Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

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


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.


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.


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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Love (and life) wins!

Love Wins

 ”Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 34:5)

The story of Ezekiel and the Valley of the dry bones is one of the most vivid stories in scripture. People picture a vast wasteland covered in bones and looking like death. Written to the people of Israel while in exile, it is a story of hope and of life coming out from death.

The picture of God we have here is an important one. We often encounter things that bring death and destruction to our world and to our lives. All of this may be figurative in that it is not life giving. Or it may be literal in that something alive literally dies. In either case, the forces and realties of death are always hovering around our lives. Death is a real and present issue.

But in all of these things, we encounter a God who continues to press forward toward life. As God brings breath and life to the bones in the vision Ezekiel has, so God continues to work for life in the midst of those things that produce death in our world as well.

Wars bring death – God works among the warring to bring peace and restore life. Hatred brings death – God works among the hating to bring healing and restore life. Injustice brings death – God works in the midst of injustice to restore justice and bring life.

You may be wrestling with something or someone who seems to have sided with the forces that bring death to our world. You may be overwhelmed by the news that tells of one incident after another where life is torn down and it seems like death has the upper hand. It is easy to wonder how it can be that life wins.

But the cross and resurrection of Jesus provide both insight into our situation and also demonstrate God’s commitment to bring life out of death. The death of Jesus is the ultimate sign of the power that death wields in our world. And the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate sign of the fact that God is always working out of love to bring life. Love (and life) wins!


Staying Faithful in Hard Times

Cross and 911

The advisors said, “O King, there are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” Daniel 3:12

The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego tells of three men who were living in Babylon at the time of the exile. When a decree went out that everyone needed to worship the gods of Babylon and the statue that the king had set up, the three of them refused. They would rather die than have been unfaithful to the God of Israel.

In America, Christians often complain about things not being just the way we want them. Sometimes the complaints are very justified. There is much to work on in our society to make it a better and more just place. But one thing we can be thankful for as Christians. We are free and in the majority and our religion is not persecuted. In fact, most of the wounds of the church are self-inflicted. There may be things to whine about but no one is truly persecuting us.

But there are people in our own country who endure this. Muslims and Jews are routinely threatened and their facilities vandalized at rates way higher than Christian churches. As Christians, we need to both give thanks for the freedoms we have and also be sure to speak up for others when they are persecuted or targeted. It is the right thing to do as followers of Jesus.



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.


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.