Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

Love Your Neighbor – It’s Common Sense

Love Your Neighbor A

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  (Jeremiah 29:7)

We often hear politicians say things to us about how we are doing and that should help us decide who to vote for. “Vote for me and you will have more money.” Or, “vote for me and I will keep you safe from… (Whoever they want you to be afraid of).” It is as if the primary concern in our world should be me. Do what is best for me. I matter most. There is a strong libertarian streak in much of our country that says that we should all do what we want and everyone should simply fend for themselves.

When Jeremiah received the above message from God, the people of Israel were in Babylon during the exile. It was tempting to try to figure out how to do what was good for the Israelites and bad for the Babylonians. After all, their captors had removed them from their homes and transplanted them in a country where they did not want to be. A little sabotage seemed to be a tempting thing. As long as we are stuck here, we might as well undermine life for the locals while we are here.

But God will have none of that. God speaks clearly to the people. If you don’t make the community where you live a better place, then you will be living in a worse place. The welfare of your neighbor impacts your life. Your concern for them also brings life to you. Being selfish or counterproductive not only hurts your neighbors, it brings destruction to you as well.

People often ask why they should be concerned for others. They often blame people who are struggling for their struggles. Sometimes there is some blame that is legitimate. Sometimes people are just victims of hard times or an unjust system. Either way, if you have a nice home and your neighbor’s house is falling down, then your nice home is worth less, too. When life for everyone improves, everyone’s life gets better.

God is very clear, being a good neighbor makes the world a better place for all of us. The temptation to be selfish or simply not care how others are doing is not just unchristian, it is also foolish.

God could easily have said, I gave humanity enough to do OK. Now they are on their own. But God could not. Love is never disinterested. And so God comes to us in Jesus to bring us life. God’s hope? That we will take the gift we receive and be sure to pass it on.

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Words of Hope

Hope B

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

The above verse from Isaiah is often thought of as a Christmas verse. The images can’t help but make a Christian think of Jesus. And if you have heard Handel’s Messiah you probably can hear the words to music. You may even know them so well that you can sing them yourself.

But from the other side of Jesus, when Isaiah wrote those words, they weren’t words that pointed to a known person. These were words of hope to a people in trouble. As enemy forces from neighboring countries closed in on the people of Israel, there was fear and struggle.

Into this world of fear and pain, Isaiah spoke these words of hope. God could still be counted on. A child was to be born who would grow to be sent from God and who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In the midst of their worst moments, Israel would be reminded that God continues to act and is trustworthy.

That reminder continues to this day. We each have moments in our personal lives and collectively their are moments in our society’s life together where we are stunned or find ourselves questioning what is going on. A relationship suffers, a job is lost, a loved one dies and we wonder how we will move on. We hear words of mass shootings or corruption among leaders or a terrorist attack and we wonder how much longer the world can survive humanity’s sinfulness.

Yet the God who has come to us in Christ continues to work toward life. Into lives of despair, God brought words of hope to people over 2500 years ago through Isaiah. Those same words bring hope to us today.

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It Starts (not ends) with Worship

Justice B

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)

As a pastor, I believe that every faithful Christian should try to be in worship every week. I rarely miss, even on vacation I try to find a place to worship if I can. Worship is such an important part of my life and many find it to be central to the Christian life.

But the text above from Amos may help us all to rethink how worship fits into a life of faith. Worship is not an end in itself nor is it the most important thing. It only matters to God that we worship if we are also transformed by that worship and committed to making the world look like God wants it to look. God only wants our worship if God also has our hearts and hands throughout the week as well.

Many of us grew up in an era where going to church was an end in itself. People described themselves as “churchgoers.” Sometimes they even added the word “fine” in front of churchgoers as a way of saying that going to church makes you respectable. Others went out of social pressure or duty but both checked it off the mental checklist each week and watched the clock while they were there – go over an hour and they would start to grumble. Church was a thing you did more than a way of following Jesus.

The prophet Amos saw this same mentality long before the birth of Christ. People would go to the temple, make their sacrifices and offerings and sing their songs. In their minds they had done this so God would be pleased with them.

But God was not pleased with them. The point of worship is not to make God happy. The point of worship is to allow God to work on you so that you devote your life to making God’s vision into reality. Where there is poverty, injustice or anything else that is not in keeping with God’s vision, God does not want you to “go to church” and then ignore the plight of the world. Rather, God’s desire is that we put worship in the right perspective – part of a life lived well.

We have been united with Christ in baptism. Our lives are lived in union with him. We aren’t joined to Jesus just so we can attend church on Sunday. We are joined to Christ so that we can continue his work in all that we do.

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Remembering Who God Has Used

All Saints Day

(Elijah) went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4)

Elijah is one of the great prophets of Israel. In fact, despite the fact that in this lesson he is miserable and just wants to die, the scriptures report that he was taken up to God without dying and there were prophecies that said that the Messiah would not come until after Elijah had returned. In spite of the fact that Elijah felt like everything was over, God was still able to use him to do more.

We may often feel the same way. We get frustrated or tired and wonder if there is anything left in the tank. Or we make a mistake and just wish we could crawl under a rock and hide. But God is able to use us in all our struggles to influence the course of events and still make a difference.

This weekend is All Saints Sunday. It is a day we give thanks for the people who have gone before us for the efforts they made to bring us life and faith. Many of them likely had moments like Elijah where they felt dried up and just wanted to give up. But our remembrance of them will honor the fact that they made a difference and that God used them. In some way, they were gifts of God and we are who we are, in part because of them.

Take a little time this week to reflect on the people who have gone back to God. Give thanks for their memory. If needed, shed a tear. Or crack a smile at a happy memory. Whatever it is that you need to do, allow the memories to do their work. For in the remembering, God will continue to work in your life.

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The grace that brings new life

Create in Me

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew in me a clean and right spirit.” Psalm 51:10

The Psalms express all sorts of feelings. Luther once said that if he could have only one book of the Bible on a deserted island that he wood choose the Psalms. These songs and poems of the Jewish people touch our hearts and express our thoughts in deep and powerful ways.

Many of the Psalms are attributed to King David. A musician, David was one who expressed his deepest thoughts and ideas in lyrics and melodies. While we don’t have the original tunes to which these were sung, we do have the words. We can imagine some of the events in David’s life that may have spawned the various words. Psalms of triumph and victory when he thinks of the battles he won or the defeat of Goliath. Psalms of safety and protection when he found himself in danger.

The words of this Psalm are some of the most famous of any of the Psalms. This plea for renewal and forgiveness may have come from David’s guilt over the death of Uriah and his subsequent marriage to Bathsheba. Confronted with the fact that he had sent Uriah to his death in order to marry his beautiful wife, David also had to contend with the eventual guilt that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Perhaps you have things from your past that continue to haunt you or at least come to mind more than you’d like. While most of us experience guilt about many things, it is still hard for us to let them go. Our minds have the events etched in them and even time won’t erase them completely. Here our plea is for God’s grace to wash us, refresh us and release us from our pain. Hopefully that allows us to restore relationships with those who have harmed us or who we have harmed.

This verse is often sung in our worship as the offertory – our last song before we receive communion. The sharing of Christ’s presence reminds us that in our brokenness, while we are yet sinners, Christ still comes to us. He comes to us not because we have our act together. Rather, he comes to offer healing, hope and new life.

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Listening to God Through Younger Ears

Samuel and Eli painting by Woodward

Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me.  (1 Samuel 3:17)

Eli was the wise old sage who was entrusted with raising Samuel, a young boy who would grow to be an important leader in Israel’s history. Samuel had experienced voices at night. Eli had discerned what the voices were – they were God speaking to the boy.

As a result of Eli’s guidance, Samuel had a visit from God and heard some incredible and important news. It wasn’t good news for Eli, who had been too lenient when raising his own sons and they had gone off the rails as a result. Samuel had been told that Eli’s family was to be the object of God’s anger forever. There was nothing Eli could do about it now.

So when Eli asks Samuel about what God has said, Samuel surely would have rather not said. But Eli knows the kid knows the truth and he wants to hear it. And Samuel tells Eli the news. The awful things that Eli’s sons have done will taint Eli’s family name forever. The damage has been done.

Our congregation council has been reading a book entitled Growing Young. It is a book about congregations that have done a good job revamping ministry in ways that help better engage younger people.

One of the key first steps? Listening to what young people have to say. Filled with insights and energy, they will often say things that help us do ministry better even if we don’t always want to hear it. But listen we do – for in listening we may hear a word from God. And unlike Eli’s family, with Christ at our side, it is never too late to find new life.

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God Gives Enough

MannaAnd Moses said, “When the Lord gives you in the evening meat to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him—what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.” (Exodus 16:8)

The above quote comes from the journey in the wilderness as the Israelites left Egypt and spend 40 years wandering their way toward what would become Israel. In the desert, where there is little food and water, God has provided for them to have what they need. God has rained bread (manna) from heaven for them to eat. When they tired of this (which did not make God happy), God has overwhelmed them with quail (which they eventually grumbled about as well).

As human beings, we have the tendency to feel entitled to what we have. Society blames the poor for this, but actually the more we have the more we defend it as “ours.” We need only look in our closets, basements or garages to know that even if we feel like we are struggling in some ways, in other ways we have enough and even too much. Are we satisfied? Are we thankful? Are we gracious as a result?

God’s desire for us is that all of us have enough and are thankful for what we have. When we have received – we are to give thanks. When we receive more than enough – we are to be generous.

The God who gave manna and quail in the wilderness would eventually come to give us everything in Jesus. In Christ we are claimed and transformed from the grumbling, entitled people we may often be into the life-giving and gracious people who continue the work of Jesus.

Look around you at all God is doing! Where there is brokenness and pain (like we see after mass shootings, storms and earthquakes) see how God is working in the midst of struggle to provide manna and quail in our time. And pray and respond about how God can use you who have received life to share life.

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God May Be Closer Than We Think

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  (Exodus 3:4-5)

The encounter Moses had with God coming to him in the burning bush is one of the most amazing stories in all of scripture. Moses had fled from the Egyptians because he had killed an Egyptian who was beating a Jewish slave. For many years, Moses lived in the wilderness as a herder. It was while watching a flock that Moses sees a bush burning but not being consumed.

Coming closer to see, Moses hears God speak the above words to him. The place where he was standing was holy ground. He was not just in the fields watching sheep. He was in the presence of God. God was calling him to rejoin the Jews in Egypt and to lead them from slavery to freedom.

Because of what Jesus reveals to us, the experience of Moses may be closer than you think. God can and does use all of us. God sees our lives and the lives of those around us who are struggling. It is God’s deepest desire that all who suffer find relief and that wherever death reigns, people bring life and hope.

We are reminded this week that we are always in the presence of God. God may simply stay by our side quietly. But God may call us to stir from our normal lives and speak to us in ways that call forth courageous and hopeful actions. God is close. Are you watching? God is speaking. Are you listening?

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Blessings From God

Jacob and Esau

So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. (Genesis 27:22-23)

There is a saying that comes out of God’s work with Abraham and his descendants that says that we are “blessed to be a blessing.” Oddly enough, no matter what our story has been and how we go the blessings that we got, life only moves forward. Whatever our past has been, we are then called to act now to make a better future for others.

Jacob and Esau were brothers and rivals. Esau was older – the family blessing was to be his. But Jacob was his mother’s favorite. She wanted him to have it. She tells Jacob to get a pelt of fur and place it over his arm. Esau is a hairy young man and Isaac, their father, is getting old, blind and senile. He is an easy mark for stealing the blessing. The trick works and Jacob is blessed. Esau is cut out of his rightful place and now Jacob has control of the family fortune.

This doesn’t mean easy street for Jacob. Esau is murderously angry when he discovers what has happened. Jacob is forced to flee for his life. Having it doesn’t result in all that Jacob and his mother had hoped. In fact, it appears that he has the blessing and loses everything as a result.

A bit later, Jacob will be alone in the wilderness and have a dream. It is a famous dream known as “Jacob’s Ladder.” In the dream Jacob sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth. He encounters God, who tells him that he has been blessed to be a blessing. All the people of the earth will be blessed through him. It is an amazing event and Jacob awakes stunned by what he has discovered. In spite of his devious nature and in spite of stealing his brother’s blessing, God still wants him to be a blessing to others. In fact, not just to some others. God wants Jacob to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”

This reminds us all that we are to always take stock of our blessings, wherever they have come from. All of them belong to God. If we have done things we shouldn’t have to accumulate more than our share, we are still (perhaps even more) expected to turn from the things we have done and work toward the good of others. A few blessings in our hands are still to be a blessing to everyone around us. Even when we are in the wrong, God continues to use us to do what is good and right.

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A Sacrificial God

 

Jesus Cross

Abraham said (to Isaac), “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:8)

Abraham and Sarah were the recipients of only one son. That boy, named Isaac, arrived late in life after much grief and waiting. Although God had promised them this son, their trust in God’s promise was already tested as they were old and had more than given up on this long ago.

Yet they did have a son. He was to be their heir and not just their heir, but also the heir to Israel’s future. As Isaac thrived so would Israel. If anything happened to him while he was still a young boy, all would be lost.

When Abraham says the above words to Isaac, they are on their way to a mountain where Abraham believes that he is to sacrifice Isaac as a way of honoring God. The writer tells us that this is a test. But it is also clear, Abraham doesn’t know that it is a test. For him it is just an order and obedience seems to both honor God and also mean that Isaac will end up dead. Abraham must have been tormented by this. Imagine having God finally come through and give you what you want and then ask you to be involved in losing it forever!

The story ends with Abraham’s statement proving to be true. God intervenes, a ram is provided, and Isaac lives. God has seen Abraham’s faith and faithfulness.

But the story points to something much bigger. It is a mini-parable of what eventually happens with Jesus. God sends Jesus to be among us knowing that he will be resisted, rejected, and eventually be killed. God will provide proves to be prophetic. Not only does God provide a ram to prevent Isaac from being sacrificed, God also provides Jesus so that we don’t sacrifice either. We learn in two ways that Hosea 6:6 is true: God “desires mercy not sacrifice.”

While we often look at the Christ story primarily as sacrificial and with Jesus as a stand-in for us, scripture points to a God who simply wants us to trust and obey. In so doing, we are to know that God can be counted on to provide. God shows us, even in the hardest of times. And God’s actions and desires are directed toward helping us live and pursue the things God is calling us to do.

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