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Give to God What is God’s

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (Mark 12:17)

This is my first blog post after returning from an eight-week sabbatical. As the congregation spent time looking at the core of Lutheran Christian teachings, I have been reflecting on a lot of things about how we worship, connect with our neighbors and increase our spiritual vitality as followers of Jesus. The ongoing concern about a global pandemic is escalating as people realize that what has been happening in other parts of the world is increasingly likely to be happening her as well.

That’s why a text like this one gets to the heart of so much. We have many hopes and dreams. We have many concerns. How do we put them all in place and keep things in perspective?

One way is by focusing on Jesus. His teaching shapes us and his death and resurrection provide the base from which we live out of hope, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

In the encounter we see this week, Jesus has been approached by religious leaders who want to trap him with a trick question: In dealing with money, does God or the world get priority?

On the surface, Jesus’ answer is a simple one: Give to God what is God’s and give the rulers of this world what is theirs.

So, what does that mean in practice? While it has many layers of meaning and served to keep Jesus from falling into the trap that the questions were supposed to set for him, there are two things that seem clear. First, Jesus is not here to “compete” with the world but to offer himself for it. There are things where the world calls for our faithful participation and we should do so. But notice that he says, “Give to God what is God’s…” first. God gets our highest loyalty and the hope that is ours in Jesus provides the base from which we relate to God and then to the world God has made and loves.

So, in times like these, remember to first ground your life in hope, love, joy, peace and all the other fruits that the Holy Spirit offers to us. Start with God. And then, with that context, participate in the life of the world around us faithfully and as fully as possible. That may mean a lot of different things for all of us in the months ahead. We will have to wait and see how things in these turbulent of times run their course. We will most likely have to give up some things we are used to having and doing. But the life of faith calls for meaningful and purposeful sacrifice. As we give to the world what we are called to give, may we do so with peace in our hearts, for Christ dwells in and works through us.

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God comes to us

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14

American religion is filled with voices trying to convince us that it is our decision that determines our eternal destiny. Often called “decision theology,” it makes accepting Jesus sound like a choice that you must make. Fail to do so and eternity in hell is your destiny.

There are other voices from other traditions, with other ways to get to God. But often these voices have the same theme: there is something that you need to do to get right with God.

Contrast this with the biblical witness that Martin Luther found so enlightening and freeing. In so many places in the Bible the truth is simple. There is no way to God – period. And Luther found that freeing because he could stop trying to get to God and simply let go and God would come to him. There is no work to be done to get to God. God in Christ comes to us.

Once you encounter God in Christ, all sorts of things change. People often wonder if God has it in for them or if they have done something to make God angry. But meeting Christ means being introduced to grace embodied and a God of love.

These are the foundations of our faith. God comes to us in Jesus. The God we meet in Jesus loves us. Without these truths, there is nothing left of Christianity. But grounded in these simple things, the Christian faith is the most amazing gift and a life-changing way to live in the world.

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Street Credibility

And they (the crowd) were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commends even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)

Ministry (the act of serving) is at the heart of Jesus’ work and even central to his identity. In Mark’s Gospel, from the very beginning, Jesus begins to do God’s work in visible ways that make a difference and change lives. Jesus can’t even avoid it – the demons recognize him and tremble in his presence. He doesn’t confront them – they show themselves to him. They simply can’t help it.

This way of being on the world gets Jesus almost immediate credibility. People haven’t ever seen anything like it. Whatever it is that Jesus seems to have – it is the real thing. Having that kind of street credibility is the base from which Jesus will do his work. The may not know what to make of it (there will be plenty of confusion about who Jesus is in Mark) but they will know there is something very real there.

Our congregational ministry works the same way. As the body of Christ, we continue the ministry of Jesus today. Doing what we do is an essential part of being the church. Being in the streets, serving in the kitchen, mentoring in the schools all show that we are truly serious about being a force for God in the world around us. When people see that we aren’t just sitting around waiting or life to happen but instead we are out being agents of life around us, they give us street credibility as well.

It is out of that kind of street credibility that Jesus can do his work and share his message that as he arrives and works, “the kingdom of God is near.” His deeds elevate his message. His message helps interpret the deeds.

There is a great lesson here for us as we carry on the work of Jesus. Our deeds lift up our message. And our message makes sense of the deeds. Both are important. Do the work without a message and people struggle to make sense of it. Share a message without the deeds and people don’t give you the kind of attention that street credibility provides. Word and deed. Deeds and words. It is out of this two-fold way of being in the world that we live as the body of Christ in this place.

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Starting Out Well

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Mark 1:17-18)

The word “immediately” in the verse above is a word we will see often in Mark’s gospel. Things happen fast – one right after the other. Stories are short, to the point and then press the reader forward into the next event. Mark wants people to see the power, the focus and the urgency that Jesus brings to his work.

As we begin Mark’s gospel, this chapter reminds us how important it is to start well. The more clarity you have and the more ducks you can put in a row as you begin, the better things are likely to unfold.

Jesus has someone prepare the way for him and also set him apart for his work. John the Baptist’s role is both to show people who Jesus is before he comes and then to point to him clearly when he arrives. John’s message prepares the way. John’s baptism sets Jesus apart to begin his work as Messiah.

When this goes well and things are ready, then you can deal with whatever challenges you face. It is no accident that once Jesus is set apart to do his work that the next thing that happens is the temptation in the wilderness. The word “immediately” is in this part of the story as well and Jesus encounters Satan in the wilderness and withstands the test. He is ready for work.

Even then, Jesus doesn’t feel able to do this work alone. God always prefers to work with others and Jesus embodies that with the call of the disciples. He finds allies for the work and builds a team from the beginning. These first disciples would also be the ones on which the church would be built after his resurrection. In fact, many believe Peter was the first pope for the church.

For us, Mark wants the church to be able to share the story with power and urgency. He wants us to be able to take what we receive and work quickly and with a sense that what we do matters. And he wants us to be able to show people Jesus and invite them to see what we see and share what we have received.

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The Obedient Path

He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed.  (Luke 1:63)

Zechariah (and his wife Elizabeth) is one of the characters on our Jesse Tree, so you may encounter him a couple of times this Advent. They are the unlikely parents of John the Baptist. Zechariah worked in the Temple and was a part of the establishment. John the Baptist would become a rebel and a part of the anti-establishment. God would use them all to get the world ready for Jesus, but Zechariah was a bit slow to want to join in.

Zechariah’s resistance had led to him losing his voice. An angel had told him about the child and urged him to name the boy as “John.” This was no normal name for a family working in the Temple and Zechariah was resistant. Add to that the fact that he and Elizabeth were getting older and children seemed unlikely, and the Angel Gabriel’s message was met with doubt. It was this doubt that had been the reason the angel muted Zechariah’s voice.

 But Elizabeth did become pregnant and eventually the son who Zechariah never expected to see arrived on the scene. It was time for him to be named and circumcised. Elizabeth announced the name and no one believed her. John was no name for a son of a Temple priest! As Zechariah stood silently watching and listening to this unfold, he called for something to write on. He wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his voice returned.

All of us can be resistant to doing what God wants. Sometimes it is hard to get our lives together when we and God are so out of synch. But God’s Spirit urges us to continue to be open to listening and obeying God’s call. While we may not always like what it is that God is calling us to do, obeying God’s voice brings us meaning and life and helps us share in the work that God is doing in the world.

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God Can Use Anyone!

[Cyrus of Persia said], “Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord…” Ezra 1:3

A basic tenet of the Lutheran understanding of Christianity as that God can use anyone. In fact, God uses all sorts of people to love, protect, serve and set people free. It is how the world works and how God has intended it from the beginning. Each of us is created in the image of God and given gifts to use in service of living God’s image out in our lives.

In the quote above, the Exile is near its end. The Babylonian Empire has been replaced by the Empire of the Medes and Persians. Cyrus of Persia is the emperor in charge of things now. God has prompted Cyrus to set the Jews free and send them home to Jerusalem where they will rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and return to the homes they lost decades before. Cyrus is not Jewish but he is someone referred to as a “Messiah” in the scriptures. Messiah means “chosen or anointed one.” It is Cyrus’ calling to set the Jews free and send them home.

This is important because it helps each of us see how to view the world and the people around us. The people in our lives are from a wide variety of backgrounds, faiths, and ethnicities. They have all sorts  of ideas about how the world works and about who God is. Some of them have ideas that we may find strange or confused. There is no doubt that they are not exactly like us.

But God can and does choose to use anyone and everyone. Cyrus was an outsider and the head of the oppressor’s empire. None of the exiled was likely to have had much use for him at all. But God didn’t see this as an issue. God would and will work through anyone who can get the work done. God wanted the people to go home, and Cyrus was the guy who could make it happen.

This is a great reminder for all of us to remain open. First, we should be open to seeing God at work in all sorts of people – some of who would surprise us. Second, living among the baptized, we are on notice that God wants to use us and we should be open to saying yes to God’s call. In the process, we may find our lives taking on new significance.

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Faith and the Big Picture

Sunday is the second week of Advent as we anticipate and prepare for the coming of Jesus.  We also continue to hear words from the Old Testament prophets who bring a call to change and words of hope to God’s people who haven’t gotten things right, but who continue to be God’s people in spite of this.

This week we’ll be taking a look at Isaiah 40.  Two very familiar passages come from this lesson. The words to the Advent hymn “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” begin this chapter to people who have been in exile for a very long time, and need to hear words of comfort and hope rather than condemnation. Immediately following this we read, ”A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Words from the Old Testament for hope, the promise that God will soon be coming.  These are the same words used by the author of Mark to describe John the Baptist in announcing the coming of Jesus.

The exile of the people of Judah was about 70 years.  I wonder how often they asked, how much longer before this suffering ends?  How much longer before we can return home?  Will we ever be able to return home?  These may not be our questions, but in the midst of struggle, we wonder how much longer before we see some relief, or how long before things get better?  We want things fixed now!

This is when we need to hear words of hope and promise. We all need them from time to time.  God doesn’t come in to fix all of our problems, but God is in this for the long haul with us.  God and God’s word stands the test of time, long past the brief span of our lives. In the end, God always has the last word, a word of restoration and life.  And this is a word of hope, for the people in exile and the people of 2019 and beyond.

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Trusting a God Who Can Be Trusted

All Saints A

Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” 1 Kings 18:21

Life is full of choices – some of them easy and of little consequence like, “What should we have for dinner?” But some of them are deeply serious and matter a lot. If we choose one option the outcome can be wonderful – pick the opposite and the results are devastating.

Elijah is confronting the people with a serious choice. If they believe that Baal (the God of the other tribes in the region) is better – they should place their trust in Baal. If not, then they should put their trust in the God of Israel. But for Elijah, this was not like watching a sporting event where you didn’t care which team wins. This was a real issue and the place you put your faith matters.

In our world, there are many places to place our trust and many things that claim to offer peace, joy, power, security and more. They tempt us all the time. All of them may have something to offer in the short-term but all of them pass away and fade eventually. Recognizing that God is the one who made us and who can be trusted, even beyond the grave, is ultimately the basis for meaningful a confident lives.

This coming weekend we celebrate All Saints Sunday. It is a day to remember those who have gone before us and to honor God’s faithfulness to them, even beyond death. These people, whose faith shaped our faith, have finished the journey here and gone beyond any place where the promises made by other sources can be kept – they have gone on to be with God.

As followers of Jesus, part of what our faith is grounded in is the promise of Jesus. He has gone into death itself. He has been raised from the dead. And he has promised that there is a place for us where he has gone. That hope reminds us why our faith in Christ is so important and so unique. That hope has given life to generations before us. That same hope promises life for us as well.

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Are You Hearing God Call?

Burning bush A

Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

There is some debate about how we encounter God and who it is that God comes to. Does God come to a few based on some unique gifts and special criteria? Or does God come to all of us and simply gets noticed by whoever is paying attention?

Moses met God in the familiar story of the burning bush. God declared that it was holy ground on which Moses was standing. This encounter would be Moses’ call to leadership, the start of the Exodus, and the beginning of Israel as a covenant people. A lot was riding on Moses’ response! And Moses answered the call and amazing things happened as a result.

Perhaps there are times when God is looking for “just the right person.” The task is big, specific and only a few people could pull it off. But much of life is not that way at all. In our community the questions are related to feeding the poor, improving health care access, working with kids who need assistance in school, accompanying people as they age, and the list goes on and on and on. God cares about and is pressing people to rise up and be involved in all of these and more.

So sometimes the call from God is specific and focused. But at other times, perhaps all the time, the call of God is broad and wide. God asks, “Will you join me in the inbreaking of the reign of God?” And all who say “yes” find their lives taking on new meaning and making an impact in ways that only saying “yes” to God can provide.

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A Persistent God

Persistence

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Genesis 32:28

Have you ever had a friend or family member with whom you had a messy relationship? You know the kind. Things are going well and you get along. Then they aren’t. But you are too connected and too committed to just give up on the relationship – it is a part of who both of you are and there’s no denying it. So you stick it out and some amazingly wonderful things happen. And some bumps happen. It is uneven and a bit unnerving. But it is authentic and your love and friendship for each other is real. And so you persist.

That’s the way Jacob’s relationships are. He is a bit volatile and a bit fragile. But he is persistent and refuses to give in to much. Even God is impressed with his stamina. And so God blesses him – not because he is the perfect role model but because Jacob is tough enough to not just throw in the towel and quit. God needs someone whose nature is to keep going and Jacob fits the bill.

Jacob will go on to be named “Israel” as a result of his encounter with and wrestling with God. It will be the name given to his ancestors and the nation they inhabit. Like Jacob, it will be their toughness and durability that will be a trademark of their existence. And from within their midst will rise the Messiah, one strong enough and committed enough to love the world in a way that would change it forever, even when the world would push him away and eventually kill him on a cross.

God likes persistence because God is persistent. If we are to live in the image of God, we need to be persistent. It is not always easy to press into the future. Not all of us will have the same stamina nor face the same circumstances. But whether we succeed at being persistent or not, one thing all of us can count on: God will be persistent with us. Sometimes, that has to be enough.

Thanks be to the God who persistently pursues us with the love we find in Jesus.

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