suffering

Turn Us Again to Yourself

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By Linda Rex

LOVE
December 22, 2019, 4th Sunday of Advent
—I was reading a devotional this morning which used the story in the gospels of a man who was bound by demons and wandering about in the tombs, in the region of the dead. This man broke any chains that held him, but when Jesus spoke to him, he found true freedom.

How often I have felt like this man, wandering about in my own personal chains, unwilling to be shackled by the bonds of love God has for me. How often I have harmed myself rather than submitting myself to the love and grace of God as expressed to me in his will for my life! I know I am not alone in this—I see it often in people around me. It is our human condition apart from God’s merciful intervention.

One of the most basic steps in facing our addictions and being freed from them is coming to understand that apart from the intervention of a “higher power’, we cannot be free. We can try harder and harder, we can work the plan faithfully, but we have to eventually end up at the place where we realize in a deep and significant way that apart from divine intervention, we have no hope of ever being any different than we are right now.

God’s method of intervening in our circumstances did not involve him being a distant, cold and uninvolved deity. Nor did he seek vengeance on us for our pitiful failures at trying to be what we believe we need to be in order for him to accept us. God’s way of turning our hearts back to him, of restoring our relationship with him, was to enter into our very existence as a human being and to personally turn us around back into face to face relationship with himself.

Historically, the nation of Israel was in many ways like you and me. They were brought into relationship with God, but they refused to let him be the center of their life. For a while they would live as his people, but in time they would turn away from him, back into their idolatry and hedonism. They would reap the results of living life on their own terms, come to the end of themselves, and then turn again to him—for a while.

But this was not a surprise to God. None of this is. He knew long before our cosmos existed that we would have this proclivity to turn away from him to other things. He knew it would require his personal involvement to restore us back to our original design so that we could be the image-bearers of God he intended us to be.

We hear the cry in Psalm 80:2b-3, 7, 17-19 of the psalmist Asaph asking three times, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” Prophetically he pointed to a Son who would be the source of our genuine revival, the only means by which any of us will be saved. Our only hope of being people who would never abandon God would be for God to himself turn our hearts back.

So we have in Isaiah 7:14 the promise of a virgin bearing a son who would be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us.’ What a thrilling promise! This Advent season, as we gaze upon the nativity scenes we see around us, as we are reminded of the reason for the season, we are given a hope for something more than our constant failures to love. We are able to have peace of mind and heart because we know God has sent us a Savior—someone who has done and will do what we cannot and will not do. We are able to have joy, because we are celebrating the reality that God has come and stands in our stead, on our behalf, filling us with his real presence in the Holy Spirit.

Advent reminds us that when Israel had absolutely no hope of ever getting anything right with God ever again, God did not forsake her. He came himself, in the womb of a virgin, allowing himself to be carried as a promise to his people of their deliverance. Advent reminds us that we are not left abandoned in our sin and selfishness—there is a Savior who is one of us and yet is God himself—he has come to bind us once and for all to God with unbreakable cords of love and grace.

The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and today we as his people are pregnant with his presence by the Holy Spirit. God is even at this moment working deliverance in this world—preparing for the day when all things will be transformed completely and God will finally dwell forever with humankind. Our failures to love, our sinfulness and the evil which so often enslaves us, do not and will not stand in the way of God accomplishing what he set out to do from before the beginning of this cosmos. He will finish what he has begun—he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Advent teaches us love in a profound way—of God’s desire to be near to us, so near that he actually enters into our human existence himself. The presence of God in our humanity is the greatest gift of love God could ever give. He knew the cost of this gift would be the suffering and death of his Son, but he gave it anyway. He knew the rejection of his Spirit which would occur, but he gave his Spirit anyway. God freely gives—do we receive?

Whatever struggles we may have with our addictions or failures to love God and others, we find in Jesus that God is present and real in the midst of them. He is at work, as we are willing, to heal, restore, and renew. We are given Jesus Christ—he is in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. What is our response?

I’ve often thought that Joseph was an incredible man. He had betrothed himself to a young virgin who turned out to be pregnant with someone else’s child. He could have made a public spectacle of her—but he was so loving in not wanting to do this. And when God told him to marry her anyway, he did it (Matthew 1:18–25). His humility and sacrificial spirit bear witness to the humility and sacrificial Spirit of God himself. Will we in this same Spirit of humility and sacrifice receive the wonderful Gift of God in our humanity? Will we surrender to the reality we are in desperate need of God, and God in Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and will come again one day?

Thank you, Abba, for loving us so well. It was not enough for you to create all things, to set everything in motion, and to walk away. You dove right in, taking our very humanity upon yourself in your Son Jesus, renewing us from the inside out. Thank you for sending us your Spirit, enabling us to be one with you, and to be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“… concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power 1by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God…” Romans 1:3-7a NASB

Finding Gladness and Joy

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By Linda Rex

JOY
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?

Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?

We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?

Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.

And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.

A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.

This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?

Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.

Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.

Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.

Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?

So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.

Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?

This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?

It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.

May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.

Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB

“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB

Enduring the Flame

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By Linda Rex

November 17, 2019, Proper 28—Many years ago, I was faced with the reality that I was going to be on my own with two children to provide for. It was a hard thing to face because up to that point, it had been my commitment to be at home with my children so I could be fully involved in their lives. Reality is not always pleasant but it must be dealt with, and being a single mom meant I needed to find a job as well as hire a caregiver for my kids.

Life as a single mom was difficult for me, but many of the people around me struggled with even harder situations than what I had to deal with. Many of my co-workers juggled two jobs in order to be able to pay for childcare and their monthly expenses. Jobs in that farming community for the most part didn’t pay enough for single income families to make ends meet.

When life was hardest and the mountains around me seemed to grow taller and taller, I wrestled with fear, despair, and depression. The gracious God taught me during that extensive time of wrestling that all I needed to do was to hold his hand and take the next step and do that next right thing. Every month when the bills came due and I wasn’t sure if I would have enough to cover them, I would end up thanking God—he seemed to always come through for me.

During those years I learned that God was faithful and could be counted on, in spite of what I might be going through at the moment. As a follower of Jesus, I discovered that even if people around me ridiculed me and rejected me for living honestly, chastely, and responsibly, God was still present and at work in my life. Over time, as I intentionally began to build healthier relationships with other believers of many different faiths, he surrounded me with loving people who became our extended family, providing emotional and spiritual support through a very painful and difficult time.

Following Jesus is a life lived in the reality that God is our loving Father and we are his beloved children in his Son. When we follow Jesus, we begin to discover that even though each and every person around us is included in the Father’s love, not everyone knows nor do they believe this is the case. This means that as we live in the truth of being God’s beloved, living in agreement with our identity in Christ as image-bearers of God, we will come up against those who live in opposition to him and to us.

Some of the most painful experiences we have as believers are when our own family members and dear friends ridicule us, shame us, or even reject us because we have begun to follow Christ. We may long for these dear ones to share the joy of transformation we are experiencing, but find instead that they will have nothing to do with the truth of God’s love and grace. Life gets really tough when those we love refuse to participate with us in Christ.

Jesus often tried to help his disciples understand the cost of discipleship, of following him all the way through death and resurrection. They couldn’t quite get their minds around the reality that Jesus was not there to be the conquering king messiah—he was anointed by his Abba to be the Suffering Servant messiah, an entirely different concept. The entrance of his people into the kingdom was not going to come about by him waging war on the Romans, but by offering himself up to humanity as a lamb for the slaughter.

The people of Israel had worked so hard to get their temple rebuilt and adorned as an appropriate dwelling for God. But Jesus told them it would be torn down and destroyed. And that it would be okay, because Abba was creating a new temple, a dwelling place for himself—the body of Christ, the church, where individually and collectively God would dwell by the Holy Spirit. In order for this to happen, Jesus would need to experience suffering and death, followed by resurrection.

In the same way, the process of redemption and sanctification for us individually includes our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion as an expression of our inclusion in the death and resurrection of Christ. But we also participate as we experience the consequences of following Christ, of living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh—by sharing in the sufferings of Christ as we find ourselves opposed, resisted, and even rejected by those for whom Christ is offensive.

Our participation in Christ, following Jesus through every experience of life, is a journey, one in which we may experience both joy and sorrow, blessing and suffering. The key is that we are indwelt by God himself and whatever may be occurring in our lives at the moment, he is present and involved and aware. He upholds us in the midst of our struggles, and celebrates with us when we experience the triumphs of life.

Jesus Christ didn’t promise his followers a pain-free life. But he did promise that he would be with them to the end—that in their endurance, they would find true life. The life Abba has given us through Jesus in the Spirit is an intimate knowing and being known. Our knowledge and understanding of who God is grows as we wrestle with hardship and pain, and the other difficulties of life in relationship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.

We, in Christ, are the beloved children of God—and we are to act like it from now on, no matter how difficult it may be to do so. But, remember, we are not alone as we do this—Christ is present and active, participating with us in everything we are going through, keeping us in the midst of God’s life and love, and enabling us to endure to the end. And when we feel we just can’t hold on any longer, as we turn to him in faith, we will find he’s been there all along, holding on to us.

Father, thank you for being present in every circumstance of life. Thank you, Jesus, that we are privileged to share in your sufferings, your life and your death. And thank you, Holy Spirit, that we never do any of this on our own, but always and ever through you in the loving embrace of the Father and the Son. Enable us this day to face the pain and difficulty one more time. Give us the courage to do the difficult thing we don’t want to do, and the faith to trust you when everything around us tells us not to. Grant us the grace to endure, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. Yet not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Luke 21:16–19 NASB

“For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10–13 NASB

Approaching the Judge

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By Linda Rex

October 20, 2019, Proper 24—When I read this parable by Jesus about the judge “who did not fear God and did not respect man,” it reminded me of the day I was looking for an official document online, preparing for something I needed to do at the courthouse. I came across some instructions which people were to follow when they entered the courtroom to have their case handled by the judge. It included such things as what they were to wear and how they were to address the judge.

I have no idea if these standards are unique to just this particular courtroom, but it seemed wrong to me that a person’s court defense should be at all dependent upon their ability to obtain a white shirt, a suit and tie, or a belt. I believe a person at any strata of society should be able to come to court and get the justice they need without having to go shopping first. What kind of justice is it if it is dependent upon a person’s ability to show up in appropriate attire?

Jesus’ story about the woman who came to the judge to have her case heard was meant to teach his disciples to pray and to not give up when the prayer was not immediately answered. In his story, the widow persistently sought the judge’s help, not giving up when he at first said no. And because of her persistence, he eventually gave in and helped her only because he wanted her to leave him alone. Jesus reminded his followers they were even more likely to be heard than was this widow woman.

The thing is, a lot of us approach our heavenly Father as though he were this kind of judge. We often assume that God has better things to do than to listen to our needs and to help us. We may believe we have to be dressed in our Sunday best, looking and acting our best when we approach him. We assume, however wrongly, that God is indifferent to our struggles and our suffering, and so we approach prayer—if we do it—as a last-ditch desperate appeal to a God who could really care less about what we are going through.

But Jesus came to show us an Abba who cares for us deeply, who is so concerned about our every need and desire that he came to us himself in the person of his Son, making “Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). The Son of God came to dwell within our humanity and to experience the full spectrum of our human existence, so we might participate in his perfect relationship with his Father both now and for all eternity.

Our heavenly Father wants to hear our prayers. He wants to know what our struggles are, and what we enjoy, and what things are important to us. Just as a mother will take the time to listen to her children tell about their school day, God enjoys hearing us talk about what is going on in our lives. God is greater than any human parent—he cares deeply about what happens to us and wants to rescue us and help us. We need to think of God as judge in terms of him being a loving, gracious parent, not an indifferent, cold magistrate. Our judge joined us in our humanity to experience our human existence so his judgment is always tempered with grace and love.

My daughter had a minor accident a while ago and felt terrible about ruining the car. I tried to encourage her by telling her about my first accident and that I was extremely grateful—a broken mirror and dented fender was nothing in comparison to the damage I did to my parents’ car. It was a late night in southern California, and I was driving from a girlfriend’s house in Pasadena to our home in Monrovia. I accidentally ran my dad’s old Ford Falcon stationwagon up onto the curb of the center meridian. In my efforts to get it off there, I pulled too hard and ran it up against the righthand curb, breaking the front axle.

A kind older couple took me to a nearby gas station. I used a quarter in the slot of the payphone—yes, I am that old—and called the police and then I called my dad. I dreaded telling him what had happened because I knew he couldn’t afford to fix the car. But when he answered his first question was, “Are you aldl right?” My dad taught me some great lessons that night, and in the days following, about love, grace, and forbearance.

Even though I was concerned about my dad’s possible negative reaction to my phone call, I did know one thing—my dad loved me and wanted what was best for me. I also believed he was the only one who could really help me the way I needed to be helped at that moment. I knew that if I called him, he would intervene to make the situation right, helping me through this difficulty.

In the same way, what we believe about our heavenly Father needs to line up with the truth about who he is. What we believe about Abba influences how we deal with the difficulties in our lives and who we turn to when we need to be defended, protected, or provided for. We need to believe our heavenly Father loves us and wants to vindicate, defend, protect, and help us. We are called to trust in his perfect love and grace, believing he wants what is best for us and will do everything he possibly can to make things right.

This is why Jesus ends this story with the comment, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” What we believe about who God is impacts how we pray. Do we believe God wants our best, that he is at work in this world bringing about what is the most loving and caring result to our circumstances? Will we trust in God’s perfect love as demonstrated to us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ, believing his heart toward us is ever and always good? Will we persist in prayer, not giving up on God when the answer doesn’t immediately come, trusting that God has good reasons for the delay? And when God seems to be saying no, will we trust that this is in our best interests and will work in the end for our good?

We are so blessed that through Jesus and in the Spirit we can at any moment approach God with whatever need or concern, or even joy and gratitude, we may have. There is room for all of our human experience in our relationship with God because Jesus was there first, going through it all in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Our divine Judge, Jesus Christ, was also the judged One—he stands in our place, on our behalf. This should give us great confidence as we approach God and seek his defense and protection, his provision and restoration. And it should give us good reason to persist in prayer when the answer isn’t what we at first hoped for.

Divine Judge of all, thank you for having taken our humanity upon yourself, for experiencing all of our human existence, and for intervening on our behalf whenever we ask. Grant us the grace to see you as the God you are—gracious and loving—and to trust you enough to ask and keep on asking when we are in need. May we fully trust you at all times, believing your heart toward us is good, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?’” Luke 18:6-8 NASB

Sharing Our Wounds

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By Linda Rex

September 22, 2019, Proper 20—One of the most painful things I have experienced over the years is going through the consequences of a bad decision or decisions I have made, especially with regards to my significant relationships. It seems as though some consequences never end, even though we may have changed or done our best to make amends for the error done.

We often believe, however incorrectly, that if we just do the right thing from now on, our life will be much better. I’d like to say that is the case, but sometimes we have to go through the hard and messy stuff for a while before we see the benefits of changing the way we live.

The reality is that as broken human beings, our bent is toward doing things in a self-centered, self-preserving, self-fulfilling way. When we discover that life wasn’t meant to be lived with ourselves at the center and try to live a Christ-centered life, we often discover there are shackles and traps we have not seen that we have been caught in that we cannot escape easily and on our own.

As human beings, life can be wonderful, and then it can be hell. Sometimes the hell in our lives is the result of our own choices. Sometimes it is the result of the choices of those around us. Either way, we do have occasions when we wrestle with the ugliness of our broken humanity and the consequences of sin.

Here in the Western world today we do not always see the immediate consequences of our choices. One can live for many years on the edge financially before we finally hit the bottom. A person can play by the rules a long time and successfully hide an addiction, but in due time, the truth will come out, exposing a life of deceit, unfaithfulness, and/or worse.

Some types of our brokenness is socially acceptable and so we see no need to change anything, not realizing the harm we are doing to ourselves or to others. But consequences happen. We will at some point have to deal with the truth about God and about ourselves and come face-to-face with the reality we are not meant to be at the center of everything—Christ is.

The people of Judah came to a place where all they trusted in and counted on was going to be swept away. Starvation, war, enslavement—these were the consequences they were facing. Jeremiah grieved with the suffering of his people. He knew the sin of the people was very grave—unfaithfulness to their covenant God—and the consequences they were beginning to feel would only get worse. Why could they not see the path they were on? Jeremiah mourned—he lamented the fallen condition of his people, longing for their healing and renewal.

What Judah was called by Jeremiah to see was that, just as he shared their pain and suffering, so God also shared their pain and suffering. It was not enough for God to look upon his people from a distance and see them suffering the consequences of their choices. No, at the perfect time, God came and actually entered into the midst of their suffering. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus was Abba’s ultimate answer to the suffering of his people. Even though God’s people could never seem to get things right, still God would come himself and set things right.

Truly, our sinfulness as human beings is a sickness only the divine Physician can heal. The apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. We cannot and do not get ourselves right with God—Jesus came and made us right with God, and makes us right as we trust in his perfect, complete gift of himself in our place and on our behalf.

What we have is a Physician who is also the one who is sick. He became the patient, bearing the full weight of our illness and the consequences of our sin, including death on a cross, and brought us complete restoration and renewal in his very person.

When Jesus rose from the grave and ascended to his Father, he brought our broken humanity to a new place—to the place where by faith we live eternally in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit from his Father so we could share in his perfect relationship with Abba and be able to live the other-centered, Christ-centered lives we were created to participate in.

This does not mean that when we trust in Christ that all the consequences of our failures to love magically disappear. It seems we often have to wrestle with these for years as part of our calling to share in the sufferings of Christ. There are times when God graciously removes the consequences of our choices—healing venereal disease, curing alcoholism, or removing a hunger for cocaine. But this is not always the case. Sometimes our battle against such pulls is the Physician’s very cure and is the means by which he intends us to participate in him providing the cure for others with the same struggle.

The biggest take-away here is, God is present in the midst of our consequences. He may or may not remove or minimize them—we should ask, but accept he may not. He shares our struggle and our pain—as we allow. And when we trust in Christ and are baptized, we are placed within the body of Christ to share this journey with others who are facing the same struggles. We are meant to participate in a spiritual community—a hospital for sinners, you might say—where we are all, as broken human beings, finding our healing and renewal in Christ.

We have a divine Physician who is on call for us 24/7 and who cares about the smallest concern of our lives. We probably ought to listen to him and follow his guidelines for the care of our souls—to feed and nourish properly the temple of the Spirit and our minds and hearts. We probably ought to live the way he created us to live—loving him wholeheartedly and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

But at any moment, no matter the joy or pain, he is present in the Spirit to share what we are going through, to help us bear whatever we face, even if it is the consequences of our bad choices. He never meant for us to go through life alone, but always to be at the center, sharing every part of it with us.

Dearest Abba, thank you for giving us your Son as our on-call Physician, who is always present and available to us at any time. Thank you, Jesus, for coming yourself and bearing our troubles and trials, and freeing us from the shackles of evil, sin, and death on the cross, rising to bring us all to share in your unity with the Father in the Spirit. Turn our hearts to you, Lord Jesus, to trust you in faith. Fill us anew with your Spirit, giving us the heart to live in the truth of who we are as image-bears of our God who is love. Amen.

“I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief. Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wounds of my people?” Jeremiah 8:21-22 NLT

Taking the Lower Place

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By Linda Rex

September 1, 2019, Proper 17—A while back my ministry team and I were invited to attend the 150th anniversary banquet of the Stones River Missionary Baptist Association from whom we rent our church building. My outreach ministry leader, Pat Brazier, and I attended this event as a gesture of gratitude and goodwill toward the association and its members.

As we entered the building, I was hoping we could find a table at the back which would not be conspicuous. I tend to be shy at large gatherings like this, especially if I don’t know anyone—I describe myself as an extroverted introvert. I prefer to hide rather than open myself up when there are a lot of people around me in a room whom I don’t know.

On this occasion, though, I could not have my wish of anonymity. Even though we were the only people there of white skin, the harmony of God’s Spirit made us one with these brothers and sisters in Christ. Pat and I were escorted to the front of the room to a special table reserved for guest pastors. We ended up seated across from Tennessee Senator Brenda Gilmore and two other pastors and their wives. It was a wonderful, inspiring experience for Pat and me.

During the event, I learned a lot of things I did not know about this group of fellow believers and their journey with Jesus. And I learned some things about myself as well. I experienced what it meant to be faced with challenges to my beliefs, preferences, and opinions. Whatever hidden prejudices I have, they were also brought a little closer to the light, as such encounters often expose those things we try, consciously or unconsciously, to keep in the dark.

Our interactions with other human beings are the place where the Holy Spirit does its greatest work, bringing us face to face with others and by doing so bringing us face to face with ourselves and Jesus. It is in relationship with others that the Spirit works to transform hearts and minds, specifically in teaching us about the Father’s love for us in Christ expressed in our love for one another. We are broken human beings, often due to significant relationships which have demonstrated to us and taught us everything but God’s love. Our way of doing things is often the exact opposite to the way God does things, and our broken world with its broken people clearly shows the result of trying to do it our way instead of his.

One of the greatest struggles as human beings sometimes is this whole question of self-exaltation and humility. We live in metropolitan Nashville, a place where musicians and singers come when they want to make their mark in the music world. Often I talk with people who tell me they moved to Nashville from somewhere else in America and when I ask why they moved here, they tell me they wanted to get a job in the music industry and maybe even to be a star. Almost every one of these people is not working in the music industry today but in some other job entirely unrelated to it.

Were they wrong in coming to Nashville and seeking to make their mark? I doubt very much that any of these people were seeking self-exaltation. I’m more inclined to believe most of them were seeking self-expression, to obtain some personal significance, worth, and value through their music. I imagine they wanted to do what they loved and make a living at it. The real world often stands in the way of people being able to achieve their dreams in this way.

The issue, I believe, is not in the desire to take one’s talent, abilities, and gifts and use them to their fullest expression. In God’s kingdom life, we receive all of these things as gifts from God and pour them back out to him in gratitude and in the service of others. We are meant to shine with the glory God has given us as his adopted children and if that includes our musical gift, then it is meant to be fully expressed as God guides and provides us with the opportunities.

The problem seems to be more in what our motive is and why we do what we do. Christian musicians and pastors can very easily care more about their popularity, prosperity, and getting noticed than how they go about being a follower of Jesus Christ. Even while they are up in front of the audience talking about Jesus and his ways, they may be drawing their worth and value from the applause and approval of others rather than resting confidently in the grace and love of their Abba. We are broken human beings—we do these things, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

In Jesus Christ we see exemplified the epitome of humility. The One who was the Word, who had all power, glory, and honor, set the privileges of his divinity temporarily aside to take on our humanity. He who lived in inapproachable light joined us in our darkness, in the tiniest cells in Mary’s womb, so that we could be lifted up from our abasement and drawn up into the Triune life and love.

Jesus told his followers that when they were invited to a banquet, they were not to take the prominent seats, but to sit in the lower places and to allow themselves to be moved up by the host. Jesus did not seek his own exaltation, but sought the exaltation of humanity. When challenged in the wilderness by Satan, he rejected his offer to give him ultimate human power and rule. He refused to stop identifying with us as broken human beings and serving us by offering his life for us in our place and on our behalf.

There is no place low enough that Jesus was not willing to enter. Even though the most shameful death for someone in Christ’s day was to be crucified, Jesus intentionally walked toward the cross throughout his ministry. It was not beneath him to enter the realm of the dead nor to become sin for us. His whole purpose was in lifting us up, not in promoting himself.

The kingdom value of true humility as exemplified in Jesus is countercultural. It opposes everything our culture and society work toward. It stands in stark opposition to any leader who promotes himself as being a messiah or savior to his people or someone to be revered. It resists the human pull to self-promotion, arrogance, and pride which often afflicts those in the public eye.

To follow this value of humility is to open up oneself to crucifixion, to being negated, harmed or destroyed. And yet, when we seek the way of true humility, we find that our relationships begin to be healed, our life moves away from darkness into greater and greater light. Leaders who are truly humble and seek to serve those under them rather than manipulate, control, or manage them create a healthier community which more closely resembles God’s kingdom life.

But being humble exacts a price. The price we must pay to be truly humble is to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his sufferings. In this life we may never experience our exaltation, but we can trust in the exaltation of Jesus. We will be exalted in his presence as the adopted children of Abba, fully glorified and reigning with him forever—this is our hope and expectation as we walk in humility before him. In the meantime, our challenge is to live counterculturally in in a world which venerates self-exaltation, self-promotion, and self-interest, by participating with Jesus in his true humility.

Thank you, Jesus, for demonstrating so wonderfully the grace of true humility. Abba, please grow this in us by your Spirit, enabling us to participate fully in your humble nature. Give our human leaders hearts and minds which are truly humble. If they are stubbornly resistant to your humility, may you take them through the consuming fire of your love and grace that they may learn humble servants. We are grateful that you are the true Lord of all and have included us in your life and love in and through Jesus. Amen.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11 NASB

Seeking Life Above

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By Linda Rex

August 4th, PROPER 13—This week the TV caught my eye at the veterinarian’s office where my daughter was having her cat given her yearly checkup. I saw people taking old furniture and revamping it, giving it a more modern feel. Some of the results I liked, some I didn’t like.

Usually this channel is full of stories of how people take an old fixer-upper house and renovate it, selling it for more than what it was worth originally. The process of “flipping” a home seems very challenging to me because there is always the danger of hidden problems such as asbestos removal, an unstable foundation, or damage to critical structural elements. But I feel there is something ultimately satisfying about taking something broken and dirty and turning it into a masterpiece. Maybe this is because this is what God does with us.

The thing is, we can be so focused on the externals of our existence that we don’t tend to the internals as we ought. What I mean by that is, God wants us to attend to the internals of our souls more than the externals of our human existence. We are responsible to do what work is necessary to provide for ourselves and to care for what belongings are ours. But the God who takes care of the birds and the flowers is quite capable of caring for us when we allow him to, trusting him to help us meet our obligations and to provide for our needs (Matt 10:29-31; Luke 12:6).

Indeed, there may be some of us who want to live free from any responsibilities or effort and yet have every luxury at our fingertips—our culture encourages this. We may pursue a carefree life without responsibilities or the need to work or provide for anyone but ourselves—this is especially true for those who have parents or others who are willing to carry the responsibilities we should be carrying. However, the apostle Paul writes that if a person isn’t willing to work, then he or she shouldn’t eat. This is a reminder to carry our own load, to be responsible for ourselves—to do our part. (2 Thess. 3:10-11)

Even though some people seem to have all they need with no financial or personal struggles, some of us may be constantly in motion, working every moment to create our perfect world as we envision it to be. We may work very hard just to get ahead only to find ourselves bound by debt or health problems or broken relationships. Wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able do what the rich man Jesus talked about wanted to do? He had a bumper crop, and decided to put everything up into storage, and to tell himself, “You have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” (Luke 12:16-21)

But Jesus had words to say about such a life philosophy. He reminded his listeners and the man who was focused on getting his share of his family’s property that what really matters in life becomes truly evident when we are faced with death. Death brings everything in our lives into focus—showing us our humanity and the transience of our existence. We can make all the plans we want, we can save up all the money we want, and it just takes an instant or an event out of our control and it is all over. Everything we worked for goes to someone else—and we can’t even control who gets it all after we are gone.

Ultimately, each of us must humble ourselves under a recognition that God is God and we are not. Even as Christians we can be pretty arrogant and atheistic when it comes to money and providing for ourselves. Life can go well for quite a long time, and our diligent efforts can bring us great success and abundant wealth. But the externals of our human existence are transient and one day they will disappear. If we depend upon them or count on them, we are placing our life on an uncertain foundation.

As followers of Jesus, we can even embrace the idea that if we live good lives and do everything right God has to bless us and make everything go right in our lives. This sets us up for great disappointment and tests our faith when bad, unexplainable things occur in our lives. We may try to, but we cannot control the decisions others make nor can we protect our loved ones or ourselves from the evil or brokenness of the world we live in.

Stuff happens. Death occurs. Illness breaks our health. People steal our money. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes destroy our homes. And all our precious plans go out the window. Then we start asking the tough questions: What am I going to do? Where is God in all this? Doesn’t he care? Why did this happen to me?

Here in the middle of the brokenness, death, and destruction we are meant to find new life. God wants to meet us in the middle of this place and show us what we should have known all along—the life we are seeking is above, hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). The real peace, joy, and comfort is found in Jesus, in the One who took on our humanity, joined us in our broken, sinful human existence, and brought us through death into resurrection and ascension into life with God both now and forever. Jesus redeemed our broken existence—God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21 NASB).

Our real existence, the one which will last, is in knowing and being known by our Abba and his Son Jesus Christ in the Spirit. What we have in this life is passing away—what we have in Christ is everlasting. This is why Paul says to keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, not the things on earth (Col. 3:1-2)

We are to consider ourselves dead to greed, which is a form of idolatry. Greed and covetousness, along with the other passions of our flesh, are a way in which we go about life focused on and drawing our life from the things which are transient and will one day disappear. Like worshipping idols made of gold and silver, our worship of our human efforts or goals or the physical trappings of our existence—nice home, good job, wealth, power, fame, ease and pleasure—is an insult to the God who made us and called us into relationship with himself, and who came for us and redeemed us in Jesus Christ. All of this idolatry hung with Christ on the cross—in Christ we are dead to our idols, so we might live in the newness which is ours in him.

God created the earth and all its abundance for our enjoyment and pleasure. God means for us to work and to take pleasure in the fruit of our efforts. God wants us to work hard and be responsible for ourselves. But nowhere in all of this are any of these gifts meant to replace the Giver. Nothing is to take the place of the One who took our place and stands in our stead on our behalf as our Redeemer and Savior and Lord—Jesus Christ. The spirit of greed, lust, envy, selfishness, or any other demonic or fleshly spirit is never meant to replace the living Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is meant to fill us with God’s love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, and so on—to be the dominant Spirit in our being, to rule our existence both now and forever.

We have been given the greatest gift of all, life in Christ by the Spirit. We are called to live humble lives, in all godliness and honesty, sharing with others all we have been given, so that as one, we are joined together in the body of Christ as Abba’s children, together living in the new lives forged for us by Jesus out of our broken human existence and poured into us by the Holy Spirit.

When we have been given something by God, perhaps it is so that we can share it with others, or maybe he means for us to use it in furthering the scope of the Kingdom of God. God’s gifts are meant to create gratitude and praise, to move us to rejoice in the gift of our blessed hope and to live as the adopted children we were created to be, loving God and one another both now and forever as true image-bearers of the God who is love.

Dear God, thank you for all the gifts you have for us in our everyday existence—food, clothing, shelter, friendship, companionship, work, and so many other things. Keep us focused in the midst of all our blessings on you, the Blessed One, who blesses us with everything we need for life and godliness. Fill our hearts with gratitude and praise, for you are more than worthy. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen

“Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. … Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him…” Colossians 3:1-3, 9-10 NASB

“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” Luke 12:15 NASB