By Linda Rex
Lent: Awhile back it seemed that everywhere I went, someone was talking about the upcoming lottery. There was quite a bit of money at stake and a lot of people were hoping they might be the lucky one to win it all.
Some of the people who had aspirations of winning the jackpot had some great ideas of how they would spend the millions which would come their way. They would take care of family needs and give some of their new funds away to charity. They might put their children through college and they would probably buy a new car or two.
All of these are good things to do. The change in their financial position would no doubt alter their lifestyle in some way. But altering their circumstances and changing the financial condition of their lives would alter all of their relationships, and it would make demands of them which would require strong character and wisdom. Sadly, not everyone is able to handle this type of dramatic change.
This is because, even with the positive changes that come with being financially solvent and wealthy, there are some things that would not change. They would still be the same people they were before they won the lottery. Their character and nature would not change for the better just because they were well off. Indeed, they may even change for the worse. We hear too often of those whose family and personal life disintegrated after winning the lottery.
Believe me, I’m not criticizing or making fun of those who play the lottery. I’m merely using it to illustrate a point.
I’ve been preaching about temptation during this Lenten season. The reading for last Sunday was 1 Cor. 10:1-13. This passage talks about all the ways Israelites fell prey to temptation while they traveled in the wilderness under the guidance and provision of the Lord.
They had been rescued from slavery, and walked through the Red Sea while the Egyptians who were chasing them drowned. They were brought into relationship with the Lord of the universe who made a covenant with them to be their God while they would be his people. It seemed that Israel had won the jackpot. They had everything they could possibly want at their disposal.
With one caveat: Now they no longer called the shots. From now on they were not slaves of another nation, but neither were they their own masters. Instead, they were the children of Israel, sons of the Most High God. And being children of God meant that they were to live in accordance with the truth of who they were. They were made in the image of God to reflect him, both in their love for one another, and in their love for and devotion to God. God had redeemed them and adopted them as his children. And God wanted them to live like it.
And this was what they wrestled with throughout their history. Many of them wanted to choose to live their own way, as humanity has done since the dawn of creation. And even when they did try to keep the law, they did it in such a way that they developed their own list of rules and methods of interpreting the law. These Jesus eventually criticized because they actually kept people from obeying God’s will in the way God intended.
Even though Israel’s circumstances changed dramatically when they were rescued from Egypt, they themselves did not change. It seems that the external differences in their lives did not alter their character. They were more comfortable with who they thought they were—defined by the onions, and leeks and pleasures of their old life in Egypt. Changes in their circumstances and lifestyles did not suddenly create an understanding of who God was and who they were in relationship to him. And it didn’t immediately instill a faith in God or a devotion to him.
This was something that God worked to grow in them during their travels in the wilderness. He took care of their need for food by providing bread from heaven. He took care of their thirst by giving them water from a rock. He guided them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He worked constantly to teach them what it meant to live in relationship with one another and their heavenly Father. He strove constantly to show his faithful love and compassion even when they rejected him and disobeyed him.
Ultimately, it was in the gift of his Son Jesus that Israel was given what they had needed all along—a new heart and mind. The Word of God took on our humanity and lived the life we all fail to live, died the death we deserve to die, and then rose from the grave. After ascending to the Father, Jesus sent the Spirit to dwell in human hearts—offering us the transition from our old ways of living and being into that of the Triune life.
First Jesus was human in the same way you and I are. He knew what it was like to take a deep breath of springtime air, and he knew the smell of smoke from a campfire. He knew what it was like to be cold, and what it was like to be so hot he could hardly stand it. He was as fully flesh as you and I are.
But then he died and was resurrected. His resurrected body didn’t cease to be human—it just was glorified. He now holds in himself the glorified humanity of each of us. He is what we were meant to become as glorified human beings. The apostle Paul wrote that that just as Jesus is no longer what he used to be, so we are made new as well. In Christ we are new creatures.
This means, like Israel, we are in a totally different situation than we expected. We have all of the beauties and wonders of heaven before us because the God of the universe has called you and me and everyone else his very own. He has adopted us into his family—we are children of God. The old ways of being and living are gone—God calls the shots now.
This means we are not our own masters. We are not captains of our own fate. God has declared our destiny in Christ. But we are fully free to choose to love God and follow Christ, or to reject or ignore him. Our decision does not alter the reality of God’s decision to love us and include us in his family. But it does affect how we experience that reality both now and in the world to come.
God has brought us through Jesus’ baptism just as he brought Israel through the Red Sea. He has delivered us from our old ways of living and being, and freed us from those things that held us captive, just as he freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. God brought us into a covenant love relationship with himself just as he did with Israel, and he nourishes us with bread from heaven in Jesus Christ and water from the Rock in the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been given all we need to become all that God has declared we are.
As we respond to this gift of Jesus Christ and open our hearts and minds to the work of the Spirit, we will find ourselves changing. This will not be an external change, but rather a change of heart and mind. Our circumstances may not change—they may even grow more difficult—but we will be transformed. God will take us on wilderness journeys and will grow us up in Christ. Over time, we will find ourselves in agreement with God in ways we never thought possible before. When God goes to work, we change.
And the change God brings about in our being enables us to begin to live in accordance with the truth of who we are as children of God, made in his image and redeemed by Jesus Christ through the Spirit. We begin to live now as residents of the kingdom of heaven—loving God and one another in the same way that the Father, Son and Spirit have lived for all eternity. This is what we were created for—and God is working in us by the Spirit to form Christ in us so we can fully share in his Triune life and love forever. And that, to me, makes each of us the real lottery winners, no matter who we are.
Thank you, Father, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit by whom you are working to transform us and grow us up into your image. Grant us the grace to respond fully and obediently to the Spirit’s work so that we may grow up into Christ as you wish. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:16–17 NASB
By Linda Rex
Ash Wednesday/Lent: Yesterday I was reading about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (from which the forty days of Lent is drawn), and it occurred to me that each of us comes to times in our lives where we live in wilderness places. There may appear to be wild animals who might devour us at any minute, and we may feel the intense hunger which comes from not having our needs met in the way we expect them to be met. We may wander about in our sins or our sorrows, aching because there seems to be no relief in sight.
Many times our wilderness experiences are as a result of our wandering off the path God places before us. We may have made foolish decisions, or been in unwise, unhealthy relationships that have taken us places we never meant to go. We may be dealing with the consequences of things other people have done to us, and we’re not sure we’ll ever get over what happened.
And oftentimes, this is when the tempter shows up. He’s happy to keep us in these miserable places, or to even help us get even more lost and despairing than we already are.
Being in the real wilderness is a thrilling and invigorating experience for me. I love being out in nature in this way. One can feel very close to God out in an open field with the big blue sky over her and the beauty of creation all around. The silence, the sun shining down, the wind blowing through the trees and the grass, all make you feel the presence of God and his glory and greatness.
Yes, there is some concern for me regarding rattlesnakes and mountain lions, but I realize that one must go prepared, and one must be careful. But I’m sure if I was out there for 40 days with no supplies, I imagine I would be quite hungry, and things would indeed look pretty bleak toward the end. I would genuinely be set up for the right person to suggest I do something to help myself have something to eat.
Isn’t it interesting that Satan suggested Jesus turn stones into bread, but when Jesus fed the thousands bread, he didn’t use stones. He just took what he had—a few loaves, and multiplied them. He didn’t need to do an ostentatious miracle in order to help people. And he refused to do one to help himself.
In each of the three temptations put before Christ, he was asked to do two things: 1) to question the love and character of the Father, and to presume upon it; and 2) to renege on his covenant relationship with humanity and his calling by the Spirit to walk in penitence with us—sharing Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and sharing our wilderness journeys as well—by walking in repentance and faith with us and for us.
When we are walking in a spiritual, mental, emotional wilderness, where it seems we have been abandoned by God and everyone else, we will find ourselves assaulted in similar ways. Often times the struggles we have and the things we are wrestling with cause us to question the love and character of God. Does he see and does he really care? How can he leave us like this if he really, truly loves us?
“Why?” is a really good question and often haunts us. And we can often entertain the idea that it would be better to be rescued from our struggles immediately than to walk in faith and trust in reliance upon our covenant relationship with the Father, through Jesus and in the Spirit.
We are tempted to take matters into our own hands and come up with our own solution to the problem instead of waiting on God. We may see good reason to make a little agreement with the devil through compromise or embellishing the truth rather than being willing to do the hard work of integrity, transparency and authenticity. Or we may cast ourselves headlong down an unwise path “trusting” that God will uphold us because that’s what he’s supposed to do.
What we can forget in the midst of our wilderness wanderings is that we are not alone. God is present with us and in us. And he cares about everything that is going on in our lives. He feels our pain. He shares our sorrows. His love for us is not altered by the circumstances in our lives.
Our wilderness wanderings are the perfect opportunity for us to go deeper with God. We can begin to learn a deeper trust in the faithfulness of God. And we can grow in greater spiritual maturity as we learn to wait on God and give him space to do the things that only he can do. We can grow in our sensitivity to the Spirit and to his small, still voice guiding us, encouraging us and teaching us. We can learn true obedience to the Spirit and the Word of God as he leads us along the broken pathways of our lives.
The Spirit had a reason for leading, even throwing, Jesus out into the wilderness. God wasn’t planning to abandon Jesus out there. He didn’t go anywhere. Jesus learned obedience by the things which he suffered (Heb 5:8)—and so will we, as we turn to God in the midst of our struggles and trials and begin to see with the eyes of faith, not the blind eyes of fear, anxiety, guilt and shame.
It was after the wilderness struggles and his determination to be faithful to his Father and to keep his identification with all of us, that the angels came and ministered to Jesus. God the Father responded in compassion and understanding, and relieved Jesus’ hardships after the testing was over. We may have to wander in the wilderness for a while, and we may have some tough decisions to make, and some dangerous temptations to resist, but when all is done, God will be sure to mend, heal and comfort in every way that is needed.
Following Christ doesn’t mean everything in our lives will always be wonderful. Yes, we will experience an abundant life we have never experienced before, but it will be in terms of our relationship with God and our relationships with others. When it comes to loving and being loved by God and others, the beauty of true communion is unsurpassed.
But sometimes the Spirit calls us out into the wilderness because he has something he wants to do in us and in our lives. We may not enjoy every facet of the experience, but when we turn to Christ and go deeper in our relationship with God in the midst of it, we will come out as Jesus did, filled with the Spirit and empowered for greater ministry. Drink in of the wonder of God as you wander about—he is faithful and will bring it all to a good end.
Heavenly Father, thank you for your faithful love. Thank you that even when your Spirit leads us into a time of testing and trial, you are with us in the midst of it, and through Jesus you share in it with us. Thank you for bringing us safely to the other side as we trust in you, and allow you to hold on to us and carry us through. May all our wilderness wanderings draw us closer to you, open new reservoirs for the Spirit and make us more aware of Christ in us, who is our hope of glory. In his name, we pray. Amen.
“Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Mark 1:12–13 NASB (See also Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)