Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

God Wants Your Full Attention

Attention

“You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why?” says the Lord of hosts. “Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses.” (Haggai 1:9)

When the people of Judah returned to Jerusalem after the Exile in Babylon, they were excited to return to what had once been their home. They would rebuild the city. They would once again have a Temple to help them feel rooted and connected to God.

But when they got back, like things often go, events did not unfold as planned. Their first efforts to rebuild their society were fragile. Early construction on the Temple was sidetracked by infighting, opposition from local people who already lived in the area, and the distractions of putting their own lives together. Eventually, although the Exile had taught them the importance of putting God first and at the center, God once again felt ignored and marginalized. The verse above expresses God’s frustration with, once again, being put on the sidelines of people’s attention. As a result, the efforts that the people put forth were out of alignment with God’s desires – they were failing anyway.

We often do the same thing. Who doesn’t think, “I would like to spend more time focusing on God?” We all know it is helpful and important to do so. But we are busy and tied up with work, sports, and distractions that fill our schedules and each day, if we aren’t careful, we can live with God right there with us (God is always right there with us) and forget and not even notice.

God in Christ has inserted God’s own self right in the middle of our lives. When God came in Jesus, it felt like enough of an intrusion that we crucified him. But the resurrection announced that God will not be marginalized – God persistently inserts God’s self right back into our lives.

That means to live honest, authentic and meaningful lives we have to give attention to God as a centering point. Only acknowledging that simple fact allows us to see the world as it really is: God’s world with God at the center. So, why live out of the illusion that our lives are our own? Simply accept the good news that God loves you enough to spend 24/7 with you all the way into eternity, and start paying more attention now. It is the beginning of renewal and a way to allow abundant life in Christ to flourish within us.

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God is With Us

Fiery Furnace A

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god. (Daniel 3:24-25)

The Old Testament has a long history that has been piling up one struggle after another for God’s people. The book of Daniel was written to describe the time when the people were in Exile in Babylon. The Exile is a major theological turning point in the Old Testament. Israel’s image of went through a major transformation – from a private possession for a small but important nation to the one true God who is the only God of all the earth.

In addition, the people began to hunger for redemption and renewal. The tribal conflicts that seemed so important when they had a place, now were diminished in importance once they were all together as a people without a land.

At issue were two big questions: Would Judaism survive the crisis? And would the people ever be returned home and become a nation once again? If the answer to both questions was to be “yes,” then the people would need to have their faith (and their picture) of God renewed.

In the lesson above, we hear a story about three men thrown into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian emperor. Yet the flames do not consume them. To make things even more puzzling, although there were three thrown into the fire, they are accompanied by a fourth who has the “appearance of a god.”

The Exile meant the rise of a radical new concept in theology: that God is with us just as much in hard times and struggles as God is when things are going well. This is critical. Most religions are most likely to reflect the very human instinct that when God is with us things go better than when God is not. But the Jewish insight was that God is with us – period. In this insight was the Jewish hope for restoration. Their Exile was not a sign of God’s abandonment. God was with them, even in Babylon.

This good news is a good reminder to all of us. We may feel abandoned by God in a struggle (even Jesus felt this feeling at the cross). But the feeling is not the truth. The simple truth is that wherever we go and whatever we do, God is always with us. The risen Christ is foreshadowed in the fourth character in the furnace quote above. But we don’t live in the time of foreshadowing. We live post-resurrection and the risen Christ is with us – always.
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The Call to Be Wise (in tough times)

Jeremiah

And to this people you shall say: Thus says the Lord: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war.   (Jeremiah 21:8-9)

Jeremiah is the very bottom of the Old Testament’s sadness. A prophet of struggle who spent much of his time in sackcloth and ashes, his message was the unwelcome news that there was no longer any way out of the mess. Things had gone too far and the die was cast – Jerusalem was going to fall and no amount of maneuvering would change that. Jeremiah’s prophecies, God is still hoping to minimize the damage and keep people alive.

God’s advice? Go surrender. If you stay and fight the scale of the opposition is simply too great. The residents of Jerusalem will easily be crushed and everyone will be killed. But there is a way that keeps people alive and God is in favor of it – go surrender now and live in the land where they take you. That’s better than being wiped out. And as we will see as we move ahead, God will continue to be with people in their captivity in Babylon and the insights gained will be some of the deepest and most mature that the Old Testament produces. What looks like a total loss is actually a doorway to seeing through new eyes.

We often fail to think practically when we find ourselves in a crisis. Overwhelmed by either our circumstances or our principles, we see our options in limited ways and our choices all seem to be death producing, either literally or figuratively. To fight through a seemingly impossible situation seems like the only choice we have and seeing only one bad choice paralyzes us.

As the Old Testament unfolds, the people gradually begin to see God in new and more nuanced ways. God’s anger that points to death, is also mitigated by God’s grace which would prefer for people not to die needlessly. There is a tension between those things that produce death and the natural outcomes of those actions along with the outcomes that God desires which are higher and not always attained through the choices that people make. In other words, God would prefer things to come out differently if only people would cooperate!

This lesson is true for our lives as well. We often engage in something that ends up causing hurt and pain. In some ways, literally or figuratively we become partners with death rather than life. Not every path ends up with a perfect choice that leads to an outcome that we’d like to see. We feel stuck.

But scripture now points us to two paths to always keep in mind. First, don’t ever assume there is only one choice – look for a path that minimizes the loss, even if it isn’t what you’d prefer to do. And second, Jesus’ presence with us on the journey means that there is always and possibility of grace and forgiveness and reconciliation radically altering the choices and the feelings before us. Left to our own, we are stuck simpy being wise. But with Christ, the wisdom and the work of Jesus make options appear that we could never construct alone.

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The Suffering Servant

Suffering Servant

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.  (Isaiah 53:7)

Although the above verse was written over 700 years before Jesus was born, it did not take early Christians long to make the connection. They had been waiting for this for centuries and when they saw Jesus before Pilate and then hanging from the cross, they sensed that this was what they had been waiting for. The itinerant rabbi who had healed, taught and shown signs of God’s work and power had seemed different than anyone they had ever met before. But when they saw him unjustly tried and convicted without as much as a single defense they remembered Isaiah 53:7 – the suffering servant.

Jesus would eventually come to be seen as the one who would fulfill Israel’s destiny. What the nation had been called to do, it had fallen short of accomplishing. By the time of Isaiah’s prophetic work it had fallen so far that almost no one believed that it would ever become what God had promised would come to be.

But God had not forgotten and was as committed as ever. What God had started in Israel’s history as a chosen people would be fulfilled by one their own serving as savior, not just for Israel, but for the entire world. Jesus would be the one that had been predicted, longed for and waited for. His willingness to live a full life shows us what life can be. His willingness to quietly suffer an unjust death at the hands of Pontius Pilate shows us what the suffering servant would do to show us love. And of course, the resurrection would vindicate him as someone like none before him.

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The Prophets are Coming!

Elijah-widow

Elijah said to the widow, “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”  (1 Kings 17:14)

When someone starts to read through the Old Testament from start to finish, there is a danger. The most nuanced and mature thoughts in the Old Testament are heavily weighted to later. That’s not to say that there is nothing important in the early books – quite the contrary. But that foundational material is also in the midst of some rugged history, distressing events and interpretations, and by itself it can be quite confusing. Many have simply wanted to stop reading.

But as we move further into the Bible, we will start to notice a shift. Israel has been living this out long enough now to experience both success and failure. In the process, people of faith are reflecting on this in deeper and more nuanced ways. Where huge issues arise, God speaks through prophets and offers words of clarification and correction. Not every idea that people had about God was right. Not every action that God’s people did was faithful. Things are getting clearer and who God is is also getting clearer.

Elijah is one such prophet. In the verse above God uses him to bring hope to a widow and her son who are in danger of starvation. We will meet a few more prophets in the coming weeks. But through Elijah we see an early prophet dealing with harsh circumstances that could lead to death. Through him, God intervenes to bring life.

Jesus will refer to this act later in the New Testament because for him, what Elijah does with this widow gives a better lens into who God is. You will notice this a lot with Jesus. He doesn’t just hand people the Jewish scriptures as a whole. He teaches using it. In so doing he picks and chooses things that he finds most important and helpful. And because he is God in the flesh, his teaching can focus directly on what God most wants us to hear in ways that those who wrote the Old Testament books could not. Jesus is sharing firsthand what all the rest had to share secondhand!

So, good news! If you aren’t thrilled with how the Old Testament has been unfolding so far, neither is God! So the prophets are coming to let us know that God is working on something different and more life giving. It is a reminder that God is not done yet – there is still more to come.

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Servant Leadership

Leadership - Servant

They answered him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” But he disregarded the advice that the older men gave him… (1 Kings 12:7-8)

When Solomon died, he left his kingdom to a divided family. King Rehoboam, the king in the passage above, took over. People tried to discern what Solomon’s death meant for them and for the kingdom. With Rehoboam in charge, what would Israel be like?

The story behind this passage is too complex to share in full, but the short version is that when Solomon was king, not everyone felt like they had been treated well. Some felt that he had been unjust and harsh. They resented it. When he died and his sons took over, people approached Rehoboam and expressed their frustration with the way things had been and wanted changes. Rehoboam, discussed their issues with some the older, wiser people to get their advice. But when they shared it, he didn’t like it so he talked to some younger, brasher people who told him to act strong and powerful and not negotiate with these people. Long-term, the advice of the younger, brasher people proved to be wrong and the kingdom imploded into hundreds of years of decline – eventually ending with the exile in to Babylon.

What was it that King Rehoboam was counseled to do? Serve the people and speak well with them and to them. If he would do that, they would serve him in return.

Servant leadership is a formal term today. It is based on two important things finding their way into one person. The two things are “leadership,” taking responsibility for helping a group of people accomplish something; and “servant,” someone who serves others. We often think of leaders as in charge and being served by others. There are images of this in the news, in movies and on TV. But effective leadership, the kind the Bible urges brings these two together. We hear about the chance to be this kind of person in Rehoboam’s crisis. But we see what it really looks like in Jesus.

Any of us can be servant leaders. All of us have the chance to lead someone or something and make an impact. So, what is God calling you to lead and make happen? How can you do it in a way that allows you to be a servant as you do? If you lead in ways that care for the people you mobilize, people will respond and join in doing amazing things that will change the world.

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Planning for Those Who Follow

Legacy

When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying: “I am about to go the way of all the earth.” (1 Kings 2:1-2)

While we don’t always want to think about it, every person will eventually reach the end of his or her life journey. Death is as certain as birth. We start by leaving the womb. We end by returning to the earth.

What makes each of us unique is how death comes and how we approach it. Each of us will leave a legacy that extends beyond the years we live. In the text above, King David is very aware that he will soon die. Perhaps he had denied or ignored that truth earlier in his life, but now he is clear. Death will soon take him. So he calls his son Solomon, who will be the next king, and gives him instructions. There are expectations and responsibilities to be passed on. David doesn’t want to leave this to chance, so he speaks clearly to Solomon about this.

We see the same thing happen near the end of Jesus’ life. During the last week of Jesus’ life, even though he was still relatively young, it became clear to him that the opposition was mobilizing and that he would soon be arrested and probably killed. So he called his followers together and spent an evening preparing them for what would lie ahead of them without him being there.

King David and Jesus both share something very important. They have a vision and a commitment to the future that extends beyond their own physical lifetimes. They understand that they are part of something bigger and have the ability to make an impact, in good ways, well beyond their deaths. Neither was afraid to talk about it with the people closest to them. The results were that the next generation was blessed by their commitment and their foresight.

Jesus’ willingness to plan for life after the cross was the beginning of the church. We live nearly two thousand years later in a faith community that exists because Jesus took steps to have his followers ready to take up roles of leadership and responsibility.

Our lives will not be that different. If you are reading this, you have left the womb but have not yet found the grave. But the grave is coming and we need not fear it – Jesus has shown us that. One key to living well and to dying well is preparing the world to thrive without us. Each of us can do that in our own ways, but all of us would be blessed and also be a blessing if we take the time to be as intentional as King David and Jesus were.

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Living Out Christmas Every Day

Colossians 3-15

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12)

One of the most interesting stories about Christian witness comes from a discussion Mahatma Gandhi had with a Christian missionary, Stanley Jones. Gandhi would often quote Jesus in his teaching and Jones wanted to know what kept him practicing the Hindu faith of his ancestors. Gandhi is reported to have answered, “I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.”

Of course, we all have those moments of failure when in anger or frustration we vent or respond to someone in a hasty and less than gracious way. Our humanity and the emotions that go with it sometimes mean that we act in ways which are less than kind to each other – even people we care deeply about.

The verse above is the introduction to a passage from Colossians that shares how we are to live together. We are to act like Christ. And when we don’t, we are to allow grace to bring forgiveness and reconciliation to us so that next time, we can act like Christ.

We are in the Christmas season. This is a lost season in many ways. Advent is overtaken by Christmas before Christmas comes. In fact, all the Christmas parties and advertisements lead up to the climax of the season, which is Christmas Day – actually only the first of twelve days of Christmas. Look in the papers this week and what will you see? “After Christmas sales.” In the eyes of the world, Christmas is over.

For Christians, Christmas Day is the start of a season and the Christmas season is a way of grounding our lives throughout the year. The passage from Colossians reminds us that the best evidence that Christ came to earth is not just remembering the story of the shepherds at the manger. The best evidence is for Christ to continue to live in our hearts and minister to the world through our hands and voices. When Christ works in us and through us, we are transformed from who we would be on our own into extensions of Jesus into the world today. Why just celebrate that God came to earth for only a single holiday, when you can live it for a lifetime?

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A Story Worth Telling

Christmas B

This week Christmas is getting close enough to feel close. For people who have been preparing, the preparations seem to be done and mostly they are waiting. For others, the urgency of needing to prepare is now high enough to be a source of anxiety – “time to paint or get off the ladder” as they say.

As for the reason for all of this, the story behind it all is still not that well known to many around us. More and more people are becoming adults with minimal Christian background. One young woman I saw last week was curious about the Advent Wreath and wondered why we didn’t light the whole thing. When I explained how Advent and the wreath work she said, “You know, my parents didn’t do me any favors by not teaching me much about religion.”

So this time of year is a wonderful time to consider thinking about how YOU would tell the story of Jesus to a friend and why you think Jesus coming to be among us matters. It is a story worth telling and people like the young woman I quoted in the paragraph above are very open to hearing it – even wondering about it. You may be the one who knows them well enough to be able to share it and be heard in an important way.

So, as we look to the manger and to the birth of Jesus, take a moment to go through the story in your mind. What details are most important to you? Why does Jesus matter to you?

The Christmas story is more than most stories – it is a story that points to God’s commitment to humankind and to life. That makes it a story worth telling!

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More Than Meets the Eye

David and Goliath

When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth… (1 Samuel 17:42)

We often underestimate people based on assumptions we make about them. Perhaps you have also received that treatment, being underestimated by someone else because they looked at you and assumed they knew what you are capable of. We may do it based on our impressions of a person because of the physical appearance of their clothing or hair, their race, gender, or any one of a number of other characteristics. In the process we do two things: we miss possible gifts that these people could bring to our lives and we also disrespect the God who made them.

The verse above describes the giant Philistine named Goliath. When he saw that Israel had chosen a young man, still almost a boy, he dismissed him on the spot. Surely this small, young person could be no match for someone as big and powerful as Goliath! With a mocking tone, he declares what he will do to young David as the crowds watch.

Of course, the story is a famous one because young David and his slingshot were more than a match for the huge man in front of him. David’s skill had been honed in the pastures as he defended sheep from predators. David knew who he was and what he could do. He also believed that God had called him to stand before Goliath and therefore he was confident that he could and would prevail.

God is often using people who others don’t give even a second thought about. Who have you looked past and not really even noticed because of the assumptions you bring about them? And when have you felt dismissed simply because someone else saw you in a particular way and couldn’t see what you are capable of?

Each of us have been called by God to make a difference and given gifts by God so that we can. All of us would be blessed to see each other with the eyes of God, and treasure and encourage others to use their gifts to advance God’s work in the world around us.

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