Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

The Seventh Sign – Life Wins!

RaisingOfLazarus

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:44)

The picture above is from the St. John’s Bible that we just finished hosting in Elgin for the last few months. It depicts Jesus, in the bright light, calling in to Lazarus who is still inside the tomb and from whose perspective we see this event.

This is the seventh of seven signs that John provides in order to help his readers know who Jesus is and what God is up to in Jesus. This one is a humdinger! In fact, this one takes all the others – each of which deals with a single issue (blindness, wine shortages, etc.) and caps them all by showing the Jesus has the power to overturn death itself.

In this case, the sign is provided to people closest to Jesus. Mary, Martha and Lazarus appear to be Jesus’ best friends. It is at their home that he will eventually spend his last night before being arrested, tried and crucified. It is in their company that he seems to feel most comfortable and at home. This sign is a big one. Mary and Martha are both hurt that Jesus didn’t come sooner and make Lazarus’ illness simply go away. The fact that he is now dead is painful for them. A few verses before the verse we have above, Jesus wept. It is painful for him.

This text is a foreshadowing of the resurrection. Jesus’ actions that lead to Lazarus being invited out of the tomb demonstrate in this final sign, that the God who created life in the first place is still able to crate life today, even when it looks like death has already won. When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, there is amazement. No one saw that coming!

People’s reactions varied. Some were ecstatic. Lazarus was alive and grief was turned to joy. But others were nervous. Healing a blind man on the Sabbath was bad enough, but overturning death brought things to a new level. If Jesus could do this, perhaps nothing was outside the realm of possibility for him.

Although this week’s lesson ends with Lazarus alive and well, the verses that follow are keys to understanding the story. This is not one sign among many. It is the final, seventh sign. They now add up to a complete picture. John’s readers have everything they need to understand what God is up to in Jesus.

The leaders, in response to this sign, decide that Jesus must die. Everything else in John’s gospel will now lead to the cross. The goal of the establishment? A dead Jesus.

But the gospel writer knows how the story ends. There is an eighth sign that he will share. The death of Jesus will put Jesus in exactly the same place Lazarus has been – in the ground. And the resurrection of Jesus will demonstrate the ultimate goal of John writing his gospel. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and in him we all find life.

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When No One is to Blame

Questions

Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:2-3)

Today’s lesson is based in a question we all struggle with sometimes. Why doesn’t (or can’t) God make everything right?

We are enamored with perfection. We want as close to perfect life and a perfect world as possible. And many of the images of God that we have constructed imply that God can make it so. And if it is not so then either God must be weaker than we thought or someone must deserve what he or she is getting.

But everywhere people struggle against some things that seem to know no context. People are born with limbs that don’t work or are missing, ears that don’t hear, and eyes that don’t see. People are injured or even killed by the actions of people they never even met. Why do these things happen? Who is to blame?

In the text above, Jesus’ disciples are trying to figure out how Jesus understands God to work in such situations. Something is wrong – someone must be to blame. Who is to blame here, that this man cannot see? Is it his fault that he can’t see? Or did his parents do something that made this happen? There is an imperfection – it must be someone’s fault. After all, things are supposed to be perfect!

Jesus opens the eyes of the man, but even more Jesus opens all of our eyes. Imperfections are part of the fabric of the world. It is a work in progress. It is not finished and until the reign of God comes in all its fullness, it will not be finished. Each “imperfection” is simply a place to get involved and show the ongoing power of God at work in the world. God is not finished yet.

We think we wish that God was done. We think we want perfection, but each thing that we think is wrong is not necessarily a mistake nor is there necessarily someone to blame. Each incomplete project, each “imperfection,” is yet another place for love to enter into the story and complete the act. Sometimes, God simply isn’t done working yet. And if we watch, in these places we will find amazing signs that God is still working, in our times and in our lives.

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God Knows Your Story

Come-and-See-Church-1

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  (John 4:29)

In John’s gospel, Jesus makes direct contact with all sorts of people from all sorts of groups. In this case, as he travels he passes through Samaria. This is a region where most Jews would not go. Often they would travel around the perimeter of Samaria because the Samaritans were viewed as a sort of mongrel group, a mixed race people of Jewish and non-Jewish heritage and who practiced a mix of practices – some of them somewhat Jewish but many of them from other sources. Samaritans were looked down upon and many Jewish people simply wanted to avoid them altogether.

But John tells us that Jesus goes right through the region, apparently unafraid of the whole thing. Thirsty, he stops to rest near a well and this text shares an encounter with a Samaritan woman. As a Samaritan and as a woman, she is shocked twice that he speaks to her. Jewish men aren’t supposed to do that! And as the conversation deepens it becomes strikingly clear that Jesus is no ordinary person. He clearly sees things about her life and knows things about her as a person that no one would be likely to know.

Eventually, she decides to start to ask him questions. Maybe she’s curious. Maybe she’s just a little nervous about how personal Jesus seems to be getting and how close to home his comments are. But whatever reason, she asks him about some key differences between the religion of her people and the religion of Jesus’ people. Jesus tells her that one day the focus of both will change and they will worship God in “Spirit and in truth.” As the conversation unfolds further, Jesus makes a claim. He is the Messiah, the one she has been waiting for.

When this woman hears the claim of Jesus, it all makes almost instant sense. Of course that’s why he’s not like anyone else. He’s different because he’s the one she and everyone else has been waiting for! And off she runs to tell the town, who stream out to meet Jesus for themselves.

People today are not as different from this woman and the people of her town as we may often think. Like the woman, many of us have stories that we’d rather not tell and that make us uncomfortable. Like the woman, we all long for a closer and very real connection to God. And like the woman, when we feel closest to God and experience something that makes us think, “Wow! God is right here with me now” then our hearts leap and we are filled with something akin to joy.

This week, spend a little time reflecting on your story. Go ahead, it’s just you and God in this – you don’t need to tell anyone else about the specifics. Then think about how God has been involved or used the biggest events in your life (good or bad) to show love, life and grace to you. And if you discover what the woman discover, that God is close to you and knows you very, very well, then take a risk and share your story with someone else. It may bring you joy to tell it. It may bring life and faith to someone you tell it to.

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God Can Be Confusing

Love - Confusing

Nicodemus had come to Jesus at night. As a Pharisee, it was in his best interest not to show much interest in Jesus. But he couldn’t help himself. There was something about Jesus that seemed different than other rebels. Jesus was doing signs that could only have come from God. And Jesus was composed, clear-headed, insightful, and there were things about God that when Jesus said them, they made sense. It was odd to be a Pharisee and admit that. After all, as far as he could tell, Jesus was mostly educated in the streets and local synagogues like most Jews. He hadn’t received nearly as much training as Nicodemus. Yet Jesus seemed to know and do things that made Nicodemus think there was much more to him than anyone else he had ever met

In and under all this intrigue, one thing is clear – nothing was clear to Nicodemus. While Jesus was super-intriguing, he was also super-confusing. Everything Nicodemus thought he knew was only enough to allow for wonder at who Jesus was. None of it made real sense to him. And Jesus’ response to this confusion is to simply let Nicodemus admit that he is confused and in fact, point out that the whole system was confused. After all, if Nicodemus, one of the most learned men in the country can’t figure this out, then whoever has been steering the ship so far must have them really far off course!

Once Jesus is sure that Nicodemus is able to simply admit his confusion, then Jesus is clear. This whole thing is about God’s love for the world. In the end, Jesus had to bring it down to the simplest of terms. God loves the world. Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save. People of the light would respond with joy. People of darkness would flee the light. But God would not condemn anyone – God would give his Son before giving up. Love God is who God is. And love God would do.

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When (and Why) God Gets Mad

God is Mad

Making a whip of cords, Jesus drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” – John 2:15-16

It is amazing how much we want to make Jesus into the person we want him to be. Filled with love, gentle Jesus embraces everyone and welcomes all into the kingdom of God. While I do believe that Jesus’ mission is to welcome all into the kingdom of God, it is not always easy work and it sometimes involves more than a hug from lovable Jesus.

The truth is, there are things that make God angry, disappointed and disgusted with humanity. There are times when God, out of love that is shaped by a commitment to the Reign of God, has to shake things up and remind us that God does have an opinion about a lot of things in the world. God is not neutral on how we treat one another, how we use or abuse one another, how we greedily cling to our stuff rather than live generous and abundant lives, and how many other things take place. And yes, God wants followers of Jesus to see and dream about the world from God’s eyes, not just our own.

So nothing makes God more disappointed, disgusted and angry than when those who profess to be followers of Jesus blatantly and somewhat “in your face,” get it wrong. When there is injustice around us and the church is silent or even condones it, God is angry. When there is money taken in by the church for “religious” reasons and then it is squandered or even worse, flat out wasted for the pleasures of religious people, God is angry.

Religion is supposed to be on God’s side. Christianity has a claim on actually being the “body of Christ” for the world. When we miss the mark, God is disappointed. Grace abounds. But when we flat out do what we know is wasteful and extravagant for no good reason and ignore the desires of God for faith to put “God first.” God can be angry – even at us.

Anger doesn’t mean love isn’t present. In fact, it is because God cares and has a dream for us that God cares enough to even get angry. But likewise, grace doesn’t excuse missing the mark. There is a dance to be danced out of love. It is a dance between Christ’s gracious acceptance and Spirit-led but accountable transformation. The gospel is not one or the other – it is both.

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A Sign within a Celebration

Cana

Jesus did this (changed water into wine), the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11)

In John’s gospel, the first of Jesus’ signs is the changing of water into wine at a wedding. It is significant that he is a bit resistant (his mother has to urge him to do it). It is significant that it is at a wedding and is to enhance a celebration. It is significant that the wine is late in the celebration and people have been celebrating for a while and still, this is the best wine they have tasted. People usually save the cheap stuff for the end after everyone is a little tipsy and could care less!

Jesus does this work as a “sign.” John doesn’t have miracles and Jesus doesn’t do miracles in John’s eyes. Jesus actions are signs. Their purpose is not to amaze as an end in itself. The purpose of a sign is to point people through the action to the God who is the source of the act. In John’s gospel there are seven signs – each one adding to the ongoing message that Jesus is the one who God has sent to bring life and light into the world.

The wedding at Cana starts an amazing journey with Jesus. John’s goal is that we will celebrate with Jesus this week. Cry with Jesus when he weeps before raising Lazarus in chapter 11, and each step in between be confronted with an amazing and life-giving truth: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who brings life and light to the world, and as we believe in him, we receive light and life in his name.

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Come and See!

Come and See

Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:46)

We live in a world where skepticism about religion is higher than it has been at any time in American history. This same phenomenon is even truer in Europe. People in places where the church was once strong and relied upon for many things, now find themselves wondering if church matters any more.

Of course, there are still many people within the life of the church who do find incredible meaning and value in being a part of the church. They find support, grace, love and healing in the community of faith. They are nourished at the table as they celebrate Christ’s presence in bread and cup. They hear good news about the love of a God who not only made them but also invests in them each day, bringing hope and meaning to people’s lives.

This group of people who are part of Christ’s church know something that those who are not in the church may not know. They recognize the presence of Christ in the community of faith is bringing them life and mobilizing them to join in God’s work in the world. But in most cases, the group inside the church is shrinking while the number of people outside the church continues to grow.

The verse above tells a way to bridge that gap and invite people across the gap from skepticism to faith. Nathanael in the verse has heard about Jesus of Nazareth and is skeptical. He has a bias against Nazareth and wonders if anything good can come from there.

Philip could have argued with him, but chose to take another tactic instead. He knows that debating about Nazareth was a distraction from the most important thing. He wanted Nathanael to meet Jesus. Encountering Jesus was the goal. If he met Jesus, the skepticism would likely disappear and turn into awe.

So instead of saying nothing and letting the comment slide, and instead of debating and risking alienating Nathanael, Philip simply says this helpful phrase, “Come and see.” Nathanael does come. He does see. And he is filled with awe. Getting Nathanael and Jesus together was enough to overcome the hurdle.

We often spend time with people who are skeptical about Jesus’ band of followers who we know as the church. We are often silent for fear of saying something foolish. Or we are afraid to speak for fear of getting into a debate. But frequently, the most helpful thing we can do is bear witness to what we have experienced and then invite others to join in with us.

In the end, at least when we are facing skepticism or resistance, “come and see” may be the most helpful thing we can say. If they meet Jesus, perhaps their skepticism will turn into awe as well.

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Bearing Witness to Jesus

Witness A

And I (John) myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:34)

Q: What do you get when you cross a Lutheran with a Jehovah’s Witness?

A: Someone who likes to knock on doors but doesn’t know what to say if someone answers.

There are lots of other jokes about Lutherans and other mainline Christians (you can change Lutheran to Episcopal or Presbyterian and the joke still works!). The basic assumption is that if you want someone to bear witness to Jesus, you need to find someone who doesn’t attend a mainline church. You need to find a Pentecostal, a Baptist or anyone but a Lutheran.

It isn’t clear where we learn to keep quiet about our faith. Perhaps it is because Lutherans come here in immigrant groups so everyone who came in a particular group and settled in the same area already shared the same religion. Norwegians (who started Zion in 1882) worshipped with Norwegians. Danes worshipped with Danes. Germans worshipped with Germans. The religion, the culture and the ethnic tribe from which we came were all one and the same. Perhaps the fact that mainline churches were successful for so long made people complacent. Maybe the baby boom masked the issues by supplying so many new people who were born into the church. Whatever the reason(s), it is true that we could learn a thing or two about bearing witness.

That’s why John the Baptist is so instructive. John is talented. John has the ability to draw a crowd. John could easily be the center of attention and a celebrity in his own right. But John knows why he is here and what he is to accomplish. He is here to get people ready to meet the Messiah. He is here to point to Jesus who would bring life and love to the world. Undistracted by other things, John simply points with his hand and speaks clearly with his voice. Everything about him pointed beyond himself and pointed to Jesus.

Witnessing as a central part of the Christian life is not as complicated as we think. Most of it begins with where John begins – knowing who Jesus is and connecting to him in your life. Then, as you live your life and do what you do, share the news about Jesus with the people around you, always being willing to step out of the limelight and into the sidelights so that people will notice Jesus and discover that what John started telling people centuries ago is still true: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

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God is With Us

John 1-14

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

We are close to Christmas and this verse reminds us of what is happening in the Christmas event. It is an amazing thing. The God who imagined creation, spoke and made creation happen, is now coming to be a part of that same world.

What makes this amazing is that the Word that made the world “became flesh.” This is not like the central story in any of the other world religions. Often in Greek, Roman and Norse mythology they would tell stories of a god or gods who came down and into the world. Sometimes these gods would interact with humans – even mate and produce offspring. But this was not like what Christians understand was happening in Jesus.

In Jesus, the God who made the world takes on flesh. God becomes truly one of us. As we live, breath and die so also God in Christ would live, breath and die. There is no part of life that God in Christ is not fully involved in.

This simple truth is the message of Christmas. God is part of our world. God is part of each of our lives. It is not just a Christmas truth. It is a daily truth. The God who made the world is with you always.

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A Persistent God

Isaiah 55-11

So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

We often fail to remember that God is persistent. That doesn’t mean things are always easy for God or that God simply wants something to happen and it somehow magically or automatically does. Life is cumbersome and often filled with detours. This is no less true for God than for any of us. God’s work to bring life and love to all of creation is hard work and a long-term commitment to the world in which we live.

There are religious traditions that emphasize God’s “almighty status” in almost miraculous ways. Some of those even say that if you get in right with God, say the right prayers, connect with the right ministry, or donate to the right cause you might tap into this. If you have the right kind of faith, you can get God to work for you! Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

In reality, the Bible paints a much different picture. In a world of life and death where people live in the midst of all sorts of realities, life can be a mix of wonderful and awful and everything in between. We often ask how someone is doing and get the response, “Two steps forward and one step back” or even worse, “One step forward and two steps back.”

Isaiah paints a picture of the kind of God needed to work in the kind of world that we are in. It is not a fairy tale picture. But at the same time it is a picture that introduces us to a God in whom we can put our hope and trust.

God’s word speaks and lifts up God’s dream and desire. But it is more than a wish. The promise is that as God sends off this vision of the world as it will be, it will not be just empty words. It will accomplish what God desires. It may be out working a while and the work may be slow and even circuitous. But it will work. It will not come back to God until it has done what it was sent to do.

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. Life wins. In the mean time, we wait and watch but always with hope.

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