By Linda Rex
April 3, 2022, 5th Sunday in LENT—I love reading the book of Isaiah. This prophet has a way of writing which resonates with my current human experience while taking me into a deeper sense of God’s presence and power in the midst of all I am going through.
In the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, Isaiah 43:16–21, the prophet brings to his people’s remembrance the way in which God brought them through the horrifying experience of being pursued by Egypt’s army, and being caught up against the shores of the Red Sea, with nowhere left to go. God’s intervention on their behalf involved opening up a path for them through these waters to the other side, where they celebrated the defeat of their adversary, who had been crushed under the returning waters.
Isaiah called forth this memory for a reason. He was pointing them to the faithfulness of their God. He told them that in comparison to that great, amazing event in their history, what God was going to do next would be unforgettable. He was going to do a new thing—make a path in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
In this season of preparation for the events of Holy Week, we have been reflecting upon our need for God’s deliverance in every area of our life. Apart from God’s grace and love, we are left orphans in this broken world, and struggle to make our way forward against the mighty waters of evil, sin, and death. The opponent we are facing is intimidating—his weapons are spiritual, and he attacks us on every side. Within our human experience we struggle to fight against evil, sin, and death, but find ourselves easily losing our battle, apart from the presence and power of God at work in our circumstances.
In the gospel story this week, the apostle John describes a pleasant gathering at Jesus’ friends’ home in Bethany. Reclining at the meal, Jesus is approached by Mary, who breaks open an expensive bottle of nard, and begins anointing him with the perfume. John distinctly remembers how the fragrance filled the room, and how Mary lowered her dignity to the place where she untied her hair and began to use it to wipe Jesus’ feet.
Judas Iscariot, and the other disciples apparently, took offense at this extravagant gesture of affection for our Lord. He knew the perfume was valuable—a year’s worth of wages were needed to pay for it. Judas brought up the poor and needy as the reason for his complaint, when in reality—as the disciples were to discover later—he was pilfering from the money box. He wanted those funds for himself.
We find illustrated here two approaches to the presence of Jesus. Judas Iscariot, bent on his own avaricious agenda, is concerned about the bottom line, keeping the money available for his own personal use. And he’s not above using an appearance of righteousness and goodness in order to do it. He isn’t truly concerned about the poor, nor is he devoted to Jesus. His devotion is to himself, and his greed, lust, and avarice.
Mary, in contrast, is concerned for Jesus and his agenda. She, as it appears, is the only one who gets it—she seems to know Jesus is headed for death. So, she prepares in advance for his burial, by anointing him ahead of time. She isn’t selfish and greedy, but rather extravagant in her demonstration of devotion to Jesus. She isn’t arrogantly trying to impress everyone with how spiritual she is, but rather, she humbles herself, violating the customary conventions of her day to express her devotion to Christ.
What Mary seemed to get to some extent, and Judas didn’t, was that Jesus stood, as Israel had stood many years before, on the brink of disaster. Yes, he would march into Jerusalem, celebrated and adored—just as Israel left their slave chains behind in Egypt that fateful night, with a high hand. But within a few short days, he would be held hostage at the shores of his death, betrayed by this one who pretended to care about the poor and the needy, but who only cared about his own pocketbook.
Standing on the edge of the mighty waters of death, Jesus was prepared for his Father’s next step. He was going to do a new thing—something never done before. Already, God had entered into our human sphere to become one of us. God, in Christ, had lived a genuinely human life without sin. Now he was going to submit himself to the plots of evil human beings, and allow himself to be crucified and killed. He was doing the one thing needed to create a path in the wilderness of evil, sin and death.
Soon, he would hang on a cross, he would die, and lay in a tomb. But we know in advance that this was not the end of the story. We know that Israel made it safely to the other side of the Red Sea. And we know Jesus rose on the third day, ascending in his glorified humanity into the presence of the Father.
And we also know, as we celebrate at Pentecost, that Jesus sent the Spirit from the Father—making rivers in the desert of our human experience. What God promised through his prophet Isaiah, he accomplished. He did a new thing—God in human flesh, living our life, dying our death, and rising again to send the Spirit so we each can live in newness of life.
What a precious gift we have been given, in the gift of God’s one and only Son and the pouring out of his Spirit, bringing new life into this wilderness desert of our human existence! We do not need to remain on the shores of our dilemma, whatever it may be. We have the victory in Jesus Christ. What God promises, he does deliver.
And what he accomplished in Christ is being worked out in each of us and in this world by his Spirit, as we respond in faith. Here, in this place of impending disaster, we turn to Christ in faith—he is our divine deliverer, and he will bring us through. We trust in God’s love and grace, allowing him to finish in us individually what he has done for us all—make a path through the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Blessed Father, thank you for your faithfulness and your generosity. Thank you, Jesus, for creating a path for us through the wilderness of evil, sin, and death—we trust you to finish what you have begun. Thank you, heavenly Spirit, for drawing us deeper into relationship with our God, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?’ Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.’ ” John 12:1–8 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/anointed-for-death.pdf]
By Linda Rex
March 6, 2022, 1st Sunday in LENT—This morning I was reading about the conflict currently going on between the nations of Russia and Ukraine. There seems to be a variety of opinions on why this conflict is happening and what the motives are behind it. But I have yet to see anyone say that the conflict is a result of our natural human tendency to desire what is not ours and to raise ourselves above others, while subjugating them to our will—a biblical worldview regarding conflict (James 4:1–4).
While it’s easy to play the blame game when talking about conflict and war, the reality is that we often point out human failings while ignoring the underlying spirit of conflict which has its roots in the evil one. Satan is constantly at work creating suspicion and mistrust between people and groups, causing division and conflict. He is masterful at destroying fellowship and community. Often, we see him at work, not realizing we ourselves may be participating in his work of destruction and death by our own human tendency toward envy, greed, selfishness, pride, and unforgiveness.
This Sunday’s reading in the gospels tells how Jesus came away from his baptism experience filled with the Spirit, but then was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the evil one. In Luke’s account, Jesus was tempted in a variety of ways—a summary of the temptations we experience as human beings—and yet he did not sin. Drawing upon the word of God as written in the book of Deuteronomy, he countered every temptation, until Satan finally left him. But then, Luke adds—“until an opportune time”.
What Luke is pointing out is that even though Jesus emerged triumphant from this great spiritual battle, Satan was not yet done. He continued to seek out opportunities to trick Jesus into sinning—to tempt him to turn away from his purposeful journey towards the crucifixion and resurrection. The evil one knew what was at stake, and did his best to trip our Savior up as he made the challenging journey to the cross.
One example of this is the conversation Jesus had with Peter regarding his identity as the Messiah. Peter understood Jesus was the Messiah, but when Jesus started describing what he as the Messiah would have to go through—rejection, arrest, abuse and death—Peter’s concern as a friend and disciple got in the way. He told Jesus that he was wrong—these things wouldn’t happen. And Jesus rebuked him strongly by saying, “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus understood the true source of this conflict. Peter was merely a participant who had his mind on human things instead on what mattered most to God (Mark 8:29–33).
This is a good example of how Satan watches for opportune moments to bring about his agenda of discord, division, destruction and death. It’s not always obvious at first glance. Many times, it is hidden underneath the guise of what seems to be good, comfortable or pleasant. This is why we are so often reminded in the scriptures to be on the alert. Peter knew firsthand how important this is and wrote in 1 Peter 5:8–9: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world” (NASB).
Some of the opportune moments we give the evil one are moments of unresolved anger. The apostle Paul reminds us not to allow angry disagreements to go on and on without working them out. He wrote, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity” (Ephesians 4:26–27 NASB). It’s not wrong to be angry. Anger shows that a violation of some kind has occurred and needs to be addressed in a healthy way. There needs to be reconciliation, forgiveness, repentance—whatever needs addressed in order to restore the relationship. But it needs to be addressed, and not allowed to fester. Allowing anger, resentment, and then bitterness to fester is what creates an opportunity for Satan to enter in and begin to create a whole mess of issues and broken relationships and destructive situations. He loves it when we participate with him in creating division and disruption in this way.
The apostle Paul reminded us that our conflicts are not so much against humans as they are against spiritual strongholds and authorities. He wrote that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” For that reason, he encouraged us to put on Christ—the armor God has given us to protect us against the wiles of the devil.
In Jesus, we see the armor Paul talks about in Ephesians 6:10–18 being forged as Jesus resisted Satan’s temptations. Jesus walked the path to the cross—the way of the gospel of peace—and would not be deterred even though he knew the pain and suffering involved. Jesus, as the living Word of God, drew upon the power of the Spirit and the written word of God to counter Satan’s arguments. As the Son of God, Jesus knew the Father intimately and trusted completely in his love and faithfulness, even as he experienced Satan’s attacks. And as God in human flesh, Jesus lived in right relationship with his Father, keeping his heart in faithful devotion to his Abba.
In the garden of Gethsemane, one last “opportune time” occurred when Satan sought to turn Jesus away from his commitment in the Spirit to his Father and to all of us as humanity. Jesus wrestled in agony against the strong pull to do what his human flesh and Satan desired. Today, as we walk through these wilderness days of the Lenten season with Jesus, we are reminded how masterfully Jesus struggled in our place and on our behalf in this battle over evil, sin, and death. Soon we will rehearse again the events of Holy Week, walking with Jesus down the road toward his final moments in Jerusalem, weeping with Mary and the disciples as he hung in agony on the cross and lay silently in the tomb, and rejoicing on that glorious resurrection morn, when Jesus rose triumphantly from the grave.
The joyous good news is, that even though the evil one does his best to create conflict, division, death and destruction, Jesus is still triumphant. He is Lord. There is nothing that will stand in the way of what Jesus determines he will do in a given situation. Yes, as long as we human beings still try to be in charge and run things our way, we will have conflict and war and human suffering. But when we turn to Christ and do things his way, then healing, restoration, and renewal can begin to be experienced in this life, and most certainly will be experienced forever in the new heavens and new earth.
As long as Satan is around, he will be looking for “an opportune time”. But we have a triumphant Lord. We put on his armor. We trust in the Father’s love and care. And we live and walk filled with the Spirit. This is where we take our stand: in Christ.
Thank you, heavenly Father, for your faithful love and your grace. Thank you, holy Jesus, for the battle you waged in our place and on our behalf against the evil one. And thank you, precious Spirit, for filling us and guarding our hearts and minds, in Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. And the devil said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live on bread alone.”’ And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, ‘I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.”’ And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here; for it is written, “He will command His angels concerning you to guard you,” and, “on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘It is said, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.” Luke 4:1–13 NASB
[A printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/02/an-opportune-time.pdf%5D
By Linda Rex
February 21, 2021, 1st SUNDAY IN LENT [Easter Prep]—There is one thing which has become clear in my mind recently and that is that we as the body of Christ are in a time of wilderness wandering. In many ways we are being brought face to face with our fragility as humans in the face of powerful temptations such as those Jesus faced when he was led into the wilderness following his baptism. During this Lenten season as we move toward celebrating the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection, we have the opportunity to reflect on our need and weakness in the midst of Jesus’ sufficiency and provision.
In the book of Mark we find the condensed version of Jesus’ early ministry. First he was baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptizer, and as he came up out of the Jordan, his heavenly Father affirmed him as his beloved Son and the Spirit descended upon him in the tangible form of a dove. Mark tells us next that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan.
As Jesus was in a place in the wilderness which was filled with wild animals, so he was vulnerable and in danger, open to harm. During his wilderness experience, he went without food, causing him physical weakness. In the midst of this preliminary walk through death’s dark valley, he stood in opposition to God’s adversary, faithfully keeping his focus on his heavenly Father, and on his identification with all of humanity as God in human flesh, and on his purpose in laying down his life on behalf of all people.
We all, in ways similar to Jesus, experience the temptation to resolve our problems under our own power by taking matters into our own hands or manipulating people and circumstances to accomplish what we believe needs to happen. Jesus, being extremely hungry from fasting for several days, was challenged to prove he was Son of God by turning stones into bread—something he could have easily done simply with a word, since he was the Word of God in human flesh. But to do so would have caused him to cease to identify with you and me in our weakness and need, our human frailty and weakness. Jesus instead drew upon the written word of God to combat this temptation, saying that we as humans are not to live only by bread we put in our mouths, but by every word of the living God.
We all love magical solutions to our problems, a simple app to resolve our difficulties. But we often miss out on a deeper solution which goes down into the very core of our being. The real difficulty often lies in our refusal to believe that we can’t work it out somehow—we keep believing we can solve it, if we just try a little harder, or change things up a little, or maybe find a better way of doing what we’ve been doing. However, we often need to come to the simple realization that we are powerless—we do not have within us the capacity to heal ourselves, to fix things, to make things the way they need to be.
We need to embrace the truth that we need a power greater than ourselves—we need a savior or rescuer to deliver us. Jesus expressed this truth on our behalf when he chose to honor his own humanity by depending upon his heavenly Father to care for him, rather than solving his temporary need for food by using his hidden divine capacity to turn stones into bread. Following the confrontation in this story, we find that Jesus had angels tending to his needs, providing for him as he recovered from his conflict with the evil one—which proved the point that he did not need to do this himself under his own power—his Father faithfully provided.
In the midst of these challenging times, as we struggle with the pandemic and accompanying financial and political stress, are we questioning God’s goodness and faithfulness? Are we testing God with poor decisions and irresponsibility, attempting to make him prove to us that he loves us and wants what is best for us? Jesus himself was tempted by the evil one to prove he was the beloved Son of God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that the angels would catch him. The adversary even used scripture in an effort to prove to Jesus that he should do this. To jump in this way would have tested his Father’s goodness and faithfulness—something Jesus refused to do. Like Jesus, we need to refuse to test God, choosing instead simply to trust and obey him, and walk each moment in loving obedience to him in spite of how difficult or dangerous our experiences may be at the moment.
Again, the Son of God did not need to prove his Father’s love and faithfulness—he was confident of it, having experienced it since before time began. But as a human being, the temptation was there and was real. We may have walked with God for many years, and have experienced his love and faithfulness through many circumstances and situations. But in this time of crisis, have we lost our confidence in God’s goodness and love? Will we simply trust that he has our best interests in mind and is still watching out for us and providing for us even though the evidence seems to show otherwise? Or will we take matters into our own hands and try to work it out ourselves?
Finally, Jesus faced the third temptation—that of being offered the all kingdoms of the world if he would just bow and worship the evil one. This temptation is not unique to him, but is one we each face as children of the Father. Surely we all have had opportunities where we were promised the world, if we just did that one thing which was unjust, unholy, inhumane, or unloving. How often have we traded in our eternal glory for the transient glories of this world? We are not alone as we face this temptation—we turn to Jesus who knew and gave the perfect response which silenced the enemy.
Jesus was thrown out by the Spirit into the wilderness. And we can see that while he was there, he faced the reality of what it meant to be truly human and to face the evil one’s temptations, while he was at his weakest and most vulnerable. In identifying with us in the wilderness, Jesus joins with us as we wander through our own wilderness times.
Experience this Lenten season or preparation for Easter as a wilderness journey, similar to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness with God, and Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness battling the evil one. During this time, we may choose to fast or practice other spiritual disciplines as a participation with Christ in his own wilderness experience. We may want to spend extra time in reflection and humble repentance, acknowledging our need and weakness, and our dependency upon God. We may want to surrender ourselves anew to the purposes and will of our heavenly Father, trusting in him for provision, healing, renewal, and restoration, through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. As we wander through these forty days of Lent or Easter preparation, let’s draw near to God as he draws near to us, resist the evil one as Christ resisted him, and rest in God’s faithfulness, grace and loving care.
Dear Father, thank you for always being with us in every circumstance, caring for us and strengthening us even when we are at our weakest. Thank you, Jesus, for being with us in the middle of our temptations and struggles, enabling us to resist the evil one and endure whatever may come our way. Spirit, grant us renewal, refreshment, and transformation, as we turn to Christ in faith, praying in his holy name. Amen.
“Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’ 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 1:10-13 NASB
See also 1 Peter 3:18–22.
By Linda Rex
MARCH 15, 2020, 3rd SUNDAY IN EASTER PREPARATION—Have you ever felt weary from the journey, wanting to just sit down, exhausted from the journey on the rocky road of life? Has life come at you full speed, ripping out of your hands everything that to you is precious and worth having? We all come to places there we find ourselves in the dry, barren wilderness where we wonder if we will ever again be in a place of joy, plenty, and peace.
As this area of middle Tennessee still reels from the impact of the tornadoes earlier this week, I am reminded again of the fragility of human life. Our technological wonders become impotent when the power goes out. Our cities become a mass of traffic snarls and, sad to say, even human predators begin roaming the streets, looking for ways to take advantage of those already in crisis.
In the midst of our suffering and struggles, we can so easily begin to gripe and complain, much like the Israelites when they came to the wilderness of Sin at Rephidim and there wasn’t any water (Ex. 17:1-7). The circumstances they found themselves in spoke more loudly than the past experiences of God’s presence and care as they journeyed. Even though they had been given plenty of evidence that God was with them and cared about them, they still questioned the reality of it, asking, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”
How easy it is for us to forget the living, loving presence of God! The psalmist in Psalm 95 speaks of how impossible it was for the people of God to find rest in him when they kept forgetting who he was—the loving Lord who had redeemed them from slavery and had brought them into covenant relationship with himself. They had forgotten the simple truth—God was theirs and they were his. If they had simply trusted in this God who was united with them in covenant love, they would have had peace and comfort in the midst of their struggles, and would known he was going to provide for their every need on the journey.
In the story in Exodus we find that Moses was told by God to take his rod and to strike the rock at Horeb, so that water would flow from it so they could drink. In Psalm 95, the psalmist calls God himself “the rock of our salvation.” He is the one who “is our God, | And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” This is the God who sat by the well in Samaria, wearied from the journey, simply asking for a drink of water.
It was not enough for God to sit up in heaven watching us go through life, stumbling and hurting, and failing to love and be loved. He solidified his relationship with the creatures he had made by taking on our humanity and dwelling for a time in the midst of our human existence, experiencing all the temptations we face during our lives here on earth. In Jesus Christ, the One who is God in human flesh, the immovable crag, the solid Rock of our salvation, we find the source of our refreshment and renewal.
Just as the rock in the wilderness was struck by Moses, Jesus was abused, tortured, and killed by those for whom he came. But we read in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (NASB). The greatest expression of the covenant love of God toward humanity is found in this gift of Jesus Christ, for in him and through him, we are given life.
Jesus told the woman he met at the well in Samaria, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14 NASB). God came in the person of Jesus Christ, was crucified for our behalf, but rose again, drawing all humanity with him into the presence of the Father. In the sending of the living water, the Spirit, we are invited to drink of eternal life, the life which Jesus forged for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
In spite of how we may feel at the moment and in spite of what we may see happening all around us, the spiritual reality is that we are held in the midst of the love and life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We are included in their divine life, and by the Spirit we participate in the eternal loving relationship between the Father and the Son. We are held at all times in the loving hands of our heavenly Father—no matter what our personal experience at the present time here on earth may be.
As long as we keep our eyes on our circumstances and refuse to believe in the living Presence of our loving God, we will find no rest or peace. Our anxiety and negative outlook find their roots in the lingering question in our hearts and minds, “is God among us or not?” We can look at Jesus as though he is a boulder—hard, cold, and impenetrable. We can refuse to believe God cares at all about us or the circumstances in our lives. But we would be believing a lie, a lie which prevents us from seeing or hearing the One who is truly present with us at all times.
We find hope in the midst of our struggles when we come to know and believe that God is present in us, with us, and for us in the person of Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Trusting in Jesus enables us to find rest in the middle of tragedy and suffering, offering us peace in spite of what is happening all around us. The apostle Paul writes, “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:3-5 NLT)
It is essential that we remember and believe who God is—the God who loves us so much that he was willing to come and be present with us in the midst of our human suffering, struggles, and death, and to lift us up into life with himself. This is the God who has committed himself to us by taking our very humanity, our life and death, upon himself so we can be with him both now and forever. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 8:38-39, “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love … revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NLT). Now that is a promise—and a Being—worth resting in.
Thank you, Father, for your faithful love in spite of our forgetfulness and unbelief. Holy Jesus, thank you for your immeasurable gift of yourself and for sending the Spirit from the Father so we can begin to know and believe we are loved, held, and cared for at all times, no matter our circumstances. Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to receive the flowing waters of eternal life, allowing ourselves to be immersed both now and forever in God’s love and grace, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“He named the place Massah and because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us, or not?” Exodus 17:7 NASB
“Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, | As in the day of Massah in the wilderness, | When your fathers tested Me, | They tried Me, though they had seen My work. | For forty years I loathed that generation, | And said they are a people who err in their heart, | And they do not know My ways. | Therefore I swore in My anger, | Truly they shall not enter into My rest.” Psalm 95:8-11 NASB
See also John 4:5-42 and Romans 5:1-11.
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)