By Linda Rex
September 19, 2021, PROPER 20—There is a title I rarely hear anymore and it used to be commonly used for someone who worked in a public leadership role. Even the president of the United States, our congressmen, and local leaders were given this title in years past. It takes a very special leader to be willing to be called this and lead accordingly, even though it is an accurate description of what a person should be doing when fulfilling their responsibilities in the public sector.
Being called a servant or treated like a servant has such a negative connotation, many people would prefer not to be called a public servant. This is understandable. However, to be a true leader in the way in which Jesus walked before us, one must be willing to be servant of all. One must be willing to serve those they are leading and not lord it over them. Using power and authority to force one’s will on others is not the way of Jesus. His path is much different.
During his last days before his crucifixion, Jesus began to teach his disciples what would happen to him. He told his disciples that the Jewish leaders of that day would arrest him, torture and kill him, but in three days he would rise again. Since Peter had been rebuked for contradicting Jesus when he first introduced this topic, the disciples really didn’t want to ask any questions. But what they began to talk about among themselves shortly afterward was significant.
Jesus knew what they were talking about, but he asked, drawing out of them that introspection they needed so they could learn. They were concerned about who was going to be in charge in the kingdom—who would be the greatest. In their culture, this was very important, especially in the public sphere and in the synagogue. Their position in these areas, their prominence, was essential to their worth and value. What they forgot was that this was the very thing Jesus had over and over rebuked the Jewish leaders for, condemning their obsession with being noticed and fawned over by the crowds, and for throwing their weight around and harming people in the process.
Jesus told the disciples that the person who wanted to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven needed to be the servant of all. To lead, in the way of the kingdom of God, is to serve. It is the way of humility, not the way of self-aggrandizement or pride or power. It is the path of being willing to be less than so that others might be more than. What Jesus needed them to see was that his path, and therefore theirs, was the path down the road of self-sacrifice, of laying down one’s life for the sake of others.
To make his point, Jesus took one of the most inconsequential members of their culture, a child, into his arms. A child, at that time, had no rights and really no value, and was totally dependent upon his or her parents for everything they needed. Jesus told them that their reception of a child in his name was the same as receiving him and his heavenly Father as well. The value Jesus placed on that child was his own value and his Abba’s value. Even an inconsequential child was a treasure. How much more each and every person they might meet?
In last week’s sermon we talked about God’s gift of wisdom in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. God’s wisdom at work in our hearts and minds brings about a new way of living and being—a new way of looking at our value and worth and how we interact with the people in our lives. In contrast with the way of the flesh which moves us toward selfish ambition and jealousy which results in “disorder and every evil thing,” the way of Christ by the Spirit, the divine wisdom, is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (James 3:16-17 NASB).
The apostle James points out that the person who makes peace plants the seed of righteousness. The right relationship we have with God and one another, our righteousness, is a result of the planting of God’s heart and mind in human hearts through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and in the sending of his Spirit. By faith, each and every person can participate now in right relationship with God and one another—there is a peace with God and others that only comes by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work in human hearts and minds. Our issues today with some leaders not being public servants are as a result of them not being willing to trust Jesus—to walk in his way, the way of death and resurrection.
What God calls leaders to is a willingness to lay down their life, their preferences, their benefits, for the sake of those they are leading. It is a real struggle to lead in this society by serving. How much easier it is to take advantage of all the benefits and perks of a leadership position than it is to refuse them, to humble oneself to suffer alongside others who are suffering, to serve next to those who society deems are less than and worthless. We have conflict and quarrels, sad divisions between us, James says, because our desire for pleasure or our envy of others and our longing for what they have outweighs our loving concern for them (James 4:1-3). This is why we need Jesus—we need the Spirit to change our hearts and minds, to bring about a new way of thinking and acting within ourselves as well as within those we lead.
Leadership as a position of service also involves those who follow—they must be willing to be led, and they cannot be led by someone they don’t love or trust. Being a leader carries with it a heavy responsibility. The best leaders are those who lead from a position of humble service, especially in the position of submission to the God who allowed them to have that position of leadership in the first place. Leaders who have forgotten they are public servants need to remember to wash their hands in the blood of Jesus Christ, to surrender to the reality that the only true Lord is the one who was willing to lay it all down for the sake of each of us (James 4:7-8). He calls us to be as little children—the adopted children of God we are, in and through him and by his Holy Spirit—and to trust and depend upon the Father in every circumstance, most especially in the area of leadership and public service.
May we pray for our leaders daily, whether within the church or in the public square, that God’s Spirit would fill them with divine wisdom and a heart of service. Pray that they would serve in humility, setting aside personal interest and privilege, and laying down their lives as Jesus did for the sake of those they lead. Pray also that they might have the strength and grace to be true peacemakers in a world that inevitably is led by the evil one into division and disunity.
Heavenly Father, we need you to pour your heavenly Spirit through Jesus into the hearts and minds of our leaders in every sphere of our lives. We need leaders who are submissive to your will and who are willing to serve and to lay down their lives on behalf of those they lead. Thank you, that we can all share in your servant leadership through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“From there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know about it. For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.’ But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him. They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’ Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.’” Mark 9:30–37 NASB
By Linda Rex
January 17, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY—Lately I have been appalled at the variety of correspondence, social media postings, and conversations I have been exposed to which have been filled with hate, condemnation and denigration toward other human beings. Some of these have pointedly referred to people of different races or skin color as being subhuman. Some have accused people with opposing opinions as being instruments of Satan.
I can’t help but be reminded of how Jesus was portrayed by those who opposed him. Sadly, it was those who were the most religious who resisted and condemned him, especially since Jesus often included and loved those who were cast aside by the society of his day. Because the leaders of his people could not bring themselves to believe the miracles Jesus did were a work of the Spirit, they attributed them to the work of Satan instead. Jesus told these men that they were in danger, for they were blaspheming the Spirit of God by attributing the power of the Spirit to the devil. I hear echoing in my mind the words of the apostle Paul: “For 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” (Eph. 6:12 NASB). So often we turn against one another, not realizing that this is the way the evil one works. He is an expert at “divide and conquer”, and often uses it to attempt to destroy the good things God is doing in this world by creating division, suspicion, resentment, prejudice, and hatred between people.
And we often participate in Satan’s efforts by focusing on our differences and our flaws, turning against one another and seeking to harm one another. Speaking the truth and resisting evil are important tasks for God’s people. But they must always be done in the humility of recognizing and repenting of our own flaws. They must be done from the sacrificial position of laying down our own lives and preferences. Truth must be spoken and evil resisted only from a heart filled with God’s love, for we are created to live in other-centered love with God and one another. And these things must be done only in an effort to bless, not to curse, for Christ became a curse for all so that all might receive God’s blessings.
This Sunday Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18 is often read, where we learn that God is present everywhere and at all times, knowing exactly what we are doing or are planning to do, what we are going to say before we say it, and what is going on in our minds and hearts. The psalmist reminds us that the God who is over all things is present with us in all things. This means that no part of our lives is lived separately from the God who created all and who sustains it by the word of his power. This is the God who made every human unique, like the snowflakes in the winter—each has his or her own shape and beauty, and is meant to be treasured and treated with dignity.
God went even further than this when he created human beings. He gave us the God-imaging capacity for relationship—intimate relationship or fellowship with God and with one another. God meant for us to live in other-centered love. As the Trinity teaches us, the Father and Son who love one another in the Spirit, are love—to intimately know the Father, Son, and Spirit is to know what it means to truly love and be loved.
God gave humans—Adam and Eve first, and then others to follow—the sexual union to teach us what it means to live in a covenant relationship with one another. Just as God joined himself to human beings in a covenant relationship—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the nation of Israel, and ultimately, the church which is the body of Christ—a couple are joined to one another in covenant marriage. It is within this covenant marriage that God meant the sexual union to take place. Jesus says that any other sexual relation is a violation of this union and communion.
The apostle Paul also pointed out that the body of Christ, the church, was united with Christ individually and collectively. This is why sex outside of the covenant relation of marriage is a sin and a violation against the Spirit. When we are united with Christ, the Triune God takes up residence within us by the Spirit. There is a uniting of what is human with what is divine. Why, Paul asks, would you take what is united with God and unite it with a prostitute or with someone who is not your covenant partner? God is present with us in every moment, in every intimate relationship we may have. We do not want our intimate and sexual relationships to be a violation of our covenant with God or our spouse, do we?
This is what we struggle with as human beings—and Paul holds our face to the mirror in this: our bodies do not belong to us—they belong to God. God has purchased our bodies by offering Christ’s body on the cross for us. He paid the ultimate price for each of us in the loss of his Son. This means that each and every human being is of enormous value, no matter who they are. Each person belongs to God and is to be respected and cared for as we would respect and care for Christ. No human being, no matter their color, gender, background, shape, or size, or even their mental state, belongs to us to be used and abused as we please. No human body, not even our own, belongs to us to be used and abused however we wish. Each person is created in the image of God and is called into relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit, and has been given incredible worth as a dwelling place of the Triune God.
In our gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus tells Nathanael, who had never met him before, that he had seen him under the fig tree. There was something Jesus knew about Nathanael by spiritual insight as God in human flesh that he could not have known otherwise. This is reminiscent of what we talked about in Psalm 139—we cannot escape the perusal and notice of our Maker and Lord. God never meant for human beings to live apart from relationship with him. We were created to be a part of a union and communion which in the new heavens and new earth will include every member of the Bride of Christ.
This Bride is made up of many members, of all people groups around the world. Individually and collectively, she has a worth and dignity that is priceless, for her bridegroom, the Lord Jesus, laid down his life for her. Every human being is meant to be a part of her—our role is to remind each and every person of this and to welcome them in, not to abuse, exclude, condemn, or reject them. As Christ taught us, we are to reach out to those in need, comfort those who mourn, bless those who curse us, and do good to those who abuse us—for each and every person has been given the dignity of being a fit dwelling place of the living God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
Dear God, thank you for giving each of us such worth and value! Thank you for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Thank you for noticing us—for seeing us when we believe we are invisible. Lord, wash away all of our divisions, our prejudices, our hatred, and our feelings of superiority. Grant us instead the humility of a true understanding of who we are as those who are equals and temples of your presence, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; | You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, | And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.” Psalm 139:1–3 NASB
“You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you. And even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything….In our union with him we are one spirit with the Lord. Flee fornication. Every sexual sin is a violation of the sacredness of the human body and scars the conscience of the individual like no other sin does. Do you not realize that your body by design is the sacred shrine of the spirit of God; he echoes God within you. Your body does not even belong to you in the first place. You are bought and paid for, spirit, soul and body. All of you are his. Live your life conscious of the enormous price with which God has valued you. Your whole being belongs to him and exhibits him. You are his address; you are his real estate.” 1 Corinthians 6:12, 17–20 MB
By Linda Rex
One of the stories I remember from my early years was when I was just not getting along with my older brother. It seems somehow he always got the best of me in everything and I was always having to prove myself as an equal to him.
Being run off the Risk game in a few moves—well, I guess I could just find something else to do while my two brothers fought it out between themselves. Being bought off the board in Monopoly—well, it’s hard to take, but it’s just a part of the game. Being creamed in chess in just five moves—it’s humiliating, but I bore up under it—I knew the men in my family were really smart—I just wasn’t savvy in the same way they were.
But after a while it seemed like they could do everything better than me—play football, baseball, play cards. You name it. I could keep up with them pretty well, but for a while, there was this kind of competition between my older brother and me. In my heart, I wished there was just one thing I could get the best of him in.
One day we were barricaded behind couch pillows and were battling it out with rubber bands. I’m pretty sure he started it. I retaliated only in self-preservation. At least that’s how I remember it.
I seemed to always end up on the worst end of such battles, but this particular day, I had a secret weapon—I had found a very large, very nice rubber band. So I loaded up and let it fly, hoping it would hit its mark. It was a lucky shot, but I hit him in the soft part of his arm near his elbow—it smarted and even drew a little blood.
The satisfaction I felt at finally getting him back for all his harassment was dimmed only slightly and momentarily by the wrath of my mother when she found out what had happened. Rubber band fights were henceforth banned (again), and we both got in trouble for having had one.
I may have felt a secret glee for a few moments but ultimately I felt sorry for having hurt him, and decided I wouldn’t do it again. It was never my intent to hurt him. I just wanted to gain his respect and to get him to quit persecuting me. Quite honestly, I lost all interest in rubber band fights after that experience.
Looking back, I recall there was a time when I just could not get along with my older brother, and there was also a time when I just could not get along with my younger brother. I’m not sure why now, but it was just the way it was. We had to work out our differences between us—our parents could not resolve them for us, other than threatening us with dire consequences if we didn’t get along.
In later years when my children were about the same age, I began to understand a little better my mother’s perspective on the constant squabbles between me and my brothers. There was a time when my two children just could not get along, no matter how many discussions we had about how they were not to squabble and fight. It seems like learning to get along with one another comes with the territory of siblinghood.
What I didn’t know then, but I realize now, is the way we live with one another is meant to reflect the inner life of God as Father, Son and Spirit. There is a mutual indwelling, a oneness in diversity and equality, which we are to mirror in our relationships with one another. Fighting it out with rubber bands is obviously not the best reflection of the inner love and life of the One we are to mirror.
Some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years can actually be understood more clearly with this image in mind. For example, I learned that unity is not the same as uniformity. It is entirely possible for people to be quite different from each other and to still get along. The Father is not the Son and is not the Spirit, and the Son is not the Father or the Spirit—and I’m so glad they are not exactly the same but still are One in Being.
Just because someone in your family likes to place chess and is really good at it does not mean everyone else in the family has to like chess and play chess too. They can be quite good at watching you play chess and reading a book, and they can be getting along with you just fine while they do it. We are each unique—I am not you and you are not me, and that’s okay. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Sadly, I think there are nations and national leaders who haven’t quite figured this one out yet.
One of the other things I’ve learned about getting along with my siblings is to stop seeing people in over/under ways. What I mean is, we tend to put people either above us or below us, rather than seeing them as another one of us. We look at the well-dressed lady in the next aisle and think, “She’s really blessed—she must have a really easy life,” not realizing she is on her way to the hospital to visit her husband who is dying of cancer, and is barely holding everything together.
I don’t know how many times I’ve stood in line with a fellow who is in grungy clothes, has dirty spots on his face and arms, and thought inappropriate thoughts to myself. Over the years, I’ve learned that such men are often the most hardworking, good-hearted men I know—the farmers, mechanics, contractors, and plumbers—people who make and keep our homes and belongings running well. My unworthy thoughts were putting them down below me, rather than elevating them to a place of equality and respect. They are a reflection of the equality in the Trinity—they each have a place of love and service in God’s family.
I know the pain of watching my children squabble when they could not and would not get along with one another. No doubt this pain is a participation in the pain God feels when we refuse to and cannot get along with one another, whether as people in a family, church or organization, or as nations and races and cultures.
God has provided a way in his Son Jesus by his Spirit for each of us to live together in unity while making room for each other’s uniqueness and acknowledging each other’s value and worth. There is no reason for us to be taking pot shots at one another, discriminating against one another or demeaning each other in any way. We need to work out our differences, yes, but it’s a whole lot more pleasant to do it around the table with milk and cookies, than in trenches with grenades and artillery. And there’s a whole lot less regret and pain when we’re done.
May God by his precious Spirit teach all of us how to live with one another in the way he created us to. May his Son live in us, and come to be for us the Center in which we all gather together and live as One.
Abba, forgive us for our human proclivity to fuss and fight and to refuse to get along. Grant us the grace to forgive and to be reconciled with you and one another, as you have reconciled us all with you and one another in your Son Jesus Christ. Make us all of one heart and mind, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” John 14:20 NIV
“This is my command: Love each other.” John 15:17 NIV
by Linda Rex
This morning I was thinking about all the ways we go about trying to find or create our own significance in this world. As we grow up, we want people to notice us, to see that we are somebody. Unless, of course, being invisible is a safer way of being for us.
But this drive to be noticed, to be considered worthwhile, motivates approaches to life and living that are not always healthy and sound-minded. I came across the story of a young man who discovered this power of significance the day he first rode a bull in a rodeo competition. Somehow, being the guy at school who rode the bulls gave him a feeling of self-worth and made him believe he had value he would not have had otherwise. It was only after he began to evaluate the cost in terms of suffering and loss of life that he began to look for other ways to establish his significance.
It is interesting to flip through the channels on the TV and to look at all the shows based on this whole premise—if I’m the best at this then I’ll be somebody—if I do this thing in this unique way, everyone will notice me. Watching one of the newest sitcoms the other day, I realized that the whole concept of a person trying to be somebody, to be noticed, to be approved of, to be a good person, drives so many of the plotlines. It’s just our story as human beings.
And this story is as old as the history of humanity. My morning reading in the Old Testament today was the 15th chapter of Samuel. God had given Israel the king they requested and his name was Saul. He started out a pretty humble man, but in this chapter we find that somehow being significant and important supplanted his humility.
God instructed King Saul to lead the Israelites into battle against a particular king and told him to destroy everything associated with that particular group of people. God wasn’t being cruel—he was just exacting justice and was inviting his people to be a part of that process. (He does that today in a similar way through our armies and police forces, though he typically doesn’t call for genocide any longer.)
In this case, though, the point the writer was making was that King Saul hadn’t grasped the importance of following God’s instructions exactly. He won the battle, but he kept the king alive and brought the best of the cattle and animals, ostensibly for an offering to God. Then he built a memorial to himself. Note: the memorial built was to the king, not to God, the One who had given the king success in battle.
Needless to say, God was ticked, and so was Samuel. In the unpleasant conversation that followed, King Saul was more concerned about the opinion of the people and his significance with them than he was about the reality that he had alienated himself from the God who made him king in the first place.
Sometimes the price we pay for some type of significance and worth and value is too high. Sometimes we lay down our most important relationships in payment for this feeling of importance and power. We give over the only things that in the long run will carry us through eternity—our relationships with God and each other—for the sake of our moment of glory. Is it really worth the price we are willing to pay?
I think it is instructive that Jesus Christ spent the majority of his earthly existence refusing to accept any pats on the back for being the Messiah. Instead he focused on being a servant. Over and over, he reminded his disciples of the inverse values of the kingdom of God: the least are the greatest; the servant will lead; the dead will live; the rejected are those who are most valued by God.
In being God in human flesh, Jesus had every right to expect people to make everything be about him. Yet, instead, he pointed people to his Father. Whatever he did, he did in, with and for his heavenly Father. It wasn’t about him. It was about the will of God.
How clearly Christ demonstrated that our human existence isn’t about us finding some significance in ourselves or in what we do! It’s not about us at all. We don’t find our value and worth in anything we say, think or do. We only find it in God and in his Son, who enveloped our humanity within his own and gave it ultimate significant, worth and value in himself.
So when we live wrapped up in trying to find some value and significance in our own feeble, human way, we will find in the end only emptiness and loss. Human applause and approval are fickle things. They come and go like the weather changes.
But when we surrender this search to the will and purposes of Almighty God, and seek Christ and value his significance and worth, we find that we are cherished, valued and significant ways that really matter. We are God’s treasure. He has every intention to share his life and glory with us in Christ forever. And that’s something worth sacrificing everything for.
Heavenly Father, we confess that too often we make life all about us, and about what others may think or feel about us. Forgive our self-centered, self-seeking ways of being, and grant that, in Jesus, we might live God-centered, other-centered lives instead. Grant us the grace to obey you first and foremost—to surrender our wishes and wills to you, Almighty God, no matter the cost to ourselves. Thank you for the grace you give us, and for your precious Spirit who awakens us to our true value and significance in Christ. Thank you for counting us as precious, valued and significant forever. In Christ, we pray. Amen.
“Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.’ And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night.” 1 Samuel 15:10–11