Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

Christ Can Handle It

Jesus and the storm

Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:40-41

The Bible is filled with lots of stories about Jesus. Some focus on his teaching. Others focus on his healing. Some focus on his life. Others focus on his death. And the resurrection is the story that changed everything about how people viewed Jesus. The quote above is from a story where Jesus is in a boat with his disciples and they are crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm comes up. The disciples panicked. Jesus slept through most of it! Awakened by their fear he calms the storm and is astounded at how little they trust him to take care of the situation.

These various stories have been saved and told in order to expand people’s awareness that there was something special about Jesus. He was no ordinary person. The people who knew him wanted us to know that. Those who became followers after the resurrection were committed to being sure the stories weren’t lost and wrote them down for us to have.

So what does a story like the calming of the storm mean? Most importantly, Mark wanted us to know that the God who made creation and continues to work in it, is at work in Jesus. The wind and the sea obey Jesus’ commands because he is the same God who made the wind and the seas.

But the story also reminds us that because Jesus is not only Lord of the wind and the sea but also Lord of our lives, we have nothing to fear. The one who calms the storm has also conquered the grave and even if we die, Christ will usher us into all eternity and we will be well.

Mark shares this story not only to amaze us at Jesus’ power, but also to assure us that in Christ’s hands, we will be OK.

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The Invitational Christian

Fish for people

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17)

When Jesus began his ministry, one of the first things he did was gather some companions. It was an essential part of his work to not work alone, but to include other people with him. To be honest, he didn’t seem to be too picky about who worked with him. He saw some people working on the docks and invited them to follow. They dropped their nets and came with him. Eventually, in addition to fishermen, he would collect tax collectors, zealots, and a hodgepodge of people. The men and women who entered Jesus’ inside circle were just a mix of regular people.

Today, unlike some places in our world, the church does the same thing. In a world where reality TV often disposes of people, all are welcome in the church and all are invited to follow Jesus and join in the work of inviting others to follow him too. No matter what ethnic and racial background we bring or whether we are young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight – the God we meet in Jesus loves us, call us to follow, and sends us out to “fish for people.”

Each of us has a faith story that includes other people sharing Jesus with us. Each of us belong to a faith community that has a shared story of how we work together to continue the work of Jesus in our time and help one another grow in our walk with Christ. And each of us have the ability to use the strength we gain from those parts of our life to invite others to join with us in following Jesus.

Who do you know who would be blessed by being invited into the life in Christ that you have? Just as Jesus gathered people in the first century to go out and invite others to join with Jesus, the risen Christ calls each of us to invite the people in our time to join in as well. You have the message that brings life to others. Who can you share it with?

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In the beginning was the Word (meeting God in Christ)

John 1-1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

It took a long time to fully come to grips with what had happened to the world when Jesus arrived on the scene. Early attention came in the form of crowds who were amazed at his teaching, his composure and his ability to accomplish seemingly miraculous acts like feeding 5000 people or healing the sick and lame.

Over time, as word spread, it became clear that these events and teachings were from something higher than anyone had encountered before. It was as if there was a direct connection from the mouth of God to Jesus; a direct connection from the hand of God to Jesus. While early followers could not come to consensus about exactly what was happening in Jesus, all were in agreement that something powerful was!

By the time John wrote his gospel, these ideas had started to come together in more organized forms and John’s gospel represents some of the highest thinking about Jesus in the New Testament. He was convinced that meeting Jesus was meeting God. Hearing Jesus was hearing God. In Jesus the creator of the world had come to spend time in creation – amazing!

What John wants to communicate in the verse above is just that. When people are meeting Jesus, this isn’t an encounter with a newcomer. In fact, the God we meet in Jesus was intimately involved in making the world. Ultimately, John will share that the love that compelled God to come to us in Jesus would also compel Jesus to be willing to suffer death on a cross as a sign of just how far God would go and how deep God’s love is.

As we begin Lent, cling to the core truth of the Christian message: God was in Christ. As we get to know Jesus better and learn from him, we will also get to know the God who is both in Jesus and beyond Jesus better as well.

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Jesus – The Fulfillment of Old Testament Promises

Transfuguration

And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:4)

If you wonder why Christians are so committed to including the Old Testament in their biblical material, look no further than the Transfiguration of Jesus. This event took place when Jesus took three of his closest companions up a mountain to get away from the hubbub of the work they had been doing.

When they arrived at the top, the disciples were expecting some one to one time with Jesus. But what they got instead was a visitation in an amazing vision. Moses and Elijah appeared – one on each side of Jesus. As they did, a voice from the cloud spoke and said, “This is my Son. Listen to him.”

If you want to know why the Old Testament matters, look no further than this text. Jesus does not appear in a vacuum. He comes to fulfill the hopes and expectations of centuries of Jewish life and history. People understood what Moses was about. He had been the bringer of the Law and shared what God’s hopes and identity for the people of Israel would be. People knew what Elijah was about. He was the prophet who set the standard for all the prophets. The prophets had come to raise the bar and call the people to pursue God’s highest vision for them.

Now, Jesus comes and people are trying to figure out who he is and what he is about. This event recounts one of the clearest moments in that quest. Jesus is the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament had hoped for and all that God had promised.

So, if you have wondered why Christians are committed to learning from the Old Testament, it isn’t because every detail matters. But it is because the promise and vision in the Old Testament is the only way to really understand what Jesus is all about. And when Moses and Elijah come to share the news with the disciples, the whole of the Old Testament is declaring what it wants you and I to know: “Jesus is Lord!”

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For a Time As This

For such a time as this

“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Esther 4:15

The book of Esther tells the story of those Jews who didn’t return to Israel when the Exile was over. Instead, they stayed behind and remained in Babylon, which was now under Persian control.

One key figure in the story is Esther (seems logical based on the title of this book!). She is Jewish but has married into royalty. That gave her motives and incentives to remain where she was. Her life was connected to the new land in which she lived.

But everything wasn’t easy and good for all the Jews. In fact, the king in Persia when Esther is alive has a big ego and some strict rules that he enforces to keep people in line. The bottom line is that Jews are at risk once again under this new leader.

But Esther is Jewish and has access to the seats of power. She is tempted to stay quiet and coast through under the radar. But Mordecai, another leader speaks the words in the quote above to her. She is in a position of access and power and God can use her there. In fact, Mordecai reminds Esther that God may be planning and hoping to use her.

We all have experienced this. Maybe not in the big and dramatic ways that Esther is being called. But each of us finds ourselves in situations where we have a choice. Something needs to be said or done. We have the capacity to say or do the thing we know God wants. But will we speak and act if it may be uncomfortable? Or is it easier to stay quiet and try to slip under the radar?

The God we meet in Jesus went to the cross and chose the hard big history-changing path. As he dwells in us, Christ gives us opportunities to make a difference too.

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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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