Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

The Restraint of God

Jesus and Pilate

Jesus answered Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above;” (John 16:11a)

We hear platitudes all the time. People say things like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” When someone dies tragically we hear, “Don’t be sad. They are in a better place now.” Or even worse, “God took them early,” as if the tragedy was actually somehow orchestrated by God.

Into this world we then see Jesus go to the cross and see how he interacts with Pontius Pilate. Here, Jesus’ fate is in the hands of an enemy oppressor and the outcome means that Jesus will end up nailed to a cross and suffering a slow and torturous death. Pilate is feeling pretty smug about his position of power. Jesus seems unphased by the whole thing. In fact, when Pilate brags to Jesus and reminds him of how powerful he is and that Jesus’ life is in the balance, Jesus responds with the above verse. “You would have no power over me unless it has been given to you from above;”

What we see here is that whatever power God has, God relinquished power and control to the people of the world. God knows that it is risky. People are not a sure bet. We get things right. We get things wrong. Jesus’ gets people who will follow him – many will bail now that the pressure is on. Jesus finds people who will oppose him. They will eventually sentence him to die.

According to Jesus, God has permitted the world to do what the world decides to do with Jesus. Jesus will simply submit himself to the process. Death is the outcome but Jesus knows the power of God. Death does not appeal to him – he’d rather not go to the cross. But dying faithfully would be radically different than bailing to save his skin. To take power from Pilate to save himself, Jesus would deny who he is and what God is all about. Jesus calmly accepts death rather than doing that.

What we see here is a lesson in the restraint of God. To be in the image of God, human beings need to be able to freely make choices – even bad ones. And to be in the image of God, people need to see the impact of the choices that they make. The impact of human sinfulness is often death – in this case the death of Jesus. But rather than flee or bail on his identity, Jesus accepts his fate with the knowledge that when God is faithful, life wins. Even Pilate’s power is not enough to stop it. God’s restraint is more powerful than the mightiest powers in the world. It may hurt to get there, but Jesus will usher in the kingdom from a cross.


Belonging to the Truth

Truth - BelongingPilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.”  (John 18:37-38)

Jesus does not operate like anyone else. He is clear about who he is. He understands why he exists. He knows what he is trying to accomplish. He has the ability to stay the course under pressure. These are all admirable if you like what he is up to. They are annoying if you are trying to get him to crack under pressure.

This text can lead to a number of insights. It can help us reflect on staying true to our calling when the costs are high. It can help us understand that what Jesus is all about is much bigger than the kingdoms of this world in which we live (all small potatoes compared to the kingdom of God).

But perhaps in today’s world, no insight is more helpful than the claim that Jesus makes about truth. He makes truth something different than we usually do. Truth is more than a proposition – more than the right ideas. Truth is something we belong to. It claims us. It possesses us. It takes us in. Truth, while it includes accurate information, is a place in which we ground our lives and in so doing live knowing that we belong to God.

That means that truth is really about relationships first. We tend to believe things that people we trust tell us. We tend to doubt things that people we don’t trust tell us. It is possible that the info from our non-trusted source is actually correct and the person we trust is wrong. But we don’t start with that assumption. In today’s world of “fake news” we don’t even entertain that notion. We write off some sources immediately, living in a bubble of our own making and in the process, cutting ourselves off from not only the information but the people as well.

Jesus tries to establish himself as the basis for connecting with the truth. As we belong to him, we belong to the truth. All who belong to him are connected to the same deeper truth that is the basis for life and for our shared lives together.

Sadly, Christians seem to have lost much of this. We spend more time and energy listening to sources that divide us and joining in the factions that are splitting up our society rather than spending time together listening to Jesus. Mainliners listen to and join in on one side. Conservative evangelicals listen to and join in on the other side. Perhaps none of us are spending enough time listening to Jesus. Perhaps this is a call for some of us to refocus and listen to Jesus. In him, we will both hear and belong to the truth. What is he saying to you and to us?


When We Fall Short

Peter Denies Jesus

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” (John 18:25)

The pressure is on now. Jesus has been arrested and the forces that want him dead are closing in tighter and tighter. The levels of anxiety are high. The price to be paid is huge. Soon it appears that Jesus will be dead. His disciples are watching and calculating the costs and the risks and having to function under pressure. Every decision may cost them their lives.

Peter is one of Jesus’ closest companions. He has been with Jesus from the beginning. He has to know that the end is close. Jesus has made it more than clear and it has only been a few hours since they were all up around Jesus sharing dinner, getting their feet washed, and receiving what would be Jesus’ last words of teaching and advice. As shocking as things are, this was not a huge surprise. Jesus saw it coming. He was clear – they all saw it coming too.

But it is one thing to know what’s coming and be semi-prepared for it. It is another thing to actually carry things out well under pressure. As Peter watches from the sidelines, he is recognized. People who have seen Jesus have also seen Peter. They know he is part of Jesus’ team of people. Peter knows it too. But to admit it may mean he ends up right where Jesus is – captured and waiting to be jailed or even killed.

We all want to think we would have done better. The imagination won’t allow us to think we could have done worse. “If only I was there,” is almost an automatic response when we see a crisis and watch someone fail. We have heard it, even this week, when we saw the deputy outside the Parkland school during the shooting. People were shocked that he didn’t go in to confront the shooter. We heard people say, “If I were there, I would have gone in.”

But the truth is, under pressure, we all function differently than we think we might when we are able to watch and reflect from a distance. We often fail. And when we do, we see Jesus. His eyes were focused on his purpose and he knew than faithfulness would lead to crucifixion. It is not our faithfulness than saves us. It is the faithfulness of Jesus.


Kneeling as a Way of Life

Footwashing B

Jesus said, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”  (John 13:15-16)

We are moving closer to the cross. Lent is unfolding for us and with it, we begin to see Jesus path to Golgotha and crucifixion starts to unfold as well. John 13 begins a long section of teaching. Jesus has one last shot to make an impression on the disciples. Soon, the fruits of his work will be in their hands.

Jesus starts with an object lesson. His goal is to embed an image so deep in the psyche of his followers that they cannot escape it. He has just washed their feet. As usual, Peter has resisted. But Jesus has persisted anyway. God is not stopped by our resistance. God is not willing to let our “no” replace God’s “yes.”

So, what is the lesson that Jesus wants to be unforgettable? Grounded in the love of God that is made tangible in Jesus, followers of Jesus are to make that same love tangible to others. How? By being humble servants. In a world where people want a return on their investment and want to maximize their profits, etc., Jesus shows a way of life that is focused on being available to others and being willing to step down from our place in order to love more fully. So what does Jesus, the king of kings and Lord of Lords do? He kneels. Kneeling is a sign of humility and honor. It is what disciples do to their teachers. No one remembers seeing a teacher kneel before their students.

Middle America is a place where accumulation is encouraged. It is a place where we all hope to find ways to move up the ladder and have and do what we want. It is a part of the freedom that we have to assume that succeeding and having and doing more comes with the territory. Entire industries thrive on making us want things that don’t even exist yet. In the middle of this, Jesus kneels before us, strips down to the bare minimum, wraps a towel around himself, and washes feet on his knees.

Everyone except Jesus is caught off guard. Everyone except Jesus is uncomfortable. But kneel he does and as a result, the lesson sticks. 2000 years later we still tell the story, practice the act on Maundy Thursday, and try to take in what Jesus is telling us: Don’t be like everyone else. Don’t ask, “What is in it for you?” Be generous, loving and sacrificial. Serve gladly and do so, not from the place in which you live, but from the attitude that comes to us when Christ abides in us. Love is the mark of Christ. Love is the mark of the church. In the end, kneeling is, for followers of Jesus, symbolic as a way of life.

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The Seventh Sign – Life Wins!


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


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 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


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.