Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

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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The Power of Faithfulness

Ruth 1

Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17)

This famous passage is often used at weddings to declare a lifetime of faithfulness between two people preparing to share their wedding vows. It is rooted in the faithfulness that we embody when we look like God.

Ruth was a foreigner to the Jewish people. She had married a Jewish man and he had died. Her mother-in-law had urged her to go home to the people where she had grown up. Ruth could find a new husband, establish a home, re-engage the religion of her own ancestors and her mother-in-law would head back to Israel alone to live out her days.

But Ruth will have none of this. She had committed to not only the husband she had, but in the process she has become a part of his family. Her loyalty was not going to stop with her husband’s death. Ruth would not abandon this woman whom she loved so deeply. No, she would be sure to stay with her for her entire life.

This image of commitment is grounded in how we are to be when we look most like God. We hear stories all the time of people who have a struggle and rather than deal with it, they flee to easier places and abandon those they claim to love. But Ruth, who would find her way into the family tree of Jesus, is lifted up for the way her actions mirror the actions of God. She is loving, hospitable, committed and unwilling to let hardship stand in the way of love. In some ways, only the tests of hardship demonstrate fully how strong the love actually is.

That’s what the cross of Jesus shows us. In the midst of hardship and pain, Jesus had the power to flee and avoid the cross. He could have simply bailed on the entire project to share God’s deep love and commitment to humanity. But love refuses to back out just because it’s hard. Ruth gives us a glimpse of the kind of love God created humankind to have. Jesus makes it not only real on a larger scale, but the risen Christ also empowers us to love like that as well.

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Faithful, Courageous and Bold

Courage

God said, “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it.”  (Joshua 1:8)

Joshua was selected by God to take over after Moses’ death. Because none of the Hebrews who had been slaves in Egypt were to still be alive when they entered, Joshua was leading an entirely different group of people than the ones who had been at Sinai when the 10 Commandments were given. And because both Moses and Aaron were included among those who would die before entering, this new group of people is also traveling with new leadership.

But that doesn’t mean that God’s overarching desires and commitments have changed. The law, given at Sinai, was to be a sign of the people’s connection to God. That covenant would remain in place as this band of travelers prepared to enter the Promised Land. And the criteria for leadership would also remain. God speaks to Joshua and the verse at the top of this article declares God’s standards for leadership are awareness of the law, a willingness to take it deep within, and a taking care to be faithful to it in all things. Because Moses had been disobedient and insolent, God wants to start off on the right foot with everything clear for Joshua. This next chapter would need to go better.

Of course, Joshua would lead the people into the land and the battles with the previous residents would eventually lead to the establishment of Israel as a people and as a nation. While the Exodus under Moses is story that moves toward freedom, the entrance into the land under Joshua is a story that establishes property rights – a sign of legitimacy for the people. Joshua would be lifted up as a courageous and important figure in Israel’s history.

While there is much to say about Joshua and the battles to take the land, perhaps the key things to think about this week are shaped by the fact that Sunday will be All Saints Sunday. It is a day to remember those who have gone before us and what they have done to ensure that the faith has been passed on to people like us. Just as Joshua was urged to remain faithful and devoted to God’s Word, many of our ancestors remained committed and faithful in their own times and places. Just as Joshua was called to be courageous and take bold actions, many of our forbearers acted with courage and boldness in their settings as well.

A reason to study people like Joshua in scripture and to remember the saints in our own lives is the impact they can have on us. Gratitude for their witness and work can (and should) remind us of the importance people have, not only in their own time but also for generations to come. You and I are the saints of today and will be remembered some All Saints Day down the road. It is important for us to dwell in God’s Word, commit to being faithful disciples, and act with courage and boldness to face the challenges we face in our time. Who knows, some day in the future someone may be remembering each of us with thanksgiving – glad for the hard work we have done in our time to be faithful as well!

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A God Who Guides

Wilderness Wandering

So they set out from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey with the ark of the covenant of the going before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting place for them…(Numbers 10:33)

The covenant with the people was established in the giving of the Torah (the Law) when Moses brought the 10 Commandments down from Mount Sinai with him. While the covenant established a relationship with the people, it would not always be an easy one. The people would want things to be easier and more readily accessible. God would want the people to be more obedient and grateful. At times neither God nor the people would be happy.

When the journey referred to in the verse above was begun, perhaps only God knew how long it would take. This is the beginning of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. No one who left Egypt would be alive when the journey was over. Only the descendants would be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

But the fact that there is such friction, tension and struggle ahead doesn’t change the heart of God’s commitment to the people who would become Israel. The Ark of the Covenant would be sent off first. With God’s guidance the people would take each step of their journey. No matter how disgruntled the people would be or how disappointed God would be, the people would not be on their own. The ark would signify God’s commitment and protection as they wandered.

This week is Reformation Sunday. It is a time when we remember the work of reformers like Martin Luther who wanted people to know a basic truth. The covenant that was written on the tablets in the Old Testament had been renewed in Jesus and the new covenant would be written, not on tablets to be carried in an ark, but in hearts to be present with people of faith every minute of every day.

What the ark represented for the people of Israel, faith in Christ provides to each of us today. Give thanks this week for the gift that freely ours in Christ.

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Called for a Purpose

Exodus 19-6

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)

Almost everyone would like to be special, at least once in a while. It’s a normal part of life. It is one of the reasons that birthdays continue to be so important to so many people. For that day, everyone takes a moment to wish you a happy birthday. If you have a Facebook account, word travels across the web and sometimes dozens (or even a hundred or more) of people send you a birthday greeting.

But beyond the basic human desire to be affirmed and lifted up as special once in a while is a deeper form of being set apart. In scripture, we hear the story of God and the people of Israel, set apart for the work of shaping not only their own nation, but to influence the rest of the world as well.

The verse above identifies the people in the wilderness, wandering out of Egypt and into the desert, as a “priestly kingdom” and a “holy nation.” These titles aren’t just granted. They come as a part of a covenant between God and the people. Their obedience is a mark of their special calling. God’s response to this obedience means they are treasured. And the result is a special place among the nations.

Their holiness is granted by their keeping the covenant. The law that God will give them, the 10 Commandments, will set them up to be righteous and just. The result will be a priestly role – they will not only have responsibility for themselves but also be called on to intercede for others. This two-fold marking identifies God’s people.

This continues to be God’s way in Jesus. People of faith are declared holy, not by our own merits or obedience but by the faithfulness and obedience of Jesus. We receive this as a gift and it comes to us by faith. Trusting Jesus declares us to be righteous and holy before God. Then, joined to Jesus we are called on to continue Jesus’ priestly ministry. We are no longer simply to look out for ourselves. We are called to intercede with God on behalf of others as well, so they may receive what we have been given and join in with God’s work in Christ as well.

The Old Testament sets up a pattern of how God works with God’s people. That pattern continues in many ways through the New Testament as well. What is started in the desert over a thousand years before Jesus, finds fulfillment in Jesus at the cross, and draws us in to the work of God in the world today. The God of Jesus is “the same yesterday, today and forever.”

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God Works – Even When We Hurt

Josephs Coat

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. (Genesis 37:2)

Almost nothing rivals a really bad fight between two people who have a lot of history together. They may even have a good history, but if something drives a wedge between them, things can get really ugly really fast.

Joseph is famous, even today, in part because of a musical about him and the beautiful and special coat that his father gave him. It made Joseph happy and proud to have the coat. It made his brothers even more envious and angry with him. In the verse above, you can see that this is not a neutral issue. Joseph is having dreams of being better than his brothers and lording over them in it. He is not shy about telling them this. He seems to enjoy rubbing it in. And the brothers, who already don’t like him, hate him even more.

Eventually, the brothers will plot to get rid of Joseph and convince their father that Joseph is dead and gone. Joseph will end up a captive in Egypt. A string of events too long for an article like this will unfold. When a famine forces the brothers to move south and into Egypt to find food, all memories of Joseph will be long gone. Yet in this sequence of events, Joseph will be in a position of power in Egypt and the brothers will (unknowingly) find themselves at his mercy. Although Joseph is not beyond having a little fun to get even with them in the process, eventually he will announce forgiveness and look to find ways that God was involved in all of this, even though almost all the things that happened seemed bad at the time.

This is a good lesson for all of us. We often watch for God at work and look most easily at good things and rejoice. But it is harder and takes more focus to look at the struggles of our lives and see God working there, even when the events were tough or even painful.

This week, take a little time to look back over your life and some of the biggest things that have transpired. Look especially at the places where you struggled or experienced pain. How do you see God sustaining you through that, working to bring life from that, or involved in some other ways? Remember, God is bigger than our successes. God is at work, even when things are rough.

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The Promise to Abraham – The Faithfulness of God

God of Abraham et al

And he (Abraham) believed the Lord; and the Lord[b] reckoned it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6

One of the basic tenets of the faith is that we are saved by grace through faith. Our faith does not save us, but only by faith does grace become real. So, faith is an essential part of God’s graciousness coming to us. This story is the formative story for the people who would become known as Israel or Jews in history. What this story tells us is that faith has always been the key to God seeing us as righteous. In fact, righteousness in scripture is not only a characteristic reserved for good people, but also a gift and sign of the activity of God in someone’s life.

The radicality of that is easily seen in the story of Abraham and Sarah. Two older people, beyond normal childbearing years, have risked their comfortable lives to journey off to a new place simply because God asked them to. God has promised heirs for them, but to date Abraham and Sarah have had no children. Instead, they have tried to take matters into their own hands and Abraham, at Sarah’s request, has had a child with Hagar, their maid/slave. While this has given an heir, Abraham is not happy with the outcome. God had promised an heir to he and Sarah. The son from the maid was not what he had in mind.

The verse above is about God’s response to Abraham’s grumbling. God is faithful and will fulfill the promise. Abraham and Sarah need to trust more fully and not try to manipulate the situation to accomplish what only God can do. Abraham gets the message and believes God and God is pleased to see his faith restored and views Abraham as righteous again.

In our lives, we routinely have ideas about our future and plans for how things are to turn out. We often see these as faithful to our identity as followers of Jesus and hope God will make them happen. But we get sidetracked, life hits a pothole, or something we had counted on simply doesn’t materialize. It is easy to get discouraged and even angry with God.

The Story reminds us that we live in the “lower story,” a human story that can be messy and even disheartening. Over the top of that continues the “upper story.” It is the story of God’s abiding faithfulness, even when our faith is weak and our resolve is broken. Abraham and Sarah’s story is the formative one for the people of God. It is no accident that it follows in the same pattern as the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. People will make a mess of things. God will keep working to bring life and hope.

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God’s Partners from the Start

The garden of Eden with the fall of man, by Jan Brueghel de Elder and Peter Paul Rubens

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  (Genesis 2:8)

We often think of Eden as this amazingly beautiful paradise that was formed as part of creation and was pristine and in some people’s imaginations, even perfect. Ask a typical group of pastors who have graduated from seminary and they will share the story of creation something like this: God made the world and everything in it. There was a beautiful garden called Eden. God made the man and then the woman and placed them in this paradise. But because of sin, the paradise was lost.

It’s a familiar story. One that almost all of us know and have internalized as the basic story of our culture. If it weren’t for our sinfulness, the world would be perfect. But because we sinned, God’s perfect world was damaged and was lost.

There’s just one problem with that. It isn’t at all what the Bible says when it tells the story of Adam and Eve. In the verse above, the man exists before the garden. After forming the man from the dust of the earth, then God planted a garden and put the man in it. In the verses before the one quoted at the top of this post, the story says, “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth…” In other words, the man in this version preceded the garden.

Why is this important? Because the story of Adam and Eve is not at all about paradise lost. It is about people created to join in God’s work but losing their way. The garden was not perfected before people arrived. The garden was developed and to flourish in partnership with Adam and Eve.

As we begin the biblical story, we start with creation and why God got this whole project started. The God who is Trinity prefers to work in partnership with others who share a like commitment to getting creation right. God’s coming in Jesus shows how committed to the work God is. The story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden reminds us that the invitation to follow Jesus is simply one more opportunity to join in with God – something that has always been an invitation since the beginning of time.

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Connected by Faith

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)

Body of Christ C

In our culture, it has been more and more fashionable to have a “do it yourself” religion. People pick and choose viewpoints they like about various things, shape their “doctrines” to match the ideas they like, and then fly solo with a religious life that is primarily individual focused. Many of these people will say things like,  “I don’t need to belong to a church to believe in God.” Most of these people in our context still consider themselves Christian in some way, and it is not our job to be too judgmental about this.

But at the same time, Biblical Christianity is not an individual religion. We are baptized into the body of Christ and as we are joined to Jesus, we are joined to all others who are joined to Jesus too.  The risen Christ draws a community of people to himself and individuals who are joined to him belong to this community. No one can boast that they are independent and self-sufficient and still claim the name of Jesus.

The church is called to be the best expression of Christ’s presence in the world today. We gather around God’s Word to proclaim the Gospel of that same word made flesh in Jesus. We celebrate the sacraments to honor God’s baptismal claim on our lives and to eat and drink to honor Christ’s presence in our midst. We are sent out bearing Christ’s presence to the world as our feet, hands and voices continue the ministry of Jesus in our time and place.

When the Apostle Paul wrote the verse above, it was part of a letter to the people of Corinth who had lost track of the essential nature of the church and how connected they were to each other. Many centuries later these words are still useful. If we belong to Jesus, we belong to each other. Our faith does not make us self-sufficient – quite the opposite. Our faith connects us to Christ and to each other.

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Be Transformed

Transformation

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

A friend of mine once preached a challenging sermon about how God was calling people to be changed by their faith in Jesus and be bolder in their work as Christians in the world. The sermon must have been a powerful one and had an impact. But the impact was not all positive. The music director of the congregation came up to him afterward and accosted him, “Don’t you ever preach a sermon like that again. I have enough stress in my life already. I don’t come here to feel uncomfortable. I come here to be comforted!”

Paul’s letter to Romans provides a challenging picture of Christian faith. Baptism joins us with the death of Jesus. We die with Christ so that we can be renewed in the resurrection life. (Romans 6) It also provides a comforting picture of the Christian faith. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8). So, Paul’s letter lifts up both a comforting image of the faith and a challenging one. You can’t have Romans without having both comfort and challenge. We may want only the one, but the gospel brings both. It is life-giving and life changing.

Part of what faith does is a paradox. We are loved and affirmed as children of God, exactly as we are. Grace and forgiveness and new life come as a gift. Our faith tells us this. But we are also challenged and even prodded by the Spirit to not stay where we are but also set free to risk becoming the people God created us to be – far more than we are yet. Our faith tells us this as well.

The gifts of grace are to be used to shape us and guide us in God’s ways. Transformation is the expectation – not just an optional bonus. You are loved exactly as you are. But God loves you too much to leave you exactly as you are, too.

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