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The Counterfeit Wheat

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By Linda Rex

July 19, 2020, PROPER 11—If we were to take a hike up a mountain in the Colorado Rockies, we may, as we arrive breathless at the summit, see an amazing view below us. We may be awed by the grandeur of such a sight and find it to be quite inspiring and invigorating.

But if we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that in the midst of all that glory were signs of this world’s fragility and brokenness. There seems to be no place on earth where everything is exactly perfect, unblemished and unmarred. The apostle Paul speaks of how even the creation anxiously awaits the coming of the glorification of God’s adopted children and the coming of the new heavens and new earth.

What we tend to forget sometimes is that this world only gives us glimpses of glory. What we were created for, the glory which was meant to be revealed in us, was to be the adopted children of God, living forever in the oneness and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We were created to be image-bearers of our Abba, to reflect God’s very nature in our being. And this is why God determined before time began that he would join himself with us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, there is a deep, dark place in all of us where we believe that God does not love us nor does he care one whit as to how we are suffering or as to whether we live or die. This lie we believe about ourselves is the infection of sin which we humans contracted in the Garden of Eden. We allow it to poison our view of God and ourselves, as well as other people. This lie becomes the lens through which we view all of life, and guides our decisions and choices.

As we live out of this lie, we find the result is death. We may decide we need to be a good person, to follow our conscience, but don’t realize that even our human efforts to make ourselves good, good enough to be loved and accepted by God, don’t work. If anything, our efforts to clean up evil and to make things good often result only in more pain, suffering, and death.

Jesus often encountered this while interacting with his countrymen who were the leaders of the nation, the rabbis, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. The intent of the leaders over the centuries had been to get the people to be good, to keep the law meticulously, that they might be acceptable to God and be blessed by him. Unfortunately, their efforts merely created burdens that could not be borne by the people and caused much suffering. Their efforts to be free from their Roman overlords often ended up in the suffering and death of many Jews. It seemed that they could not accomplish the eradication of evil and the establishment of the kingdom of God by any of their human efforts. They were powerless over evil, sin, and death.

Jesus told a parable which described a sower who sowed good seed. As the sower went and rested, which all farmers do at night, an enemy came in and sowed bad seed among the good seed. The servants, when realizing what had been done, wanted to rush out into the field and get rid of all the bad seed. But the sower told them to forbear, to allow the plants to grow together until the time of the harvest, so that the good seed would not be harmed by their efforts to remove the evil seed.

In this parable, the sower turns out to be Jesus himself and the enemy, the evil one—the devil. The good seed was sowed in the field, the world, but then in the midst of this good creation, this sowing of good seed, was sowed evil and sin which results in death. The good or bad seed, in this parable, is what grows from what was planted, either the sons of the kingdom or the sons of the evil one. The Greek word used to tell the servants to forbear, resonates with the word to forgive, to permit it to be so for the time being—a gracious act by the sower of the seed.

The tare or darnel was a weed which when it first began to grow, looked just like wheat. It could easily be mistaken for wheat, and it would grow close enough that if you pulled it out, you would pull out the wheat with it. It isn’t until both plants were ready to be harvested that it could be clearly seen which plant was which. Then the wheat could be harvested and the darnel cut down and bundled to be used for fire.

This is a good illustration for us as human beings. We may all look the same on the outside, but what is going on inside is what really matters. We cannot and must not judge others as to whether they are the bad seed or good seed—that is yet to be determined. Eschatologically—when the end comes—this will be determined by the One who knows everyone down to the bottom of their heart. In the meantime, God’s call to his angels is to forbear, to allow, to permit—to offer you and me grace.

The apostle Paul reminds us that we no longer focus on the flesh, because we are now new creations in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:16-17). Our true life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). We may look sometimes like a son of the evil one, but in reality, in Christ, we are sons of the kingdom. This is why we need to be careful not to assume we know who is the true wheat and who is the counterfeit. Jesus is now the true measure of any human being.

The counterfeit wheat looks good, but its grain can be toxic. In the same way, the sons of the evil one may look just like the sons of the kingdom. They may even do and say all the things that we assume godly people would say and do. But on the inside, they are actually a churning mass of darkness—they have never given up the lie that God doesn’t love them, that they have to earn his love and salvation, that they are going to go about life in their own way under their own power. They have struggles, pain, and sin that has never seen the light of day. For them, being good has replaced being in relationship—they do not realize that eternal life isn’t something to be earned or bought or worked at. Eternal life, Jesus said, is a gift—it is to know him and to know the Father who sent him—an intimate knowing and being known which is only possible by grace.

When the time for harvest arrives, it then becomes obvious what is counterfeit wheat and what is true wheat. It was Jesus who said that some would stand at the door and knock and they would be turned away because he did not “know” them (Matt. 25:11-12). All of our human efforts will not buy us entry into the kingdom of heaven—only grace will. It is those who know their need for God to rescue them who will be saved.

The others never did believe God was love and that he loved and included them—they turned away from their only hope for salvation, which was in Jesus Christ. They trusted in themselves, in their own method of self-preservation. And so, in the end, they find themselves face to face with Jesus, the One who is both Judge and Advocate and who defeated evil, sin, and death. As the God who is “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), he will determine their ultimate destination.

We might want to pause for a moment to consider this: What is going on deep down inside of us? Does the Spirit bear witness with our spirit that we are God’s beloved children? Do we know that when the voice of condemnation and accusation speaks, that it is a lie, that now there is no condemnation for us, we are forgiven in Jesus? Are we trusting in Christ or in our own ability to get it right? Whatever our answer, we have no reason to fear, because God is gracious and forbearing—we turn to Jesus in faith. As sons of the kingdom, we have joyous hope in Christ!

Dear God, thank you for your faithful love and gift of grace. Grant us the humility and faith to open ourselves up fully to you, to release ourselves from the hamster wheel of human works and self-salvation. Awaken us to reality of the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, to our inclusion in your love and life. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?” And he said to them, “An enemy has done this!” The slaves said to him, “Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?” But he said, “No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’”’” Matthew 13:24–30 NASB

Also read Romans 8:12–25.

Trusting the God Who Provides

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By Linda Rex

June 28, 2020, PROPER 8—Reading stories from the Old Testament is a good reminder that human beings really haven’t changed that much over the millennia. People still make decisions that hurt themselves and others, and they behave in ways which can be loving, kind, and sacrificial, but also selfish, sinful and at times even grossly evil. Families still for generations pass on traits they have learned from their forefathers—generosity, compassion and creativity, hate and anger, abusive language and behavior, among many others.

These stories from the past tell us, when we look at them closely, of how we as humans so often turn away from God to seek our own ways, inviting the consequence of sin—death—both physical and spiritual. When God meets us in the midst of our broken ways of thinking, believing, and acting, we find we are faced with the reality that apart from his intervention and healing, we will never be truly whole.

We also learn from these stories, if we are attentive, of the love and grace of God. Even in our wrong-headedness, God meets us, draws us to himself, and offers us forgiveness and fellowship, as well as instruction on what it looks like to live in loving relationship with him and others. He allows us to participate in what he’s doing in the world, calling us up into new ways of thinking, believing, and living.

One of the stories in Genesis is that of God encountering Abraham as Abram, drawing him into relationship with himself, and making a covenant with him. He promised him a son in his old age, and after many years of waiting, Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a son whom they named Isaac. No doubt, all those years of waiting seemed as nothing as they reveled in the blessing God had given them of an heir—the child of promise, a gift of laughter in their old age.

One day Abraham believed he heard God tell him to take his son Isaac to a mountain to sacrifice him, to prove his devotion to the God who had given them this precious child. Abraham left immediately the next morning and took Isaac, some servants, and all he needed for the sacrifice and headed toward the mountain.

After three days, they came to foot of the mountain where Abraham believed God said the offering was to be made. Abraham told the servants to wait there, loaded up everything he needed, and he and his son took off up the mountain. Now Isaac was a smart child and knew there was something a little odd about this burnt offering. Up to this point, every burnt offering had involved the sacrifice of a lamb or some animal. But they hadn’t brought any animals with them, and this bothered him.

Isaac pondered the question for a while, and finally ventured to ask his father about this. “We’ve got the wood and the fire, but where’s the sheep for the offering?” he asked. Abraham replied in an almost prophetic manner: “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” Even though at this point he did not tell Isaac what was going on, Abraham trusted God had a reason for what he thought the Lord was asking him to do. He was obeying God in the only way he knew how and was trusting that no matter what happened, the Lord would make it right. The author of Hebrews wrote that Abraham did what he did by faith, trusting that “God is able to raise people even from the dead” (Heb. 11:19 NASB).

As the story continues, we find that Abraham laid Isaac on the altar and lifted the knife to make the horrific sacrifice—the kind of sacrifice forbidden in later years to God’s people—the sacrifice of a human child. This was not how God wanted to be worshiped—it was never in God’s plan for human beings to kill one another or to offer their children to him as a bloody sacrifice, even though many people did this as part of their rituals in the worship of idols.

The intervention of an angel stopped the deadly blade as he let Abraham know that God knew he loved and feared him and that he did not need to make this extreme sacrifice to prove it. The ram Abraham saw caught in a thicket was proof that God had provided an animal in Isaac’s place to be the burnt offering. There Abraham gave God the name YHWH-Jireh, The Lord Will Provide. He learned an important lesson that day about faith, and the love and grace of God.

In many ways, just this experience was a gift to Abraham and to the many generations of his descendants which followed. Abraham was to be the father of descendants more than the number of stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. There would come a time when a child of one of these descendants would offer himself up as a sacrifice on the behalf of all people. This would be the Son of God in human flesh, Jesus Christ. God himself would provide the sacrifice which was needed for all of us to be redeemed and restored.

In the apocalyptic letter to John, the apostle writes about Jesus entering after his death and resurrection into the presence of the Father in the Spirit and how all the holy angels bowed before him. They worshipped him, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12 NASB). This Lamb of God who was the Son of God, humbly laid himself on the altar of sacrifice for all of humanity and allowed himself to be crucified so that all of us could be adopted as the children of God, sharing in his own loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit.

We as human beings have striven to make ourselves right with God, to prove to him that we love and fear him. We have struggled to be good people—so often choosing ways which have turned us away from God’s love rather than bringing us nearer. So often our efforts cause harm to those around us rather than helping or blessing them. Our best efforts, even our most noble sacrifices—the offering of our children, whether real or metaphorical—for the sake of proving our faithfulness and love to God, have always and ever been in vain.

The Lord Who Provides has already, in Christ, done all that is needed for everyone of us to live in right relationship with the Father in the Spirit. We need to trust, as Abraham did, that in the end God is going to make everything right—that he has already provided the Lamb which was needed and that the offering that this Lamb made was acceptable and perfect in God’s sight. Our role in all this is that which we can learn from Abraham—simply, faith—trusting in the finished work of Christ who stands in our place and on our behalf.

This story teaches us much about the miracle of God’s grace and his provision for all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. When we take the time to read these stories and look for Jesus in them, we will find that he is there—always at work in this world, from before the beginning of time even till today—providing all that is needed for life and godliness. May we trust our Lord to finish what he has begun, believing that he will make all things right in the end, so we can be with him in glory forever as God’s beloved adopted children.

Dearest Abba, thank you for providing us exactly what we need to live in loving relationship with you and one another. Thank you for the most precious gift of your Son and your Spirit. Grant us the grace to always trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:21-23 NASB

See also Genesis 22:1–14.

Follow Him Free From Fear

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By Linda Rex

June 21, 2020, PROPER 7—Lately it seems that much of our media is focused on finding things for us to be afraid of. Social media has been especially bad, with a proliferation of information, false and true, regarding possible apocalyptic outcomes of the pandemic, politics, and natural occurrences.

It is unfortunate that we as human beings are enchanted by the spectacular, the exciting and the fascinating. This is what sells and so this is what is focused on by our media. What is everyday and ordinary, however marvelous and beautiful, is often pushed aside by that which is sensational or dramatic. The overwhelming value of a human life becomes small change in exchange for the appeal to our human senses.

What Jesus asks us to do when we encounter him is to follow. To follow Jesus seems like a simple process—just go do what you think Jesus would do. But there is more to it than that—Jesus comes to dwell in human hearts by the Holy Spirit. The human body is the temple of God the Spirit, and the Lord the Spirit often asks us to do things much differently than how we think Jesus would do them.

For example, we may believe that if we are going to follow Jesus, we have to make sure everyone in our church is a good person (and we define that). When a man who is smelly and disheveled enters our church doors, we may ask him to leave and find a different place to meet. Surely we must keep the sanctuary pure for the Lord, right? Wrong.

This is far from how Jesus works. As we trust in Christ and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell, to rest and abide within our hearts, God enters into a place which is like a rundown shack on an isolated mountainside with trash all over inside and out. What was designed in the beginning to be a showpiece had become a dump, but in Christ we become a dwelling of the Holy Spirit.

As Christ by the Spirit goes to work, transforming our hearts by faith, the old rundown shack begins to change. We discover as time goes by that we never were the rundown shack in God’s mind—he always knew the truth about us. He always knew the tremendous potential of what he created when he made us.

But the coming of the Spirit to dwell within isn’t all God is doing. When we encounter Jesus and place our faith in him, he tells us to follow him. Following Jesus means leaving behind all that was and moving toward all that God has in mind for us. Jesus becomes the defining factor in our lives, not our own decisions and preferences. As Jesus laid down his life, we learn to lay down our own for others, trusting him to make things right when they don’t seem to be working out the way we expect.

Jesus pointed out to his disciples, as they were asked to follow him, that when we start on this road of obedience, that not everyone in our lives will agree with us or honor our efforts to follow the Lord. In fact, those we are closest to may become, in essence, our enemies—turning against us and rejecting us. We must not think this is solely due to us—it is often their own wrestling with the claims of Christ that brings about this crisis, this anxious desire to resist any semblance of godliness, truth, or righteousness. Because they reject Jesus Christ, they reject his followers, no matter who they are.

But Jesus says to us, three times in fact in this passage: Do not fear. Don’t fear what anyone might say or do. Just follow me, he says. In spite of the risk, the danger, the opposition—follow me.

The reason we don’t need to fear is because of who we are. We are God’s beloved in Christ the Beloved One. When Abba looks at us, he sees the ones who are his very own—the ones whom he cares deeply for and watches over and protects. If God cares about whether or not a little bird falls to the grown and dies, how much more does he care about his very own adopted children?

Even if we are brought to the place where our very life is threatened, we have no reason to fear. Because in Christ, we have hope beyond this life. No one can take us from the Father’s hand, as he holds us near his heart. This should give us great boldness in the midst of all our struggles, persecutions, and difficulties.

But Jesus does say, follow me. He does ask us to give up all we value in this life, trusting that he has our real life in his hands—a life so much more wonderful than this one. There is a showplace with a glorious view he is working on, but we need to be willing to give up our rundown shack and let him do the work he needs to do to renovate it. If we hang on to our rundown shack and resist the Spirit’s work, refusing to participate in what God is doing in our lives, we may find ourselves standing in the midst of a pile of rubble rather than in a comfortable home for our soul.

There is only one thing that we should ever fear and that is that we might miss out on the love and grace of our Lord because we refuse to follow him. Instead, let’s allow God’s perfect love to cast out all our fear and let us follow Jesus wherever he may lead us. Let us surrender to the inner workings of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus as he does reconstruction surgery in our hearts. And as we do so, we will find our real life, a life both now and for all eternity, held in the midst of the love and life of our Father, his Son and Spirit.

Dear God, thank you for making us your very own, for watching over us and loving us so completely. Turn our hearts and minds toward you, and enable us to know that you do indeed hold us in the palm of your hand. Enable us to respond to the work you are wanting to do in our hearts and lives. Jesus, give us the courage to follow you wherever you may lead us, no matter how difficult and dangerous it may be. In your name we pray. Amen.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household! Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows. … And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 10:24-31, 38-39 NASB

Witnesses to God’s Grace and Love

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By Linda Rex

May 24, 2020, 7th SUNDAY OF EASTER/ASCENSION SUNDAY—Last week in this blog we wrestled with the reality that what we believe influences how we respond to what is happening in our lives. We often do not realize, nor do we intentionally deal with, beliefs we may hold dear which are actually undermining our ability to be relationally connected in healthy ways.

One of the beliefs which often keeps us closed within ourselves is the belief that we are alone, that no one understands what we have been through or are going through right now. This is one of the reasons that support groups are part of the healing process for people who struggle with addictions. The insidious lie that no one understands—that we are all alone in this world, that we can and need to handle this issue all by ourselves—keeps us locked in unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and living.

We may struggle with opening up to others because everyone we have done this with in the past has betrayed us or failed us in some way. Or, in our life, we may experience safe relationships as anything but safe. But whether we like it or not, the path to our genuine healing lies on the continuum of healthy relationships with safe people, and we have to stop isolating in order to find renewal and restoration.

On Ascension Sunday in the Christian church we celebrate an event in Jesus’ life which directly speaks to this issue. For many years, Christ’s ascension really didn’t mean a lot to me. My church taught me he did send the Spirit to help out the people he called to himself, but that didn’t really seem to help much with the everyday issues of our lives. Our church’s view back said that when he left, he went home and left us all here to struggle until he came to punish the people in the world for failing to live rightly—that is except all the sainted people who managed to keep all the old covenant laws and observe all the days correctly. Back then I desperately hoped I would be counted as one of the obedient few.

But now, every year on Ascension Sunday, my associate Pastor Jan invites us after church to join her in the parking lot for a visible lesson on Christ’s ascension into glory and what that means for every human being who has ever lived. We cannot gather this year for Ascension Sunday and to eat William’s fried fish, but we can take some time to reflect on scriptures we will read on this day. They tell us how Jesus, after he had risen from the grave, spent forty days walking and talking with his disciples. His glorified humanity was still tangible but somehow different—he ate and drank, cooked fish at a campfire, and he walked through walls. He didn’t stop being human when he was resurrected. Instead, his humanity was glorified—transformed by his indwelling presence as God in human flesh.

He spent these forty days after the resurrection opening the disciples’ minds to the Old Testament scriptures, explaining how everything which had happened to him had been predicted and now was fulfilled. There was still some misunderstanding by the disciples—they were still looking for him to restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). But instead of restoring the kingdom of Israel as they wanted him to, he told them they were to wait for his Spirit to come and that they would be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and going throughout Judea, to Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.

The kingdom which Jesus was inaugurating had a lot to do with who he is now—God in human flesh. The uniting of the divine life with our creaturely human existence meant that our turning away from God to ourselves and the things of the earth no longer defines us. We now have the capacity to participate in the oneness in which the Father, Son, and Spirit dwell. In the sending of his Spirit, Jesus enables those who believe to participate in the divine life and love. They experience God’s indwelling presence now, being empowered by the Spirit to bear witness to the living Lord Jesus who is seated at God’s right hand in glory.

We find in Jesus Christ—and this is the magnificence of the ascension—someone who is God who has experienced what it is like to be an infant, a child, a teen, and an adult. This is a God who knows the feeling of being held by his mother, taught by his father and other teachers, and being called names by those who questioned his parentage. He has experienced tears, the death of dear friends, and betrayal by those he loved. He knows in a real and personal way what it means to be human and how difficult it is for us to live in relationship with one another and with God.

Jesus, who is still God in human (but glorified) flesh, holds our humanity in the presence of our heavenly Father, and sends the Spirit. As we place our faith in him, Christ by the Spirit empowers us to bear witness to the Father’s love expressed to all humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. We do this not only by our words, but most significantly by our lives lived in unity of the Spirit—expressing the oneness of the other-centered love we were created to reflect and participate in as image-bearers of our Creator.

We were created for relationship and it is in healthy spiritual community that we find renewal and restoration. Many of our emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds occur within the context of relationship, and it is in this same context where our best healing occurs. The ascension of Jesus Christ teaches us that undergirding all other relationships, there is a Person who is intimately familiar with our situation, who shares our wounds, and who is closer to us than any other human being could ever be. In Jesus we have an advocate and helper like no other.

As we place our faith in Jesus, we begin to experience the reality of our inclusion in the divine life and love. We are joined in union and communion with the Father through the Son in the Spirit, so that all of life is now lived in participation with them. We share in their mission in this world—to testify of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus Christ. God, by his Spirit, calls us into spiritual community—what we commonly call the church, though spiritual community can exist in many other ways.

Church is an unpleasant topic for many. It has and is often the cause of many relational hurts. But that is not God’s reason for drawing people together into spiritual community. It is meant to be the place where Jesus is present in this world, testifying to the love and grace of God. It is meant to be the place where people encounter safe relationships in which they can find healing and wholeness. God calls people together, not so they can impress everyone with how good they are or so they can protect themselves from being contaminated by sin, but so that the other-centered love they express to one another and to the community they live and work in is a living testimony to the love of God expressed to us in Christ, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Perhaps it is time to reflect on where we are in our relationship with God and with the other people in our lives. Are we intimately connected with the God who has gone to such lengths to be intimately connected with us? What are we placing between us to keep us from opening ourselves up to his love and grace? And if we have placed our faith in Christ, is this manifest in the way we live with those around us? When others look at us and how we interact with them, do they see an expression of God’s other-centered love? Our reflections should not be discouraging, because on God’s side—all is done. Jesus stands, hands out-stretched, inviting us on the journey—knowing exactly what we need in this moment to move deeper into his love and grace, and to find healing and renewal.

Abba, thank you for loving us so, for drawing us to yourself. Thank you, Jesus, for going through all that you did and for bringing us into glory in your resurrection. Holy Spirit, please finish in us what you have begun in Jesus—we are open. We receive your living Presence, God, and seek to bear witness to your grace and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” John 17:1-5 NASB

“… and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Luke 24:46-51 NASB

Abandoned Orphan or Beloved Child?

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By Linda Rex

May 17, 2020, 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER—The thought of so many suffering from COVID-19 having to struggle simply just to take their next breath creates a deep sense of compassion in me. Not too long ago, my own mother came to live with me, dealing with the last stages of COPD and the forgetfulness that loss of oxygen to the brain causes. I watched as she fought to the end just to take another breath—it was an intense effort for even a little bit of oxygen to penetrate what was left of her lungs. The sacred gift of the ability to breathe is a gracious gift from God above, and when the ability to breathe ceases, so does our physical life.

What we value most, I believe comes out when we face the reality that we may lose or have lost those people or things we hold most dear. What do we fear the most? What do we never want to be without? What will we do if we lose that very thing?

Life is unsettling. At times we may feel we cannot count on anyone or anything, because life is so transient. Our belongings break, are lost, get stolen, or just fail to keep us happy. The same happens with our relationships. We find ourselves so often at the place where we have to let go and start over. It would be nice if we didn’t have to deal with feeling hurt, abandoned and betrayed.

The conversations Jesus had with his disciples before he left them to be crucified showed his concern for the sense of loss he knew they would experience at his departure. Even though they did not at that time grasp the full significance of what he was telling them, he wanted them to know that he was not abandoning them, but would continue to be with them, although in a different way.

As human beings, we prefer to have realities that are tangible to us. We prefer our relationships to be with people we can see, touch and feel. Trying to have a conversation with someone who is not actually present with us can seem uncomfortable and strange, especially if we are not familiar with other methods of communicating.

To talk with somebody we cannot see is something we do all the time. Most of us are well acquainted with the use of a telephone and using a cellphone is becoming a part of many people’s everyday existence. Lately, we’ve also been blessed to be able to make calls with video using Facetime, Zoom, or other apps. It can be an improvement when we have a video to go with the phone—then we can to a limited extent see the body language and facial expressions. But none of these things come close to the way we can communicate when we are face to face with someone.

Jesus wanted his disciples to know that in spite of his leaving through crucifixion, he would still be present with them in a real, tangible way. He wouldn’t be there in his human flesh, but would ask his Father to send the Spirit to them. The Spirit, a Helper just like himself, would come to dwell within them, bringing them into the oneness of the Father and the Son, into face to face relationship with God. But this face to face relationship was going to be a spiritual reality—it would not be one they could experience with their physical senses in the way they were used to interacting with Jesus while he was with them.

The disciples, though, did not see any reason that their connection with Jesus needed to change. As far as they were concerned, he as the Messiah would bring the age of the Spirit into reality just as he was. Why should he leave when there was so much which needed done right then and there? The government needed changed, people needed healed and straightened out, and there were plenty of injustices for Jesus to work on all around them.

It made no sense, in their human minds, for Jesus to leave. And to die? That was the ultimate betrayal and abandonment. To leave them all behind, stuck in the same old mess they were in before he showed up? This was unthinkable. What kind of Messiah would do that?

But Jesus did not want them to feel like they were orphans, abandoned by those who should have cared for and tended them. He needed to leave through death and resurrection so that each of us would be brought into a new place—where we all could participate in his own personal intimacy with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. He was bringing all of humanity to a new place where we each would be able to be included in intimate face to face conversation with God.

The sending of another Helper like himself meant that God would be with them personally just as Jesus had been with them here on earth. The Spirit would give them the assurance that they were the children of God. He would empower them for ministry and breathe into them the eternal life they were created for, to love and know God intimately, and to love one another as God loved them.

Apart from God breathing his very life into us, we are all struggling to take yet another breath, hoping to gain a little oxygen from the air coming into our lungs. Apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection, we cannot expect to continue to live beyond this human life—we are utterly dependent upon the grace of God to continue. And any hope we have of having any kind of relationship with God is totally a gift of grace—God pouring out his Spirit enables each of us to participate in the union and communion of the Father and Son in the Spirit as we trust in Christ.

What Jesus has done for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension has been to forge for us a humanity who can breathe in his spiritual life and can participate in the inner life of the Father and Son in the Spirit. Apart from leaving his disciples, this new and wonderful change would not have come, so Jesus had to leave so his Father could send the Spirit, and we could be adopted as God’s beloved children, sharing in Jesus’s belovedness.

When we are faced with the lies that tell us God isn’t real, God doesn’t know us and doesn’t care, that what has happened or we have done is too awful for God to forgive us or love us, pause a moment. Breathe in God’s breath—“Abba, you love me”; breath out the lie and replace it with the truth, “I am yours and you are mine.” Breathe in the Spirit’s life—“Jesus, you love me”; breathe out all the sorrow, anger, fear, and doubt—“I am yours and you are mine.” Thank the Lord Jesus for making your life in the divine fellowship possible. Listen quietly to hear God’s Spirit speaking the truth of your life in Christ into those places where you have listened to lies and believed them. What is the truth he is speaking into your life today? What will you choose to believe now?

Dear Abba, by your Spirit speak the truth of your love and grace into every place where I have believed a lie. Free me from all the false dependencies and all those things I rely upon apart from you. You are my Breath, the air I breathe—breathe your life into me again, through Jesus by your Spirit. I receive your love, your grace, your truth, and your life. Amen.

“At no time will you be orphaned or abandoned by me; I come to abide face to face with you.” John 14:18 Mirror Bible

“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. … because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” John 14:16-20 NASB

Reason to Believe

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By Linda Rex

May 10, 2020, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—One of the many difficulties people express their concern about during this time of pandemic is the inability to know who to believe. So much information comes our way nowadays and through so many sources which seem legitimate, that it is difficult to wade our way through them all to ascertain who we should believe and who we should ignore.

Often, I hear from people who have become incensed because of something they read, heard, or saw on social media or in the news. Not everyone considers the source of such news, nor do they remember that often what drives news isn’t the effort to clearly present the facts, but rather to provide readers sensational stories that will grab their attention and move them to pay. There are others who espouse and emphatically proclaim a political or religious position that polarizes people and moves them to respond in the way they desire, even though there is hard evidence to the contrary. Having to be aware of all of this, to not be seduced by false news, is a stressful challenge for everyone.

So, how do we weather all this? How do we find out what is really going on? What if we never get to the bottom of it all and so find ourselves at the mercy of whatever may be happening at the moment? How do we deal with so many unknowns in our lives?

Undergirding so much of our response to what we hear or see is often anxiety, concern, and fear, because most of us are not deeply grounded in a sense that we are loved and are held safely in that love. We tend to gravitate to fear or anger as our natural response to the world around us—this is the self-protect mechanism we rely on to keep us safe in a dangerous world. Any one of us may be influenced by what we see, hear, or read, and find ourselves responding with concern, anxiety, fear, or anger.

This has historically also been our human response to any encounter with the divine. And people today often associate discussion about Jesus with being religious, but do not approach the person of Jesus as though he is anything more than a historical person, a prophet who claimed to be God and who did many great works. We celebrate Christmas for the traditions and the joy, but often not understanding the importance of the baby in the manger.

In many ways we find ourselves blind to the spiritual realities. Are there spiritual realities? If you have not encountered the divine for yourself, you will believe that there are not. But when and if you meet for yourself the Lord Jesus Christ who is very much still alive, you will be unable to escape the reality that the divine and this human existence have intersected and forever are linked in his person.

When faced with his human death, Jesus was concerned for his disciples. He didn’t want them to be fearful or anxious. “Do not let your heart be troubled,” he said. But then he provided the solution to that fear: “…believe in God, believe also in Me.” What we believe about the divine impacts our response to the fear and anxiety we experience in this world. When we are faced with death, with danger, with conflicting stories about what’s really going on, or with differing positions on critical matters, we need to be grounded deeply—and that grounding needs to be in something solid and immoveable.

But all the conflicting stories and transient positions, false and true news meshed together into a collage that is sometimes impossible to decipher, causes us to doubt even the spiritual realities. We need something to believe in—something worth believing in—to hold us fast in the middle of all this. We may simply reject the spiritual realities just because they are not tangible to us—but in doing this, we may miss out on what we need to provide us grounding in the midst of all we are experiencing in the world today.

Jesus comes to us and says to us—believe in God, believe also in me. Why? Because he has something to offer us that no one else can offer us—he is the One who made all things and who joined himself to his creatures, uniting his divine life with our human existence in such a way that we are grounded forever in the Being who is the Creator and Sustainer of all.

When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he isn’t trying to create conflict between nation groups or to demean any other culture or ethnicity. His purpose is to say that our humanness is intricately bound up with God’s glory because of who Jesus is as God in human flesh. He is the way we interact with God because we now share in his intimate relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit—we are centered forever in sacrificial, outflowing love.

This provides a solid base for us to stand on when we are surrounded by and harassed by lies, deceit, confusion, anxiety, and fear. We are everlastingly held in the intimate relation Jesus has with his Father in the Spirit—and so we can know that whatever may happen, we are held. In fearful times, we have no reason to fear, because we are loved and we are held in that love. Not even death will ultimately separate us from God or those we love.

All Jesus asks us for is a response of faith—to believe. Believe what you cannot see, touch, feel, taste or hear. Believe that there is Someone at work behind all this who has your best interests at heart and who is at work in this world bringing about healing, renewal, restoration, and redemption. His purpose isn’t to make us all feel good all the time, but to enable us to participate fully in the oneness and unity of the divine life and love, sharing in it with God and with one another both now and forever.

When we come to see and believe that Jesus is the center of our existence, the life which undergirds us and sustains us, and that we have a Father who holds us safely in the midst of even suffering, evil, and death, we may begin to face life more courageously and at peace. Even though things around us are unsettling or unsure, we may begin to recognize the Spirit’s voice speaking in our hearts, giving us guidance, direction, and a sense of what is true and what is not true. We may begin to have an assurance, by the Spirit, that we are going to be okay, that no matter what happens—good or bad—and no matter whether we figure it all out or not, we will be okay.

We may, the next time we feel fear, anger, anxiety or distress rising in our soul, stop for a moment and reflect on what we believe about God and Jesus his Son. Who are we putting our faith in? Is our faith grounded in what is eternal, loving, and good? Pause and invite Jesus to help you to believe in Abba and in him, no matter what your senses or reason may be telling you at the moment. Ask him to give you the heart and will to trust him. Deeply feel and embrace the peace and sense of the divine presence the Spirit pours into you in response.

Thank you, Father, that we can rest in your fatherly love which holds us safely in the midst of this rapidly changing, confusing world. Thank you, Jesus, for joining us in our broken humanity that we might find healing, wholeness, and renewal in you. Thank you, Spirit of truth, for being the source of all our peace, comfort, and hope, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“‘Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.’ … Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.’ … ‘Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.’” John 14, 1, 6-7, 11 NASB

Encountering Jesus Beyond the Grave

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By Linda Rex

April 19, 2020, 2nd SUNDAY OF EASTER—This morning the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and my irises are starting to bloom. The spring days here in middle Tennessee are pleasant when they are not blistering hot, and I enjoy being able to breathe in some fresh air as I sit out on my backyard patio.

When I lived farther north, spring was a welcome time of year—so refreshing after months of snow, ice, and bitter cold. When the wildflowers began to bloom and it was time to search for the morel mushrooms, this meant that the long days of being stuck inside were over and we could wander about the woods and meadows, drinking in the beauty of the countryside.

For many of us, wandering about the countryside is something we can only do in our dreams since we are held inside by the “Safer at Home” guidelines. We might feel like we are stuck in the midst of a long winter of quarantine, and we’re not seeing any immediate end to what is causing the death not only of people, but of jobs, finances, and our economic stability. There are many who are working hard wondering whether this will be the day they get infected or their dear one won’t come home. Others long to visit with parents in the nursing home, but they can’t, and grieve that they may not get to say goodbye before their parents are gone.

This leads us to the gospel passage for this week, where we find the disciples in the upper room with the doors barred, fearful that they might be found and suffer torture and death at the hands of those who killed Jesus. Even though they had heard the good news that Jesus was risen, they were still struggling to believe the reality of his resurrection and it showed in their actions during this time. Like many of us today, they were experiencing a large gap between the reality of Christ’s resurrection and the everyday experiences of their lives.

Jesus surprised them by entering the room in spite of the locked doors and offering them a simple greeting of peace, shalom. He had promised them peace, and here he brings it to them, demonstrating the reality of his risen glorified human body. In offering his peace, he gave them a commission—sending them out to share with others the good news of his resurrected life. He did not mean for them to hide themselves away, but to believe in him and to share that belief with everyone else. He breathed on them, encouraging them to receive the Spirit, and commissioned them to be his agents on earth to carry on his ministry by sharing the good news of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

What did the disciples tell Thomas, who hadn’t been present? What was it about what they said to him that caused him not to believe? He wanted some tangible evidence he could see and touch to base his belief on and he didn’t have it. He wanted to see Jesus for himself, to see and touch his wounds.

Even after Jesus had come and revealed himself to the disciples, eight days later they were still hiding behind locked doors. The power of Pentecost wasn’t yet evident in their lives since they were still fearful of the consequences of being out in public where they could be arrested. There wasn’t yet the boldness in gospel proclamation we see after the Spirit came on them in power. This time, though, Thomas was with them. And Jesus came intentionally to give him an opportunity to see and touch his body—to have his questions answered in such a way that belief would supersede unbelief.

Jesus is not put off by our questions, by our unbelief—who he is as our Lord and Savior is not altered by our lack of faith. Jesus is who he is in spite of our unwillingness to believe the truth about him. Here we see Jesus taking the time and making the effort to meet Thomas right where he was, giving him what he needed so he could believe. As he approached Thomas and showed him his hands and his side, inviting him to touch his wounds, Thomas was overcome with the reality of who Jesus was. He fell to his knees, addressing Jesus with the terms saved only for divinity, “My Lord and My God!”

Jesus wants us to stop not believing, and to keep on believing that he is God in human flesh—our Savior and our Lord. When the apostle John wrote his gospel, he had a multitude of miracles and signs to draw upon, but he only chose to use eight. His purpose was not to give a detailed, extensive list, but to provide enough testimony that we could believe and keep on believing that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord.

What would it take for you and me to believe and to keep on believing that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, who died and yet rose again? What is it that is standing in the way of us being able to accept the reality that God loves us so much that he came in person to stand in our stead, to die our death, and to raise us to new life? Are we expecting Jesus to show up in person so we can see and touch his very glorified human body?

Sometimes I think our current deconstructionist thinking is removing our ability to take things on faith. Indeed, there are many things in life which we need detailed evidence for. But when it comes to matters of faith, there comes a time when we must encounter Jesus for ourselves. Jesus is willing and able to enter the locked rooms of our hearts and lives by his Spirit and meet us just where we are. He is more than able to provide the tangible evidence of his presence and power as we need it. However, perhaps it is time for us to quit shutting the doors and locking them out of fear—to quit hiding behind our expectations of what God is really like and allow ourselves to encounter God in the risen Jesus Christ the way he actually is.

What is keeping us away from faith in Christ? Is it the trappings of religion? The memories of spiritual abuse or abusive family members? Is it bitterness, unforgiveness, or anger at God? What are we blaming God for that is holding us in our pattern of unbelief?

This is a good time to read again the gospel of John and his epistle. He speaks profoundly of a God who loves you and me so much that he would not live in eternity without us. He came for us, stooping down into the dredges of our broken humanity, even into death and hell itself, to lift us up and bring us into the oneness with himself we were created for. Here is a God who would not be God without us, but who loves us so much that he was willing to meet us where we are to bring us to where he is, into his very presence through Jesus in the Spirit.

And he calls us to believe—to trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. What does that mean for you and for me? We are not left in the midst of all this, in the winter of this broken human existence, without hope. Already, in Christ, the heavenly realities are present—we can participate in Jesus’ intimate relationship with his Father in the Spirit—by faith. There comes a point where our experience of God’s forgiveness, of his real presence in us and with us, becomes tangible and we are able to believe, and keep on believing.

Pause for a moment today and consider what it is that may be standing between you and faith in the resurrected Lord Jesus. What is it that is keeping you from belief, from continuing to believe? I invite you to have that conversation with God—to ask him to enable you to believe. Rather than inviting him behind the closed doors of your heart and mind, attend to the reality he is already present there by the Holy Spirit, showing himself to you. Ask him to help you to see him and to believe. God dwells in human hearts, yours included—awaken to faith in Christ. And believe.

Dear God, thank you for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for being present even now by the Spirit in all the messiness of our lives and in our broken world, in the winter of our souls. We are filled with fear and with many reasons not to believe in you, Jesus—melt them away. Give us your faith. Awaken us to the reality of your indwelling presence, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:3–9 NASB

See also John 20:19–31.

When Love Casts Out Fear

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By Linda Rex

April 12, 2020, RESURRECTION OF THE LORD, EASTER—During this pandemic season, the one common note I have heard in the news and on social media is that of fear. The fears we have are multiple and include concerns about politics, health, and economic security. We cannot watch or listen to much in the outside world without being confronted with real concern about many things.

As we enter into the end of the season of preparation for Easter, we are confronted with a reality in which, when we embrace it and believe it, is meant to free us once and for all from fear. Our anxiety about so many things is founded in a belief that we are unloved, left alone in this universe, and that the solution to our problems is all up to us. We may even believe in God, but often, we don’t act like it—instead, we act as if he were dead, laying in the grave we have created for him in our fear, unbelief, and rebellion.

What makes us do this? We were created as image-bearers of God, and so it should be so natural for us to reflect that image. Often, we do reflect the image of our God who is love and don’t even realize it. I see this in the parents who care for an autistic child, an adult child caring for both her family and her disabled parents, a person leaving their work to care for their parent with Alzheimer’s—so many examples exist when we begin to look around us. Where is the source of such humble, self-sacrificing love? It can have no source other than in the heart of God.

Fear often arises out of our inability to connect with others, to find a common ground where two people can be of like mind and interests. Our fears about other people often come to the fore when we don’t understand or accept the ways in which we differ or have opposing viewpoints or preferences. Fear is also created when one person or group imposes its will upon another without an appropriate acknowledgement of their God-given personhood and dignity. Fear is a useful tool to those who want to enslave, control, and manipulate others.

We were never meant to fear God in this way, nor were we meant to live in fear of one another. This is not what we were created for. We were created for connection, for unity, for oneness. We were created to be in relationship with God and man that is filled with joy, peace, and respect. A mutual indwelling, a deep sharing of heart and mind borne out of God’s very nature, is what we were created for. Anything less than this is the stomping ground of fear.

So often we project onto God all of our fear, making him out to be a condemning, cruel master rather than the loving, forgiving Father he is. We believe his sole purpose of existence is to find fault with us and execute punishment which we are so sure we deserve. We know we fall short of all we were meant to be, so we deserve to be punished. This is where fear comes in and causes us to be alienated in our minds from the God who is our Abba, our loving Father.

And this is why the Word of God to us was and is the God/man Jesus Christ. We needed to be freed once and for all from our fear—our terror of God and our fear of death. It is significant on resurrection morning that the ladies who came to the tomb were, in Matthew’s account, told by the angels and by Jesus, “Don’t be afraid.” If there is one thing they needed to know beyond all else in that moment, it was that there was nothing left to fear. The ultimate expression of the love of God had once and for all cast out our fear.

What is needed is for us to wrestle with what it means to live life without fear. How is our human existence different now that Jesus is risen from the dead? What does this mean for us as we face the difficulties of life, the pandemic, our job loss, or our business failure? How do we continue to face all these things with patient courage and grace?

If we are not in tune with the spiritual realities, we can resemble the Roman guards who, at the presence of the angels, were so overcome with fear they became like dead men. They had been diligently doing their best to prevent the disciples from stealing the body of Jesus away. But they hadn’t planned on an encounter with angels, nor with the resurrection power of God himself. The insignificance of their careful grave-watching became evident in the presence of the risen Lord. Nothing could keep the stone against the tomb once God decided it needed to be moved so people could see inside and know Jesus was risen.

The angels gave the women instructions—no doubt from the mouth of Jesus himself: Don’t be afraid; come and see—Jesus is risen; go tell the others; meet Jesus in Galilee. The practicality of the instructions left no place for fear or anxiety—they had things to do! Caught between the two emotions of fear and joy, the women headed back to the city. Wait till the others heard! And then they encountered the risen Lord. Can you imagine how overwhelmed they were with the reality of what they were experiencing? They were overcome with a desire to worship him—our best response to encountering Christ.

What Jesus said to them echoed the words of the angels—don’t be afraid, go tell the others, meet me in Galilee. There was in his words a renewal of the connection he had with them, a commitment to their relationship, and hope for more time together in fellowship with one another. All of these expressions of his continuing love for them removed their fear. They could trust that he was still the Jesus they knew before the crucifixion—he was still their friend and brother—only now he was the risen Lord.

The apostle Paul reminds us to keep our mind, not on what’s going on in the world around us or on everything people are doing wrong, or on the bad things which are happening, but on the things above, where Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God in glory. We’re not to have our hearts set on what’s in this transient human society and culture, but on the eternal realities where Jesus is the risen Lord, holding in himself our real life, our true existence. Our zōē life is not in this transient, dying world, but in Christ, held in heaven for us, to one day be revealed in the new heavens and new earth.

This is how we can live each day without fear. Death is not the end, but the passage into our eternal connection with all those who are in Christ. Suffering in this life is not something to fear, but to embrace as participation in Christ’s suffering or resisted as participation in Christ’s efforts to make all things new. Every part of our existence is swept up in Christ where we participate with him in his life, sharing in his love for all humanity as the One who plumbed the depths and brought us up into the divine life and love. We are called to faith, to believe in the reality of what Christ has done in living our life, dying our death, and rising again, bringing us into the presence of Abba.

Fear is a tough taskmaster, and we easily fall prey to it. This time of year, as we celebrate the resurrection, we are reminded of the abundance of God’s love and grace, of the forgiveness which is ours in Jesus Christ. In the sending of the Spirit, God makes possible for us to share in Jesus’ resurrection life. Trusting in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, we are awakened to new life—a life freed from the fear of death and all that comes with it.

Our resurrected Lord comes to you and to me again and again in the presence and power of his Spirit to say, “Don’t be afraid. Tell others the good news. Find your home in and with me.” Live life with a focus on the risen Christ and be busy about his business. There will be no room for fear because there is nothing left in this cosmos which can ever separate us from his love, not even the grave.

Thank you, Abba, for being a God we do not need to fear but can rest in, trusting in your never-ending love. Thank you for your faithfulness, for raising up not only Jesus, but in him our humanity, enabling us to participate in his risen life in and through your Holy Spirit. Grant us the faith to believe, to trust in all that Christ is and has done, that we may share in your divine life and love both now and forever, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. 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. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” Colossians 3:1–4 NASB

See also Matthew 28:1–10.

Keeping Vigil in Illness and Death

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By Linda Rex

April 11, 2020, HOLY SATURDAY, HOLY WEEK—Looking at the graphic on the cdc.org website each day, I am moved by the way the numbers have climbed in the past couple days of those infected with COVID-19. The number of fatalities have increased as well, and it pains me to accept the reality this isn’t going to get much better for some time. It is challenging to keep these numbers in perspective, remembering that substantial numbers of people also died during the same time due to other more mundane causes such as cancer, car accidents, drug overdose, suicide, and sadly, abortion.

In many ways, our observation of what is happening with this pandemic is like the picture described by the gospel writers as Jesus hung on the cross, breathed his last agonized breath, died, and was placed in a tomb. Gathered within eyesight of the cross were several of his followers, whose lives were being totally disrupted by the loss of their rabbi and friend. His disciples handled his crucifixion in different ways—some were not even present in his last moments. One had been his betrayer. But there were those who stayed and kept vigil with him.

Think of Mary standing there, who so many years before had uttered the simple words, “Let it be to me as you wish” and her life became a living sacrifice in service of the soon to be birthed Savior. She raised this child to manhood, relinquished him to his heavenly Father’s service, and traveled with him at times, supporting him in his ministry.

She stood there at the cross, watching the unthinkable happen to her son, maybe even in that moment finally recalling the prophetic words of Simeon, “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” Bound to Jesus with cords of love, she was comforted by his final wish, that John would care for her in her final days. This simple concern for her wellbeing while he was dying on the cross demonstrated a deep love and concern for Mary. How could she help but lament the loss of such a son?

The women not only watched Jesus as he breathed his final breath, but then followed Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus to the tomb. There the women sat across from the tomb as the men prepared Jesus’ body for burial. There was an urgent need to get it done before the sabbath began at sundown. When the men were finished, they pushed a stone across the front of the tomb. There Jesus laid, hidden from view, observed from a distance by the brokenhearted women who were his followers.

Lament is a healthy response to suffering and death. Dismay and concern are common feelings which rise out of one’s heart and mind—we lament the loss of all that is good, meaningful, treasured. We grieve the loss of what we cherish, the ending of those moments of connection, the changes in our everyday occurrences which are now forever altered. As we lament, we consider the ramifications of what just occurred or is occurring—our lives will be forever altered because of this moment, this unbearable change.

Some of us never allow ourselves to slow down long enough to even contemplate our losses, much less grieve them. To lament means taking the time to sit by the tomb and observe what is taking place, the reality of death and dying. It means allowing ourselves to feel our feelings and to accept that if or when that person dies, our world will never be the same ever again.

At first glance, death and dying are horrible bedfellows. Our natural response to death is to either fear it, resist it, or deny it. Or, possibly for some people, death can become so common in certain situations that we begin overlook it, becoming desensitized to the pain and suffering which go with it. Either way, we need to face death head on, keeping vigil with God at the tomb as what only he can do is accomplished—we need to rest in the tomb with Jesus, allowing him to be who he is as our Lord and Savior, in his death.

Going back to our story—the women watched the tomb, but could not open it. They were going to need help to get the stone moved so they could tend to Jesus’ body and use the ointments and spices would prepare. On the next day, the sabbath and holy day, the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked that the tomb be sealed shut and a guard be set over it. These leaders were so afraid that Jesus’ promise to rise from the grave would happen they had to find a way to prove it did not happen. The tomb was sealed shut and the guards posted.

But the vigil of the guards was much different than the vigil of the women. The women watched in sorrow, taking note of where Jesus was buried, hoping to tend to his body after the sabbath in addition to what Joseph and Nicodemus had already done. In time they went home to put together spices and ointments to bring back later.

Meanwhile, Roman soldiers were put in place by the Jewish leaders. The guards kept watch, protecting the tomb from tampering. They were indifferent to who was in the tomb and what might be going on inside the tomb. All they cared about was watching for anyone outside the tomb violating the seal.

In the same way today, our vigil in the midst of the pandemic can be focused on all of the externals, on all the possible violations of the rules, or on all of the bad outcomes that might occur due to COVID-19 and all the other scary stuff happening in the world right now. Or our focus can be on the One who is in the tomb and the hope which in ours in the midst of all this because he, for a time, laid in the grave just as each of us will one day.

Keeping vigil with Jesus as he hung on the cross and laid in the grave is a sobering reminder that there are parts of our broken humanity which needed to be crucified and to die—we all have places where we deny our personhood as image-bearers of our God. Our focus must be, not on all our failures to love, the tragedies of this world, and the suffering of our humanity, but on the One who lived our life and died our death. He is the one who carried our humanity into the grave and reformed it, as a caterpillar in a cocoon is metamorphosized into a beautiful butterfly.

Jesus had become a curse for us, had become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What was happening in the tomb that Saturday involved each and every human being on earth—death itself was being invaded by Jesus and robbed of its power. No longer need death cause fear, dread and sorrow—we now can have hope. The morning would bring proof that there is nothing in this world that can separate us from God’s love—not even death on a cross. There is life beyond the grave. By faith, death becomes merely a door into an eternity in the presence of our loving God, with whom we will dwell in glory forever.

Thank you, Abba, for rescuing us from the jaws of death. Thank you, Jesus, for penetrating the gates of hell itself for our sake, so we could be once and for all free from the fear of death. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for all the ways you comfort us, heal us, and make real in us the finished work of Christ. Grant us the grace in the midst of illness, suffering, and dying, to trust in your healing power and presence, find comfort and peace in your love, and keep our eyes on Jesus our Lord and Savior. Amen.

“This I recall to my mind, | Therefore I have hope. | The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, | For His compassions never fail. | They are new every morning; | Great is Your faithfulness. | ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’” Lamentations 3:21–24 NASB

See also Matthew 27:57–66, John 19:38–42, and 1 Peter 4:1–8.

Abandoned or Beloved and Held?

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By Linda Rex

April 10, 2020, GOOD FRIDAY, HOLY WEEK—Lately, nothing has turned out as I had planned earlier in the year and none of what I had expected to occur has occurred. I’m watching the unravelling of everyday life as new patterns of living are being created day by day as we try to live in the middle of these unique circumstances. Pastoring my congregations has become challenging in new ways as I work to find ways for us to stay connected while being apart.

This season of preparation for Easter has been full of opportunities to examine the inner workings of my heart and mind as I deal with this uncomfortable reality of so many things being beyond my control. Not that they haven’t always been that way, but in these days so much is not by choice but by necessity. Simply choosing between products at the supermarket has become a new experience now that my options are reduced to buying what’s left on the shelf or not buying the item at all.

I’m sure that my grandparents, were they still alive, would be able to tell me stories about how they had to ration items, reuse and recycle things, and do without much in order to survive the Depression years ago. I think of my own parents and how they handled anticipating 2000 by stockpiling dry goods in aluminum trash cans and have a more tender understanding heart than I did when I first had to find a way to dispose of pounds of moth-laden flour and grains.

We can sometimes get a sense that things will never change—that we will be stuck in this place forever. That is really hard on those of us who are always in motion—this fast-paced world doesn’t favor slowing down to a snail’s pace. We must produce, succeed, move forward, press on—doing any less is to fail, to lose all that one has. Right now, we are in a place in our society where so many of the things we used to be able to control are out of our ability to manage. And this can make many of us very uncomfortable.

As I read John 18-19, the gospel reading for Good Friday, I find myself immersed in a story in which the main character finds himself in a place where it seems he has no control over what was happening to himself. He may have been the Messiah, but he voluntarily surrendered himself to the will and wishes of a group of people who had only in mind his death by crucifixion.

What about the disciples who were walking this road with Jesus? Can you imagine how upset and probably even confused Peter was when, trying to protect his rabbi and friend from arrest, Jesus told him to put his sword away? Here Peter is trying to do the right thing and he gets in trouble instead, and then Jesus heals the man he injured? What’s going on? It was no wonder, that when he was asked if he was one of Jesus’ followers later that night, Peter vehemently denied him three times.

In time, Jesus found himself in the presence of Annias, somebody who was a powerful Jewish religious leader, who acted as though he were God’s gift to his people. The truth is, however, that God never meant any high priest to be a political leader. Nor did he mean for the Romans to choose the Jews’ high priest. God ordained the lineage of the high priest, who was responsible for tending to the nation’s relationship with their Creator and Redeemer.

How poignant it is that Jesus was illegally interrogated by a man who was more interested in his being able to market products on the temple grounds than he was ensuring that he and the people were welcoming their Messiah. Was he seeking revenge for Jesus upsetting the tables and casting out his moneychangers?

It is remarkable to me that these particular leaders were more intent on getting rid of Jesus than they were genuinely loving and serving God. They were so intent on having him cursed by Roman crucifixion that they broke their own rules and even, when pushed, said that they had no king but Caesar. Their emphatic denial of who Jesus was as the Son of God caused them to, whether they would have admitted or not, deny the very God they so piously served.

When Pilate sought to find the reason for their efforts to kill Jesus, he could not find any fault in Jesus. John records three times that Pilate said Christ wasn’t guilty. The Roman leader even sought to find a way to let Jesus go, but eventually succumbed to the will of the Jews. Jesus, yielding himself to the course of these events, told Pilate that if he as the king of the Jews had wanted to, Jesus could have stopped the whole process immediately. But he didn’t.

I have a hard time getting my mind around the voluntary surrendering of oneself to the will of those who wish to destroy you when you have the ability to stop it. We do this sometimes when we are in toxic relationships and don’t have the life skills to oppose controlling people. But this was something entirely different. Jesus was intentionally walking down a road that had been planned out before the beginning of time and he knew this was the only way that he could accomplish what God intended from the beginning—to unite our humanity with his divinity and take it through death into resurrection, purchasing for us an eternal bond of oneness with God that nothing could break.

We may think that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was something the Father did to Jesus, but in reality, the fault lies with us as human beings. It is our turning away from God that required Jesus turning us back in his sacrifice. The alienation we feel in our relationship with God was keenly felt by Jesus in his humanity, expressed in his cry during his last moments, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But as the rest of Psalm 22 shows, he had every reason to trust his faithful Abba—to know that he was present with him in that agonizing moment on the cross. As Jesus breathed his last, he entrusted his spirit into his Abba’s care—nothing, not rejection, not abuse, not crucifixion, and not even death, could separate Jesus from the love and unity which existed between the three Persons of the Trinity.

Jesus is well-versed in what it feels like to have people and circumstances impacting his life, bringing it to a place he would prefer not to go. Jesus told Abba he wanted to avoid “the cup” if at all possible—but relinquishment is what he chose. We don’t go through these times of crisis well if we are unwilling to relinquish control to Jesus and allow him to do for us what we could not otherwise do. We need to remember that we are not alone, but are held in the grip of grace, in the love and life of God himself—included in his embrace. As we trust in Christ and receive by faith the never-ending love and grace of God, we will experience the reality that we are not abandoned—we are beloved and held.

As we go through this time of crisis, of change and loss of control, let’s remember to pause for a time with Jesus on the cross, knowing that we are held in the love of God and nothing can separate us from that love. On this Good Friday, we can celebrate with gratitude the incredible gift Jesus gave in his surrendering to the cross and the grave so that we could share in his resurrection. May this give us great comfort and peace in these difficult times.

Dear Abba, thank you that your love never fails. Thank you, Jesus, for walking the road to crucifixion and death so lovingly and faithfully, humbly willing to give all for our sakes. Grant us the grace to walk this road with you, offering grace and love to our fellow travelers as we go, for your sake, Jesus. Amen.

“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, | And our sorrows He carried; | Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, | Smitten of God, and afflicted. | But He was pierced through for our transgressions, | He was crushed for our iniquities; | The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, | And by His scourging we are healed. | All of us like sheep have gone astray, | Each of us has turned to his own way; | But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all | To fall on Him.” Isaiah 53:4-6 NASB

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest. Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel. In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.” Psalm 22:1-4 NASB

“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.” Hebrews 4:7 NASB