So, after three and half months walking through the Gospel of John, we move along in the narrative to the book of Acts. And the first scene we get is the Road to Damascus - it is Saul’s call story.
This conversion and call is about as dramatic and extreme as you can make it. People knew about Saul, and followers of the Way were rightfully afraid of him - he has, after all, been dragging Christians out of house after house, throwing them into prison, and desiring their deaths. Yet, in a split second, his life turns from “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” to becoming the foremost preacher of the Gospel of his time. This oppressive Saul becomes the evangelist Paul - the writer of letters, the planter of churches, the pastor for people then and now.
Can you imagine? Going along. Light surrounding. A voice speaking. Blindness. Laying on of hands. Scales falling. Baptism. Strength. Preaching. Founding. Spreading.
Perhaps your call story looks like that. If so, I’d really like to hear your story. Or, perhaps you think that because I’m a pastor, MY call story looks like that. But, to be honest, mine was far less dramatic. No burning bush like Moses. No giant fish like Jonah. No coals like Isaiah. No angels like Mary. No light like Paul. I’m not trying to say it wasn’t meaningful or powerful, but it was no Acts 9.
So, again, maybe your call story looks like that, but, my guess is for most of us, it isn’t. For the most part, I’d guess that many of us have been “born again” pretty much our entire lives. We can’t point to one specific moment - no bushes on fire, no road to Damascus. We’ve just been doing this Christianity thing for a while.
And stories like this can sometimes make us feel left out. Since God didn’t talk to us in a beam of light, we’re not special. Or we don’t have a role to play since we don’t have this big dramatic story. Since we aren’t traveling the known world proclaiming Jesus, we can’t make a difference.
But, as you may have guessed, nothing could be farther from the truth. See, Paul isn’t the only one who receives a call in this passage. There’s one we overlook - forget, even - but it’s a calling that is just as important. It’s the calling of Ananias.
When we first meet Ananias, all he knows of Saul is the evil that he has done. Yet, the Lord comes to him and says, “go.” Ananias didn’t know what had just happened to Saul. He didn’t know that the risen Christ had come to Saul on the road to Damascus. That man is bad. That man kills. That man wants Christianity to end. You can hear the hesitation in Ananias’ voice.
But… he goes anyway. He trusted that Christ was calling him appropriately, that Christ would use Saul as an instrument for his name. Not to over dramatize the event, but Ananias’ decision to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street to lay hands on Saul was a decision to risk his life to do the will of God.
And the result of that little bit of risk is that Saul’s eyes are opened, and he is baptized. Saul becomes Paul, a part of (and eventually a prominent leader of) the very church he tried to wipe out.
Paul’s conversion is one of the great stories of the Bible, and it has inspired people from every generation. But, overshadowed by this story is the encouraging story of Ananias, one that we can more easily relate with. We don’t know what else Ananias did in his life. We don’t know his job, his mission work, his giving. We don’t know where his discipleship took him. All we know about him is that he heard Christ calling him to pray, to do something within his means. It took some guts to go pray with Saul, for sure, but this allowed Saul to do what he was called to do. Without Ananias’ prayer, Saul spends the rest of his life as a blind man wondering what his life could’ve been.
Regardless of the level of drama involved in our own life of faith, we all are called by Christ. We are claimed by the waters of baptism, named a beloved child of God, and called to play a role in God’s story. We may not feel like we can do anything, nothing dramatic… but we can all tell about the love of Jesus.
Since I kind of left you hanging earlier, let me tell you a little bit about what brought me to standing here in front of you wearing this funny outfit. The whole thing really hinged on a question asked of me. But let’s start a little before that.
As I hinted at earlier, I’m one of those people who was born converted, if there is such a thing. I’ve been Lutheran my whole life long. We, as a family, went to church week in and week out. I was at Sunday school. I was in youth group. I was an acolyte, crucifer, and banner bearer.
Then in college came my time working at Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp in the mountains of North Carolina. It was a time in my life where I got to have fun and lead and participate and grow in an intentionally Christ-centered community - but mostly, I just had fun. Then, in my second year on staff, came the question. It came from one of my pastors growing up who had brought kids to camp that week.
We were chatting a bit between sessions, and he simply asked, “have you ever thought of being a pastor?” I answered like anyone would answer: “No.” No burning bush. No flash of light. No voice from heaven. Just a simple question from someone I knew.
And the thing is, I didn’t feel like anything was different after that moment. The only thing that happened was that a seed got planted. But that seed took root and grew - grew to the point that I was having conversations with friends about it. Then professors and mentors. And then Seminary Admissions people. And then call committees. And then… here I am.
In some ways, my calling is even less dramatic than Ananias’. And whether you are a pastor or not, we all are called to play a role in God’s story. You are called. And regardless of the level of drama involved in whatever your calling looks like and how you got there, we all can tell the love of Jesus. You can tell the love of Jesus.
And that is just what God calls you to do, especially you who don’t wear the funny clothes.
You are called to live, to tell the love of Jesus just simply by being who you are. Sometimes, sure, it may be more overt - telling the story. Maybe it’s asking a question. Other times, though, like Ananias, it is simply using the gifts you have, where you are - and that enables others to do what they can do.
This summer, six from our congregation are heading to Houston, Texas for the National Youth Gathering. While there, they will engage in real ministry - sometimes hard ministry - it’s not a vacation. But they will minister by engaging with people who lost everything. Reading to kids who are behind grade level. Beautifying an area overrun by poverty. They will have an opportunity to tell about the love of Jesus with words and actions.
We all can’t go to Houston. But we all can do what Ananias did: be who we are, where we are, with the gifts we have, making sure others can go and do. Giving, supporting, praying for our young people - and watch as scales fall from their eyes and they do unbelievable things to the glory of God.
God calls us, every single one of us. God calls us to share the story. Calls us to new life. Calls us to the table. Calls us to mission. Calls us to pray. Calls us to be who we are and do what we can do. God calls us to love. And by loving, we can do unbelievable things to the glory of God.
Jesus is risen. The darkness did not overcome. Things are being re-created because of resurrection. Last week, we celebrated big time. Things were more full, the flowers were still all here, there was excitement! Being in worship last week, it was easy to get caught up in the day, easy to shout (ok, say with a touch of enthusiasm) “alleluia!” We were blessed. It was easy to believe Jesus is raised because things felt energized and exciting.
Now, don’t get me wrong, you all are quite lovely, but today is just different. This week was different. And maybe it’s different because nothing is different. It’s the same old world that we had two weeks go. I’m just speaking from my experience here, and you may be more faithful than I, but sometimes, it’s hard to believe Jesus is raised when things are the same.
Even more than that, sometimes I think to myself, I don’t see Jesus anywhere. Too much darkness. Too much death. Too much of the same.
Others tell me all these exciting things that Jesus has done for them, how Jesus just showed up in their midst, and my reaction is skepticism. Like, really? Like Thomas, I feel like I am left out of what everyone else has experienced. Things aren’t different for me. So, sometimes, I don’t believe it.
Maybe you’ve had a moment or two like that in your life. Sometimes, it’s just too hard to believe. I doubt. I’d bet at some point you doubt. So, maybe Thomas should be named, “Realistic Thomas” instead of his more common nickname of Doubting Thomas.
Sometimes we don’t, we can’t, believe it.
But it’s times like these that I’m reminded of something Martin Luther wrote. In short, he says, “I believe that… I cannot believe.” (Page 1162 in the red ELW if you want to look it up.) In his Small Catechism, he acknowledges that we on our own, by our own understanding, by our own strength, we cannot believe in Jesus Christ or come to him. We just can’t do it. Instead, it is God who acts; it is the Holy Spirit who comes, shaping and being involved in our lives.
He elaborates, of course, but his point is that God comes to us in our half-hearted belief and in our unbelief to call us again to see Jesus, to bring faith, to make us holy. We can’t make ourselves believe. Jesus finds us where we are, wherever we are, and says, “See?” Things are different. Touch. Believe.
The disciples are hiding in a locked room. Mary Magdalene has given them the news that Jesus is raised, but they’re afraid. Then Jesus comes to them. He shows them his hands and his side, he blesses them with peace, and breathes on them the Holy Spirit. A pretty powerful experience.
By their own understanding and strength, they could not belive. But Jesus shows up, no matter what we believe or don’t believe. Jesus comes to them to instill belief. But where are they one week later? In the same place. It seems nothing is different after all. Jesus is raised and everything is the same...
But here is what is different: grace. The disciples aren’t worthy of a second visit from Jesus, but they get one anyway. Should they have gotten it the first time? Sure! But as we’ve established, we do a pretty poor job of belief.
So, Jesus shows up, again and again and again, to imperfect people, to doubtful people, to people who don’t see any changes, to me, to you. Jesus offers himself again and again and again, despite our stubbornness. It’s grace.
So that “blessed are those who believe without seeing”? Yeah, that’s grace, because without God, we can’t believe. Our blessings are all grace, given to us. Our belief is grace, a gift for us. Our experiences of God: grace. Seeing Christ in our lives: grace. The Spirit coming? Yup, grace. Gifts given to us.
And see, God’s grace comes in ways that aren’t too crazy. God uses the regular to show up in our lives - simple, ordinary things: water, bread, wine, you, and me.
Yes, telling the story is important. To continue what Martin Luther wrote about earlier, the Holy Spirit calls us through the gospel, that is, the telling and hearing of the forgiveness and grace of God seen in Christ Jesus. God works each time we hear and share.
And more than that, our personal stories are moments where God works - revealing hope, life, and light to others. We’ve probably gotten support in our own lives from others. We hear their stories of how God was present in their darkness. We tell our stories one on one or in small group like Sunday school and book studies. We share a piece of our lives that connects with someone else; we see how God shows up in another person’s journey and that brings comfort that God will do the same for us, or maybe it helps us see that God is already doing it.
But, if we take our lesson today seriously, we also should do more than tell. We see how well just “telling” worked out for those disciples who told Thomas. He doubted. Instead, Jesus graciously showed up in tangible ways: touch, believe.
And Jesus still does. In the waters of baptism, we are claimed. Each time we touch the waters, we are reminded of that love. Jesus comes to us in bread and wine. In Christ saying, “this is my body,” we touch and taste; in the wine given and shed, we drink and believe. Jesus shows up to feed us. And so, beyond just telling, we tangibly act, too.
We help to feed the hungry - giving them not only hot food, but a warm smile. We interact with people who don’t get much interaction. We love them through our actions and make them feel normal, at least for a little while. We try to make that one day different, which can bring hope for tomorrow. We show up like Jesus shows up.
We deliver flowers and write cards. We donate to places like Helping Hand who offer help. We do things that provide the tangible presence of Jesus’ love.
In those moments where the Holy Spirit has called us through the gospel, we share that.
When the Spirit enlightens us with spiritual gifts, we use them.
As God makes us holy through seeing grace and forgiveness, we live resurrection lives.
Jesus is risen. The darkness did not overcome. Things are being re-created because of resurrection. So, what now? We use the gifts God gives us.
We show up in the midst of people’s fears and bring peace.
We show up despite other people’s doubts and be present.
We show up and offer our wounds, offer our stories - all because we know that despite our wounds and our stories, we are alive - we have life - we are Easter people.
While sometimes I do doubt, I don’t believe…
I do believe that God doesn’t give up on us.That though we may waiver, God is steadfast. And when we find ourselves in seemingly the same place, God comes with grace.
And I do believe that when we believe it, we share it. We tell it. We enact it. And that God’s Spirit is with us. That Jesus shows up in our midst to give us courage. That God makes the difference.
It was September of my sophomore year of college. In what wasn’t an unusual occurrence, one night my roommate and I were in some sort of tiff. We were pretty ticked off at each other, so I was down the hall, hanging out with some buddies while awaiting a phone call to go to a group study session. This was *just* before cell phones had hit it mainstream, so no one really had them. My friends would have to act like cavemen and call the landline. So, eventually, my roommate came down the hall and stuck his head in the door of the room where I was and said, in a way that I perceived as snarky, “Your mom is downstairs.”
My mom? Thinking he was just being a jerk, I assumed it was really my friends who were swinging by to pick me up. So, I headed downstairs to the front doors of the dorm, and there was, indeed, my mom and my dad.
I knew this couldn’t be good. I braced myself to hear the news I knew was coming. My grandmother had died. It had been a long fight with Parkinson’s disease, one that made her less and less like my grandmother every time I saw her. But now she was dead. Gone.
I don’t remember much about the funeral. It was all kind of a blur. I just know the dark feeling I got, that I would not see my grandmother again. The woman whom I affectionately named “G” when I was just learning to talk, who would make me chocolate pound cake with chocolate icing every birthday, who would laugh with me, who loved me. I wouldn’t see her again. There were the usual comforts people tried to give: “She’s gone on” or “she’s in a better place.” Some comforts those were. I missed her.
I am sure many of you have had to undergo more difficult deaths: those of a mother or father, of a spouse, or even a child. We don’t get to see them. Our relationship with them is over. Death has taken them from us. Ever since Adam and Eve ate of the fruit in the first garden, death has been part of every human story.
Our relationship with that person: gone.
Their hopes and dreams: gone.
Their laugh, their smile: gone.
The love that they felt for us: gone.
This is what death does to a human being. It strips us of everything we were. We are no more. This is what had happened to Jesus.
Jesus was dead, crucified just a few days ago.
His relationships with his disciples: gone.
His message of hope: gone.
His charisma, his smile, his preaching: gone.
His love, his proclamation, his ideas about the reign of God: gone.
Jesus was dead. Not “moved on.” Not “in a better place.” Jesus was in a tomb, dead. We don’t survive death. Death destroys us. That’s the way it is. Death is final. Death is pain. Death is dark.
Darkness is where our story starts. Mary approaches the tomb on the first day of the week, very early while it is still dark. The chaos and turmoil of her life the past few days left her with no expectations, no hope - just nothingness. To read a little deeper, she - everyone - was still in the dark about what they would find. Those who venture to the tomb have no idea what to expect.
Darkness has played a major role through the whole Gospel of John. From the start of the book, darkness and light have had their dance back and forth. In the first chapter we hear, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Every time darkness would come, Jesus would shine and hold the darkness at bay. For example, the most famous verse of all time - “For God so loved the world…” was uttered under the blanket of night. It’s light shining in darkness.
Except, as Mary approaches, she knows that darkness did overcome. It’s the darkness we all feel after death comes. Here, the light of the world was extinguished. Jesus had a good run, but darkness has won.
But, then things are unexpected. The tomb is open - empty. Folded grave clothes. Angels appearing. “Who are you looking for?” Then he says her name: Mary. There is recognition. There is resurrection. There is light standing before her, shining bold and bright. Jesus is the life and light of all people. Things are bright. The darkness did not overcome him.
The light is victorious, the light shines. What was started in the beginning has come to completion in Jesus. And not just the beginning of the Gospel of John. Oh, no. There is something much bigger going on. There are clues planted throughout this story. It’s the first day of the week. Our scene is a garden. Darkness, chaos, nothingness are present and then… God through resurrection says, “let there be light.”
John is retelling creation. On that very first ever day of the week, God pushes back the darkness and speaks light into being. And now on this first day of the week, God re-creates, calling not just light from darkness but life from death.
Resurrection is nothing short of re-creation. In the beginning, God created… In the new beginning, in this beginning, God re-creates, God resurrects. God brings light to our darkness. God makes life possible, even out of the impossible. The darkness does not overcome. And we are not in the dark anymore.
God’s light shines even in our darkest moments. God’s light has shone in the darkest darkness of our world, and God’s light still shines. Jesus was dead, but now is alive. Death is not final; though there is pain, the darkness is not the end. Jesus’ resurrection brings light.
Because of that, we have hope. Hope that no matter the darkness in our lives, no matter what death does, no matter our hurt or grief, Jesus stands in our midst, calls us by name, and shines in our darkness - even our darkest of darkness.
This light helps us see the promise of what resurrection means. It is God’s stamp of approval on life - life through, despite anything. Jesus is alive, raised, recreated, opening the way for us, too, that any and all will be raised. Life! Life despite any and every thing. That means,
Our relationships: recreated.
Hopes and dreams: restored.
Laughs and smiles: renewed.
The love that they felt for us: a promised return.
Through resurrection, this is what happened to Jesus.
This is what God’s love does to a human being. It gives us everything we are and promises we will be more. God’s light shines in resurrection, in re-creation.
There is a light in our darkness, showing us who our God truly is, revealing that our God delivers in ways like no other.
The light of resurrection shines in the darkness, our darkness, in death’s darkness - and darkness did not, does not, will not overcome it.
For, death has been defeated.
God has re-created everything on this, the first day of the week.
A light shines. Shines!
And the darkness will never overcome it.
Today is the day it begins.
We’ve been wanting Jesus to take his throne for a long time now. The crowds who have gathered today, they, too, have been waiting on this day for a while. Way back since the beginning of the story, they were excited for their king to arrive, and this, indeed, is the prophet who is to come. Several times the crowds gathered around Jesus and wanted to coronate him on the spot, but Jesus somehow always got away before that happened. It seems Jesus wanted no part of it.
But today is different. Jesus is finally coming to take his throne. It is the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem - a pretty big deal. People have come from all around to this one city to celebrate. Today is the day; Jesus is coming to be king!
The chief priests and pharisees know this, too. It’s no secret that they aren’t fans of this prophet from nowhere. He draws a large crowd, that’s for sure, but, in their eyes, he does it for the wrong reasons. So, they’ve tried to trap him and plot against him; they even want to kill him. And now they hear that Jesus is coming to their city. For Jesus to show up would be a direct, in-your-face challenge to their authority. And his arrival is exactly what all the buzz is about.
The crowds equip themselves with palm branches and prepare to greet their king. The triumphant Psalm 118 is quoted: “Hosana! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Yes, it’s the King of Israel!” Once again, the crowd wants to make Jesus their king - their long expected, national, messianic king.
We participate with those crowds. We wave branches. We shout, “Hosanna!” The crowds had come from miles away, expecting a miracle-worker. They were looking for a showdown with the authorities, hoping for a revolutionary to overthrow the status quo. Us, too. We wouldn’t come if we had a looser as our king. We, too, come with our expectations.
And in each shout of hosanna, the hope that Jesus will be king is voiced. Hosanna! And this time, Jesus doesn’t withdraw himself and escape as he has in the past. Instead, he heads right in. His hour has come to be crowned!
And yet, as he enters the city, he does so with a twist. He rides in on a donkey, not a chariot pulled by war horses as we’d expect. Jesus falls short of the crowd’s expectations - and ours - using a prophecy from Zechariah. “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. See how your king comes, riding a donkey’s colt.” Jesus comes humbly, not dolling out miracles or intimidating his opponents.
His gesture makes clear that he is a king, but he will have no part in meeting our expectations. Jesus will have no part in being our kind of king. Jesus is committed to being God’s kind of king. No one waving branches in the crowd, then or now, wanted or expected Jesus the King to come, to act, to be like this.
You can almost see the crowd’s disbelief. Their excitement turns to confusion. Their praise begins to tail off. Their high branches slowly lower.
Is what is coming really going to be a triumph?
Is this an announcement of victory?
Jesus isn’t our kind of king.
And that’s the good news. Jesus is committed to being God’s kind of king. How quickly we reject that.
Here is your king. Hail, King of the Jews. Crucify him! Crucify him! Kill him!
So, they take him away. Carrying a cross. They crucify him with two others. And above his head, a sign. “Jesus of Nazareth. The King of the Jews.” Our king has come. He is nailed to his throne and lifted up.
Whether mocking Jesus or antagonizing the religious authorities, Pilate proclaims him King in the three languages of the day so that all the world may witness Jesus’ coronation upon the throne of the cross.
But, of course, it hardly matters what Pilate says about Jesus. What really matters is what we say about Jesus. He is our king, but in what way? What will we say about him with our words? With our lives?
The good news today isn’t as good as it usually is. We don’t get what we want, what we hope for. Instead of the uplifting message, we might leave today with a bit of disappointment. Which is understandable after the excitement of how we gathered. Some people just don’t live up to our expectations. We don’t get the news we were hoping for. Instead, we get a king who is God’s king.
This week, we get the opportunity to hear again the story of our king. We will celebrate on Thursday - a new commandment, the last supper, stripping of the altar. On Friday, we will relive the events of Jesus’ final day through scripture, song, and darkness. And then...
Our king has come.
One of the more indelible images of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion is the purple robe and crown of thorns. Of all the other pieces that happen throughout these couple of chapters, this, to me, is one of the easiest picture.
Of course, the soldiers and Pilate do this to mock the King of the Jews. To them, he is silly; the taunting degrades this man before them. But in their mocking, they unknowingly reveal the truth. Jesus is king but not just of the Jews. Jesus is the King of the world.
And as King, Jesus has power and authority. He can negotiate, defend himself, escape the situation so he can live, rule, be free. But by all appearances, Jesus’ authority has reached its end. We know this because he is humiliated and mocked. Jesus is standing before Pilate, the one person with power to release him or crucify him. He was flogged, robed, and crowned, without an ounce of retaliation. In our eyes, he truly has lost everything.
On the other hand, Pilate, as we heard, has the authority here to release or kill. Set the man free, or hang him on a cross; it comes down to this one decision. Control of life and death is power, the ultimate marker of authority. And all the power is in Pilate’s hands.
But… back to this whole power and authority to release or kill thing. Pilate has actually tried to release Jesus a few times. Even here, after a flogging and some mocking, Pilate thinks that’s good enough for this preacher boy. He brings Jesus out to the crowds saying he finds no case against him. If he sees Jesus is innocent, and he has the power to release him, why doesn’t he?
Hmm... it seems his authority does have some limits. And one of those limits is job security. What would the Emperor think if he set free a man who claimed to be a king? Fear over what may happen causes him to draw back from the truth. And so, despite believing what he does about Jesus, he turns the man over to be crucified, all so he can save himself.
So, should we mock Pilate since he decides to throw Jesus under the bus so he can have an easier life? It would be easy to do from the comfort of our pew. And it also would be pretty hypocritical, because we do the same thing.
Jesus tells us, shows us how to live as disciples. Jesus shows us truth. Yet, we have no problem ignoring Jesus’ truth all so we don’t have to change anything about ourselves. We, like Pilate, brush Jesus aside to save our lifestyles.
There are moments in our lives where following Jesus doesn’t sound so appealing anymore. Say you’re enjoying a nice evening out on the town and someone who looks like they haven’t showered in a couple of weeks starts walking toward you. We do our best to avoid eye contact and just keep on walking. In that moment, we hand Jesus’ way over to save ourselves.
Our pragmatism and practicality stop the truth Jesus shows us. It’s not practical to live like Jesus does. Love enemies? Not practical. Forgive instead of condemn? Nonsense. Plus, we’d be giving away our hard-earned stuff. We have no king but our things.
We become fearful of what others might think of us, so instead of living the way Jesus would have us, we avoid the outcast, the neglected, the bullied. Avoiding those situations alleviates our fears, doesn’t put us in spots that make us uncomfortable, and saves our way of life. Crucify him.
There are so many ways we place ourselves over what Jesus says is true, how Jesus says to live, who Jesus says to love. Think of any issue and how we come at it from our personal, American point of view instead of Jesus’ point of view. Environment. Our possessions. Immigrants. Guns. Homelessness. Abortion. Capital punishment. Marriage. Mental health. Protests. We have our practical, appealing, fear-free ways of viewing these things, and, like Pilate, we choose the way that preserves our way of life instead of letting Jesus free. We could let Jesus loose in the world, but we choose to brush Jesus aside, sending him to the cross.
It’s easy to point at Pilate and mock him for his lack of fortitude, but, man oh man, do we do the same thing.
Jesus has a way of revealing the character of whomever he encounters. And unfortunately, this usually discloses our human fallibilities, shortcomings, and selfishness. Pilate has pretensions of being powerful and authoritative. The truth is, he isn’t. The Jewish Leadership claim to be faithful to God alone. Truth is, they hold the Emperor as their king. We assert many godly things, but we often fail because that’s just not the way things work around here. Everyone comes up short.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but… this also shows us the character of the people for whom Christ came to die. He died for this world. He died for these people. He died for you and me. Here’s where Jesus’ authority lies: in God’s love. For God so loved the world, that God sent us the Son, the Lamb. And this point is where the Lamb changes everything.
You may remember many weeks ago when we met John the Baptist. It is there in the first chapter of the Gospel that he says of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (1:29) And then shortly thereafter, recall that Jesus drives the money changers from the Temple. In John’s account, this isn’t because of cheating, as in the other Gospels, but because the people no longer need to make sacrifices now that Jesus has come on the scene. (2:13-22) Why did the need for sacrifice change? Because Jesus is the Lamb of God, the ultimate sacrifice, the one chosen to take away sin once and for all, just as John the Baptist said, and so no other sacrifice is needed.
All of this brings us back to our story. John reports that this day on which Jesus is judged by Pilate and condemned to death is “the day of Preparation for the Passover.” That is, it is the day before the Passover, the day when everyone is getting ready for the next day’s celebration. This is the day on which the Passover lamb is prepared.
The lamb, if you remember the Old Testament story of the Exodus, was killed so that it’s blood could be painted on the doorposts of the house. When God came and saw the blood on the door, God would pass over the house, saving the household from death. The Passover lamb, through its death, saved others.
And now, Jesus, the Lamb of God, is sentenced to die at the same time as the Passover lambs are slaughtered for the Passover celebration. And this is no accident. John is testifying to the truth. And in this case, the truth is that Jesus is truly the Lamb of God, the one whose death covers us, the one who removes our sin, the one who saves us, the one who lays down his life.
This is where Jesus’ authority lies: in God’s love. As such, Jesus is going this route of his own accord. He lays down his life knowingly, willingly. Death, the cross, the tomb are not the end, but this is the way his true authority, his kingship over the whole world, is seen. Jesus’ authority has not reached its end. He is in control of his life, of his death, and his life again. Control of life and death is power, the ultimate marker of authority.
Jesus, the Lamb of God, reveals the truth about God: that God sent the Son out of love, not to condemn, but to save. As such, God won’t give up on you, but instead pours out love and grace. God gives you authority as baptized children, authority to live and share and love and serve, just like Jesus. And we don’t need to fear, because Christ has died to take away our sin. We get a chance to do better next time. Because of his blood, we are saved, we live.
While we use our authority, whatever limited authority over our actions we have, we use it to temporarily save ourselves. But Jesus’ authority, which only ends where God’s love ends, uses his authority to save: to save others, save the world, save you and me. Now and forever.
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)
So, where is Jesus’ kingdom? If it’s not here, then where? In heaven? In our hearts? Where? All we get is it is “not from here.” And since it is not “from here,” this world and its powers must have no say over Jesus, do not dictate who he is.
Jesus cites evidence for this. If his kingdom were from here, his followers would be fighting for him. Since his kingdom is located elsewhere - you know, in heaven and in our hearts - and this earthly kingdom doesn’t hold much sway, his followers don’t need to get involved. This kingdom can’t destroy his Kingdom, no matter what it tries to do.
That is often how I understood this piece of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. It doesn’t matter what happens next because Jesus’ kingdom, his love, his rule is outside, beyond, not of this world. He is truly from elsewhere, and what happens here doesn’t affect his reign.
But I read something this week that flipped my understanding a bit. Instead of thinking about where Jesus’ kingdom is located, instead, think of Jesus’ kingdom as “here,” but operating differently than Pilate’s kingdom. Jesus saying, “my kingdom is not of this world,” is like saying his kingdom does not function in worldly ways. He’s in the world, but not of the world. This phrasing is more about style and substance than location and zip code. As such, his followers don’t fight; it’s not what his kingdom does.
Which makes way more sense. By thinking of the separate kingdoms as locations, then one matters now and one doesn’t. One kingdom is here, affecting you now; and another is somewhere else, having no real effect until you die or move to that kingdom. But I don’t think pointing beyond here to somewhere else is what Jesus came to do.
Jesus came to show us God all around us right now. Jesus ushered in God’s kingdom of love and grace, pointing it out wherever he went. The Kingdom is like gallons of the best wine when all you were expecting was the cheap stuff. The Kingdom is one that tears down borders between peoples. The Kingdom is like being able to see everything clearly after being born blind. That is just some of what Jesus has done through the Gospel of John. It’s not that his kingdom isn’t here; it’s that it achieves these things without stooping to the way the world does things. His Kingdom operates in such a different way.
Conversely, Pilate knows how kingdoms work. Despite his wishy-washy responses here, he is known as a pretty violent leader. He fought each step of the way for what he had, and fighting is how he held on to what he had. Beyond that, we know what this world’s kingdoms are like. Might makes right. It is a world of power and oppression, of manipulation and backstabbing. In this world, it’s ok to use violence as long as the ends justify the means.
In our world, violence has become an idol. By that I mean we look to violence as the answer. The only reply we have to violence is more violence. The end result of how we respond is death.
We are so inundated with the kingdoms of this world, that we have a hard time imagining what Jesus’ kingdom would even look like. He says his Kingdom is not like one of this world’s, but we can’t imagine a kingdom that isn’t built by war, fighting, or power. We try to imagine, but all too often our imaginations are controlled by what we’ve seen and experienced. It shapes us.
Jesus tells us that God is love, that God’s kingdom is love, yet our experience of this world’s kingdoms makes us think that God is authoritarian, vindictive, maybe even mean - at least to some people - because we live in a world that is authoritarian, vindictive, and mean.
Rather than seeing the cross as a symbol of deep, sacrificial love, we jump to the conclusion that it is a way of punishing Jesus in our place. Justice for sins must be served, and we have no other way to imagine justice than through punishing someone for wrongdoing.
Rather than believing that God’s grace and love and acceptance are unconditional, we assume that God offers love, forgiveness, and mercy on some sort of exchange - that we believe just the right things; that we fear, obey, and praise; that we shun those outside of our pristine religious circle. We think God’s love is conditional because so much of our life is quid pro quo - you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.
The pain, the forces, and the powers in our world have shaped us - shaped us in a way that God, God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ love and faithfulness are impossible and unbelieveable.
But, of course, Jesus comes to bring the truth to us. And the truth is, “We have seen his glory, the glory of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
“Jesus is the way the truth the life.”
As such, Jesus shows us God’s truth through miracles and signs, healings and teachings, sacrifice and serving. That God so loved the world, he sent his only Son.
That is truth. Jesus is truth. Love for the world is the truth.
Since Jesus and his kingdom are not of this world, he will not use violence, but love. Jesus will not establish his claims by force, but by service. Jesus will not make followers through brutality, but by forgiveness. His followers don’t fight for him because fighting is not the way of the kingdom.
Which is why Jesus, ultimately, doesn’t just invite us to follow along in this mode of thinking, but rather, he lives it out. Maybe more accurately, he dies living out God’s Kingdom because our world can’t handle that kind of stuff. The world’s response to Jesus is violence, the cross, killing. And yet, we see God’s vindication of Jesus and the way of love through the resurrection.
Resurrection is God’s stamp of approval to that way of life - a way of life that opens up something new for us - a new way of seeing, a new way of living, a new way of loving. Because we see where Jesus’ kingdom leads - not just TO death, which is where all kingdoms lead. But Jesus’ kingdom leads THROUGH death to life. To forgiveness. To peace.
Jesus’ kingdom is here, shaping we who are in this world, changing the way we look at things, empowering us to live a new way. Through it all, Jesus’ Kingdom brings us life.
This is the Kingdom we are called to see, live, point to. This is the Kingdom we are baptized into and share around the table. This is the Kingdom we witness to.
We witness to the one who demonstrated power through weakness, who showed strength through vulnerability, who established justice through mercy, and who built the Kingdom of God not by fighting, but by embracing a broken, hurting, violent world. And though that embrace brought death, rising again reminds us that light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than hate, and that with God, all good things are possible.
Jesus shows us God’s kingdom - not simply a place, but a way, more about style and substance than anything else. This isn’t achieved by the violent ways we know, but by the way of sacrificial love. This love changes things. It creates things. It brings life - life that is not of this world.
This Lent, we are going slowly through Jesus’ Passion narrative. Doing so makes each piece stand out a bit more. It’s not that we don’t know the escapades that make up the narrative, but we usually only hear these pieces all at once on Good Friday. It makes for an impactful worship service, for sure, but it also makes the night so full and chaotic that we don’t have time to reflect on one event before the next thing happens.
So, we’re taking our time as we head toward the cross. We’ll still read the whole thing on Good Friday, with each rapid-fire scene coming one after another. It’ll be as powerful and overwhelming as it usually is. But for now, we get some time to reflect - and maybe that will inform our hearing a few weeks from now.
Last week, we heard how Jesus served his disciples, washing feet and loving them. But, the time in the upper room is finished, and Jesus and his crew have headed to their usual garden hangout where Judas brings a detachment of soldiers to arrest Jesus. We pick up the story as Jesus is on trial before the high priest. Peter and another disciple have followed.
Jesus is asked questions and answers openly about his disciples and his teaching. Nothing he said was in secret. In fact, his answer is, “Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” Which is a good idea. Let’s do that.
And who better to ask than Peter? He has followed Jesus nearly since the beginning - seen the signs, heard the teachings. He’s the one who refused to let Jesus wash his feet - that is until Jesus said he would have no part if he were not washed. “Then not only my feet, but my hands and my head!” Yes, he is a good disciple.
And as we catch a glimpse of Peter in this scene, we notice something more. See, it’s not just Jesus who is being questioned; Peter is, too. There are two trials going on. And how different they are.
When Peter is asked about Jesus, Peter… fails. Denies. And he doesn’t just deny being Jesus’ disciple, but Peter denies being in the garden. Peter denies any relationship with Jesus. Peter denies all links to the disciples. Peter fails in his trial. The cock crows.
Jesus’ words, “Ask them! They’ll tell you what I said…” How heartbreaking. The one disciple you would think could do it, the one follower who would answer the call, the one apostle who, yes, could tell you about Jesus… he is the one who fails dramatically. He was asked and did not say a word.
What do we take from this scene? I mean, I guess one thing we could do is start listing all the ways we deny and fail Jesus. All the idols we place ahead of following Jesus and his way. The over importance of “self” - self-preservation, self-made, self-above-all-else. The hypocritical nature of our faith and our actions. The opportunities we squander to explicitly say, “I know Jesus, and here’s what he said.” The cock crows in our lives, too.
Bummer, man. While we don’t often get to reflect on Peter’s denial before we’re on to the next scene, when we do take a reflective moment, we’re left with this sense of failure. Because, yes, sure, we all do what Peter did in various ways. While we think of ourselves as the good disciple, we hear the cock crow and think, “Ahh… I should’ve handled that way differently.” We can commiserate with Peter.
While misery loves company, all this does is leave us with a “do better” kind of message. We get a lesson of, “just be aware that you’re prone to failure, and you’ll be able to do better next time.” There’s some truth to self-awareness, but might I remind you that Peter was made well aware of his forthcoming denial. Jesus told him shortly after washing his feet, “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” Seems like if Jesus told you that, in a setting like that, you’d be a little more aware. It appears our own awareness, our own knowledge, our own selves can’t make us better, can’t keep us from hiding or denying.
We focus on Peter and identify with him - how he’s so much like us. But… it doesn’t do anything for us besides giving us someone to throw a pity party with. “Do better,” is not the Gospel message. And, a bit more than that, when we focus on Peter, we’re not focusing on Jesus. Not paying attention to Jesus is yet another way we deny who he is.
So, as we shift our attention from Peter to Jesus, we pay attention to what he says. And what he says is truth. One example: he questions being hit because he didn’t say something wrong, but what he said was true. Why hit him for the truth? And second, as the cock crows, we know that Jesus’ earlier words to Peter about denying him are true. All that Jesus says - has said - is true.
But if Jesus only speaks the truth, how do we justify his answer of, “ask those who heard what I said” along with Peter denying to answer? How are both true? Along with that, Jesus is about to die. No more lessons or motivation - no more “do better” teachings.
But it is true. Jesus knows it is true because Jesus looks to future, not failures.
Jesus knows this isn’t the end - even as ominous as things seem. Because Jesus knows what his love and faithfulness can do. His love and faithfulness lasts through betrayal, denial, and death. And this love gives another chance - changes, transforms, resurrects another opportunity for relationship and life.
Because of that kind of love, because of that kind of faithfulness, Jesus knows that even the betraying, denying disciples, no matter how bleak things look right now, one day they will share Jesus’ teaching. His love doesn’t stop. Despite everything, his unconditional love doesn’t leave the disciples. Jesus doesn’t cut ties. Jesus doesn’t betray. Jesus loves them. Even as they denied, Jesus remained faithful to them. And because of his love, the disciples are able to be redeemed, able to share the Gospel message.
See, Peter, though he denied Jesus three times, is redeemed at the end of the story. Huddled around another charcoal fire, three times a resurrected Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me?” This leads to Peter and all the disciples proclaiming God’s faithfulness, love, and forgiveness. Jesus’ love brings a different future, not failure.
Even as we deny, Jesus remains faithful to us, too. We trust that we are forgiven even as we have failed repeatedly and heard the cock crow in our lives. No amount of ambition or awareness on our part can change that. But Jesus loves, and that love is what makes the difference. That love is what leads to resurrection. That love is what brings life. That love is what keeps relationship intact through, despite, anything. Everything.
Jesus turns denial into Gospel. Jesus turns failure into life. Jesus turns us into faithful disciples. And he does it through love. Through redemption. Through resurrection. As we focus on Peter, we get the wrong message - a nice message, maybe a helpful message, but not the Gospel message. For the Gospel, we focus on Jesus. And that message is loud and clear: Jesus is faithful. Jesus loves us. Jesus transforms us. Jesus resurrects us to a new life, a life where his teaching is in our hands. “Ask them; they’ll tell you what I said.”
And because of that, there is hope. Hope that even we can love and share and bear witness to God’s relentless, abundant, life-giving love for the world.
What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?
That’s kind of a heavy question, isn’t it? And it is probably one we all have thought about here or there. I mean, it’s one thing to live every day like it is your last; but it is another to know that tomorrow is it.
What would you do if you knew - knew - you were going to die tomorrow? Would you call up or visit friends you hadn’t talked to in a while? Would you go out to a delicious dinner? Would you do something you’ve never done before? Would you max out your credit cards?
Let’s add a little bit more to this scenario. What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow AND you had the power to do anything you wanted? Anything. You name it, and it could happen. That opens a lot of doors, doesn’t it? Would you transport yourself to visit those friends you haven't seen in a while? Would you go to a city with loads of world-renowned, five-star dining opportunities? Would you do something more outrageous like leap tall buildings or something? (You can do anything, after all.) Would you turn things around to make it so you wouldn’t die tomorrow?
Or would you wash your disciples’ feet?
Jesus is here on the last night of his earthly life. He knows that his hour has come to depart and return to the Father. He knows that the Father has given all things into his hands, and that he has come from God and is going to God. Knowing all this, he chooses to do - not anything that I mentioned above - but instead, he chooses to show love for his disciples in a dramatic way. The one who has all things in his hands now uses his hands to wash feet.
Chapter 13 is the turning point in the Gospel of John. While we, here and now, have just gotten started on our Lenten journey, in John’s narrative, Jesus is already on the eve of his death. This one night will take the next five chapters of the book. For the next several Sundays, we will take our time walking with Jesus and his disciples through his final night.
But as for this passage, this footwashing, this act of service Jesus performs when he knows what is coming… what does it mean? Or, to adapt Jesus’ question: do you know what he has done for you?
This particular action, in this particular place and time tells us a lot about Jesus and God. It shows Jesus’ character. He stoops down to serve. And this isn’t merely a form of hospitality. Hospitality in that day and age meant providing the water and maybe a slave, but no free person would ever wash a guest’s feet. Most people instead would wash their own feet with the provided water. To wash someone else’s feet is an act of utter devotion and servitude. Taking on the role of a slave is not what most self-respecting people do. And yet, Jesus does it. Jesus is utterly devoted to his disciples.
Which is good. It’s nice to hear. It is a good example.
But the deeper thing about it is, Jesus knows what is to come - not only about his own death, but about how the disciples will react as this night goes on. The disciples will abandon him; Peter will deny him; and Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, will betray him. And none of that stops Jesus from pouring water into a basin, kneeling down, and washing.
Jesus can do anything, and what he chooses to do is love through serving - even when he knows the disciples will fail. I can’t say that I would do the same. Our world doesn’t work like that. It’s not practical, not protective, not even logical. And yet, that is what Jesus does. Despite what is and what will be, Jesus serves. Jesus loves.
Because Jesus knows what is coming,
and he knows all this about his disciples,
and he still washes them,
that means we can trust that no dirty part, not the worst part of ourselves will keep Jesus from washing us - even if we try to hide it or pretend it is not as bad as it is. God will continue to wash us, too, for no other reason than God is utterly devoted to us and completely loves us.
That sounds a little scary at first - Jesus getting into all that we are most self-conscious about.
But it is love that drives him there, not judgement. It is serving he provides, not condemnation. Jesus is not scared away by our brokenness. He shows us that the best answer to every hurting, stinky thing in the world is love. A love that might even get one killed.
We expect something else - some other way to accomplish God’s vision of life for the world. But by doing this, Jesus overturns our expectations. This love is so unexpected, that the disciples’ ideas of what a teacher and Lord should do are flipped all around. A master who kneels at the feet of his disciples? A Lord who acts as a slave? A Savior who willingly goes to die?
And that’s the big one. Instead of stopping the death that is coming, Jesus chooses a different way. Jesus shows that some things are just more important than holding off death. And not only that, the way Jesus chooses leads to real life, true life. The way of serving leads to life. Loving leads to life. Even a cross, even a death, even being placed in a tomb, because of the love of God, leads to life.
This life isn’t gained by force, but by letting go of the way we think things should be - have to be. Our world has its way, but Jesus shows power in weakness. Love in service. Life in death. In fact, the only way our cycle is broken is by Christ coming to show us the example, to be the example for us.
Jesus reveals a God who comes in unexpected ways, ready to love and serve - even for the broken and dirty, even if it is unbecoming, even in the face of death. God shows up right where we least expect God to be - in kneeling, in serving, on a cross - all so God can redeem and clean and make alive the whole thing. This love comes in washing, in water, in a basin, in a font, in serving, in remembering. God has washed us and continues to come to us to keep on washing all to bring us life even when we don’t think there can be.
God put all things into Jesus' hands, and Jesus did the unexpected by stooping down and using his hands to wash feet. Jesus loves. It is love that drives him, not judgement. It is serving he provides, not condemnation. Jesus is not scared away by our brokenness. He shows us that the best answer to every hurting, stinky thing in the world is love.
So, maybe it is time to live everyday like it’s your last. By serving. Loving. Bringing unexpected life. In the name of Christ.
As we start the journey to Holy Week on this First Sunday in Lent, there are two important things revolving around this final sign - or miracle - Jesus performs. First, this sign is actually what puts him on the path to the cross. Right after this scene, although some of the bystanders believe, others go and report Jesus to the authorities. It is because of Jesus’ action here that those leaders decide definitively to put him to death. The way to the cross and Jesus' own tomb starts here, where Jesus is most impossibly and lovingly life-giving.
The second important thing about this sign is that it foreshadows pretty heavily what is to come: death is real, but death is not final. We get all the “realness” of death here - sealed tombs, the stench of four days of decay, people gathered, weeping, even the questions we throw at Jesus when death happens: why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you do something?
It is what Martha and Mary both ask of their Lord.
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not rebuke Martha or Mary for what they say. When Martha questions Jesus about his delayed arrival, Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again. Death is real; death is not final. Martha answers, “Yes, I know he will rise again on the last day!” It is, by all accounts, absolutely the right religious response.
Our own first impressions may be the same. We tend to focus on the resurrection as a distant promise, a hope of salvation, an eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven one day.
And yet, Jesus seems not quite satisfied with leaving it there in the future. Jesus responds to Martha with another promise: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus points to the future resurrection, for sure, but he also adds more. He pulls the hope of resurrection into the present, promising abundant, eternal life that begins here and now. He is resurrection. He is life.
That’s not often what we think of when we hear “resurrection,” but the Gospel message should make a tangible difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now… right? The promises of God are present tense, not just future.
Jesus is resurrection and life, now. And, believe it or not, we have a role in that life. See, after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns to those who had gathered. He says to them, “unbind him, and let him go.” In other words, the community of faith is told to participate in God’s action, to bring life to its desired outcome, to join with Jesus in redemption! Sure, raising Lazarus from death to life is entirely Jesus’ work - I know I can’t do that - and yet, Jesus invites the community to participate, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.
We have a role to play in resurrection life right now. And there are ways we as St. Philip are doing it right now. Here are a few stories.
A few years ago, all the soup kitchens in Myrtle Beach shut down on the weekends due to financial and other restraints. That meant the hungry and homeless would have to go from Friday lunch to Monday breakfast without anything to eat. An active group of volunteers started preparing small bagged lunches to pass out; then a small pot luck lunch. Now several churches help in making sure hungry people are fed each weekend. St. Philip is one of those churches. We gather volunteers, we prepare food, we set up tables. And we serve. We welcome. We make sure if someone is hungry, they have something to eat. We give them baggies to take with them - healthcare items like a toothbrush and chapstick; there are snacks like crackers and granola bars. And more than that, we make sure people aren’t just fed physically, but through our conversations and interactions, we feed them spiritually, too. Because of you, people aren’t hungry. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
All across the country, but particularly in Horry County, there is a major opioid epidemic. People are dying. It is something that has even hit us at St. Philip, losing one of our own young people because of it. So, it’s not just a problem “out there.” It’s a problem that really affects us as a community. And yet, St. Philip opens up four nights a week to host Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Time and space is offered up for people to gather. People need help; they know they can’t do it alone. So, they come to this place for community, support, a system which holds them accountable. When they gather, they confess their lives are broken; they turn themselves over to a higher power; they seek to make amends; they find encouragement, care, discipline. It keeps people from using. It keeps people from dying. Thanks to you, people are living clean lives. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We support Lutheran World Relief, which just so happens to be our benevolence for the first quarter this year. Beyond providing assistance and relief after a natural disaster, LWR works to build sustainable relationships and partnerships across the world. One way they are doing that is through fair trade coffee. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, and the people who farm it live in some of the poorest communities. As such, those farmers are often taken advantage of. They don’t normally get paid enough to support their family. But Lutheran World Relief provides fair, sustainable payment. Through LWR, parents can earn enough so their kids can go to school. There is daily bread. They have safer, better, more efficient equipment that produces better coffee beans. Help goes directly to the very community of the farmers. Because of your support, people can actually live. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We at St. Philip recruit, gather, and support Reading Buddies, a program where a volunteer meets one on one with a young child at a local school to help improve their reading. Reading is crucial to life and is a huge indicator of how future life will be. For example, did you know police departments pay close attention to reading scores - particularly, third grade reading scores? They do this because the number of kids below reading level in the third grade is a good indicator of how many jail cells they’ll need in a few years. Reading Buddies helps to inject hope where there may be none. They bring relationship where there may be none. They bring a bright future where there may be none. Thanks to you, some kids won’t go to jail. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
Those are some of the ways St. Philip works to bring resurrection and life to our community and beyond. And as you give, as you participate, as you hear Jesus’ call to “unbind and let go,” you help to bring resurrection and life, too. Are there ways to do more? Sure! We can live it out in our daily lives in conversation on the golf course (you know the weather’s getting nicer) or at the grocery store or at lunch or wherever. Listening, pointing to Jesus and the hope and promises he has - that brings resurrection and life.
So, I encourage you: spend a few moments today looking at the week to come and think about where you might be able to follow Jesus’ command to “unbind him, and let him go.” Where can you participate with God in resurrection and life?
It doesn’t have to be huge (though it might be).
It doesn’t have to take a long time (although it might).
It doesn’t have to be spectacular (though, who knows, maybe it will be).
Opportunities to unbind and let go abound. Jesus is calling us to make a life-giving difference to those around us. Because, while death may be real, death isn’t final. And God uses us - us! - to bring about resurrection and life.
Nothing is ordinary in the Gospel of John. For example, this is no ordinary healing story. We have a blind man - who never asks to be healed - gaining his sight. Which seems like a good thing on the surface, but the story continues on for another 30 some-odd verses after the man could see. That makes me think that healing isn’t really the point of the story; the healing is the launching point for something more.
Kind of like last week with the woman at the well, there are so many places to go with that “something more.” This story opens up on so many levels.
There is the literal and metaphorical “seeing” in this passage: seeing Jesus there and seeing Jesus for who he really is.
There could be conversation about community and what it means to care for others.
There is the topic the disciples bring up about Sin and disability.
There are the foils to Jesus - the religious leaders and how we sometimes react like they do.
But in it all, the idea that sticks out most to me is transformation. When Jesus comes, he changes things.
When Jesus arrives on the scene and in our lives, everything changes. Limitations fall by the wayside. What kind of limits bound the one who can turn water into wine?
The way things are (and have been) changes. There is no longer a need for sacrifice because the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is present.
Divisions between peoples, like Jews and Samaritans, fade away in the presence of the one who offers living water gushing up to eternal life.
And the one who can heal even a man born blind is the one who offers not just life, but life in all of its abundance.
When Jesus comes on the scene, he transforms things. It’s great! It’s positive! It’s moving forward! It’s terrible to do!
We hate it. And you know it.
We like the familiarity of what “is” - and hate the unfamiliar “could be.”
Look at how nearly everyone else in the story reacts to this change from a man who was blind to a man who can see. Some don’t recognize him. Others don’t believe it. The man has always been blind; this guy who can see can’t be him. Can they really not accept the fact that he can see? “What could be” is resisted and rejected, no matter how good it is.
We do something similar. We’d much rather stick with what we know than be transformed, be changed. Kind of like the blind man, we’re fine with how things are. And even if we’re not “fine,” we’ve become accepting of the situation. Things are set.
We may have some brokenness - but it’s our brokenness. We may be set in a routine where faith doesn’t make much of a difference - but at least we don’t have to engage people we don’t know. We may be the same as we have always been - but at least we know how to handle that.
Sure, “what could be” could be good - but it could also be bad! We don’t know which it will be. At least right now we know what to expect. We have the stability of knowing. We much prefer a known problem to an unknown solution. So, just keep things as they are - even if that means blindness. Or limitations. Or a less than ideal situation. At least we know, and we don’t have to do adapt, change, grow, be transformed from “what is.”
But, still, Jesus - that pesky Jesus - comes and changes things. And we aren’t sure what to do with the changes. And so, for the most part, we resist. We won’t do anything different. We won’t be different. We won’t, even if the change is good and gracious and ideal. Because we like the familiarity of what “is” - and hate the unfamiliar “could be.”
We get wary when we hear that Jesus will come and change things. It is an unknown. It is new. It could be transformative. And we don’t want it.
And so the question then is, “is it worth it?” Is it worth letting Jesus change us? Living as if he changed us? Seeing things a new way?
What would Jesus say about it being worth it?
When Jesus comes, he changes things.
He comes, and without asking, changes us. He claims us with water. He comes to us in bread and wine. And in that coming, he transforms our identity. We are children of God. We are beloved. We are his, defined not by what was, or what is, but by what Jesus does for us. Jesus comes to bring us life.
And this life… well, it ain’t easy. We are called to live, not in fear of truth, not resigned to the way things are, not stuck in blindness simply because it is familiar. We are called to live in a new way, a way that moves us, a way that helps us see Christ anew, a way that frees us for discipleship.
When Jesus comes he changes things. And those changes can be hard. He calls us to see things differently.
It is our standard procedure to be fearful of what we don’t have, but Jesus calls us to see the abundance that he loans to us.
Jesus transforms us to build relationships, real relationships, with people - all people from all walks of life.
Jesus changes us to let go of whatever defined us before to now living out our new identity as children.
Over the course of the past year, this congregation has started to be honest about where we were and what was defining us. And though how we saw ourselves wasn’t bad, we knew that Jesus was calling us to more. Jesus was showing up without asking and starting to transform us! And Jesus continued to come, to bless us, to try to change us. And to a certain point, that meant no longer resisting transformation. We had to let go of what we knew and what was comfortable simply because it “was.” We are in a period of change, moving Forward in Faith.
One of my seminary professors used to say that this type of change is like someone standing up and changing seats in a canoe. You freak out when someone tries to stand up in a canoe.
But sometimes we have to change seats to keep floating forward. To stop from paddling along in a circle; to change the cycle and move farther along.
That kind of stuff is hard. The stuff Jesus comes to tell us to do is hard. The transformation Jesus makes in our lives is hard. But, goodness, it is also life giving. Because that’s what Jesus wants for us. Not just survival. Not just persistence or getting by or any other way we’ve settled and excused our lives. Jesus wants life - full, rich, abundant life for us. This is the kind of life that that knows the risk of change is worth it because, no matter what, we will always be God’s beloved child. And by changing, we can be that beloved child now in better, more life enriching ways.
And so, I hope you can see that this story of a man born blind is about more than healing. It is about a transformation that disrupts our lives. It is about a God who isn’t satisfied with who we were or how we are, but rather continually comes to us to transform us. That transformation is hard - hard for us, hard for others, hard on us when others are transformed. But this kind of transformation continually happens. God constantly calls us to more. To see. To live.
To, like the blind man, be transformed into the children of God.
This story is kind of overwhelming. It’s loooong. It’s such a long, sustained story that the narrative moves through many various levels. When I read it, my mind goes a dozen different directions. There are 42 verses to choose for a sermon!
On top of the stuff that happens in this scene, this follows right after our story of Nicodemus from last week. These two stories are quite different, and the differences are probably more noticeable because they are back to back. Last week, we had Nicodemus:
a man with a name,
respected and powerful,
a Jewish insider,
who comes to Jesus under the cover of night to question him.
We end knowing nothing about how he responds.
Contrast that with this week’s supporting actor:
an unnamed woman,
who had no status in that day and age,
a Samaritan outsider,
who is approached by Jesus in broad daylight,
and engages him in his longest sustained conversation in the Bible.
She leaves and boldly declares her faith in this man who is truly the Savior of the world.
While these stores are so different, there is one thing that draws them together. And that is Jesus’ use of word-play. Last week, we heard “born from above” or “born anew.” Nicodemus takes it in the literal sense, though Jesus means it otherwise. This week, Jesus uses the phrase, “living water.”
This Living Water is key, I do believe, to wrapping our minds around this whole 42-verse-long chapter of the Bible. So, let’s look at how everything flows from Jesus being Living Water.
Living Water, as I mentioned, is a double entendre. The first meaning can refer to what we might call “running water” - water from a spring or a river rather than water sitting stagnant in a vessel or a puddle. It moves, it lives.
So, it should be no surprise that Jesus, this living, moving water goes where he pleases - societal boundaries notwithstanding. Much like living water carves out a path through dirt, rock, and stone, Jesus goes, erodes away the barriers which try to keep his rushing water at bay. The boundaries which should keep these two people apart are washed away by Jesus. The woman is wary of him at first - questioning him, putting up her own boundaries of sorts. But Jesus is not restrained. He keeps going, even to the point of taking the Living Water phrase and expanding it, deepening it.
Beyond the more literal meaning of running water, “Living Water” can also have a metaphorical meaning - water that gives life. Jesus employs this double entendre to move the woman’s focus from the literal, physical level of meaning to the spiritual level. He is the Living Water that gushes up to eternal life. This point is crucial. It all starts with Jesus and who Jesus is. The rest of the narrative flows directly from this.
When someone says they have water that will never leave you thirsty, you’re curious. It will be a spring within you that gives life. And so the woman asks for some of that living water.
Jesus takes this as an opportunity to dive into the woman’s personal life, a life which seems more tragic than anything. Some have said that she lived immorally, but Jesus doesn’t say that. Instead, the whole focus seems to be on being honest with who she is. It is an observation about one of the most personal things in her life - her closest relationships.
That is where Jesus, the Living Water, flows. Not only does he cross the boundaries of man/woman, Jew/Samaritan, but he crosses the boundaries we ourselves put up. He seeps deep into her life, to those personal things that bring up heartbroken memories, to the places that are dry, parched, thirsty - even to those places that may be so closed off that they’ve become layered with dust. Jesus, the Living Water, flows there, to the intimate, personal places. He springs up there to nourish, to water, to grow relationship, to change things, to make it live.
And so, think of those personal places in your life, those intimately personal places that only a couple of people or one person or no one else knows. Jesus wants to spring up there, too. Living water flows into those places. Jesus gets into the personal things in our life, because Jesus is there to nourish, to water, to grow relationship, to change things, to make it live.
But letting Jesus into those personal places is hard. We don’t necessarily like it; we put up our walls and dams to hold the living water at bay and keep Jesus at arm’s length. It’s fine for Jesus to be near us from time to time, or tell us nice things, or even forgive us once in a while. But we don’t really want to let him in to everything about our lives. I mean, really? Have Jesus nourish and influence our relationships? We like things as they are - don’t want to ruin a good thing by bringing in Jesus. Or, let Jesus into our daily routine? We’d rather know where and when we can find Jesus when we need him, like church on a Sunday morning. Have Jesus spring up in how we decide to use, spend, donate our money? We definitely don’t want Jesus in a personal matter like that.
But, as we’ve seen, those barriers we put up don’t stop Jesus from coming. Jesus keeps flowing toward the personal, meaningful places, our personal, meaningful places. And the more personal he goes, the more squirmish we get. But as we see from this woman at the well - when Jesus seeps into those places, everything seems to turn. Jesus was there with her, Jesus knew her. Living water bubbled and gushed and filled her up. And everything changed.
Living Water seeped into even the most personal pieces of her life - to a point where she states that Jesus entirely knew her. And by this water springing up in her life, she began to see things differently. She began to let that water flow from her. Jesus gave her a gift, the gift of truth that leads to worship and relationship and becoming a conduit for Living Water. She grew in faith, grew closer to Jesus, and wasn’t satisfied keeping it for herself. She had to share this living water, this Savior and Messiah.
That is why Jesus, the Living Water, doesn’t stay stagnant. He wants to bring life to every piece of us - not just the surface, but the deeply personal pieces.
It’s how Jesus makes a true difference in our lives - by watering those things most personal to us, the places we don’t necessarily want Jesus to mess around with. But by coming, he begins to create a spring of water, gushing up to life. From that, everything changes. That is how Jesus shapes us for the Kingdom.
We start to see that relationships matter - and having Christ in them makes them matter more. Our daily lives are guided by a Living Water that knows no bounds - it flows wherever it wills. And we start to see the places and ways we can share that Living Water. Even the most personal of things, like faithfully using our money and possessions, can contribute to a deepening of our own faith and enhance God’s work in the world.
Because that is the point. Jesus comes. Jesus is water for us, nourishing even the driest places of our lives. And not simply so that we may live, but so that we may be filled and changed - and that this living water may flow out of us, too, in ways that are giving, gracious, barrier-breaking, relationship-building, and always flowing toward love.
Today we get one of the, if not THE, most famous verses in all of Christian scripture. And the temptation for you and for me is to focus only on that one, single verse. But, while it may be a great summary of the Gospel, it’s not put out here all alone. This verse is in the context of something else - in the context of this encounter with Nicodemus. So, why is the most famous verse ever stuck HERE? Why not at a good summary or thesis point? Why not at the very end or the very beginning? Why not right after Jesus dies or rises? Why here, why with Nicodemus?
But before we get to that question, it’s probably important to see what got us here in the first place. Knowing that context around Nicodemus helps us understand a little more about his situation.
So far in the narrative of John’s Gospel, Jesus has been introduced to us by John the Baptist. He points out Jesus as the “lamb of God.”
In the next scene, Jesus turns water into wine - a sign of the superabundance and top-shelf quality of God’s grace. God’s grace is like gallons of the best wine when you were only expecting a glass of the cheap stuff.
Then, last week, we get Jesus entering the Temple and driving out the money changers and those selling sacrifices. He does this to show the reality of the true presence of God’s grace, manifest in Jesus. There is no need for any other sacrifice; to do so is to miss the embodiment of love and grace right here in your midst.
And so, it is into this context that Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, comes to see Jesus. He’s curious - and I can understand that. Jesus has caused quite the stir! His actions so far surely would’ve been talked about - especially those in the Temple. Yet, his signs… Nicodemus confesses that no one can do these things apart from God.
And so Nicodemus comes to question Jesus, to learn more, to land at some sort of conclusion about him. In the midst of this encounter, Jesus uses it as a teaching moment. He states that unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what Jesus is pointing to - God and God’s Kingdom. In typical Gospel of John fashion, the person conversing with Jesus misunderstands what he is saying: “How can anyone be born who has grown old?”
This opens the door for Jesus to teach and preach… and boy, what a teaching and preaching it is. The Son of Man has come from heaven, born from above, to be lifted up as a sign that God loves all the world. Even though the world opposes him, the Son still has come to demonstrate God’s love and to lead those who believe into new life.
Nicodemus’ questions are the catalyst for Jesus to lay it all out there, as simply and plainly as possible. God flat out loves. God loves the world so much that God gives us the Son.
This love of God, this sending of the Son, this gift of eternal life causes a crisis for everyone Jesus encounters. See, the word “judgement” in verse 19 is the Greek word, “krisis” - which can also be translated as, well, crisis. Which I think fits better. It’s a moment, a point in time, a reaction. Those who do evil: will they flee the light or embrace it and change, learn, grow?
Those who confess: will they stay in the light or squench back into the cover of darkness?
This is the crisis for Nicodemus when faced with the most famous verse ever. Signs and the Temple, what he’s known forever and new life... Does he believe? Does he follow? Does he run away? We don’t really know. The scene ends, and we fade to black without finding out. But the point is made. Jesus comes, bearing a superabundance of the best grace around; he embodies God’s love in a way that comes to humanity, encountering everyone, saying you don’t need any other thing. Nothing else. Jesus’ presence is disruptive; it demands one’s attention.
That is what Nicodemus learns.
So, contemplate that scene for a moment. Reflect on it. Because this scene happens week in and week out in our lives. Each Sunday morning - and maybe more often than that - we, too, are reminded of the superabundance of grace. We, too, are confronted with the presence of God’s love in our light and in our dark. We, too, are told to behold the lamb of God as we taste and see, hear and share the Good News that is poured upon us every time we gather. We are told that God loves us - just flat out loves us.
Jesus claims us wholeheartedly. God loves. And then comes our crisis: what do we do next? We either embrace that love, goodness, grace, and security - or we look elsewhere. As we leave this place, we will be offered countless other options - status, power, possessions, and more. And they all, too, promise us life and demand our allegiance in return.
And while maybe it’s easy right now to be receptive to the greatest message there is, once we step out of here, we have a tendency to look elsewhere. Sometimes we step back into the dark, to carry on as things were, not fully trusting the gifts and life God share. Not embracing the love God flat out gives. We don’t live, we don’t give, we don’t share, we don’t accept, we don’t welcome, we don’t see who we are in light of the Gospel message that God has given us everything. We can get moody about all this. Yet, we are are loved. Flat out loved.
This past week, Jonah (our six-year-old) wanted oatmeal. So, we zap it in the microwave and stir it up and it’s ready to go. Then Jonah - and this may be too much information here - but Jonah had to poop. And he didn’t want to go poop because he didn’t want his oatmeal to get cold. We protest. Just go! Just go to the bathroom! The oatmeal won’t be too cold. We can figure it out. Just go!
So Jonah goes, but he pouts. He’s mad at us, particularly Dana, for this. And he’s pouting and Dana keeps trying to talk to him. Jonah keeps saying he’s angry, and he’s mad. And Dana, with the kind of patience and persistence I don’t quite have, just took his anger and said, “it’s ok. I still love you.” He ate his oatmeal, mostly in silence, aside from some grumps here and there - and then desert time came. Jonah, still pouting, asked for a particular piece of candy. Dana, even though she didn’t want it really said, “I wanted that one. But I’ll let you have it. You know why?” And something about that - whether the persistence or the gift of candy or the playful nature - something about that consistency broke Jonah’s poutiness. “Because you love me?” Because I love you! Light shines in the darkness.
See, John 3:16 and the whole Nicodemus story, is a declaration of fact, persistently telling us about God’s love for the world. It’s not so much of an option on our end: would you like to receive God’s love and grace? God’s judgement has already been rendered: “For God so loved the world.” Instead, like the love of a persistent mother in the face of a pouty 6-year-old, it declares what God’s decision already is: God loves us and all the world, like it or not. Now, the crisis: what are we going to do with that?
God loves you, like it or not. What are you going to do about that?
Sometimes we respond in earnest, with our best, with faith and love and trust. Other times, it takes us a lot longer to come around. But, each and every day we respond to God’s judgement of love. And no matter what we do in our crisis, God is pretty persistent, sending us the Spirit to guide, feeding our faith at Christ’s table, washing and forgiving each day. Why? Because God’s judgement is made: God so loves the world. Including you.
First impressions sure do mean a lot. Which is why such an outside-the-box introduction like Jesus overturning tables and getting a whip out is so surprising.
For the past several weeks, we’ve walked with Jesus through the Gospel of John, but everything up to this point has been pretty private and unseen. Jesus spoke one-on-one to some disciples, telling them to, “come and see.” Last week, Jesus turned water into wine - but he did it on the down low. Only the servants recognize the miracle. Everyone else simply marvels that the host saved the best wine until the end.
But today is Jesus’ big debut to masses of people. Jerusalem is bustling with people for the Passover festival. People come from hundreds of miles for this religious celebration. And, of course, being such an important holiday for the Jews, the Temple is probably quite full. As he enters, Jesus finds what one would expect during such a festival. The shops and people are in place for the exchange of money, animals, and grains - ready for the required sacrifices. And then Jesus goes ballistic. Flipping tables, releasing goats, cracking that whip. Seems Jesus wasn’t on board.
Yet, sacrifices are important to Jewish religious life. One needs certain animals to obey the laws. They’re what is done for repentance, for remembrance of all that God has done! Since they are this important, and it is super hard to carry a goat or some doves with you hundreds of miles by camel, this buying and selling was more of a service to those who had to travel. They simply picked animals up at the Temple. If you wanted to offer a sacrifice, it’s kinda what you had to do. In that way, the marketplace was essential.
And it wasn’t so much that people were being cheated here - there is no “den of robbers” as in the other Gospels. Something else was going on, because not giving people access to their sacrifices would impede their religious life, their sense of God, and forgiveness.
So, why does Jesus do this? And why does he do it right out of the gate - as his introduction to public ministry?
He does it because he wants to make the right first impression: the Temple and sacrifice are no longer what matters.
See, the Temple was seen as the unique place of God’s presence. It was where God lived. Going to the Temple literally meant you were going to meet with God, go to God’s house. And what Jesus is saying with his actions is, “God has broken free from that box.”
So, if God has left the building so to speak, where then is God? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... and the Word became flesh and lived among us… in Jesus. The Son makes the invisible God known, and he comes onto the scene precisely to reveal God to us and to the world.
God is right in front of you. God is personal, relational, here and there, present in Jesus. That’s the point of this scene Jesus makes. He wants people to see him, to know that he, the guy right in front of you, Jesus shows us God is here, now. Jesus brings us God, helps us know God, embodies God in this world - that’s something the Temple or sacrifices couldn’t do. Instead of closing off people’s religious life, Jesus wants to open it up.
I think we can handle that, right? God’s not in the Temple. God’s not stuck in that building. No problem. But if God’s not in that building, what about this building? What about Church?
More than that: what would Jesus come in here and flip over? What would Jesus crack his whip at? It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
And it really makes you wonder what the point of this one hour is. Do we come here to get our shot of God for the week? Do we come to offer our sacrifice, our duty, our habit? I mean, why come here if our churches can’t contain God any better than the Temple? I just spent 5 minutes getting to the point that God isn’t stuck in a box - even if it has nice stained glass windows. So, what’s the point of this?
A few thoughts on that.
First, I think we come here to be reminded. We need to be reminded - reminded of our need, reminded of what God has done, reminded of the gifts God gives to us. That is what we gather to do - to remember. Instead of coming to offer whatever “sacrifice” we have to God, we come to be reminded of the sacrifice God made for us. Instead of trying to fulfill some transaction we think we owe God, we are reminded of all that God has given us. God turns sacrifice upside down, because God in Jesus gives it all for us. To us. And so, our lives are shaped by God. We get to remember that when we come here.
And being reminded of all that God has given for us and for our world, we get sent out to see where God is out there, outside of this building. The point of coming here is to learn to see God everywhere, not because church is the one place where God is. We come because at worship, in church, we can hear, see, and taste God's Word in a way that helps us see and experience God in the rest of life. We get training, learning, community to help us be on the lookout for God - and encounters with God - outside of this box. Instead of closing off our religious life, Jesus wants to open us up.
We need this time. At best, we spend one hour a week in worship; the other 167 hours are spent with the world giving us its perspective on
what is valuable and
who is valuable and
what we have to do so we can be more valuable.
We need to be reminded of what God in Christ has sacrificed for us - that our value - everyone’s value - comes from what God has given. We need to be reminded of what God in Christ has sacrificed so that we see and live and act according to Jesus’ actions in the world.
We need to be reminded so that when we are asked to follow or do or give, we know we aren’t paying God back, but instead are living lives shaped by Jesus - the one who welcomes, who gives, who loves, who forgives, who goes out into the world. We are fed by Christ, washed by Jesus, brought together with him in one body - all so we can see God working outside the box.
So, maybe if Jesus were to show up and flip over some tables and crack a whip, he might be doing it to drive us outside. Pushing us to grow in faith - trying to get us to recognize where God is, in each and every day. Maybe we should try to meet God out out there.
Because God is there, outside the box, sharing love like you wouldn’t believe. Giving grace in great amounts. Forgiving folks here and not. And see, that’s not based on any demand of us or sacrifice from us - not even going to the right place at the right time. It’s all up to God, who shows up in our lives and in our world with moments of pure Godliness. Let’s not lose sight of that, even when we’re pushed outside the box.
Back in the day, a wedding was a time of celebration, not only for the family, but for the whole village. On top of that, the celebration typically lasted a whole week. A whole week! This length of time is why the host would usually serve the good wine first; guests could actually taste what they were drinking, and the host wanted it to make sure it tasted good. I doubt they had French Bordeaux back then, but like a nice bottle of that. Only after a few days of drinking would the guests be served the Franzia boxed stuff.
Wine was, and still is for many people, a celebratory drink. So, you can see the dilemma when the celebration was out of celebratory drink. The party would’ve ended.
So, Mary goes to Jesus; Jesus talks to the servants; the servants do as he says; the steward is impressed by the wine the hosts were holding back. “You have kept the good wine until now!”
This was the first of Jesus’ signs. Now, in the Gospel of John, what we would call “miracles” are instead called “signs.” Why? Well, what does a sign do? A sign tells you something, points the way beyond itself. It is a marker not to be adored in and of itself, but it is supposed to push us along to a different destination. In other words, the miracle itself is not really what we are supposed to see.
So, then, what are we supposed to see? We’re supposed to see God, of course. Water into wine - so much wine - shows us God’s generosity and abundance and goodness. To pull in last week’s sermon a little bit: Jesus’ signs don’t just tell you but help you experience what abundant grace is. The Word becomes flesh in order to show us what grace tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like. And here Jesus is pointing us along, saying God’s grace is like the best wine when all you are expecting is the cheap stuff.
So, having Jesus’ sign here, I wonder about where we fit in to all this. Or, to say it another way, what’s our problem? Where are we running out? Or are we already out of festive drink? Do we have a scarcity problem? Or are we oblivious to it, ignoring the situation, hoping it will resolve itself? Do we take our problems to Jesus?
I mean, so many questions, and each one can apply. And maybe some of those questions do apply to you. I hope by asking it out loud, by raising those questions, by naming it, it helps you see situations in your life, acknowledge them, and then trust that Jesus can, does, and will provide abundant blessings in those places. But consider that part your homework.
Because while I wish I could write 100 different sermons to address each of you individually, I also like to see my family and sleep some. So, in a sermon I tend to look at our problems more from a communal perspective - either from the perspective of humanity or our world or our congregation. And our congregation has been on my heart and mind a lot lately… the last six months or so in particular.
And when I think about this text and our congregation, and I take those questions I listed before… I just don’t think they’re quite where we are. We’ve undergone a lot of changes with our Forward in Faith Vision Plan. And the thing is, that plan had its start because of the festive feelings of celebration we’ve had the past several years. There’s been more to celebrate. More people, more energy, more excitement and community and outreach. We’ve got some festive drink flowing in this place. It may not be 30 gallons worth, but we’ve got enough to have a good time. Somehow, Jesus provided a festive, energetic atmosphere in a place that, for a long while, seemed like it was running out, if it wasn’t out already.
Along with that, the whole process of planning was a discernment - going to Jesus for conversation among the congregation and leaders and me and you. It was intentionally done by going to Jesus. In worship, we brought questions. Our Council meetings were rooted in Bible Study. And out of this, we found that there were problems we couldn’t ignore. To put it in terms of our lesson: some of our stone jars were really low or even sitting empty. And that was a problem; the celebration couldn’t continue like that. The Forward in Faith vision is meant to address some of those places where we were running out or empty.
So, you can see my - our - situation. When it comes to taking those questions, it seems we’re on it: Jesus, empty jars, festive drink. We, like Mary, are aware of the situation. We, like the servants, have done some good work of trying to fill some jars. We’ve got a good thing going; let’s not mess it up, but plan, ask, hope for Jesus to act.
But here’s where I think the story speaks to us, as a congregation and as individuals, today. We don’t believe it. Now, I don’t think we doubt that Jesus turned water to wine. Jesus can do what he wants. What I mean is, we don’t think he still does it, so we need to do it all.
See, we hedge our bets. We do, do, do and plan and strategize and make sure we hire a better wedding planner. We plan, we work, we position ourselves so good things happen. We’re awfully reliant on ourselves to produce results. Somehow the ongoing celebration is all up to us. And why wouldn’t it be? But see, by ourselves we run out of wine - our very best effort means we’ve filled up a few jars with water.
Instead we should notice how Jesus takes what little we do and somehow, someway, gives us the best wine ever. Jesus and only Jesus can take our jars of water and make it into an abundant celebration. We can’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus is here, guiding us, and making miracles.
One example of that: feeding homeless guests in our fellowship hall. Now, I don’t want to scare anyone off from helping next time this rolls around, but everytime we do it, something comes up. Something happens so that it isn’t a smooth morning. Nothing dangerous, just inconvenient. This past time, the bus which normally brings the homeless from Chapin Park to us was absent. No bus, no guests. But, when the news was heard, people stepped up with their own cars to provide a caravan. We ended up transporting and feeding 60 people that day.
Now, you may be thinking, “oh, that’s just what someone should do.” And maybe you’re right. But what I saw that day was people listening to Jesus. Things were empty; and they knew what Jesus was telling us to do in that situation. And so, they filled their cars to the brim, and we had a festive lunch with an abundance for everyone.
Listening to the Word made flesh brings about an abundance - an abundance! - of grace, hope, and life. Jesus creates abundance . Wine upon wine, blessing upon blessing, joy upon joy, and grace upon grace. Whenever Jesus is on the scene, we know abundance is right around the corner.
So, we here at St. Philip have done our best to listen to Jesus. We’ve filled our jars with water, setting a hope and a vision for better wine that is to come. And we’ll keep on listening to what Jesus says. He says, “fill ‘em up.” So, we each keep on filling in whatever ways we can - but as we fill, as we give, as we work, as we listen... we trust God is one of abundance and goodness. The ongoing celebration? It’s God’s. And we’re invited to take part. To fill. To drink. To celebrate as we get to see abundance out of scarcity, joy out of sorrow, and, eventually, life out of death.
Has anyone seen the new Star Wars movie yet? Jonah and I went to see it the weekend it came out. Nearly all of the reviews are quite positive for the movie, but a lot of the hardcore fans really don’t like it. But it’s Star Wars, you know? There are epic ship battles, plot twists, and the Force. The story really moves the plot forward, setting up the third movie in this series to be an epic battle between the Light and the Dark sides. I could tell you more about it and my experience with it, but really it’s up to you to see it and experience it yourself.
Or, did anyone watch the Gamecock game last Monday? (I bring this up instead of a certain orange team’s loss. Plus, there are probably enough Ohio State fans here that are pretty happy Michigan went down.) After not playing so well in the first half, the Gamecocks came back from 19 to 3 deficit to win by a touchdown. If you didn’t see the game… it had drama, momentum swings, defence, long balls... it was as exciting as it was nerve wracking. If you enjoy football, you should at least look up highlights.
Did you see how easy that was? I wanted you to come and see these things that I experienced, hoping that you too might experience some of the same emotions, feelings, connections I did. That’s what happens in our text for today. One disciple after another encounters Jesus and has an experience that makes him want to tell others so that they too will “come and see” this man and be changed by that experience. Come and see.
We start off where we left last week’s text: with John the Baptist. He sees Jesus walk by and points him out as the “Lamb of God.” Because of John’s testimony from last week, we, and those who have read through chapter 1, know something about this title. And yet, that title, “Lamb of God,” provokes curiosity. Don’t you want to know what that means? Don’t you want to know what happens to Luke Skywalker? Don’t you want to see that 60 yard touchdown pass?
And with this curiosity, the disciples start to check it out themselves. Jesus notices them and asks a question, “what are you looking for?” Which could be a straightforward or a rather deep question. The disciples don’t come up with a great answer. “Uhh… where are you staying?” They ask a question.
The same is kind of true of us. See, we all come with questions. Some questions are deep and profound, like “what are you looking for?” Others… not so much: “where are you staying?” No matter who we are: seniors, millennials, empty nesters, teens, new parents, and everyone in between… we all have questions about life and church and Jesus and religion and living and what we’re to do and what we’re not to do and what we have to do. We all come looking for something, asking, wondering.
And when we ask, we want answers. And some people are all too happy to give you those answers. Some churches are all too happy to give you those answers. They tell you exactly what to say, think, do, give, be. And if you don’t, you aren’t experiencing Jesus rightly. You better watch out!
But here’s the interesting thing about questions. Jesus doesn’t answer them. Jesus doesn’t give an answer to the disciples’ question. There’s no home address, no directions to where he is staying. Instead, in the midst of the asking, Jesus offers an invitation. It’s an invitation to follow, to stay with him, to form relationship, to see for yourself, to get experience with this Rabbi Jesus. Come and see.
Our questions, whatever questions they are, don’t build a wall between us and Jesus. If we have questions, we can still follow. We don’t need to have all our questions answered for discipleship to start. No. We start with our questions and bring those questions to Jesus. And Jesus invites us to come and see - and thus experience what he has to offer.
Jesus wants us to encounter the answers, not just hear about them. To Jesus, answers aren’t so much “words” and “sentences” as they are experiences and relationships. The answers aren’t about right/wrong, black/white, exact GPS coordinates. Jesus just wants us along. Jesus wants us to see, feel, interact with him and his mission. Come and see. That’s Jesus’ answer.
Much like me telling you the ending of The Last Jedi versus you watching it for yourself.
Much like a description of an amazing touchdown instead of you experiencing the throw, catch, and run.
Jesus says, “join in.” Experience it. Experience what being in relationship with me is like. Participate. Come. See.
He invites us to come and see for ourselves, to experience Jesus in ways that may not answer our immediate questions, but we get answers of a different sort. The answers are lived. Shown. Surprising. Transforming.
This new year brings a lot of questions to our congregation. We have a vision for where we want to go. We have plans for action, for mission, for moving forward in faith. A lot of this is new for us. The old answers we had weren’t working like they once did. And now, we’re left with questions about what will be. Who will do this? How is that going to be done? Can anything good come out of this? Jesus says, come and see. I say, come and see. I want you to know that there is invitation to relationship. There is invitation to community. There is invitation to walking together in faith. There is invitation to something meaningful, something deeper than a legalistic, take-it-or-leave-it answer. There is an invitation to walk with Jesus.
We trust that Jesus is here, even when we don’t get a verbal answer. Because along this journey, we’ll get to see and experience what Jesus is up to in this particular community of faith. Each step we take, more and more the rabbi is revealed to be the Messiah. And as Jesus is revealed, we get to grow, be nurtured and fed at his table, shaped as we move forward in faith. Jesus invites us to come and see.
And if an invitation over an answer is good enough for Jesus, I suppose it should be good enough for us, too. The disciples caught on pretty quick: Philip, instead of explaining everything to Nathaniel, simply says, “come and see.” Come, experience Jesus.
We should embody the answers for others. We should be the answers of Jesus without needing to use so many words. We should live out grace, love, forgiveness, invitation. It’s our calling. Our task. Our mission. Not to give the end-all, be-all of answers, but to invite people to come and see Jesus in our community of faith. Come, see Jesus in our lives. Come, see Jesus in this place. Come and grow. See and be nourished. Come, see, and move forward in faith.
The image many of us have of John the Baptist is one of a fiery prophet, an Old Testament like figure who wears clothes made of camel’s hair, eats bugs and honey, preaches a message of repentance, and baptizes all who take his message to heart. That is the figure we know most and find in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
The Baptist we find here in John, however, is a bit different. His introduction says nothing about his clothes, his food, his push for repentance, or his baptismal activity. Instead, this introduction focuses on his testimony. Kinda lame, right? What happened to the John we know and love - and are glad doesn’t come preaching to us?
Anyway, the arrival of priests and Levites set the stage. They come looking and asking questions - maybe even hoping for the answer they want. Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? Things could get really interesting! But John’s reply is: “No, no, no.”
“I am not the Messiah. I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”
The priests and Levites and the Pharisees who sent them aren’t satisfied with these answers. They keep pushing John. Well, if you aren’t those things, why do you baptize? Why are you wasting our time if you’re not the One? They were looking, waiting, watching. John seemed to fit the bill.
However, John knew his role. John knew his role because he knew what - who! - he was looking for. The priests, Levites, and Pharisees didn’t. Are you the prophet? Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? “Look at the Lamb.”
Once again, LAME. No one is waiting for a lamb. That is not who we’re waiting for. It seems John’s Baptist has lost all that made him memorable.
Remember the fire he had? The way he described who was coming? That’s what we want. We want our political figures to be strong and square-jawed. We want our preachers to have some fire and conviction. We want our saviors to fight and to win. We want them to command a certain respect. We desire them to be prominent. We need them to be… not a lamb.
But John knows something we don’t. John knows something about how God works that we often forget. And because of that, John knows where to point. Which may be helpful to us in this day and age who like loud over reasonable; who would rather have immediate over lasting. John knows how to use his voice. Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The lamb. Not the politician. Not the warrior. Not the fiery preacher. The lamb.
What John knows, what John sees, what John proclaims is that God comes, not as those things we of the world expect, not as those things we hold near and dear, not as those things we think will make it all right again. God comes… differently.
The lamb imagery we think of as so feeble and unconvincing points us to the great story of the Passover. The Israelites celebrate their salvation from slavery in Egypt by remembering and sharing the sacrificial meal of the passover lamb. Here, John presents Jesus as another saving act of God; this time, though, God will liberate the world not just from slavery in Egypt, but save us from Sin.
This is bigger than what the Levites and priests were thinking. This isn’t a mere revolution, a pretty politician to undo all that Rome had instituted. This was freedom of a different sort. Freedom from all that shackles us in this world. Set free from expectations - our own or those placed on us. Liberation from the bonds of Sin that keep us from truly being with God.
And the best part is, this liberation is a gift! Rather than come demanding repentance, John notes that the point of Jesus is forgiveness. The lamb simply takes away the Sin of the world. And this isn’t just saving us from individual sinful acts, but it is a liberation from the whole sinful condition that alienates us from God - the whole mess we find ourselves in. Christ is giving and forgiving. Christ comes as unexpected. Christ is the focus.
All this shapes John and his ministry. We think this John is a weak, restrained prophet, and yet John clearly and certainly points to God, to a saving God, to a forgiving God, in everything he does. Even his familiar description of Jesus’ baptism is a way to point beyond himself to a God who gives the Spirit. He baptizes not to cleanse people from sin but to reveal God’s presence in the world.
John the Baptist has a clear sense of who he is and who he is not, of God’s presence and revelation when he sees it, and of his life’s work as a testimony to that revelation. It’s not wrapped in the flashy packages of the other Gospels, which maybe makes us gloss over his message a bit. And yet, John shows us that what we do reveals to others what we believe about God. Do we think God is lame? Mean? Vindictive? Loving? Forgiving?
What we do reveals to others what we believe about God.
Which is a pretty daunting task. But we have an opportunity to live like John and not like the scribes, levites, pharisees, or world. We have a chance to show that Christ has come, forgiving the sin of the world. We have a chance to live in the unexpected way Jesus did. The world may see that as lame. We may see that as lame. But, for those who know Christ and Christ’s purpose, life, and way, each time we act, we point to Jesus, we proclaim Christ, we share the love of God.
So, what does that look like? That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked. There are, of course, ways we can serve and point: feeding the hungry, giving donations to mission, engaging in bible studies and small groups that challenge us and shape us. Those are all well and good - ways that we step down as the focus and instead let God’s love guide what we should do.
But also, each of us has opportunity each day to point to Christ, and for each of us, it’s different. I can’t tell you what to do each and every day. But, the driving force behind our actions should be a God who takes away all that separates us from God and each other - and not by condemnation or violence or superiority, but by humility and sacrifice and love. By being the Lamb. If those things guide us, then we will truly be pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world.
John knows his role. It’s not the role the world expects of him. Rather, his role is shaped because he knows who Jesus is. He knows what Jesus came to do and how Jesus was to go about it. Jesus is the Lamb. The lamb revealed in forgiveness. Revealed in bread and wine. Revealed in humility, service, grace. It’s not always what we’re looking for, but it is how God works. It is how God saves. It is how we see the Son of God, who takes away the Sin of the world.
That first Christmas was beautiful, wasn’t it? When you look at Renaissance paintings or Hallmark cards, you get a sense of just how special it was. Close your eyes, just for a second, and I know you can see it. Mary, perfect powder blue dress, kneeling by her child - her head tilted just so. Joseph, standing proudly and, yet, curiously behind her. Animals of all various barnyard types looking on inquisitively. There is a certain glow being cast, not only upon, but seeming to come from the stable where they are gathered. Palm trees dot the landscape as angels and smiles surround the eight pound, six ounce newborn baby Jesus - who, despite being only hours old, seems quite at peace.
It is a perfect image. And that kind of picturesque scene reminds me of the yearly family Christmas cards that get sent out. We get dozens of them each year; I’m sure you get many yourself. There is a collage of the family on the front, dressed to the nines, sometimes all wearing matching holiday sweaters. There’s mom and dad, each holding a kid standing in the middle of a field when the sunset is just right. (Around here, there are a lot of pictures involving Christmas trees on the beach.) The kids have sparkling eyes and bright smiles. Maybe the family pet even makes it into the picture - and even the pets are smiling! Christmas cards often look perfect.
But, if you’ve ever had your pictures taken with the intent of using them for your Christmas card… you know the chaos that surrounds that one, brief, picture-perfect moment. Imagine trying to get everyone dressed in matching holiday sweaters, and, because you have to get these cards designed, printed, and mailed by December, you’re usually wearing those sweaters in August. Mom can’t find the right boots to wear. Dad keeps yelling to hurry up. Daughter spills juice on her dress. Son has a snotty nose he keeps wiping on his sleeve. The dog just pooped. The kids won’t leave each other alone. “Stop!” “It was an accident!” “No it wasn’t!” And so you plead with them. Just smile, just be good for ONE ONE-HUNDREDTH OF A SECOND so we can get a picture! Everyone always leaves a bit cranky on picture day. But, in the end, you get your beautiful, picture-perfect card.
And that’s what the Christmas story is about. No, not pictures. It’s about reality. About OUR reality. That’s what Christ is born into. We have this ideal, beautiful image of Christmas, but that first Christmas was anything but perfect! Nothing was ideal.
Mary, the mother, was an unwed teenager. Joseph wasn’t the father of the baby. Both were traveling a long way to a place they didn’t even know; they were foreigners in that land. And when they get there, there isn’t anywhere to stay. They were turned away at each place they went. Rejected. They were sent out back to the shed to deliver their baby, their first born son. There they were, in a stable, with real animals who smell and hay that isn’t as soft as you might think. It’s not beautiful. It’s kind of tragic.
Christ was born into this.
Christ was born for this.
See, Christmas cards and intricate paintings are great - they are an opportunity to tell a story, but it’s never the whole story. The reality of the first Christmas is that Christ was born for the whole story, not just the stuff we want people to see.
In the Christ child, God enters into our reality, into all of our reality. God enters the chaos, the imperfections, the craziness, and somehow makes it beautiful. God comes to this. Because God comes to this, like this, we can trust that God is present in any piece of our life, not just those worthy of a postage stamp. We know God is present in the brokenness and imperfections of our life, because God didn’t shy away from the brokenness and imperfections of Bethlehem.
That’s the gift of Christmas. God enters our lives - our real lives - and promises something beautiful.
As we gather tonight, some of us may feel like our lives are beautiful, while others of us may see nothing but brokenness and imperfection. Chances are, we’re somewhere in between. But we gather tonight to hear again the promise that, no matter what, Christ is born - born for you!
God is present in our lives. God is here in worship, giving us gifts of bread and wine, of song and word, of light and life. But the gifts don’t stop here. They don’t stop tonight. They don’t stop when we leave this place. God promises to carry on through into tomorrow and the next day. God promises to be born in our lives, no matter their shape. That includes the moments we put on Christmas cards, and those moments we don’t.
And more than that, God promises to work out something beautiful where we didn’t think it could be. As we think back to that first Christmas, the scene itself isn’t all that great. But we remember it fondly, not because it was pretty or perfect, but because God was present there. God’s presence is what makes the difference.
The baby born this night will show us the full extent of what God’s presence means. God will be present, in good and bad, but through it all, God promises to bring life. To bring grace. To bring forgiveness. To bring an empty tomb. To bring beauty despite whatever else is going on.
Our savior is born into this. Our savior is born for this.
And that is what we celebrate. God doesn’t shy away, but God comes. And God works. God works to make something beautiful where it didn’t look like it could be. Like a picture on a card. Or a birth in a barn. And even in our lives every day.
That’s the gift of Christmas. And it’s beautiful.
The book of Isaiah is broken up into three distinct sections. Without getting too much into the nitty gritty, I simply want to let you know that our lesson for today, Chapter 55, comes at the end of the second section of this book. As such, it’s kind of a summary of all that has gone on since Chapter 40. The focus of “Second Isaiah,” as it is called, is Israel returning home from exile, so things are upbeat, exciting, and hopeful.
However, as a summary of earlier statements and prophecies, it’s not quite as cohesive as what it’s summarizing. It bounces quickly from theme to theme, so it’s a bit hard to follow unless you’ve read straight through from Chapter 40, and I didn’t want to make Linda read all that. We’re pulling together lots of threads here, and lots of threads make it harder to understand. There is the beginning in verses 1 and 2 with imagery of food and drink. Then we all of a sudden jump to the restoration of the Davidic line in 3, 4, and 5. Then we are told in verses 6 and 7 to seek God. Verses 8 through 11 reflect on God’s unknown ways of working. Finally, the chapter concludes with all of nature rejoicing at the return of Israel to their home.
There’s already a lot to do the week before Christmas; adding “write a cohesive sermon incorporating all five of these themes” is supposed to make the list, too? Well, I’m going to have to ask you for forgiveness, because I’m not going to do that. The five themes piece, that is. I totally am going to try to have a cohesive sermon. And to help with that, I just want to focus on one piece.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
Is it an understatement to say God’s ways are surprising?
Throughout scripture, we human beings often have a hard time seeing or understanding why God is doing one thing or another. Generally in the Old Testament, our confusion revolves around something negative: a flood, an enemy winning, the chosen person is some outcast from regular societal norms. “God’s ways sure are peculiar,” say we the people.
Even today, we paraphrase this verse in the midst of negative situations that happen in our lives or others’ lives. In times when we don’t really know what is going on we say:
“It’s all in God’s hands.”
“The Lord knows.”
“Give it to God.”
It’s like God’s purpose is to make a bad thing happen just so we could be reminded that God can do what God wants. Deaths, disasters, destruction are all meant to remind us that we aren’t God. Which is kind of like having a bully for your god. He’ll shove you into the lockers just because he can. What’s the purpose in that? “Oh, God’s ways are not like our ways.” It’s almost unthinkable.
On the other hand, sometimes it is the complete opposite. Sometimes, God’s unknown ways are squarely placed in the context of something overwhelmingly positive. That is the case for Israel in today’s lesson. They are returning home! God’s unknown ways are providing blessing!
Again, to bring it to our context, often when something good happens, who gets the credit? We do, of course. We worked for it. We strategically placed ourselves in the right place at the right time. We’re good enough, smart enough, talented enough. We are deserving of the good things that happen. That’s the way we think.
But what if we’re wrong on both accounts? What if we’re wrong that God makes all this bad stuff happen to put us in our place AND we’re wrong about God taking a back seat when something beneficial happens in our life?
If God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, as high as heaven is from earth, well… what is the driving, motivating factor for God? What is God’s end game? I think it all comes down to purpose, to plan. The next few verses of Isaiah 55 help explain it.
God’s purpose is to bring life. Just as rain and snow descend from the skies, doing their work of making things grow and blossom, producing seeds and food, so will God’s words go out and produce good things, growing things, life-giving things. God’s word accomplishes that which God purposes. And God’s purpose is to be like rain, to water, to nourish, to bring about life - life in every unpredictable circumstance there is.
That’s the key, there, I think. It isn’t just that God rolls some Divine Dice in heaven to see what will happen to you today. The world is random enough on its own. It’s that in all of those pieces of everyday, God is working to bring life. Often, we forget that piece of God’s quote/unquote plan. God’s plan to bring life. In the blessings, God is creating life. In the routine, God is working to create life. In those negative, not good, never-want-to-experience places, God so desperately wants to bring life.
And God says that the word that goes out will not return empty. It will accomplish that which God purposes, no matter what. That ties back into God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We see reality - not what could be. We see limits - not opportunities. We hope, but things don’t go as we planned. But God’s ways are not our ways. God can do more than we can. God is persistent through things we aren’t - through things we can’t be. God’s word will not come back empty.
The persistence of God’s word is the story of faith. A stable and a manger didn’t stop God. A betrayal didn’t either. Nor did friends fleeing. Not even a cross stopped God’s word. God sends the Word to accomplish life. God’s ways are not our ways. God will succeed in doing what God purposes. Who would’ve thought.
If God works to do that, to do the unthinkable, then surely in everything else God is on our side, working to make good. We don’t need to be bogged down in what is unknown about God: we know what we need to know. You are loved, loved to heaven and back. Loved an unthinkable amount. Loved with a purpose.
The people to whom Isaiah was preaching were hearing this Good News and being energized by it. This message is one full of potential. Anything is possible. God has set you free - and God will work to bring something new here. God will bring life, life in a new way. They don’t know exactly what that looks like - it’s all new - and they get to be part of that with God! And they know they are loved with a purpose.
And as we embark on our daily journey through life, with all the unpredictability of good and bad, we can trust that God’s promise in all things is to send the Word to accomplish life. We plan, we vision for the future. But God’s ways are not our ways. And sometimes, although things don’t always turn out like we plan, sometimes, just sometimes, they turn out wildly better. We don’t know exactly what is instore for us over the next weeks, months, or years, but we know what God’s purposes are: to bring life in unexpected, unthinkable ways. And we get to be part of that. We are loved with a purpose.
Bringing love and life to every situation is hard work. But God is committed to it and will not give up. In Christ we see the outcome. In Christ, we see God’s purpose. Life wins. Grace wins. Love wins. Who would’ve thought.
A quick bit of history on the prophet Ezekiel: Ezekiel preached and prophesied during a difficult time in Israel’s history. They had been overtaken by the Babylonians, deported out of their land, and banished into exile. They lost everything that ever meant anything to them: land, temple, family, identity.
Throughout Ezekiel’s ministry, he has visions - visions that weren’t just prophecies but metaphors for Israel’s situation and life. Today, we get probably the most famous vision: the valley of dry bones.
God’s call comes to Ezekiel, and God’s spirit leads him to a valley strewn with bones. It looks like the aftermath of battle; corpses are slain everywhere. But, they aren’t corpses anymore; they’re nothing but bones. There were bones all over the place - dry bones, picked clean of their flesh by scavengers, bleached out by the sun. These people were long dead. Not just sort of dead. Very dead.
Upon hearing this vision described, Israel would’ve said, “that’s us! We are lifeless in exile. We are nothing but a pile of bones.” Fragile. Apart from God. Empty. And the vision continues.
God says to Ezekiel, “prophesy to the bones.” And as he prophesies, there is this rattling noise, noise of bones moving and snapping together. Kind of creepy. Then there are sinews and muscles and skin. A little more creepy… There is wind from the four corners, and then there is life. Life out of a pile of dry, dead bones!
God concludes, "I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil." Ezekiel's message is the promise that God's spirit will one day reach out and bring the people back from exile. That feeling of lifelessness will be gone. God will be present, bringing about something new and full and spirit-filled.
To which Israel says, “Amen! We can’t wait for that day!”
This is a remarkable vision Ezekiel shares. It is the promise of home while the Israelites feel so far away. It’s the promise of full presence in the midst of a feeling of emptiness. It’s the promise of life among that which was bone-dry.
And when we as Christians get this story, we can’t help but look at it through the lens of Jesus. We know what God did for Jesus - he who once was crucified, lifeless, laid in a tomb. God brought life out of death. And so we hear the prophet’s promise for Israel as a promise for us, too. Because of Jesus, one day, we won’t be dead, but alive! We won’t be dry bones but living beings! God promises to bring life out of bone-filled valleys, sealed tombs, and burried caskets. One day.
To which we say, “Amen. We can’t wait for that day!”
In this season of Advent, we wait - we wait for the promise to be fulfilled.
But… and I’m going to go against the theme of Advent here a bit… You don’t have to wait until you’re dead for the spirit of God to come. Because God’s Spirit is right under your nose.
See, there is an interesting thing about this passage. There is this one word that comes up a lot in the Hebrew - 10 times in 14 verses, actually. It’s the Hebrew word, “ruach,” which means spirit, breath, and wind. We translate it all three ways in our passage for today. We have spirit. We have breath. And we have wind. But those words don’t mean the same thing to us.
For example, breath and spirit are almost completely opposed to each other. Breath is just air flowing in and out of lungs. It’s routine. It’s mechanical. We can control it - mostly. Breathe in, breathe out. Spirit is quite different. It’s abstract. It’s unpredictable - crazy even. We can’t control it, no matter how hard we try. God’s spirit blows, and we never know what is going to happen. They’re not the same!
Yet, they are the same. In Hebrew, to Israel, in scripture, they are the same thing. We are supposed to hear them as the same thing - or at least super duper close to the same thing. One reminds us of the other. The clearest example of that probably happens in Genesis 2, where God gets down and crafts a human being out of the mud. But it was just mud until God breathed breath into it. God’s breath gave the dirt spirit. God breathed and the mud had God’s ruach. God breathed and there was life.
Where God’s spirit is, where breath is, there is life. New life. Resurrected life. In these bones of the valley, God’s spirit brings that life. In the mud-man God creates and breathes spirit into, God brings life. Into a stone-sealed tomb, God’s spirit brings resurrected life.
So, maybe we should abandon our English language differences between spirit and breath and hear “ruach” for what it is meant to be. Breath is spirit. Spirit is wind. It is all God’s ruach.
Which means as we breathe, each breath is God’s spirit coming in and out.
Which means God’s spirit flows in us and through us in rhythm.
Which means God is as near as the next breath you take; God is right under your nose.
Which means you don’t need to wait until you’re dead for the spirit of God to come.
If you’re breathing, you’ve got God’s spirit. And where God’s spirit is, God is creating life, new life, resurrected life. God’s spirit is close, doing all the things the spirit does - all the unpredictable, crazy blowing about - but also coming in a methodical, rhythmic, steady, life-giving way.
Knowing this, how does that change our lives? God is with us. Instead of turning faith into something we hope for, something we want to happen one day, God’s spirit says, why not right now? In how we live and move and have our being, God is with us. In all the uncertainty and change in our lives and in our congregation, God is present, bringing about something new and full and spirit-filled.
God gives us the spirit in routine, rhythmic ways and also in big gusts of change, all to bring life to what once was nothing but dirt and bones. It is a wind at our backs that moves us forward, to live out our faith now in ways we haven’t had the motivation, creativity, or plan for. It is a spirit of hope and excitement and newness, energizing us to invite, welcome, participate, and share. It is a breath, a promise of life, a gift of God’s presence, right under our nose.
God’s ruach is giving you life, giving you forgiven life, giving you new life. Transforming ordinary things into life-giving things.
God comes to the dirt and creates life. God comes to the valley and turns bones into living beings. God comes to bread and wine and gives us a meal that fills us with grace. God comes to water and the spirit grabs ahold of us forever. God comes to what was lifeless and gives it breath. God comes. And not just one day, but to-day.
So breathe. Let God’s spirit fill you. Trust that God is working now as much as God will work one day to come. Because without God, without the Spirit here, we’re nothing but bones.
Instead, God chooses to give us life. Life that is right under our nose.
And to that we say, “Amen.”
Donald Trump’s hair.
Barack Obama’s ears.
George W. Bush’s ears.
Bill Clinton’s nose.
In political cartoons, all these things get exaggerated. They are meant to mock - sometimes kindheartedly, but most of the time not. These cartoons typically combine artistic skill, exaggeration, and satire in order to question authority and draw attention to corruption, political violence, or other social ills. Their point is to poke fun at our political leaders - to make us smile or laugh or roll our eyes in the midst of things that might make us want to cry. The humor and mocking of political leaders helps us personally defend against feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.
Our story for today is full of such hyperbole. Believe it or not, this story of the Firey Furnace is a political cartoon of sorts. All of it is meant to mock the powers that be. In some of the verses we leave out, long lists of officials are repeated over and over; the numerous musical instruments are listed several times; the furnace is heated to seven times normal. These are all meant to mock the pomp and arrogance of King Nebuchadnezzar - and pretty much any other king. It’s satire. It’s humor. It’s meant to tease earthly rulers, reassure listeners, and shed light on a different truth.
As the story begins, King Nebuchadnezzar has built a massive golden statue. It’s ninety feet high - and only nine feet across. Again, mocking. Wouldn’t a statue like that look ridiculous? But, regardless, the King commands that all must bow before it. Everyone must worship his statue! And thus, the conflict begins. This command directly challenges the faithfulness of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The King then tells them, “If you don’t worship the statue, you will be pitched into a roaring furnace. Who is the god who can rescue you from my power?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faithfulness to God is exemplary. While the narrator mocks, these three are serious saints. They say, “Your threat means nothing to us. If you throw us in the fire, God can rescue us from your furnace - and anything else you cook up!” Pretty amazing. What examples. What icons of the faith!
So, remember the lesson which has been passed down via our Sunday school classes: have faith, beloved disciples of 2017! Do as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did! Stay perfect in faith and God will save you from everything! Trust and furnaces won’t hurt you! Believe and you won’t have difficulties! Have faith so great that God will save you, even from politics!
Ah, now it is me who is doing a little bit of mocking.
Even though following this admirable faith example is probably what we learned growing up… that can’t be right - at least, that can’t be ALL. Is salvation, is “being saved,” a mere formula? Are the results really in our control? And if we don’t get the desired result, did we not input enough faith?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faith that God could save them is exemplary, but that is not the point of the chapter. And if not that, then what is?
Three little words open this story up for us. After the three assert what their God can do - God can save us! - then they say, “but if not…” But if not. In the midst of mocking our world and its leaders, this story takes a sober turn into something very real. “But if not,” cuts to a deeper truth that frightens us a little bit, but maybe in the midst of mockery we can hear it for what it is.
Who can save you, this cartoon character of a leader, or the God of Israel?
While Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego don’t put their trust in the earthly leaders, it seems that they aren’t all that confident in God to save them either. “But if not,” expresses doubt, doesn’t it? But I see it a different way. God can save us, but if not, we still trust God to do what is right, to have us, to be who God is. It is confidence in God either way. It is trust that God has them, fire or not. It is faith, no matter what happens to them, even in the face of earthly arrogance and narcissism.
Yet, this faith is not a transaction with God. God is not a vending machine into which we insert our faithfulness and out comes the reward we are seeking. “If we do this, God, then you have to do that!” Instead, what these three show is an absolute faith, trusting in God and in God’s salvation even in the trials, pain, and fires of this world. They aren’t in it to gain anything for themselves. They know God is God, and God isn’t absent in those firey times, no matter what happens.
“But if not…” We don’t include that phrase too often in our prayers, because it is hard. “But if not” is hard to pray when faced with a firey furnace. “But if not” is hard to pray in a hospital room. “But if not” is hard to pray when we so desperately want something else.
But if not… God still has you.
God can save, heal, deliver. But if not... God still saves, heals, delivers.
Look at the life of Jesus. If faithfulness is what keeps one from pain, suffering, and death, well, Jesus should’ve qualified for a pretty cushy life. And yet, the Son of God, the Light of the World, the Way, the Truth, and the Life was put on trial, wrongly convicted, suffered at the hands of Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. “Let this cup pass from me,” Jesus prayed the night before. But if not… But if not, I know you still have me.
The lesson we learn today isn’t that our faithfulness saves us. Only God can do that type of saving. Instead, we learn to trust God’s promise in the midst of it all. Trusting that promise, no matter what, gives us hope - hope that in all things, through all things, despite all things, God will save. That kind of faith frees us, gives us the ability to mock those things in our world that pretend to save us. Because they can’t. They won’t.
And more so, in a way, this story is less of a lesson and more of a promise. God and only God can spare us from the firey furnaces of this world. And sometimes, God doesn’t take away the difficulties in our lives. And if not, the promise is God is with you in the fire. And even more than that, God’s purposes can even be accomplished in, with, and through the fire.
We want to be saved from the furnaces, from the powers, from the crosses of our world.
But if not, God still has us.
But if not, God is still present, standing with us as flames are all around.
But if not, God has a way of rolling back tombstones.
But if not, God resurrects something new.
In this Advent season, we await a coming King who can save, does save, will save, once and for all. We know the promise; we trust the promise; we hope for the promise to be fulfilled. And so we stand, faithful in the midst of a world that calls us to worship other things, strengthened by a common meal, forgiven and loved, sealed by the ultimate “but if not” sign of the cross. A sign that shows us God still saves, heals, and delivers.
It’s been a couple of weeks since the time change, but I’m still surprised that it gets dark at 5:30 in the evening. Those who have brushed up on their solstices and equinoxes know that the days are getting shorter and shorter. Night time - the dark - is longer and longer.
There is something about darkness that unsettles us. Think about walking down a dark street at night. There is isolation, vulnerability, and threat. You can’t see as well, so your other senses get heightened. You hear every noise, and every noise makes the mind race about what evil could be lurking in the bushes. Imaginations get heightened in darkness, too. Even as adults, we’re not too different than the four-year-old who sleeps with her closet light on.
It’s amazing what just a little bit of light - a full moon, a night light, a lone candle - can do in darkness.
This is the image Isaiah sets before us today. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Isaiah is preaching to a people who truly live in dark times. Threats, empires, and powers surround Israel, and the people are afraid. There are weapons of violence and injustices all around. They don’t know how things will be for them. But there was a bigger issue at hand: God was silent in the face of their threats. The darkness of evil surrounds them, and they are in the dark about what God was going to do about it. The uncertainty, the caution, the vulnerability set in. Which is something we can relate to, too. We don’t like to be in the dark.
But that is where we are a lot of the time. You can pick any example from a long list of issues in our country and world where darkness casts its gloom. The problems of “then” are still the problems of now: misuse of power, unbridled violence, subtle and overt injustice. Darkness overshadows. In our own lives, we wrestle with our own problems. Sometimes it’s the darkness of disease we do our best to fight. Other times darkness barges into our lives, caring not for our thoughts or feelings on the matter. Sometimes things are outside of our control, leaving us without a clear view of what will happen next. Darkness leaves us helpless.
From our own personal struggles, to issues in our country and world, we wonder where God is. Why the silence? Why the violence? Why the distance? Why the darkness?
We are people who walk in darkness.
It’s amazing what even a little light will do.
And God doesn’t give us just a night light. God gives a great light; light shines in the darkness.
God sends this light to bring joy where there was none. Oppression will be defeated. The yoke, the staff, the rod will all be broken. The violence, the pain, even the marching boots and garments soaked in blood will be burned in a brightly glowing fire. What once was damaging and detrimental, God will take care of. The old ways of battle, injustice, and oppression will be transformed to peace and righteousness and light forever.
The Good News is this promise is for us, for all people who have walked in darkness. For a child has been born for us. A son given to us. God’s light comes in the form of a child. True authority rests on his shoulders. This authority is not a in yoke or a bar or a staff like what this world brings. Instead, he is the Prince of Peace, and his peace will be endless.
We know this to be true because God, the Lord of hosts, will do this.
When Isaiah was proclaiming this salvation oracle, in his mind, this soon-to-be-born child most likely was a king to come. He thought this because that is what he knew. He knew kings. And, in a way, he was right. But God often has a way of taking our good ideas and doing something great with them - something even greater than we can imagine.
It’s amazing what even a little light will do.
And God doesn’t give us just a night light.
God gives a great light; light shines in the darkness; God gives us Jesus, the light of the world.
Jesus is the light God gives. Jesus is the light that brings a vivid sense of hope and life into our world of darkness. Jesus is the light that brings peace to chaos. Jesus is the light that helps us see God’s plans for us. Jesus is the light that shows us darkness is not forever. Jesus is the light that shows us God.
In darkness, God shines. Out of emptiness, God promises. Out of the cross, God raises.
It’s amazing what even a little light can do.
Jesus is the light, but Jesus gives us his light, too. Why do we light a candle at a baptism and hand it over? Because we are given the light of Christ to share and shine in our dark world. There are things we know can bring some light. Whatever the thing you do that brings a little light and life to this world, now is the time to do it. Find courage in the gift of Christ who shines within you. Find hope in promise that darkness is not all there is. Find life in shining - not because it is always the best or brightest, but because God gave you that light to shine.
In our lives, as a congregation, as people of faith, God shines light - light that says what was, what is, that isn’t all. God’s light gives us hope. God has something new in store - something greater than we can imagine.
Hear the promises again: The Lord of hosts will do this. Will do this for the people who walked in darkness. A Son is given for us. Given for you. Every time we hear those words, “for you,” we are reminded. These words are full of hope, shining God’s light into our lives, giving us a sense of purpose, direction, life - things darkness doesn’t offer.
It’s amazing what a little light can do. So, let it shine.
Amos isn’t a very familiar prophet to most of us, but today we get probably the most famous line: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It was a common verse and theme used by Martin Luther King Jr., which may be why the verse sounds so familiar.
But there is a lot going on before we get to that line. So, let’s look.
We start off getting Amos’ first prophecy, and it isn’t a good one for the Israelites. The Lord roars; God is like a lion. The pastures of the shepherds wither. I mentioned a few weeks ago that shepherds are often associated with kings. It appears that the king’s rule is about to wither. Carmel, the place that is about to dry up, is the mountain at the border of Israel’s territory.
All in all, things aren’t looking good.
In verses 14 and 15 of chapter 5, Amos encourages Israel to repent. Turn from your ways of evil; do what is good; establish justice. That kind of stuff is always good to do, but particularly in this context it is. The wedge of inequity was being driven through society. There were the haves and the have-nots, and it was getting worse, not better. There were different classes of citizens, and the wealthy landowners played a big role in keeping it that way. Thus, Amos’ plea to repent.
In the last section, starting at verse 21, God speaks. And if you thought the first two sections were kind of harsh, look at this third piece. God is not happy.
“I hate; I despise; I take no delight in; I do not accept; I do not look upon them with favor; I do not listen to the “noise” of your hymnody.” Ouch. God is berating the Israelites over their worship.
But the Israelites love worship! They really enjoy it. They aren’t pouty or anything. Nor were they doing anything wrong. They aren’t worshiping idols. They do all the right things in their worship service - and do them sincerely! They have festivals and solemn assemblies. They offer sacrifices and sing all the old favorite hymns. They love it!
But God is remarkably harsh. So, what’s the problem, God?
The problem is worship doesn’t affect their lives. The people do all of the right things, but their daily practices are not shaped by God’s justice and righteousness, which genuine worship enforces. The inequality present in society is case in point.
This issue I now bring before you. God says worship should change us, shape us, mold us into living out justice and righteousness. There should be a connection between what we do right now and, say, Tuesday at 4:30 in the afternoon. Our actions in here should shape and inform what we do out there. In short, what difference does what we do in worship make?
Let’s start with an easy one. Communion. It is the meal we celebrate as Christians. For us as Lutherans, it’s an important piece of worship. We commune at Jesus’ table; Jesus is the host. He feeds us and nourishes us. He gives us what we need for our stomachs and our souls. And based on who Jesus ate with during his lifetime, we take that as an example for our practice. Jesus shows us that anyone is welcome at his table, and so we welcome everyone. All are welcome. That’s the theological, worshipful part. Now, what difference does that make, not just here and now, but in your life?
I think what it does is it shapes other meals in our lives, particularly meals with and for the outcast, the lowly among us, the ones who aren’t welcomed very often. As an example of living this out, we open up our fellowship hall to feed the homeless. We set the tables, we serve, we feed. But we do more than just give them food. We interact with them. We feed their souls as well as their stomachs. We invite any and all to the meal. All are welcome to eat. We do for them what Jesus does for us. We welcome, we feed, we nourish. That is how worship transforms one aspect of our life.
How about something a little harder?
Confession. We often confess our sins on a Sunday morning. We read together a confessional prayer and hear again the promise of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love. It’s a time when we are verbally reassured. We remember again the foundation of our relationship with God. We often are pointed to the fact we are joined to Jesus in the waters of baptism. Because of baptism, we have the visible reminder that God continually comes to us through the Holy Spirit, offering a forgiven new life each day and forever. In confession, we are free to let go of what was, created anew to grow into the promises of God.
And surely, you can confess each day. No problems there. But aside from that, what does it mean that you are a baptized child of God? Each day, we have the chance to remember that gift of grace. Water - a splash, a shower, a drink, a rainstorm - water makes invisible grace visible to us. The more we remember our forgiven status, the less we carry around the weight of guilt, hurt, or questions on our standing with God. Instead, we remember we are fully known and fully loved. And as we remember this gift is for us, we start to see it as a gift for others, too. We live out the grace we have received - through our interactions, through our giving, through being more like who God made us to be - which might just mean striving for righteousness and justice - being gracious to those people we sometimes think don’t deserve it. It’s a daily walk of forgiveness.
Ok, now let’s flip it around. Let’s take a life issue and see how worship informs us on that. How about the shooting in a Texas worship service last week? Yet again, people dug in their heels pretty quick on the opposing sides. No surprise. But how does worship shape us in this situation? There are lots of ways to go with this, and some of you might get a little squirmy during this conversation, but hang in there.
First, one of the things that gets said a lot after a shooting is “thoughts and prayers.” Now, we pray during worship; it is good and right to. In fact, Barb has a petition ready to go to pray for those families and the community. But my issue is, “thoughts” aren’t prayers and “prayers” aren’t thoughts. Prayer is conversation with God - and if it is conversation, that means God speaks, too. In prayer, God works to shape us, to help us see God’s will with the intent that our will starts to align with “thy will be done.” Prayer should cause us to live more like God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, not just be nice thoughts in our head.
But worship can help inform us in another way, too, and that is through community. Community is an important piece of worship - gathering with the faithful. We gather with neighbors from all walks of life, to share joys and sorrows, to support each other, to learn and grow together, to be one Body. It’s a gift to be part of a community.
And here’s where a worshiping community can inform our lives: we can love our neighbors out there as we do in here. And not just in the metaphorical, across the world kind of neighbors. But our literal neighbors, those in our community. So often these days, we don’t know who is in our community. We’re so fixated on our individuality, we don't know how to balance that with our need for community and the responsibility to look out for one another.
Worship gathers all people as part of God’s family. So, each day, we can live like the body of Christ with those who are in proximity to us, doing what we do as a community of faith - checking in on them, loving them, supporting them. So often, these are crazy guys with no support system; what would it look like if we could support someone who was struggling, or hold accountable someone who thought violence would solve an issue, or walk with someone who simply needed a human connection?
I’m not saying that this will stop all mass shootings ever til the end of time. But loving a neighbor can’t hurt anything, right? I’ve never heard that there was too much love in the world. So many people desperately need acceptance and love; not having that wreaks havoc in so many ways. Worship is a place where we learn to accept and love someone else because God accepts and loves them, too. Maybe it is time to live that out in our daily lives.
At the end of the day, worship is meant to point us to God’s righteousness and justice - things that we strive for, even though we know our best won’t quite get us there. And so, we come to hear the promise that we are in God’s hands, and God has set the victory in motion. We leave this place, doing our best to be living testimony to that fact, fed and nourished, forgiven and claimed, welcomed and accepted. Now and forever.
For all the saints.
Today is a day in which we remember the saints in our lives. While there are some days in the Church calendar dedicated to certain historical people, today is less about heroic figures of faith and more about people we ourselves have known and loved. We celebrate those in our lives who have told us the story of God through living their own story. It’s not just about famous people church buildings are named after; it’s about your mother. Your husband. Your children, your siblings, your friends. Your saints.
The flipside of this day is that their story has ended. Because today isn’t just a day when we remember saints in our lives; it is a day we remember the saints in our lives who have died.
Not an All Saints Sunday goes by that I don’t think about my grandmother who died back in 2001. Not a funeral goes by without me thinking about her, for that matter. For numerous reasons, she is the saint I think about most often. Maybe it was the way she was so involved in church; maybe it was her cutting out little prayers from the newspaper and encouraging me to read them at Thanksgiving; maybe it was just the first real loss I had in my life… or maybe it’s that she is a saint who showed me God in ways I didn’t even know. She’s the saint I most often remember. You might have someone like that, too.
In particular, the tradition today is to name those who have died in the past year who were members of our faith community. It’s not that the other saints don’t matter; they do. We remember some of them today, but we surely can’t remember them all.
And it’s not that grief disappears after twelve months. Surely it hangs around. But there is something particular about grief in the first year. Old habits have a bit more pain to them; the stories are more colorful and vivid; the empty seat at the table seems a little more prominent. There are all the “firsts” without them - first Christmas, first birthday, first anniversary.
Grief. It is palpable. What we wouldn’t give for God to intervene, to reverse the pain, to ease the sorrow, to let us feel normal again. We ask God to rewrite our current story, to appear in our lives in ways that will convince us that everything is going to be alright. We want God to move mountains - or at least show up.
This is where Elijah’s story can be helpful to us. Elijah is on the run, afraid, grief-stricken over his situation. He wants God to show up. In his flight away from Jezebel, he ends up at Horeb, the mountain of God. This is the very same mountain Moses ascended and received the 10 Commandments. Surely, God will intervene, right?
Elijah is instructed to stand on the mountain because God would indeed come - just what Elijah wanted! A powerful sign, a convincing presence, a mighty deed to assure him that everything would be OK. He wouldn’t need to be grief-stricken any more.
Then there was a strong wind - so strong that it broke apart rocks! But God was not in the wind.
Then there was an earthquake, shaking the whole mountain! But God was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake was a fire, blazing and burning. But God was not in the fire.
Where was God? And then, nothing.
The sound of sheer silence.
A gentle and quiet whisper.
A still, small voice.
At other times, to other people, God had shown up in magnificent, miraculous, impressive ways! But here, God chooses another way, a way very different from those other ways.
As we grieve, we want the fires, the earthquakes, the winds; we want the grand moments to prove to us that God is bigger than what we feel. However, God chooses to be present in places, ways, and people that aren’t quite as flashy. God is present in the silence. God is there in the stillness. God is there when it seems like nothing is there.
We may feel abandoned by God, but nothing is farther from the truth.
Elijah is just one example of God showing up in ways we don’t think. Christ on the cross is another. At the point when Jesus feels the most abandoned, God is not distant. Even when it feels like all was lost, and death won the victory, God shows up with resurrection, new life, and an empty tomb. Death writes one story; God writes another.
Now, for sure, resurrection isn’t as quiet as a still, small voice, but it shows God continues to work in any and all circumstances. In the ultimate silence that is death, in the small stillness that is grief, God whispers one.
God speaks. God continues to show up in ways that surprise. God sticks to the promise to be in our lives - to give us life! - no matter what happens.
Jesus lives to tell us that promise. Death is not the end. It does not take us, or the saints, away from God. Instead, Jesus gives us hope - hope that we, too, can follow the example that has been set for us. We can be faithful, a model for others in our own lives. We are part of the saints of God - forgiven, claimed, promised life.
That is the heart of the Gospel, isn’t it?
The Good News is that God has and does show up to give us promise, silently, loudly, with a whisper and a wide open tomb. God has an amazing way of grabbing ahold of sinners and transforming them into saints, taking what was broken, misplaced, even dead, and turning it into something new, something full of hope, something resurrected. Every single day.
It is what God does through baptism: washing us and claiming us so we continually die to our broken, sinful selves and rise up as the saints of God. God feeds us with bread of life, sustaining us so we can continue our journey. God provides what we need - both in tomb-busting events and still, silent ways - all so God can bring life.
For Elijah, God tells him to go back. He’s not alone. There are thousands more. His story is not over. And, because of God’s work in Christ Jesus, that also is the story of the saints. That is our story, too. In our grief, in our death, God keeps writing. God writes the story of love that transforms us, transforms us from lonely, broken human beings into the forgiven, redeemed saints of God.
That story gets whispered. It gets sung. It gets shouted. It gets told. It is the story, for all the saints.
If your Baptist friends think you’re Catholic,
and your Catholic friends think you’re Baptist,
you just might be Lutheran.
I stole that joke from a newspaper article Barbara Myers gave me. I don’t know if I could’ve been that clever.
Here's how clever I got. To honor Luther’s famous words when he was asked to recant his position and fall back in line with the Catholic church, I wanted to change all the “we stands” in the bulletin to “here we stands.”
But enough of the silly chit-chat. Today is a pretty big day!
On October 31, 1517, right at 500 years ago, a monk teaching at the university of Wittenberg posted a set of 95 theological arguments on the door of the castle church in order to invite an academic debate. This was not terribly out of the ordinary. 99.9% of the time, it would have occasioned little more than an opportunity for academics to do what they love to do most: argue about things no one else really cares about.
But this time was different.
Because of a strange overlap of circumstances – religious, political, societal, cultural, and even technological (think “printing press”) – this teacher’s theological theses eventually went viral and was the spark that started the whole blaze we know as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, the monk in question, ended up being one of the most pivotal figures in Western history.
And on this 500 year anniversary, it’s good to reflect on what the Reformation is all about.
For some, it’s saying “nanny-nanny-boo-boo” to Catholics. We’ve got it right, you’ve got it wrong. We are justified by grace through faith, not by works, or prayers, and especially not by purchasing it. But division isn’t good; it isn’t what Martin Luther wanted it. And having that kind of attitude stalls any sort of reconciliation to being the church as God intends.
For others, the Reformation shows that the church should always be reforming, creating, changing. Which is nice in theory, but we hate putting it into practice. It hurts to change, to reform - even if what is on the other side of the reformation is full of hope and promise. We still have to leave something that “was” or “is” to get to “what will be.”
Some don’t think any more about it than a day in history. Some celebrate it because of heritage. Others for the theology. So, what is the Reformation about?
And after going around and around, I finally decided to let the Bible tell me. Good pastoral insight, right? After all, Luther changed the world because he read his Bible; maybe I should do that, too. And looking at our Scripture passages for today, I think they point us in the right direction.
Reformation is about the freedom we have in God’s love.
Which is a really hard message to preach, actually, and that’s based on a couple of things. First, it is hard to preach because our American idea of what freedom is rubs up against what Jesus and Luther think freedom is. We think freedom is being able to choose: choose an opinion, choose a career, choose what you want on your hamburger. That’s not what Jesus or Luther were talking about. We’ll get to more on that in about six minutes.
Second, saying that God’s love sets us free means that we weren’t - or aren’t - free. Which can be pretty offensive to us self-made, independent people. To get an example, look at Jesus in John’s Gospel.
Jesus offers the Jews who were following him freedom. Made insecure and offended by the implication that they are not free, they push back. “We don’t need your freedom; we’ve never been slaves!” (Apparently forgetting about that whole Egypt thing.) We, too, have a desire to justify ourselves and exclaim, “we’re not slaves!” But maybe we aren’t as free as we think. Sin binds us - and not just the little, petty, wrong things we do, but Sin being the lack of trust in God to provide, in God to guide, in God to accomplish for us. In Sin, we are bound as slaves - slaves to hiding our wrong, slaves to needing to justify our actions, slaves to our own distorted truths.
But Jesus comes to give us freedom. Those chains are gone. We are not bound by them anymore. We know we are welcome in God’s household, because Jesus has set us free from all of that.
Reformation is about freedom from self- justification.
Jeremiah tells us how God frees us from our past. Israel was pretty unfaithful to God, breaking their covenant. A past like that can define us. The past can trap us, hold us hostage if we’re not careful about it. It can remind us of our shortcomings and failures and regrets. It limits us. It holds us back. It dangles our disappointments over us. It convinces us that we have no hope and drowns us in guilt. Yet, God will - and already has - forgotten all our sin. “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” And here’s the thing: no memory of the past, no memory of sin, and so the future is open. You’re free.
Reformation is about freedom from what was.
Paul in Romans reminds us that we all fall short. It’s the difficult truth of being slaves to Sin. It’s the past we carry around with us. And yet, even though all have fallen short, we hear the gracious news that we are now justified by grace as a gift. An unearned, undeserved gift that no amount of effort on our part could get. God gives us exactly what we need to be saved, to be justified, to be set apart for life with God, now and forever. This is a gift that changes our lives, our Church, and the whole world.
Reformation is about freedom from wondering about what we have to do.
From Jesus setting us free, to freedom from our past, to freedom to be who we are as saints and sinners… Luther’s hammering of his theses against the Wittenberg Church door reminds us that grace has the final word. And that grace is a gift, given because God loves us. We don’t need to do anything, earn anything, say anything, accomplish anything, or buy anything to earn God’s love. We are free from all that. We are free.
We are free to be the children God created us to be.
And here’s where our sense of freedom starts to rub up against the call of what freedom in Christ is. We aren’t just free for us. We are free for others, free to love, to serve, to share, to give, to be bold in the Gospel. And the best way to do that is to be the Church. To be the Reformation Church. To be God’s Church of freedom in God’s love and grace, and to always, always, always have that at the forefront of who we are.
God keeps giving us gifts to remind us - bread and wine, water and Word, even 500 year anniversaries - to keep pointing us back to the promise we have in Jesus Christ. You are free. Free, not to look back, but to look forward. Free to be the Church now, and tomorrow, and to set the path for the next 500 years. You are free, free to be formed into the image of Christ. Free to set the world ablaze with the Gospel of God.
You are free. You are loved. You are God’s own.
That is what the Reformation is about.
David is a pretty popular guy in the Bible. His story takes up most or all of First Samuel, Second Samuel, and First Chronicles. It is the longest story about one human being in the entire Old Testament. It also just happens to be one of the most important theologically.
As David’s life progresses, he is promised much - his heir will reign forever! And as David’s story unfolds, we have to wrestle with what exactly that promise means. As the one Kingdom splits into two; as the prophets come preaching promise and repentance; as Jesus of Nazareth is born as the Messiah - all of it comes back to David and the promises God made to him.
Last week in worship, left off with a young boy named Samuel in the Temple, called by God to be a prophet and proclaim God’s promises for what was to come to Israel. What was to come was a king.
The first king of Israel was Saul, but it wasn’t long before power went to Saul’s head. He was supposed to meet regularly with the prophet Samuel to offer sacrifices to God and get instruction; he decided to go it on his own. When Samuel confronted Saul about this, Saul denied and deflected, made excuses and blamed everyone else. Words got heated, and as Samuel turned to leave, Saul grabbed for him and tore the prophet’s robe. Samuel knew that Saul could no longer be king, and the two never met again.
Right after this incident is where we pick up today. Samuel is grieving over the failure of the first king.
God, however, is ready to move on. God wastes no time in telling Samuel to go anoint the next king. All Samuel knew was that it would be one of the sons of Jesse, which narrowed it down to eight people. So, Samuel took the trip up to Bethlehem and asked Jesse to meet his sons. One by one, they came before him, and each time Samuel thought, “Surely this one is it!” But seven sons later and God still hadn’t given the OK. Samuel then sent for the youngest son, David, who was out tending the sheep.
Here lightbulbs should be binging on in our heads. Even if you don’t know that David indeed is the one to be anointed king, there are two big clues. First, “shepherd” is one of the oldest and strongest metaphors for king in the Bible. This is because, at their best, a king should do what a shepherd does: protect, feed, provide for, gather his people. What was David doing? He was out shepherding.
Another key here is that David is the youngest of Jesse’s sons. While normally it is the oldest who gets all the goods, God has already displayed a fondness for the youngest at other moments up to now: Able instead of Cain, Isaac instead of Ishmael, and Jacob instead of Esau, and now David instead of everyone else.
Young David, the shepherd boy, comes on the scene, and Samuel is told to anoint him as king.
God inverts the usual way of proceeding. God chooses the youngest, the smallest, the least likely. God explains the choice: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Yay, God! You don’t look at the outside. It’s what’s inside that counts!
What terrible news! At least it is terrible news for those of us who have thoughts and feelings. I mean, sure, it’s bad to do bad things, and it looks bad when you do bad things, so we try not to do bad things. But think about all the things you have in your heart that you don’t do or say. God looks at that! Think of all the commandments you’ve broken in your heart. All the revenge and anger, greed and desire, judgment and selfishness, wishing harm yet coveting goodness. Think of all the ways you are probably worse on the inside than on the outside. It’s not so pretty when we get honest about it. God SEES that. That’s what God looks at.
We, however, try our best to differentiate between head and heart; we THOUGHT those things, didn’t feel them in our heart. We didn’t really want to do those things. They just kinda popped in out of nowhere. They were passing, fleeting feelings that don’t define me as a person. Hmmmm. Nice try. See, Biblically and in Hebrew tradition, there is no difference. The heart drives those thoughts and feelings into the head. Separating the two is just our little loophole to make us feel better about ourselves.
We can avoid it; that’s up to you. It’s might be easier that way. But avoiding it doesn’t fix anything. To fix something, to change something, like anything in life, first we’ve got to admit that there is a problem. We have to admit something isn’t working.
And this is where David can be a positive example for us and for our relationship with God. See, David did some pretty bad things, both inside and out. If you know anything about the rest of his story, you know that he was an adulterer, schemer, and murderer. And when confronted about his actions, he… admits it. He feels remorse. He knows that he needs forgiveness - and more than forgiveness, he needs a clean heart, a new spirit.
David could admit it. Sometimes we can’t. (Hence all our excuses and parsing of what “counts” and what doesn’t.) But David gives us an example in Psalm 51; he desired to be changed. He asks God to do something to change him. And if we take a good honest look, we’ve probably got some things in our heart that need cleaning.
For us, admitting that is hard. But as we do, as we begin to open up to the ways God is already changing our hearts, we grow into the new spirit God puts in us. We become more attune to what is not right with us, and more easily allow God to create.
And the thing is, God already knows us. God already knows our outward appearance; God knows our hearts, too. God know us, through and through. And even in the face of that, God loves us. That’s where the Good News lies. Not that we can hide our bad parts from God so that God loves the fake facade of us, no. The Good News is that God loves us despite our bad bits.
It can be a turning point to recognize that. It’s not what we do or don’t do; it’s God - God who loves us despite it. And God loves us so much that God works on creating in us new hearts.
God creates in us clean hearts through forgiving us, assuring us that we are loved and cared for. It frees us to be truly upfront and honest with ourselves and God. It opens us up to change. We mess up. We do, we think, we feel ways that aren’t in line with God. And God has mercy on us.
God creates in us clean hearts through challenging our status quo. By urging us to move beyond what simply “is” or “what has been,” God creates clean hearts. We’ve been talking this month about growing in generosity. As we grow, as we are led forward, as we take on spiritual disciplines of prayer and study and tithing, we lean less on outward appearance
or what’s in our pockets
or what’s in our hearts
or ourselves in general…
and lean more on the goodness and grace of God.
God creates in us clean hearts through worship - worship where it is less about us making God feel better though our praising, but instead where God makes us feel better, be better through words of life. God feeds us through community; God nourishes us through song; God sustains us with the bread of life; God provides a life-giving promise of hope, grace, and love.
God creates clean hearts. God puts a new spirit within us. God draws us into His presence. God sets us free so that we can be renewed and restored.
God sees us for who we are, inside and out. And still, God in Christ promises to restore to us the joy of salvation. God welcomes us into the Kingdom, with a king who reigns as was promised - forever & ever.
Today we read the call of Samuel. It’s a story some of us may remember from our childhood. Indeed, we tend to try to teach this story to children because it shows that God speaks to, and even calls, children. It lets them know they have a place in God’s story, too.
And that is important. I wholeheartedly believe that. But while the sentiment is true, I don’t think that this story is really about Samuel - at least not yet. Up to this point in chapter three, this has really been Eli’s story. Our lesson for today is the turning point where Samuel begins to become the main character; but, for now, let’s focus on the other guy for a bit.
So, Eli... Eli is not good at his job. He’s a priest in the temple, a teacher, a prophet! And each chapter so far in the story tells us about some way Eli has screwed up.
In chapter one, we meet Hannah, a barren woman. She desperately wants a child with her husband, but so far that hasn’t happened. So, she goes to the temple to pray. As she prays, she does it silently, only her lips moved. In walks Priest Eli. He sees Hannah and you know what he says? He jumps to the conclusion that she is drunk! “Sober up, woman!” Really? A woman in the temple and the priest’s first thought is she’s drunk? When Hannah explains that she is not drunk, only praying, Eli quickly shifts gears and offers a blessing.
Hannah does get pregnant, by the way. She bears a son and calls him Samuel. And somehow she still sends him to work with the crazy priest, Eli.
In chapter two, Eli is in charge of his two sons who are also priests. Let’s just say he didn’t do a good job training them. They are so bad at being priests, a prophet was sent to condemn the house of Eli.
And now here in chapter three, we get Samuel’s calling - except Eli, the PRIEST, doesn’t know it is God calling. If anyone in the story should be attuned to God - or at least THINK about God some - it should be Eli. But, for some reason, it takes Samuel coming three times to say, “Here I am” for Eli to think maybe God is doing something here.
But maybe I’m being too hard on Eli. Maybe he was doing the best he could. Priests and pastors often have lofty expectations set upon them, and at some point they/we miss the mark. So, next time I see you and ask if you’re drunk, you’ll have to forgive me, right?
But back to Eli. Maybe I am being too hard on him. We start off our lesson hearing, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” It seems God didn’t show up as much, was not as prominent, not a whole lot of activity. But is that any reason for a priest to lose sight of God?
Maybe Eli wasn’t all that great to start out with, but maybe another piece of the puzzle is that Eli got complacent with how things were. He stopped looking and listening. He stopped challenging himself and moving forward. In short, he stopped growing.
Not that we ever get complacent about faith and life with God. Settled. Comfortable with where we are or who we have become - individually and as a community. The routine is simple, the status quo is nice, complacency is easy.
But does God call us to an Eli-like faith? Or does God encourage us to grow, to keep striving to see and hear God - even when it seems like God has been quiet for a bit? I think God wants us to keep growing in faith so we can see and hear.
Let me give you something of an example.
I get up and get to the gym every weekday morning at 5:30.
Ha! You believe that? It’s not that early. It’s more like 5:35.
It’s not too crowded at that point in time, but we do have the gym regulars every gym has: There’s the guy that does too much weight and so he swinging the giant dumbbells around. There’s the guy who doesn’t ever really do anything but he puts his hand on some of the machines as he talks to people.
And for a long time, I just went to the gym and walked around and was like, “This machine looks good!” I’d choose a weight and do some moving of metal. Then I’d move on to the next thing. I was there! I was working out! It was something - and something is better than nothing, right? Some days I’d walk in there and I was maybe a little lazy, so I’d pick up a small weight. Other days I was motivated enough to do more. I could’ve carried on that way, and it’d be fine. But that’s it. It was just fine.
I decided I really wanted getting up at that hour to make a difference in my life; I wanted to grow in taking care of myself. So I did some research on proper techniques, different exercises, and I came up with a routine. I would write down what I did and how many times I did it. I wrote it down so I could try to do better the next time. Isn’t “doing better next time” what we call growth?
Now, I’m not going to be Mr. Universe or anything like that (I like beer too much). But I do weigh a more appropriate amount than I would if I didn’t work out at all - and even when I went to the gym but just kinda did whatever. I’d probably be an even more appropriate weight if I didn’t like beer so much.
And it’s not just with gym or health. Faith needs to be worked out and challenged from time to time. Unchanged status quo can lead to complacency and missing God where and when God shows up. This month we’ve been talking about “Growing in Generosity.” Today, Linda talked about practical ways to grow; evaluate where you are right now and take a practical step to do a bit more. Because if we are the same week after week, year after year, decade after decade… well, we start to sound like Eli. We become unchallenged and complacent. And so we stop growing. When we stop growing, we stop noticing the new ways God comes on the scene.
And not just with giving - though that might be the most challenging place for us to grow. But spiritually, Biblically, faithfully there are opportunities in this very community to grow and encounter God anew. Bible studies, Small Groups, personal devotion - all are ways to grow as individuals.
Then as a congregation, what would it take for us to grow? And not just numbers or financially, but what would it take for us to grow spiritually? To grow in mission? To grow in ways that we can’t necessarily write down? Where has the word of the Lord been rare to us for a while and so we stopped paying attention and let the stagnant, status quo go on? Where is God speaking, urging us to change our default and see what happens?
Eli’s story tells us that God shows up in the midst of our complacency and static state of affairs. And God speaks in order to get us to grow, to move, to see - and not just for the sake of shaking things up, but so that we can better see God’s promises.
God speaks to Samuel, calls Samuel with a promise, a promise that the status quo couldn’t fulfill. Samuel, Eli, the people of God grew a little on that day, and in growing were able to see the promise of what was to come. And along the way, God would provide what was needed: leaders, presence, prophets. God called them forward, promising the way things are now aren’t the way they will always be.
And in Jesus, God doubles down on that promise, showing us that the way things are now aren’t the way they will always be. It’s something the Pharisees missed in their satisfied condition. God promises more. Jesus sends the Spirit to us. Jesus brings life for us. Jesus brings promise of what could be to reality.
Jesus wants us to see that reality now. And we see better as we grow in faith. As God feeds and nourishes us. As God forgives us and raises us up each day. As Jesus walks with us, day in and day out. Because of that, we grow, and we start to see God around us in ways we never had before.
God doesn’t call us for status quo; God calls us for promise. For life. For blessing for us and for blessing the world.
God speaks. God speaks.
Keep on speaking, Lord, for your servants are listening.
Things in the past are always better. Even if they weren’t.
That is where we are sitting today with the Israelites. Because we had our Reformation hymn sing last week, we missed where the Israelites were before today. We didn’t get to hear that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. And not like “boy, they had to work really hard” kind of slaves. Like really slaves: owned as a piece of property and told what to do and when to do it with no exceptions ever. But, God sends Moses to Egypt to say, “Let my people go!” After some back and forth, the Pharaoh of Egypt finally does just that. He lets them go.
So, with girded loins and unleavened bread in hand, the Israelites take off for the Promised Land. God freed them! And when it looked like trouble was coming in the form of horses, chariots, and an Egyptian army, God pulls the miraculous stunt of splitting the Red Sea so the people could walk through on dry land. They were slaves, but now they are free! They were stuck in Egypt, but now are on their way to the Promised Land!
Today we pick up with the Israelites in the midst of their second month of freedom. That’s just over one month of being free after 400 years of slavery. One mere month of walking toward what God promises after making brick after brick after brick every single day of their lives. And that’s when the complaining begins. “I wish we were back in Egypt. At least we had food there. Are we there yet?” Things in the past are always better - even if they weren’t.
Do you get what they’re saying? They are looking back on their time as slaves with a nostalgic glow. As terrible as things were, they still long for that, hold on to that, even if going back there would preclude them from the new adventure God promises is in store. There is no way that is better! After the miraculous things God has done, and despite what God promises yet to do, you’re going to wish things were like they were? It seems it’s always hard to move forward.
God doesn’t handle their complaining like many road-tripping dads would: “I’m going to turn this whole Exodus around if you don’t shape up!” Nope. God frees them. God feeds them. God promises them more. God gives them what they need. God keeps urging them onward; the past is not the future for them. God has something better - way better - in store. So, God provides what they need to keep walking. Even if it is hard. Even if they don’t know what’s coming. Even if they kinda miss what was.
It’s a good thing the Church is nothing like the Israelites.
Oh, wait. I mean, the Church the exactly like the Israelites.
God frees us from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. God brings us through the waters of baptism to a promised new life. God feeds us with the bread of heaven, Jesus Christ. God calls us on to promises we have yet to realize, on a mission to be God’s people from here on out. And what do we do with that freedom and food? What do we do with that baptism and calling?
Do we complain that things aren’t like they were?
Or do we walk ahead with God?
Many of us still long for the “it” of days of yore. We still long for it, hold onto it, including whatever slavery is attached to it. We look back with longing - even if looking back keeps us from starting on the new adventure God has in store. Sometimes walking with God means leaving our fleshpots and bread of slavery and moving toward God’s heavenly manna in freedom, mission, and ministry. Or to say it another way: as long as we feel our best days are behind us, we’ll never move forward to where God is calling us to go.
At this point, some of you are squirming a bit. Getting a bit hot under the collar. Maybe a bit irritated. Frustrated. Mad? You think I’m talking about you and the “it” you wish we still had.
I am. And I’m talking about the “it” of the person next to you, too. And my “it.” We all have something we long for, something we won’t have, can’t have anymore. And holding on to whatever “it” is keeps us stuck. Makes us complain instead of grow. Makes us stop instead of move forward.
Walking with God, moving forward, trusting God doesn’t mean we lose everything we loved about what was. We’re in the midst of a month where we are celebrating 500 years of Reformation. Our past is important in shaping us as a community. We won’t lose that. On the other hand, nor should we move in a “keeping up with the Joneses,” just-because kind of way. We aren’t them; they aren’t us. Instead, we move forward with God, trusting that God promises something as we walk. Walking with God means we will experience something new - which just might be ok. Heck, it might be even better if we’d just trust that God is present, providing, and the principal driving force.
As long as we feel our best days are behind us, we’ll never move forward to where God is calling us to go.
We are at a point in the life of the Church, this church, where God is calling us forward with a promise of raining bread from heaven. God is calling us to a future the likes we’ve never experienced. We cannot have the past as we want it to be. The question for us is, can we step into a future that we can’t really even imagine yet? Can we live into, walk forward to a future that can only be lived into by faith?
Instead of looking back, longing for the past, clinging to what was, can we learn the new skill of walking with the Lord now? Can we depend on God as we take a step?
Because, if it is up to God, God will provide us what we need to keep moving forward, to keep moving to God’s chosen destination, not our own. Even if it is hard. Even if we don’t know what’s coming. Even if we kinda miss what was.
But instead of thinking like that, can you imagine what the possibilities could be? What could God do with us, with this community, with these people, with people who aren’t even here yet but could be? We could be the place where we, where our kids and our grandkids, look forward to coming to, where they are fed and nourished and grow in faith and love of Jesus. They could be excited to come here and participate and learn and worship.
The people, the community, the worship, the music could point us to the holy presence of God in our midst, where our singing and joy fills this space and overflows out into the streets.
We could be a place of radical welcome and acceptance and hospitality and invitation for people from all walks of life. We could be a people who reach out to our neighborhoods to be the presence of Jesus. We could even stoop down to serve the least among us, serving as Christ has served us.
We could be light for the world, salt for this earth, a city on hill. We could be like the manna God sends - purposeful, constant, nourishing for those who come and even for those who don’t come.
We could. We can be.
God will continue to take care of us. That is the promise of manna. But clinging to fleshpots in Egypt is not trusting God to take us to a new place. God was present in what was, that is for sure. But God promises also to be present in what will be. And God will be there in between it all, too.
We are not in this on our own. We go with God. We are fed by Jesus. We are led by the Spirit. All for the sake of God’s promise that we can be people who bless the world.
In light of that, let’s take a walk.
You may know someone like Jacob. They are wily, conniving, and somehow always seem to come out a little bit ahead. If you don’t know someone like Jacob, then it’s probably you. Ha! Just kidding. Or am I?
We’ve fast-forwarded in the Biblical story a bit since last week. Last week, Isaac was a young boy; this week, he’s an old man who can’t see. He asks Esau, his older son, to go hunting and prepare a meal for him. Esau goes, but Rebekah (Isaac’s wife) overhears the conversation and goes to Jacob (the younger son) with a plan.
If Jacob could pass himself off as Esau, his blind father might be fooled into giving him the blessing instead. So, Jacob dresses as Esau - toupees for his forearms and neck included. The scene plays out kind of like Little Red Riding Hood where the wolf pretends to be the granny:
“What hairy arms you have, Esau!”
“All the better to be your oldest son and receive your blessing, father!”
Jacob succeeds in fooling his father and stealing the blessing of inheritance from Esau.
When Esau returns, he is… mad. The way things worked back then, this deal was final. Official verbal statements such as Isaac’s were as legally binding as written contracts are today. Nothing could be done. Jacob manipulates and steals his way to riches. Of course Esau is mad.
So, that’s Jacob. He’s a trickster from a family full of dysfunction. There is deception, covering up, evasion, playing favorites. And Jacob, a deeply flawed human being, is right in the middle of it all.
This, by the way, is the family that is meant to carry on God’s blessing for the whole world. At this point in the story, it seems that pretty much isn’t going to happen. God’s promise can’t carry over to this guy, can it?
But, this is where the second part of Jacob’s story comes into play. Jacob had to run from from his family and his home because Esau was going to kill him - and not in a rhetorical way. Jacob is on the run. And he finally has to stop and sleep, using a rock as his pillow.
That’s where God shows up. And where God shows up, there is promise. Then God renews the promise once made with Abraham. God even kinda doubles down on the promise: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
That’s the thing about God’s promises. Every time it looks like it is going to fail, it doesn’t. The promise, by human eyes, was endangered from the very beginning. Abraham and Sarah were too old to have kids, and yet, Isaac was born. Isaac was almost given as a sacrificial offering. And now Jacob is remarkably undeserving and a terrible human being. And yet, God still fulfills the promise.
God is so faithful, so devoted, so full of grace that God won’t let the patterns of the past determine the future. God’s promise is what determines the future, even in a case like Jacob.
Which is good news, right? Stories like this show us that God doesn’t work with perfect people, but real people. Real people like you and me, and God’s promises are true for real people like you and me.
We can handle this type of good news. Despite our screw ups and mishaps; in those times where we act a lot like Jacob; even in those times we purposely, knowingly do something wrong, God keeps the promise. As we go along, no matter what happens or what we do, we can always find ourselves in God’s story, and we can count on God to hold true to promises made.
But that’s not a fair way to do it.
I mean, sure, from time to time we mess something up or we lose our temper. But we can justify or explain it! We were tired or hungry or we ate some bad sushi. We’re not that bad. We’re easy to forgive. I mean, it’s not like I dressed up as my brother and stole an inheritance! Sheesh.
If Jacob, who is a shyster, a cheat, a terrible son and human being gets God’s promises, surely we do, too! Deservingly, even! What really gets our goat is that this promise is for those other people we know don’t deserve it; those others we like to blame and scapegoat and favorably compare ourselves to. They get the same promise as we get? Even though they did that? That’s not fair. Grace is for us, not for them, right?
Well… two things.
First, when we’re honest with ourselves, (like, really honest) even we are undeserving of what God gives.
In our Wednesday night small group this past week, we were discussing the 10 Commandments. They do more than tell us what we should try not to do; they - along with Luther’s explanations of them - point out that we can’t live up to God’s standard. We try not to steal - which we may not do - but we still hold on to too much and forget to give for the betterment of all. We try not to kill, but we often fail at building up the life God intended for others beyond our immediate family. We fail in our relationship with God and with neighbor. Our selfishness over God’s grace only proves the point. To paraphrase our confession for today, we like grace for us, but not so much for other people. We miss the mark in so many ways. We want to be fair, but fair in our favor.
Turns out, we’re not as deserving as we think.
Second, God’s promises aren’t founded on what we can’t or won’t, should or could do. God promises something despite us. We don’t live up to God’s standards, but we are promised grace anyway. And so are they. So is Jacob. So is everyone.
And that is the challenge for us, a place for us to grow. The Gospel promise is as true for them - whoever “them” is - it’s as true for them as it is for you. Our sinfulness doesn’t want it to be so; it’s not fair that way. But God is there - even when we don’t know it or want it.
That’s the point of God’s promise. That’s why we read Jacob’s story. It’s not up to us; and it’s not only for us. A promise, God’s promise, is the declaration that something is going to happen. It depends solely on the one making the promise, not on who it was promised to.
The book we’re using on Wednesday nights provides an example about donuts to drive home this point about God’s promise. If someone promises you that a delicious box of donuts will be delivered to you on Monday, you aren’t required to go to [Kripsy Kreme], shell out some cash, and deliver them yourself. A promise is only a true promise if the promiser is the one who delivers the goods.
We see, we know, that the shyster Jacob cannot make blessings happen. And honestly, neither can we. But God can. God makes the promise happen. The Gospel is not fulfilled by us, but it is fulfilled by a God who takes on the entire burden apart from anything we can do - and more often, despite what we do do.
We see that promise most clearly in Jesus. Even in Jesus’ life, the cross looked like the place where God’s promise would fail. But, it doesn’t. God’s promise is as alive as Christ is. It is in that cross and empty tomb that God takes on all the effort of fulfilling the promises and giving us blessings in Christ.
The promise holds true only because it is God who makes it. It is God who upholds it. It is God who follows through. It is God who will not leave you until God has brought that promise to fulfillment. It is God who is with us, even undeserving us, because that is the unfair promise. Forever.
Last week in our adult Sunday school class, we got on the topic of Old Testament stories. They are often stories we, in our older, more mature age, tend to gloss over or avoid. We know if we dig too deep into stories like Noah’s Ark or David & Goliath, we’ll have to deal with some pretty violent, unsettling stuff. So, we prefer to stick with slingshots and rainbows and our Sunday school understanding. You can keep your mean God of the Old Testament; I’ll take the loving, cuddly Jesus of the New Testament, thankyouverymuch.
Today is one of those stories we try to avoid.
Because, really. What kind of God asks you to sacrifice your kid?
But before we get to an answer, we need to spend some time talking about beliefs and religion of the time.
Long ago, humans came to the realization that they needed things like water and food to live. And for food to grow, it required just the right amount of rain. Too much and all the plants would wash away. Not enough and they would die. Same thing with sun. Too much or too little and the plants would die. All this brought humans to the idea that they were dependent on forces beyond their control. They believed that these forces - the gods - were either on your side or they weren’t. Your crops grow, or they don’t. Your animals are healthy, or they’re not. You have kids, or you don’t.
So, how do you make sure these gods on your side? Well, next time you have a harvest you take a portion of that harvest and place it on the altar as a sign of your gratitude, because you really want those gods give you what you need to live. Now, imagine what would happen if you gave this thanksgiving offering and then the sun didn’t shine or the rain didn’t come or you were still unable to have children. Obviously, you didn’t offer enough.
So, you offer more. And then more. And then more. Which would produce a lot of anxiety, right? You don’t where you stand with the gods, and you don’t know how much is enough, so you just keep giving more and more. The gods are angry, they are demanding, and they will punish you if you don’t make them happy.
On the other hand, what if things are going well? You have gotten the right amount of sun and the perfect amount of rain. You want to make sure things keep going well. So, you offer the gods thanks. But how would you know if you offered enough thanks? Since you don’t know, you offer more.
If things take a turn downward, obviously you didn’t offer enough, so you offer more.
If things keep going well, offer more, just in case. Why ruin a good thing?
You’ve got anxiety either way.
So, the answer - no matter if things were going well or not - the answer is always sacrifice more. You want to be in good standing, keep the rain and the sun coming, so you offer part of your crop. You offer a goat. Some birds. Maybe a lamb. Maybe a cow. Everything keeps escalating because of this anxiety over where you stand. So, you offer more, more, more. And what is the most important, most valuable thing you could offer the gods to show how serious you were? A child.
Can you see how we got here? Can you see where this anxiety takes you? It takes you to a place where you’d offer that which is most valuable to you.
Now, to the story of Abraham and Isaac.
When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham is not surprised. The gods demand that which is most valuable to you - and if you don’t give it, there is hell to pay. So, there is no rebuttal. No questions asked. Abraham gets right to it. He knows what to do.
He goes, and he travels, and when his caravan gets to the mountain, Abraham stops his crew and says, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there. We will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
Wait. Abraham is going to offer his son, right? But “we’ll” be back? Something’s not right with the story. Our ears kind of perk up at this part. Maybe he’s just trying not to scare Isaac and his companions. Either way, we’re paying a little closer attention now.
On the way up the mountain, Isaac asks, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Your heart breaks at Isaac’s question, doesn’t it?
And Abraham replies, “God will provide.” It’s an answer that doesn't tell the whole truth.
And then Abraham gets ready to offer his son, but he doesn’t because God stops him, and then God gives a ram instead. Then, in the verses just after this story, the angel of the Lord repeats the promise that God gave to Abraham so many chapters ago: “I will bless you, and I will make your family great. By you all nations of the world will be blessed.”
So, back to the original question: what kind of God asks you to sacrifice your kid?
Now the answer: Not this one. Other gods may demand your child, but not this one. This God is different, so very different.
So if God didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, why the charade? Why the drama?
First, the drama helps prove the point. Abraham knows what to do when God asks, because that is where religions go and that is what gods do. At first, God appears to be like all the other gods: demanding, fickle, never satisfied. To the original audience, it’s predictable and familiar.
But then it’s not. The story takes a shocking turn. The story tells us that God does something new that can open our minds, change our hearts, shift the way we see the world.
God disrupts the familiarity by interrupting the sacrifice. Gods. don’t. do. that.
Then, God provides the offering for Abraham. Gods don’t do that, either!
Worship and sacrifice was about you giving to the gods. This story is about this God giving to Abraham. A God who does the giving? A God who provides?
And God is just getting started. God is going to bless Abraham with such love that all nations on earth will be blessed. This God isn’t angry or demanding or unleashing wrath. This God provides. This God blesses. This God loves.
And what does Abraham have to do to earn that favor? Nothing. Just trust. Have faith. Be in relationship. No sacrifices needed.
This God, our God, provides all we need. Our God is not like other gods. It’s not about us giving, us doing, us sacrificing, but about God giving to us. Blessing us with grace. Giving us forgiveness. And, as we see in Jesus, sacrificing himself for our benefit. That’s what we trust.
Our faith lies in a God who gives us blessing, the blessing of life. And not just way back when, but here and now. God gives us new life and forgiveness in a baptismal washing that continues throughout our life, reminding us that we are always, everyday made new. God feeds us at Christ’s table - a table of remembering the loving lengths God will go to for us. A table of Jesus’ presence with us here and now. A table that spans the generations of time and place.
And we can live, knowing that the promises to Abraham are true for us, too. We are blessed. We are loved. We don’t need to be anxious about where we stand with God, because we know that God stands with us.
And so when we give, we don’t do it out of anxiety about where we stand with God. We do it because we are loved and we want to love.
We serve, not trying to appease God, but because God has served us.
We share, we worship, we live this way, not out of guilt or payment or sacrifice. We live this way because this is who God blessed us to be.
Our God is not like other Gods. Our God gives. Our God gives life. Our God gives life eternal. Our God does something new that opens our minds, changes our hearts, shifts the way we see the world. Now, we live in that blessing - to be a blessing for the world.
In the beginning… God created. God separated, God gathered, God spoke, God brought order to the chaos. This Creation Story is meant to tell us about who and why.
This is a good thing to remember, especially when creation is all over the news. The chaos of hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes has been on every tv station and inundating my news feed. In the midst of this, we have lots of questions. Why did this happen? Why didn’t God stop it? They are questions you’ve asked, I’ve asked, and questions that we don’t really have satisfactory answers to. In haste to explain things, some people will say that these types of events are God’s way of warning, testing, or punishing; I say don’t listen to that malarkey. It is unhelpful and harmful. Trying to say God causes human suffering doesn’t tell the truth about the God we know through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Connected to our lesson today of creation, it’s through Jesus, through God’s Word Incarnate, that all things came into being, and without him, not one thing was made. What came into being in him was life.
We hear today that God made everything with the intent of goodness. It’s the refrain that we repeated over and over again. Sky, seas, sun, moon… it is all good. And then, God made us, you and me, in God’s own image. We are the crowning achievement at the end of the sixth day. And notice that the sixth day is a bit fancier with the language? Not just “God spoke and it was so,” but poetically, “God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And the end is not just good, but very good.
Each step of the way, each day in the creation process, God was taking chaos and making something very good. God intends to order all that is formless. God wants to fill all that is a void. The Creation story answers some questions - not all questions, but some. Who created? God. Why? For goodness. That’s the point.
But God wasn’t finished.
God didn't stop creating. In the beginning, God contained the chaos. God shaped the formless and filled the empty. God made LIFE. And God kept doing that, kept fending off the chaos we and our world bring. We know throughout the rest of the story, God keeps working, keeps creating newness, keeps holding back the things that prevent relationship, life, and goodness. God creates light in darkness. God creates goodness out of chaos. God creates ways for life, true life, to rise.
And as part of God’s creation, we get wrapped up in what God creates. In this time, in this place, in the midst of all the chaos around us in our lives, the lesson we can learn from this is that we, in fact, we are co-creators with God. Not only are we creative, artistic, musical, idea-generators, but we along with God create goodness in this creation. God's work in the beginning was containing the chaos; that's our call, too.
We know that God does not shy away from the pain and hurt in our world; the cross shows us that. God faced the fullest human experience of loss — suffering an unjust and cruel death — out of love for us. God is present: not causing chaos but entering into it. Not sending calamity but suffering through it. Not standing over us but holding tightly onto us and promising never to let go. Wherever there is human tragedy and pain, God is there. As chaos comes, God is present, working to create. And when we see chaos in our world, we, too, can be present as God is, working to create love, hope, life, order, goodness. It's our God-given, creative duty to do so.
Yes, even we can help God create, as broken, limited, and chaotic as we ourselves can be. But that is the grace and blessing of a God who never gives up. Even through us, God can work, and Christ can be present. God created us for such a task as bringing goodness out of chaos. And we can do that by donating to agencies like Lutheran Disaster Response. We can, as the time becomes right, travel to Houston or other places to assist with relief work.
We’ve already got a group of High Schoolers planning to be in Houston this summer for the National Youth Gathering. We can support them and empower them to live out God’s creative and redeeming Word. As the needs become more clear, we can collect clothing or food. We can create goodness in many different ways because God created us to do so.
And beyond the chaotic disasters of hurricanes and earthquakes, we as the people of God here in Myrtle Beach can create goodness. As we as a congregation grow in excitement and purpose, as we look to the future, as we get a better sense of what we were created for, we get the opportunity to ask, “what can we create together with God?” What goodness can we share with our community, with those less fortunate, with kids and elders, with parents and people, with all who come and all who don’t. What can we create together with God?
Asking the question gives us a chance to come up with answers. We can strive to be a community of welcome and care. A way to point people to Jesus. Offer a worshipful space, place, and time away from the chaos of the everyday. We can be a way to make a difference and reinvigorate a feeling of the holy. We can help answer the questions “who” and “why.”
It’s an awesome question. And in our world, we need to be the answers. God created us, created us in God’s image, to bring goodness and to bring “God-ness” to our world and to each other. We are called to be present in the chaos, to live out the order of love and grace God bestows, and create and re-create with God.
And whatever our answers, we can trust that God is present, creating in us and through us something very good.
Here are sermons from Pastor Jason, delivered at St. Philip.
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