By Linda Rex
March 22, 2020, 4th SUNDAY IN LENT—Recently I spoke with someone who told me that the recent tornadoes and Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak were sent from God to wake people up and to turn them back to him. As a pastor, I am often offered this opportunity to blame God for the bad things which happen in this world, but I am reluctant to give him responsibility for what is not his and which has its roots in our own brokenness and this broken world we live in, and the evil which is always at work in it and in us.
Don’t get me wrong—there are consequences to our choices. We have made and do make decisions which affect the planet we live on and the people who live on it. In this day and age, we often prefer to believe we can control and limit the affect of most things, but truth is, there are many things we can’t contain or direct. We find ourselves often at the mercy of physical forces and natural occurrences, deadly diseases, and even just human willfulness and evil.
Our response to all this is critical. We can take the common and comfortable road to fear, and respond with a more diligent effort to control and manage our circumstances and our world. Or we can acknowledge our need for strength and wisdom beyond ourselves, drawing upon divine resources to find the faith, hope, and love we need to deal with what is beyond our capacity and power to handle.
When Jesus walked by a man who had congenital blindness, his disciples asked him who had sinned—him or his parents? In the Jewish teaching of the day, the man’s blindness was due to his parents’ sin or his own sin (though that seems far-fetched since it happened when he was in the womb). Jesus said that his blindness was not due to a specific sin or sins, but was simply providing an opportunity to demonstrate the glory of God.
Throughout the teachings of Jesus, we find that he is quite frank about the need for human beings to have their eyes opened to the light of who he was as their Lord and Savior. He had no illusions about the human condition. We are sinners, human beings with a proclivity toward rejecting God and living in fear and disobedience. The issue with our humanity goes down into the very core of our being—we walk in darkness instead of in the light of God’s grace and love.
Instead of tragedies and natural disasters, and even blindness, being some punishment poured out on people because of their sins, Jesus sees them simply as part of our broken human condition. And that broken human condition has only one way of being healed—mixing the DNA of the living Lord Jesus Christ with our human clay and washing us in the waters of his love and grace. We can only have light in our darkness if we will receive the light-bringing treatment of Jesus and be washed in the living water, the Holy Spirit.
Just as this man who was blind from birth had to receive the clay Jesus made from spit and dirt onto his eyes and had to walk to the pool of Siloam and wash himself, we need to receive Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, by allowing ourselves to be washed in the water of the living Spirit. We participate in Christ through the sacraments of baptism and communion because these are tangible ways we experience with gratitude the life-giving power and presence of the living Lord.
The man in this story who was born blind went through a process as he came to faith in Christ. At first, he was met by Jesus, who took the initiative in their relationship. Jesus offered him healing, but the man needed to participate in the healing process. The One who was sent by the Father, Jesus, sent this man to the pool of Siloam (some translate “sent”) where he was to wash and be healed. But at that point Jesus had not yet revealed himself as Messiah.
It is when this man was faced with explaining to the Pharisees what had happened that his faith in Jesus began to take form. When the miracle was brought to these leaders’ attention, they asked him what had happened, saying that since Jesus had made clay and healed someone on the Sabbath, he was a sinner, so he could not have done this miracle. The astute, formerly blind man saw the irony in the situation—he once was blind, now he could see, but the Pharisees were so set against believing Jesus was Messiah that they were willing to deny the reality of a genuine, incredible miracle of healing.
So the conversation went down the rabbit trails into the depths of the corrupt human heart, where these Pharisees, even when faced with the glorious truth of a blind man being given his sight, refused to believe, preferring instead to remain in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief. Sadly, Jesus had to tell the Pharisees that it was because they thought they saw that they were truly blind in the things which really matter, the spiritual realities. The man who was blind, however, came to see and believe who Jesus was as Messiah, and knelt down and worshiped him.
This weekend there are genuine and serious concerns at stake. Not only do we have the recent devastation with the tornadoes here in metro Nashville and in Putnam County, we now have real concerns about the coronavirus, which is making its way slowly into every part of our nation. We do not have control of any of these things, so it is easy to lapse into fear, and other unhealthy and unloving human responses such as hoarding, stigmatizing, blaming, and fear-mongering. We are being brought to the edge where we must choose between being truly human by loving and trusting God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, or being inhumane, less than who we truly are as God’s created and redeemed children, made to reflect his likeness as the God who is love.
What if we began to look at this time of crisis as an opportunity to see the glory of God? What if, instead of putting people and events into boxes, we opened our eyes to the everyday miracles of healing, transformation, and renewal which are taking place all around us? What if, instead of self-protecting, self-seeking, and self-indulging, we turned outside ourselves to help, serve, heal, comfort, and pray?
Are we going to remain in our spiritual blindness or are we going to confess the reality of our need to see what is really going on? Will we allow ourselves to be anointed in the humanity of Jesus Christ, washed in the flowing waters of the Spirit, and healed by the living Word at work in our world? Perhaps it is time to have the grace and humility to meet Jesus where he first meets us, in the middle of our darkness, offering us the light of life, the blessed gift of himself in the midst of our struggles and suffering.
Holy Father, thank you that we are not alone, but you are always with us in every circumstance of life. Hold us in our suffering, in our fear, in our loss, and in our illness. Lift us anew into life and wholeness. Rebuild, restore, renew, heal. Empower us for what we must face and carry us through. You are our life and our hope—enable us to trust in you in every circumstance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 NASB
“… for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light …” Ephesians 5:8 NASB
“Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, ‘We are not blind too, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’” John 9:40-41. See also John 9:1–41.
By Linda Rex
November 24, 2019, Christ the King or Reign of Christ—Yesterday I was catching up on a few emails when I noticed one from a publisher. They were wanting to market my book “Making Room” and were telling me how wonderful it was and how it could reach millions of people if only I would sign up with them for their marketing services. When the email reached the place where it said that my book was being considered for being made into a film, I started laughing. Well, I thought to myself, it is pretty obvious that this person never even read my book.
What I found out with a little research on my part was this particular group makes a practice of plagiarizing people’s writing. What appeared to be a wonderful opportunity to share my writing turned out to be a ploy to steal what I worked so hard to put together for the benefit of my readers. Just another case where what appeared to be glorious on the outside turned out to be like the tombs Jesus described—outwardly whitewashed and beautiful, but filled with death and decay on the inside.
It seems that our broken human existence is often like this. Remember the old saying, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch?” We tend to assume that free means free, but more often than not there is a catch of some kind. We end up paying in some crazy way for that thing we thought was a generous and delightful freebie. Because of this, we find it difficult to get our minds around the reality that God has offered us salvation as a free gift in his Son Jesus Christ.
First, the darkness of our human brokenness blinds us to our need for deliverance. We prefer to buy a few cans of whitewash and put a new layer on our evil, sin, and death rather than submitting ourselves to the truth of our humanity—we need Christ. We need to be changed from the inside out—we need a new existence, one in which we are reconciled with God and made whole. The fact that Jesus came in our stead, on our behalf means we were in need of him doing so. In other words, we are sinners in desperate need of rescue. We are, as Israel was, incapable of and unwilling to live in union and communion with our covenant God, and so the Word of God came into our humanity to do what we could not and would not do.
Secondly, submitting ourselves to the transforming power of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ means we are submitting to God as Lord over our existence. Jesus lived our life and died our death, rising again and carrying our humanity into the presence of our Father. Our human existence isn’t defined by our self-determination, our self-will, and self-preservation any longer, but by the self-giving, self-sacrificing, and other-centered being of Jesus Christ. Jesus defines us—he is our identity as adopted children of our heavenly Father. We are called to faith, to trust in him fully, to receive our identity as full participants in the majestic love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
And this is what we resist—Jesus as our King. What we need to come to grips with is our need to surrender to the all-encompassing love and grace of our ever-living Lord. We are so much more comfortable with our fear, our anxiety, and our human efforts to liberate ourselves than we are simply trusting in him, in his goodness, kindness and mercy—that as our Lord and King, he wants only the best for us and is always working things for our good as we trust in him.
As soon as things start to go wrong in our lives, we are tempted to believe that God doesn’t care, that he doesn’t love us, and that he is indifferent to our concerns and needs. We may be dealing with an endless struggle with pain or loss, and wonder why God won’t take it away—how can he really love us when we have to go through this day after day after day? We like to make up our own rules for our existence and don’t like the idea of anyone but us deciding how things ought to be. Why should I listen to God and do things his way, since his way is so hard and difficult? And look at all those people who say they are Christians—what’s the point of following Jesus when it doesn’t change anything?
These are really good questions, and I do believe we need to be asking them. But I also believe we have to be very careful in our search for answers not to ignore the reality of what God has done already in giving his Son Jesus Christ, and what he is doing in each moment right now by the Holy Spirit to bring Jesus’ resurrected life into effect in our human existence as we trust in him.
God is at work in the world through Jesus in the Spirit. He has, in Jesus, delivered all humanity out of the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of light. But our participation is critical. What we believe about Jesus, who he is, what he has done and is doing, is important. Who is Jesus Christ? Who is Jesus to you? Are you in agreement with the spiritual reality that Jesus is your Lord and your Savior? If so, how does this affect the way you live your life?
If we expect it to be all up to us to make the Christian life work, we are going to find ourselves in a very difficult place. God will not allow us to endlessly continue in the false belief that if we do everything “just so” then everything will turn out all right. He will allow us to experience the reality that our rightness is solely dependent upon Jesus Christ. He alone is the sovereign Lord over our whole human existence.
It was our heavenly Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness of the Godhead to dwell in Christ and through him to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth with himself. There is nothing left between us and God—we are fully free to be the adoring adopted children of God we were always meant to be (Col. 1:11–20).
We have been brought out of darkness into the light, so the truth of our existence is that we are children of light. This gift of grace so freely given is meant to be received with gratitude and praise demonstrated by a life lived as those who reflect the glorious image of our loving sovereign King who is Father, Son and Spirit. Let us live and walk in the truth of that, both now and forever.
Abba, thank you for loving us so much that you would not allow anything to come between us and you. Thank you for delivering from the kingdom of darkness and setting us by your Son Jesus Christ in your kingdom of light. Grant us the grace to admit our need for redemption and forgiveness, and to submit to you as the Lord over all things, through Jesus our Lord and Savior. Enable us to serve you faithfully and obediently from now on with gratitude and praise as your beloved children. Amen.
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; And He will reign as king and act wisely | And do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, | And Israel will dwell securely; And this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness.’” Jeremiah 23:5–6
“The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’ Now there was also an inscription above Him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’ And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’” Luke 23:36–43 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 10, 2019, Proper 27—As a pastor of a small church in North America, I have read, heard, and seen many books and conferences on how to grow my church. I have experienced a wide variety of emotions about the state of my congregations and the state of Christian churches as a whole. And so often, I have come away caught between the demand for greater performance and more investment of time and money, and our utter dependence upon a mighty move of the Holy Spirit to transform our society and culture for the better.
Last night some of the members gathered at the church to provide hot chocolate, cookies, and candy for the trick-or-treaters who were walking through the neighborhood. We played some board games, and chatted with the few who came in out of the cold to join us. I was grateful to each person who stopped by, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed more did not come to enjoy a moment with us.
It is easy to feel discouraged when we are trying so hard to reach out to our community members and so often, we seem to have very little response. I was wrestling with this frustration last week when it occurred to me that being aware that things are not changing as I want them to is one thing, but being critical and condemning is another. There has been ample evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work, and I must not imply or infer that he’s not, or that he isn’t doing a good enough job to suit me.
We’ve been able to touch the lives of several people. We’ve had a few baptisms. We’ve had new people join us here and there over the years. Even though our doors aren’t flooded with an overwhelming attendance of new folks, we do have a few here and there who have joined us on the journey. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
I am reminded of the story of Haggai, how the remnant of the people of Israel and Judah had returned to their homeland, but had lost heart in rebuilding the temple. Enough negative resistance and personal distractions occurred that they quit doing what before had been so important to them. They lost sight of a very important truth—the abiding presence of God.
The prophetic word of Haggai to Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the people was for them to “take courage.” They needed the courage to move forward against all obstacles, trusting that God would move away whatever stood in their way and that nothing would prevent them from finishing the task he had given them to do.
The reason they could have this kind of courage was that God was with them. Haggai reassured them that the Spirit of God was abiding in their midst and that they were not to be afraid. We today as the living temple of God’s Spirit individually and collectively need to be courageous and brave about building up God’s spiritual building, and have the same kind of confidence that God is in us, with us, and for us.
He is present and has promised that he would be with us to the end. In Matthew 28:19-20, when commissioning the disciples, Jesus sent them out to make disciples with the understanding that he was with them and would be with them until the end. And that all power and authority in heaven and earth were his, therefore all these resources were theirs to draw upon. There was every reason for them to move courageously out to preach the gospel!
But Jesus also told his disciples to wait on the Holy Spirit—to remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit empowered them for this ministry. There is a two-fold path we take as stewards of the gospel (and we are all stewards of the gospel as God’s children). As we go through our lives, we share with others the miracle of God’s grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. But we also live, work, and share with others the good news of God’s grace and love in full dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance, power, and provision.
I know from personal experience that it is easy to approach the circumstances of my life in such a way that I don’t see my daily encounters with people as an opportunity to share the good news. However, looking at the early church, I find that sharing the good news was an integral part of their individual existence.
In fact, the very reason the early church exploded in numbers was that when persecution happened and people left their homes for new lands, they talked about Jesus wherever they went. They were on fire with the transformation power and love of God in Christ. And this was both the everyday way of being of people who had been touched by the gospel of Jesus Christ and a powerful move of the Holy Spirit.
Coming out of a church paradigm where the denomination headquarters did all the work, where special evangelists were the ones who preached the gospel, I find one of hardest things for me to do is to make everyday encounters with people a venue for the gospel without being preachy or annoying. I want everyday conversations to be opportunities to build meaningful relationship, but find instead that constant inner voice which tells me to put up walls and to self-protect.
Sadly, I do not find within myself as much as I would like that total self-giving which identified so many in the early church who were willing to die for the sake of the gospel. To lay down my life as they did would be considered foolish by many Christians today—unless I was a missionary in a foreign land or in an inner-city ministry. It seems that for many of us as everyday Christians, laying our lives down for the sake of Christ is not what we do—that’s left for certain people to do—pastors, evangelists, preachers, televangelists, for example. But the everyday Christian?
But Jesus didn’t come just for the sake of a few people. He took on our humanity so that every, all, each human being would share in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit—there is a place at the table for each person. If we are believers, then we know this and believe this. So implicit in that knowing is a call on each of us to share that good news with the person in front of us in some way.
So, we pray for open doors, for ways to share this good news. We ask for the words to say and the actions to take. We may only be allowed to help or serve this person in front of us in this moment in some small way. We may not even be able to say anything about Jesus immediately. But we begin in whatever way God puts before us, and we move on from there.
God wants us to be brave and courageous, remembering he is in us, with us, and for us. We can and should share the words of life which have been so life-transforming for us. At the same time, we are to live and share these words in total dependence upon the Spirit’s presence and power, trusting that God will finish what he has begun. May God move in a mighty way, in and through each of us, even today as we yield to and depend upon his Spirit and trust in Jesus.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your love and life through Jesus in the Spirit. Show us the open doors you would have us walk through. Fill our mouths with the words to say in each moment we are given. Fill our hearts with courage and faith, a boldness to share the words of life which have so helped and transformed us. We trust you to finish what you begin, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people saying, ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the LORD of hosts. ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” Haggai 2:2-5 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 3, 2019, Proper 26—Imagine being hired for a job and being told that your best efforts were going to be futile and no matter how hard you tried, you would not succeed. Would you still take the job and be willing to go all the way with it, no matter what might possibly happen in the future?
Isaiah’s prophetic book records his encounter with the Triune God, where he was overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of the Lord’s divine majesty. When the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?” Isaiah volunteered, saying, “Here am I. Send me!” It is then that he heard how the people would respond to his message—they would be deaf and blind, resisting the good news Isaiah sought to share with them (Is. 6).
Throughout the years of his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic message spoke on the one hand to the sinfulness of the nation and called them back to their covenant relationship with God. On the other hand, the Lord also shared through Isaiah the hope for a redemptive future through a suffering servant messiah who would deliver his people and change their hearts and minds so they would finally love and serve their God.
This prophet faithfully fulfilled his calling, speaking words that apparently no one wanted to hear. He recorded the Lord’s words, telling his nation and many others what the consequences would be for their choices and the way they were living. Isaiah was never celebrated during his life, but according to tradition was sawn in two—an ignoble death for one dedicated to the service of God.
The key to Isaiah’s devotion to such a seemingly futile enterprise lay in his relationship with God himself. When faced with the holiness of the Triune God, he saw himself as a man of unclean lips living among an unclean people. But God offered him grace, taking away his iniquity and cleansing him from his sin. Isaiah’s faithfulness to such a seemingly fruitless task wasn’t for his own glory, but in gratitude to God for his gracious redemption.
Thankfully, Isaiah’s efforts weren’t totally in vain. Whatever he did write, whether or not others contributed to it, was preserved for us to read today. If we were to look in the new testament, we would find Jesus himself quoting the words of Isaiah. The gospel writers were happy to show how Isaiah’s prophetic words were fulfilled in Christ. Even Luke, when recording the book of Acts, tells about Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian who was reading the book of Isaiah and wanting help to understand the words he was reading. This led to the man’s baptism.
Sharing the word of God is not always a comfortable experience. What we forget, or at least I do, is that people don’t necessarily want to hear the truth, especially if it will make them uncomfortable or help them see that they are wrong. An innocent statement, couched in the context of one’s relationship with God, may cause an extreme reaction in someone who is resistant to the Spirit’s work in their hearts and minds. We may blame ourselves for not saying things better, but in reality, it may have nothing to do with us and everything to do with that person’s refusal to respond to the Spirit’s work in their heart and mind.
The closer Christ comes to us, the more we see our need for redemption. But for some of us, this may mean the faster we run the other direction or the harder we fight to resist the pull of grace. We cannot coerce anyone with the gospel—that is not God’s way at all. The gospel is an invitation which can be rejected, ignored, or torn up and thrown in the wastebasket.
So, sharing God’s love and his gospel good news must always be done in the context of prayer. We need the presence and power of the Triune God in the midst of our sharing of God’s grace and love. He is the One who changes hearts and minds. He is the one who takes our scarlet sins and makes them white as snow.
We also need to remember how Jesus approached people. The way we talk with them and about them needs to reflect the nature and goodness of our gracious God. In the story of Zaccheus, we find Jesus heading through town, and this man of short stature climbing a tree in an effort to see him when he would pass by. Jesus goes to him and tells him that he must stay at Zaccheus’ house.
In any case, this started the townspeople talking, for Zaccheus was a notorious “sinner”, a tax collector. Jesus did not see the man in this way. He saw him as a redeemed “son of Abraham” and someone who was lost who needed to be found. The approach of Jesus was redemptive and welcoming, speaking to and of Zaccheus as if he was already forgiven, accepted, and found. His gracious acceptance was lost on the townspeople who had their minds set on the sinfulness of the tax collector, but for Zaccheus, they were life. He immediately sought to express his gratitude by making amends.
Our sharing of the good news is a natural outworking of the Spirit’s redemptive work in our hearts and minds, and our lives. We bear witness to what Jesus has done to transform, heal and renew. We may experience resistance—let it be only because we are reflections of the glory, grace and love of God. Let it not be because we have sought to coerce or manipulate or use others. Let it not be because we have maligned the word of God due to our hypocrisy or unloving actions or words.
And let us pray—for open hearts, open doors, open paths for the gospel to spread. Pray for individual people we have met or gotten to know. Pray that they will encounter the Triune God, the living Lord Jesus, and be baptized in the Holy Spirit’s fire of love and grace. And courageously, let us speak the words of life, no matter the result. Someday, maybe in eternal glory, we may be surprised at what God has done with our simple efforts to share his words of life.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, for including us in your mission in this world, to tell everyone of the gracious love of our heavenly Father. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for working to bring each of us to see and know the Father and Son more intimately, and to transform our hearts by faith. Do bring these, our brothers and sisters, to faith in Christ so we can share together in fellowship and unity both now and forever. Amen.
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:10 NASB
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ | Says the Lord, | ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, | They will be as white as snow; | Though they are red like crimson, | They will be like wool.’” Isaiah 1:18 NASB
“How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, | Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, | And in whose spirit there is no deceit! When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away | Through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; | My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to You, | And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; | And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; | Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; | You preserve me from trouble; | You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.” Psalm 32:1–7 NASB
By Linda Rex
September 8, 2019, Proper 18—As I was reading the passage for next Sunday, I remembered a scene from when I was driving home from Cookeville to Nashville recently. It was located in a small farming community nestled between several tree-covered peaks. In the middle of a large pasture near some other houses sat a wooden frame which looked as though it had been abandoned, with new pieces of lumber scattered among broken pieces from an old farmhouse. What had been built looked great, but sat abandoned, with no one working on it, with no equipment around, and no sign from what I would see that anyone was planning to finish what they started.
If we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel like that unfinished building—abandoned, forgotten, with no hope of ever becoming what we believe we really ought to be or could be. We may have had great plans of overcoming this, of developing that, of doing that good deed, but we so often come up short. What we may feel like is worn out, burned out failures at life.
When we think about picking up and carrying our own cross daily, this is often what we feel like. Living life as a Christian and trying to do the right thing all the time is difficult. I’m grateful I do not have to carry Christ’s cross—I’m still trying to fully understand how to carry my own. And this is why it is important to understand what Jesus meant when he said this.
We often assume that the Christian life is meant to be a struggle against sin, a war to overcome the evil within ourselves. This makes our Christian walk rather self-centered, as an effort to become what we are not. But this is not really a helpful way of seeing things, and not what Jesus meant when he told us to carry our cross and to follow him.
What would be helpful for us to understand is that when Jesus told us to pick up our cross daily and to follow him, he was not telling us something we had to do on our own all by ourselves. When a contractor sets out to build a house, he usually does not attempt to do so all by himself. No, he has someone come to do the plumbing, someone to do the electricity, maybe even a few carpenters and carpet layers come to help him out. In other words, he doesn’t attempt the task all by himself—he does it in community.
In the same way, Jesus calls us into community, into fellowship with the Trinity, where we live life in Christ by the Spirit as participants in his own intimate father-son relationship with his Abba. Jesus says no other relationship should have this precedence in our life—we love all others less in comparison. As participants in the divine life and love, we don’t build our lives under our own power according to our own plans. Whatever we do coincides directly with who we are as God’s beloved adopted children who share in Christ’s perfect and holy sonship.
Jesus also calls us into the community of believers. We are not meant to go through the struggles to live as a follower of Christ alone. The Spirit calls us together into a community so that we can encourage each other and lift each other up, and when our burdens become too difficult for us to carry alone, we have someone to come alongside us to help and strengthen us. We aren’t alone, but rather are called into spiritual community, the church, which is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ who, like us, are beloved adopted children of Abba.
In other words, the life of a follower of Jesus becomes a matter of finding and living out our true identity in Christ as Abba’s beloved adopted children rather than seeking to gain acceptance by our religious performance and moral goodness. We don’t depend upon our ability to do what is necessary—the cost is too great because we will fail. We depend solely upon Christ, walking by faith in him, and living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh. Our focus is not on how well we are doing or not doing, but rather on Jesus Christ, and how he has done it, is doing it in us by the Spirit, and will finish it when we are glorified at his return.
What this means is, the cost of our salvation has been paid by Jesus. The cost to us is the laying down of our life and the receiving of Jesus in our place and on our behalf. This means we cease to be the center, other people cease to be the center, and the cares of this life are set completely aside—Jesus Christ himself is now the center of our life. We are baptized in his baptism, acknowledging he lived our life, we died in his death, we rose in his resurrection, and we ascended in his ascension. We eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, thankfully celebrating that he is all we need—his life for our life. He became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
When we count the cost of following Christ, we aren’t examining ourselves to see whether or not we have what it takes to follow through to the end. The reality is we don’t. That’s why God had from the beginning, before all was made, intended to join our life with his life through the incarnation. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is our assurance that we have what it takes—we turn to Jesus, again and again, daily relying upon him to finish what he began in us. We, as temples of the Spirit, are in process, and in the end, the beautiful bride, the universal fellowship of all believers, will shine with God’s glory in his presence forever.
So, the question for today is, what do you need to lay down so that you are solely picking up your daily reliance upon Jesus? What is it that you need to relinquish or surrender control over so that Christ can rule in your heart and life? What relationships need to be given healthy boundaries so Christ becomes your focus instead someone else being the center of your life? You are the beloved adopted child of Abba and by the Spirit you share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with him. Accept your cross of life in Christ daily, and follow him wherever he goes. Let him do the heavy lifting—you enjoy the journey.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your perfect relationship with your Son Jesus. Thank you that by the Spirit, we participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. What a blessing that it is all up to him and not all up to us! Enable us this day, and each day, to lay down all our human efforts at righteousness and surrender fully to dependency upon Christ alone. Enable us to establish healthy relationships, keeping Christ at the center of our lives. Grant us the grace to yield control completely to you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:27 NASB
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
By Linda Rex
August 18th, Proper 15—Years ago I recall opening an edition of the Worldwide News and seeing an article about the Holy Spirit. As I sat and looked at the title of the article, I realized that if what it said was true, it was going to change me and my life significantly from that day forward.
Why? What was the big deal about this? The reason it was so significant was because the message in this article was in contradiction to what my parents believed and if I followed this road where I knew it was leading—following Jesus by the Spirit to a new place in relationship with God—it might mean losing my relationship with them. It would mean losing the common ground of religious belief that had been ours since I was a little girl.
There are times in life when we are faced with critical decisions. The most critical are those in which God places before us the choice between following ourselves and those around us or simply following Jesus Christ and where the Holy Spirit leads. We can cling to what we believe now, at this moment, and resist any change or we can submit ourselves to the penetrating work of the Holy Spirit and allow ourselves to be changed from the inside out.
Choosing to follow Christ does not automatically mean the people in our lives will all choose to love us more. If anything, each of the relationships in our lives will be set in stark contrast to the one true relationship with Abba through Jesus in the Spirit. When someone begins to see Jesus in another person as they begin to live a life of obedience to the Spirit, it challenges them. It shows them where they walk in unbelief and how they fall short of the glory God created us to bear.
Experiencing the life of Christ in another and the joy of community they are blessed with as members of the body of Christ exposes other people’s need for Christ and the result may be anger, criticism, jealousy, rejection, fear, and a host of other negative responses. These responses come as a result of their own resistance to the work of the Spirit within themselves.
This is why Jesus warns us that following him involves a cross. It involves the rejection of those who want to stay in power and control what happens to us. Jesus walked the road each of us faces when we choose to live and walk in the way of Abba, where humility, service, grace, and compassion are preferred over power, prestige, popularity, and pleasure. Sometimes there is pain in the Christian walk and it does hurt when the people we love reject us and criticize us because of what Jesus is doing in our lives.
Following Christ is a counter-cultural path. It doesn’t mean we suffer constantly. But we do walk the path of the cross where we die to self and live to Christ, and this may mean difficulties in the process. The blessing of following Christ is that by the Spirit we are placed into the body of Christ, the church. We are surrounded with brothers and sisters who are walking the same path we are walking—we are one in Christ Jesus. As one member suffers, we all suffer together—carrying one another, praying for one another, and lifting each other up. In healthy spiritual community there is a bond of love and grace, and a spirit of joy in their unity and service to others.
For some people, the church becomes their new family. The rejection of family members cuts deeply, but sometimes those ties need to be significantly loosened or ended because of the harm family members are doing to us. If we are being harmed in a family relationship, we may need to set healthy boundaries, especially when addictions or abuse are a part of the problem. This isn’t to cause permanent separation, but to create an environment for love and healing to flourish.
The church can be a part of this process by providing a safety net for those struggling in such dysfunctional family situations. The body of Christ, the church, can offer safe relationships, prayer, and other meaningful support. The church can guide those who are struggling toward the resources, help, and counseling they may need. And the church can act as our spiritual mother, providing nurture, spiritual counsel, teaching, and guidance which can help us grow up into Christ and begin to participate in healthy ways of living and being.
When the Spirit moves us to turn away from ourselves and this world and to begin to follow Christ, changes happen. The Spirit puts new desires and longings in our hearts and begins to remove our ungodly passions and desires. It is a slow and difficult process, but we can participate with it as we focus on Jesus Christ and seek to grow deeper in our relationship with him.
When we find ourselves stuck in our spiritual life, it is helpful to ask ourselves whether or not there is some place in which we have refused to receive and follow the Spirit’s lead. Where are we stubbornly insisting on our own way and our own agenda? Surrender, submission, and relinquishment are the everyday rythyms of our life—follow Christ and listen to and obey the Spirit. We draw our strength and our life from Christ by the Spirit, we live in community with our fellow believers, and no matter what those around us may say, we keep on the journey on into eternity.
Abba, you call us out of this world into relationship with you and others in the body of Christ. You pour your Spirit into us and begin to transform our hearts, minds, and lives. Thank you for holding us in the midst of our struggles, enabling us to bear the rejection and criticism of others. Grant us the grace to follow Jesus wherever he leads and to respond faithfully and obediently to your Spirit, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division;…” Luke 12:51 NASB