By Linda Rex
February 28, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—One of the things brought to my attention recently in a new way was how subtle the temptation is to take difficult situations into our own hands and work them out under our own power. Some of us feel an urgent need to fix things that are broken or not working the way we think they should and often jump in with both feet, not realizing that doing so may not be what God intends in the situation.
Granted, we do need to invest our best efforts in doing what we believe is the right and holy thing for us to do in each instance as we follow Christ. But when we slide into that belief that it’s all up to us, then we are spiritually on dangerous ground. I wonder if sometimes we believe we are caught in a place where we feel we have been abandoned or forgotten by God. Circumstances in our life may be such that we feel as though we are managing just fine on our own, or the opposite, we don’t see any path by which a solution could come to us for our extreme difficulties. Either way, there is a temptation to trust in our own ability to move ourselves forward rather than simply trusting in God’s promises and provision.
As members of my congregation at Grace Communion Nashville know, we are facing some difficult decisions about the future of our congregation. Over the past eight years since I have pastored this congregation, and long before that, our members have diligently worked to serve and love the people of East Nashville. They have provided free meals, prayed for people, and given what they could to help those in need, whether food, clothing, money, or just heartfelt compassion and understanding. We have done our best to provide upbeat, contemporary Christ-centered Trinitarian worship with an emphasis on communion and sharing the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have joined in with our church neighbors in community service opportunities and events, and have participated with our neighborhood association as they served the neighbors, and have cared for those God has brought to our attention who needed extra help.
To be sure, we have hoped that our little congregation might grow some in the process, but I hope that we did not make this an expectation that had to be realized, or believe that to not have done so means we have failed in some way. I believe we need to see things much differently than that. Whatever may happen to us in the future, we do know this—we were faithful, obedient, and loving, and blameless before God in our love and service to him and others. We have trusted him to do what was needed to keep us going, and he has. We have done our best to implement best practices for church renewal so we are relevant to our community. We have asked Jesus for opportunities to serve and he has given them. We have prayed for people and baptized some, and many have experienced healing, renewal, and transformed lives, or are still in process. In my view, our little congregation has God’s handprint of masterpiece creation written all over it.
As I read Romans 4:13–25, the New Testament passage for this Sunday, I was struck by the significance of what Paul was saying there in relation to this whole topic. God gave Abraham the promise of a son and many descendants, the fulfillment of which was not based on his ability to keep the law correctly or to do all the right things, but solely on God’s goodness and grace. Abraham was honest about the reality of his and his wife Sarah’s inability to bear children at their advanced age. Abraham came to the place where he surrendered to the truth that none of this could be realized by his or Sarah’s effort or ability. Even though he and Sarah had moments of uncertainty—we see this in the circumstances around the birth of Ishmael—Abraham was brought to the place where he simply trusted in God’s faithfulness rather than in his own ability to ensure that he would have what God promised. And God counted this as righteousness.
In their book “Transformational Churches”, Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer remind the readers that one of the most critical steps in church renewal is the congregation’s ability to see and accept the reality that apart from God’s intervention, their church will not be transformed, and that God’s ability to bring about renewal and transformation is far more powerful than any obstacle which may stand against them. God’s whole mission is the transformation of our cosmos, our world, into the truth of what he means for it to be—a reflection of his glory and majesty. Why would he not do what was necessary to bring that to pass? The authors remind us that it is “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6b NASB). When real transformation happens to a person, or to a church, it will be obvious who did it—God did, and he will get all the glory and praise.
Every person and every church comes to a point where the reality of what they are experiencing doesn’t measure up with what they know about God and his purposes for them. In this “cathartic moment” they realize they have come to a place where there is no movement forward. Abraham and Sarah experienced this at one point, and took matters into their own hands, thinking the solution was to have a child by Hagar, a concubine. But this wasn’t God’s solution—it was theirs, and created a whole host of unnecessary difficulties which God hadn’t meant for them or Hagar or even Ishmael to have to experience. Abraham and Sarah may have erred temporarily, but in the long run their faith in God’s faithfulness won the day.
We can be honest about our weakness and our limitations without in any way preventing God from bringing transformation and renewal to pass. We can own the reality that without God’s intervention nothing will be any different than it is right now. And we can embrace the crisis in front of us in faith, trusting in God’s faithfulness and provision, allow him to show us what our next steps need to be, and then, however falteringly, take those steps. Yes, as a church, we can continue to provide leadership that is alive and open to what God is doing, express dependency upon God through prayer, and offer wholehearted, inspired worship to God. And we can embrace new relationships and circumstances God places before us where we can share the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. But anything beyond that—let’s be real. That’s all up to God. And he works in his own time and in his own way.
We stand today at a crossroads where we are reminded by the story of Abraham and Sarah that our covenant God is faithful and keeps his word. Their simple decision to trust in God for the promised child was merely a stepping stone on the journey of the Word of God coming into human flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again, bringing all of humanity into a new place where each and every person may by faith participate in the divine union of Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. This childless couple, if they were standing with us, would be overwhelmed seeing the millions who today by faith are their spiritual descendants. What will we see when we look back at our participation in Christ’s mission as we trust God to finish what he began in us? I believe our faith in God’s faithfulness will be abundantly rewarded, far beyond our ability to ask or imagine, both now and in the world to come. Let’s walk by faith, not by sight.
O Faithful One, you who have ever worked to bring us near you, to share in your life and love, thank you for your faithfulness. Keep us ever faithful, trusting that you will finish what you have begun in us and believing we will see you do a new thing—a thing so great, only you could possibly have done it. Even now, in faith, we offer all the glory, honor, and praise to you. In your Name—Father, Son, and Spirit—we pray. Amen.
“Faith is our source, and that makes Abraham our father. When God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he made a public statement that he would be the father of all nations. Here we see Abraham faced with God’s faith; the kind of faith that resurrects the dead and calls things which are not as though they were. Faith gave substance to hope when everything seemed hopeless; the words, ‘so shall your seed be’ conceived in him the faith of fatherhood. Abraham’s faith would have been nullified if he were to take his own age and the deadness of Sarah’s womb into account. His hundred-year-old body and Sarah’s barren womb did not distract him in the least! He finally knew that no contribution from their side could possibly assist God in fulfilling his promise!” Romans 4:16b-19 Mirror Bible
By Linda Rex
PROPER 10/PROPER 11—The most significant way to change a person, and therefore a society, is to change what that person believes about themselves and the people in their lives. Often our response to a given situation is habituated by our belief system. We may not even realize why we do some of the things we do, even though we may realize they are inappropriate or unhealthy. We may not be even be aware of the belief systems that are at the root of such behavior.
Reflecting back upon the garden of Eden, we may see that Adam and Eve illustrate this point in how they responded to God after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. Before then they had freely walked and talked with God in the garden. But after they ate the fruit, they began to believe things about themselves and God which manifested in shame, fear, and hiding themselves. What a change occurred when they adopted the wrong frame for their view of God and themselves!
We see this at work in the nation of Israel as well. God told them on Mount Sinai that they were his people and he was their God, and this reality would be reflected in the way they lived their lives. But when God approached near to them, they responded in fear. They didn’t want God to speak to them personally—they wanted a mediator. What they believed about God caused them to distance themselves from their covenant partner who loved them with deep devotion and commitment. Over the centuries following, the nation of Israel acted out their mixed-up belief system, turning away to other idols and then turning back to God in remorse when things got tough.
One of the things Israel believed was that God was a fearful, judgmental God who needed appeased. They had adopted the belief system of the nations around them rather than the truth that God had chosen them as his adopted nation, his beloved people. They refused to believe and live in the truth that God had committed himself to them in covenant relationship. They wanted to live as though they were independent of God and yet at the same time have all the benefits of a good relationship with him.
They also did not grasp the need to internalize the word of God. The law was something external to them, becoming a prescription of how to be a good Israelite. In actuality, it was meant to be a description of what life looked like when lived in communion with their God. Love for God was to be so written on their hearts that their lives would resemble his law, his way of being, the way of love.
At one point, God bemoaned their lack of a heart of obedience and devotion to him. He said, “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!” (Deut. 5:29 NASB) Many centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah told the people about a day when God would make a new covenant with the people. He said that God would put his law within them and write it on their heart. He would be their God and they would be his people. God’s word would cease to be external to them and would become the core driving force of their being. But this could not happen apart from God’s intervention—our humanity on its own is lost in unhealthy belief systems and a determination to operate on its own apart from God.
The apostle John opens his gospel with the good news that God the Word joined us in our humanity, becoming flesh and living among us. Getting to know God by coming to know Jesus Christ is fundamental to changing our belief system. To know Jesus is to know the Father. To know Jesus is to know and begin to experience the reality of God’s real presence in our humanity. The Holy Spirit, God’s presence in us and with us, reveals Christ in us and brings us into union and communion with God.
Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, worked the word of God into our human flesh. He lived in complete oneness with his Father while here on earth. He forged a new humanity which would love and obey his Abba by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus, our humanity is capable of new ways of being and living. As we turn to Christ in faith, as we respond to the Spirit’s work in us, repenting of our wrong beliefs and our wrong view of God and ourselves, God’s word hidden in our hearts through Jesus by the Spirit begins to be expressed in new ways. There is a new inner drive to love God and love others.
The living Word Jesus Christ, written on human hearts by the Holy Spirit, is the basis for our new belief system. In Christ we have new life. We are forgiven, accepted and beloved. What we were as broken, sinful people has been declared dead and buried with Christ, and raised into new life.
What we believe about ourselves and God, then, is critical. Do we see ourselves as included in Christ? Or are we living out a belief system that says we are evil, sinful, and broken—forsaken and rejected by God? Do we believe that the wretchedness of our life is the fault of everyone else and all they did to us over the years? Or do we admit our own guilt and shame, knowing we are freed in Christ? And what do we believe about God? Is he a fearful, judgmental overseer or did he come himself to rescue us out of our wretchedness and to make us his own? Is he present, forgiving, loving, and accepting in every situation and difficulty we have?
If we are struggling with some unhealthy behaviors or are having a lot of negative thoughts, perhaps it is time to reconstruct our inner belief system. We can participate with Christ in doing that by internalizing the written word of God. If you struggle to believe God loves you or that you are worthy of love, dig deeply into the written word to find all the passages that tell you the truth—you are forgiven, beloved, accepted, and cherished. Write them on cards and begin memorizing the passages—give the Holy Spirit some ammunition to use in this battle.
And ask God for the faith to believe—to write this word on your heart. Thank God that he has given you Jesus’ heart—a heart which fully understands and receives his Abba’s love. But understand, any spiritual discipline in itself will not change you. It is the Word written on human hearts—Jesus Christ by the Spirit poured into you—that will change you. It is God at work within you that will make the change. You start by embracing the process of participating with Christ in his work by the Spirit. And allow God to do the rest. And he will, giving you abundant reason for praise and gratitude.
Abba, thank you for writing your word on our hearts, for sending us your Son and your Spirit to do this amazing transformational work. Today, give us a hunger for your word and your ways. Give us a desire to grow in our relationship with you and to study your Word—to learn more about you and your Son Jesus Christ, and the awesome Spirit who transforms our hearts by faith. Heal, restore, renew—bring our deep inner beliefs into agreement with the truth, the One who is our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Deut. 30:14 NASB
“…the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Col. 1:15-28 NASB