt with his righteousness, and given us a new life in himself by the Holy Spirit.
We need to view ourselves and those around us in accordance with the truth—we are included in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We have been given the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ—in and through the gift of the Holy Spirit—in us and with us. We need to stay focused on the reality that our life in Christ is a life of grace. God already knows the sin we are capable of and has covered it all in his Son. There is nothing so bad that God has not, cannot, and will not redeem and restore us. Rather than continuing to muddle around in the pig slop, we might as well run on home into his waiting arms. There’s no point in waiting around thinking if we tried a little harder, we could clean ourselves up on our own.
What about these “messies” we carry around with us and never seem to be able to get free of? What about the dark places we don’t want anyone to see? We like to keep our dark places dark. Bringing them into the light, letting others into the closet with us, is something we avoid like the plague. We prefer the darkness to the light. But Jesus tells us to bring the darkness into the light since God already sees it anyway. There’s no point in hiding what God has already seen, taken up in Christ, and freed us from. (John 3:18-21) Embracing the truth, living in this painful but liberating honesty and transparency on an ongoing basis, is the healthiest place for us to be.
Really, this is all summed up in the realization that Christ is the center. We live in him, for him, and by him. As we are assaulted by the lies Satan and others speak into our souls, we need to turn to Christ who is the truth of our personhood and our existence. We will be tempted to resolve our failures on our own—we need to turn to Christ who already has resolved our failures in his finished work and in his very person. Satan will call out our shortcomings, sins, and weaknesses, but we need to listen instead to what the Father says to us through Jesus by the Spirit: “You are my beloved child. You are forgiven, accepted, and forever included in my perfect relationship with my Son in the Spirit.”
The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to embrace fully the reality that now and forever, we need Jesus. Daily we need the Spirit poured into us afresh so we can more fully live out the truth of who we were created to be—the image-bearers of God himself. Indeed, what Paul said is so true—in him we do live, and move, and have our being. Apart from Christ, we are a mess. We are preoccupied, indifferent, greedy, broken, hurting, self-absorbed, self-centered—you name it. We can live life pretty comfortably on our own for quite some time, but inevitably we will come face to face with the truth—we need Jesus.
I hope during this Lenten season we will come to that place in a new way. I hope we will see our need for the love of God and the redeeming grace we have in Jesus as well as how empty we are without the indwelling presence and Person of the Holy Spirit. We can be sober and realistic, but I believe we can also rejoice—for we know what happened after the cross. We know the end of the story, and we’re included in it. Spoiler alert! … We rose with Christ—and we are new in him. Praise God!
Our dear Abba, thank you. Thank you that we can run home to you because you are waiting. Thank you, Jesus, for doing all that is needed so we are welcome at home with Abba. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for making this real to each of us individually, for enabling us to know we are God’s beloved children, forgiven and beloved. Holy Spirit, enable us to see our need for Christ as well as the reality of our inclusion in Christ. Enable us to turn away from ourselves and to turn to Christ. Thank you, Holy Trinity, for your love and grace through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days.” Luke 4:1-2a NLT
By Linda Rex
I was watching a show the other night in which a crime took place within the walls of a building. Everything about the crime involved hiding—the murder of innocent people, hiding bodies in cement, and so on. The objective of the main characters of the show was to bring the truth to light, thereby exposing the guilty parties and bringing them to justice.
It put me in mind of the conversation at our small group the other night. We were talking about how those things we bury inside of us can drive us and control us. They tend to become or fuel our vices. And often it is not until we bring those truths to light, by opening them up to the scrutiny of safe people, that we experience freedom from the habits or addictions which control us.
Anyone who has walked the path of a twelve-step recovery program knows how important it is to speak the truth, to be transparent about one’s brokenness and failures. And they know it’s most helpful to speak this truth to someone who has already walked that path of recovery, since they are most likely to be compassionate and gracious, while at the same time refusing to allow dishonesty about one’s problem.
One of the things we learn to do as we grow up is how to hide. We hide our hurts, our shame, our guilt, and we often find ways to self-medicate so we don’t have to face up to or feel our brokenness. We create an image or mask so that we can continue to function in our world.
Brokenness is unacceptable, especially when we’ve adopted a religious viewpoint that demands moral perfection. Darkness is preferable to light in these situations, because there is great fear and dread in being exposed for who and what we really are.
The thing is that we forget that God is light and in him, the Scripture says, is no darkness (1 John 1:5). In Psalm 139, the psalmist poetically describes how there is no place where God is not present—even the darkness is as light to him (v. 7, 11-12). The apostle John wrote how the Word came into our cosmos and took on human flesh, and became the light of the world, which lightens every man. (John 1:4-5, 9) There really is no way to escape the Light of God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
We cannot escape the Light God is, not even when we bury things deep inside ourselves. No matter how deeply we bury them inside, we still cannot hide them from the One who already knows all about them and loves and forgives every one of us anyway.
We cannot hide anything from God because he was, is and will be present in every situation and circumstance, and offers us his grace. He is intimately connected with our humanity through Jesus and in the Spirit, so he shares in all that we go through. He does not condemn—we are the ones who condemn ourselves and others.
Don’t get me wrong—just because God is present doesn’t mean that he is obligated to do anything about what we are experiencing. Most of the time we live, act and speak as though he’s not even present. We blame him for stuff that for the most part, we or someone else are responsible for. He gives us a lot of freedom as human beings and does not violate this personal freedom. God often waits until he’s invited and until it is best for all involved before he acts in situations.
This may cause us to feel that God is a capricious God, or a God who doesn’t care. Our view of God, unfortunately, is twisted or bent by the behavior and words of the people in our lives who were supposed to be reflecting God accurately to us.
Our view of God, then, if it is of a capricious, uncaring, unloving, God of wrath, will motivate us to hide. We will seek out the darkness, and having gone there, we will run as far from the Light as we can go.
Being in the Light is painful for someone who is seeking to hide in the darkness. This is why when someone is close to healing for some hidden grief or sin, they often find ways to avoid exposing themselves so they don’t have to speak the truth or face up to the reality of what they’ve done or what was done to them.
People who habitually live transparently and openly, in contrast, don’t try to hide their brokenness and failures. Rather, they are open about them and are willing to expose them to the scrutiny of others. They speak and walk in the truth. And as they do so, they not only find healing but they also help others to heal.
And notice, the focus in John’s writing was not on moral perfection, but on truth. Jesus is our truth—we live and walk and speak in him by the Spirit. He is our Light, and he enlightens each and every one of us broken sinners. And he does this so that we can bring that light to others who are hiding in the darkness.
There is much in this world that seeks to keep us focused on the darkness. There is a strong pull on each of us to hide and bury our true selves away. But the Light of God is already shining and there is no place to hide. There will come a time when every dark deed and thought will be exposed. But in Christ and by the Spirit, God has already provided a way for us to open our true selves to his Light even now.
We don’t need to hide, nor do we need to live bound by chains of darkness. We are not left alone in a dark world. God, in Christ and by the Spirit, is the Light of the world. Even now we stand, as we will then, in the brilliance of the glory of God in Christ and by his Spirit and share in the glories of the world to come. May our hearts and lives ever be open to his Light!
Father, the first thing you created in our cosmos was light—light that is a reflection of your unchanging, faithful divine light. You are the Light of the cosmos, present in all things at every moment. Thank you for the grace you give us that we can be real, living and walking in truth in your presence without fear. Thank your for calling us out of darkness into your marvelous light. Bring to light the hidden things so we may find healing and wholeness. Inspire and empower us to share that light with others so they may enjoy its brilliance as well. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3:19–21 NASB