Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

Raising Our Eyes to a Higher Vision

Praise the Lord

From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised. (Psalm 133:3)

For the next few weeks we will be turning our attention to the Psalms. This collection of prayers/songs is an amazing treasure trove of spiritual resources and depth. No matter what you are feeling and what you are going through, there is probably more than one Psalm in this collection for you to connect with at any given time.

The verse above is a joyous and celebrative one. It is a call to recognize that no matter what time it is, it is time to praise the Lord. God’s goodness and commitment to doing good are praiseworthy 24/7. While we can find ourselves in a number of situations, some of which as we go through them may not naturally elicit praise for us. But the following well know call and response is always true:

L: God is good.

C: All the time.

L: All the time.

C: God is good.

Praise in life does two things and both of these are important in our relationship with God as well.

First, praise orients us in a positive way toward the other. Studies show that as much as 85% of the interactions between parents and their children are either instructive or critical. Less than 15% are simply affirming – things like “You are doing well,” or “I am proud of you,” or “I love you.” In some families that 15% is even less. The smaller it is the less positively the parent and child are likely to be in their orientation with each other. They simply become objects to manipulate or direct and lose their humanity.

This is true with God as well. If you spend most of your time when you are paying attention to God giving instructions, even in the context of prayer, it is easy to think of God on a purely practical level. “Dear God, fix this…” reduces God to simply a magical go-fer. Being intentional about praising God, thanking God and celebrating God’s goodness reframes us and keeps us oriented in a more positive way toward God.

Second, praise and celebrating goodness elevates our vision. I was just in a group of leaders who said that it seems like every organization has someone who is mostly negative – an Eeyore character. A few bad days or just a bad break or two and we can become that Eeyore character. But praise reminds us that what God is dreaming and what God is up to is higher than or current experience. It lifts our eyes toward the vision and pulls our spirits upward with it.

So, at various times between the rising of the sun and its setting, you may find yourself in a less than perfect place dealing with less than desirable circumstances. Remembering this verse in the midst of that can reorient you, reconnect you to God, and reposition you to act in ways that take something that isn’t yet what it could be and somehow make it look a bit more like the vision we know God has for it.

There is never a bad time to raise your eyes toward a higher vision!

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The Holy Spirit – God’s Prodding Us to Action

Pentecost A

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:1-2)

Jesus had promised this moment. He had told them to go to Jerusalem and wait and when the Holy Spirit came it would bring “power.” They were to simply wait for God to act and when the time arrived, God would give them what they needed to know what to do and the strength to do it.

This is the nature of the Christian life. Grounded in the promises of Jesus, God’s people wait and watch for cues from God, receive the Holy Spirit, and join in with the work that God initiates. We don’t do anything alone. God always leads and shows the way. If we are attentive, we simply say “yes” to God’s invitation and jump in.

This leads to a central idea of the Christian faith. God wants to use people and comes to us as Spirit to inspire us and prod us into action. While we might feel ill equipped to do the work or even feel inclined to turn God’s invitation down, if God has asked you to do something then you are the one who can do it. God wastes no effort inviting people to do things they can’t do. If God asks you to do something then you can. You may not yet know how, but just the fact that you sense God calling you is enough to know that if you dig in then God will find a way.

The events of Pentecost are a perfect example. 120 followers of Jesus were huddled in a room praying and waiting – for what they did not know. But they knew they were waiting for something because Jesus had told them so (and the believed him). When the Spirit came, everything changed, and a group of people who would never have envisioned what would happen next found themselves doing it – no planning involved. They simply responded and allowed the Spirit to use them.

This is a good reminder of how God often works in our lives today as well. God calls us to pray and live life watching attentively for signs from God. When God calls us to action, God’s Spirit stirs us up and sends us out to do what it is God wants doing. All the while, God is envisioning the work and leading the work. We simply need to respond to the Holy Spirit and live our lives as “yes, Lord.”

Pentecost is a reminder that if we all watched for God’s action and listened for God’s call, who knows what amazing things might happen in our live and in the world around us!

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The foolishness of the cross

Cross is foolish

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  (1 Corinthians 1:18)

As we continue to unpack the Trinity in this three part series, we turn our attention to the second person of the Trinity, the one we know as the “son.” We meet the son in Jesus, a Jewish man who lived among us and taught and healed in an itinerant ministry. He understood the core of Jewish faith like no other. He challenged the people who were in charge of faith and government in ways that threatened them. His ministry, as powerful as he had shown himself to be, ended in a surprising place – at the cross.

The cross seems an odd place for Jesus to finish. That’s why Paul talks about the cross as such a watershed in our understanding of God. No one had an image of God that could suffer and die. Such things were for mortal failures, not for amazing Gods.

The cross turns our image of God on its head. We still struggle with this. We all want the almighty and powerful God, especially when it is our turn to line up and ask for a miracle. But all of us have stories where we were disappointed that it seems like the all-powerful and almighty God failed to come through for us. How we make sense of those times (or don’t make sense of them) ends up determining a lot about our faith or lack of faith. Many a person has had their faith crushed when God didn’t do what they hoped and wanted to happen. If we aren’t careful, we can turn God into a genie who grants us wishes.

The cross reminds us that God although God is strong, God is also weak and even vulnerable. Sometimes God’s action or failure to act leads to the surprising loss of something dear to us. God is no stranger to that. Jesus shows us that God’s greatest commitment to us can be found in love. God will be with us in all things, loves us in all things, and bears all things. Each of our mortal lives will end in death – that is a given. But the God we meet in the cross stands with us in that death and experiences it with us and for us. We need not fear it. Jesus has gone there first. We need not give death the last word. The risen Christ returns to witness that love and life are more powerful than death.

This can seem foolish to those who wish for a God who would simply fix our problems. But the God of the cross lives with us and loves us in the midst of the realities of life. If you want a genie, Jesus is not the answer. You will have to keep searching for the magic lamp. But if you want a God who will stick it out with you, what seems foolish to many in our world will bring you hope and life. This is the message of the cross. This is the God we meet in Jesus.

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God is Present and Active

Gd at Work

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth… (Genesis 1:1)

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:30)

These two verses both deal with God’s creativity and oversight of creation. On the surface they are very different.

The Genesis text is past tense. God “created.” This is the most common way that we understand creation. It is something God did and it is done. The arguments between fundamentalists who believe in a literal six twenty-four days creation versus people who think it could have taken a lot longer emphasizes this historic dimension. This can impact school curriculums and all sorts of things. But sadly, this big focus is all about the past. It’s interesting but the biggest issue is not how or how long creation took to happen. The focus of the Bible is WHO created and the attention is given to God.

The Matthew lesson points to another, equally or even more important reality. Jesus doesn’t care how long creation took or how long ago it was. Jesus’ real concern is that people trust that God is still working. It isn’t enough to believe that God did something a long time ago. God is active and present in our world today and Jesus’ deepest desire is to help people see that, trust that, and live out of that promise.

This week we begin a series for three weeks that will unpack each person of the Trinity. The goal is not to gain some esoteric understanding of the Trinity and the metaphysics of the “Three in one.” The goal is to spend time exploring a God whose essence is too big for any one person to contain, whose core identity is a loving relationship, and who is active and at work in our lives.

The lessons we share this week point to a God who was active, is active and who will always be active in our world and in our lives. Knowing that and trusting that stands at the core of Jesus’ teaching. Knowing that and trusting that provides the core for us to live faithfully and confidently today. The God who made the world, has come to us in Jesus and the risen Christ keeps us alert and connected to God who works in the world today.

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The Bible – The bottom line is grace!

Revelation

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.  (Rev 22:17)

Anyone who has read through Revelation knows that it is a complex book that is filled with a wide range of imagery. It can be overwhelming to deal with it all. And making sense of it can take a lifetime. This week’s post won’t solve all of that, but hopefully it will help.

By the late first century, many Christians found themselves in difficult situations. The author of Revelation (also known as The Revelation of Saint John) says that he is in prison on the island of Patmos. He is not unique. Many Christians have found themselves in prison, in the arenas with the lions, or being killed as martyrs for their faith. Being loyal to Jesus has put many of them at odds with the Roman Empire and its leaders. The book of Revelation is written to people like this – people who are struggling and wondering what will become of them if they remain faithful Christians.

So the bottom line in the book Revelation is a relatively simple message told through vivid images, stories and metaphors. Here is the message: in a world where God’s work is often opposed by sinful and even evil forces, the God we meet in Jesus has triumphed. Ultimately, clinging to Jesus will result in life, even (especially) for those who have suffered or died for the faith. The powers of evil have been defeated and those who trust Jesus already live out of that reality, even if evil hasn’t yet received the memo and is offering up painful last gasps. So don’t give up. Don’t quit. God is going to finish this and it will be a spectacular finale. Followers of Jesus will be rewarded for their faithfulness.

That’s why the book ends on the note it does. The verses above are near the end of the last chapter of the last book in the Christian Bible. In spite of all the complex imagery in Revelation, they are very clear. God is inviting anyone and everyone to come and drink from the waters of life. And we drink, not because we earn or deserve it. We drink because God gives it to us as a gift.

That’s the gospel: In a world where life is confusing and even rough, God is at work bringing life to us and that life comes to us through faith and is offered freely as a gift. So, if the book of Revelation confuses you or even makes you nervous, just go to the bottom line. In the end God has already won, and the rewards of that victory are offered to you by Jesus, no charge!

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The Courage to Be Heard

Witness A

For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”  (Acts 13:47)

The Apostle Paul was one of the first missionaries in the early church. Originally someone who opposed Christianity, Paul had an amazing experience when he encountered the risen Jesus while traveling on the road to Damascus. By the time he had come through that encounter, Paul was transformed from a persecutor of the church to a proponent of Christian faith.

While Paul usually started by visiting Jewish communities when he arrived in a new town, response to his message was often mixed. Some would believe while others would not. This is not surprising.

But what was surprising was that in spite of a mixed response at the synagogue, Paul felt called to keep preaching and eventually came to believe that his main work was to take the gospel to more than his Jewish colleagues. He was to invite Gentiles (non-Jews) to believe in and follow Jesus.

Most of us at Zion come from Gentile ancestry. While some of us also have some Jewish heritage in us, all of us would fit the biblical definition of being a Gentile. Paul’s work was the platform on which all of us became Christians. While Elgin is at the center of our ministry and for most of us reflects the central place we spend most of our life, it was an unimaginably long trip from where Paul did his ministry to here.

Yet here we are, a community of believers who have been invited in to continue the ministry of Jesus and to invite others to believe and join in too. Our lives and witness are living examples of just what Paul was talking about. Through you and me, we are living witnesses to the ongoing work of the risen Christ. So be bold. God is using to you complete the work started by Paul almost 2000 years ago. Wow!

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God Uses Us to Get the Word Out

Witness B

Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

This simple sentence is the charge that Jesus left to his disciples before he ascended to heaven and left them to take over his work. It is preceded by a promise that they would receive “power from on high” when God sent them the Holy Spirit. In other words, the work that God was charging them with, God was taking the lead on as well. It was simply their job to bear witness to what God was up to and help others to see it too. God would do the rest.

That same promise and charge comes to us today. We receive the Holy Spirit and God empowers us to be part of what God in Christ is up to. We bear witness to that and God will do the rest.

Of course, in spite of the simplicity of it all, we seem to often fall short of the hopes that Jesus lays out. In the book of Acts, where the above verse sits right at the beginning, the faith seems to spread like wildfire. And there have been revivals throughout history where that seemed to happen again. But we seem to live in a time where faith and faith-life is declining and perhaps that clouds our judgment and dampens our spirits. So we stay quiet rather than speak up and share our witness.

This week’s lesson reminds us that God is using each and every one of us to advance God’s work. Our lives matter and the words we share with others matter too. Take some time to think about what God is up to in your life and how God in Christ has made a difference to you. Think about how to say it and in what ways you can share it with others.

Faith comes by hearing. Your voice is the primary vehicle by which many people in your life may come to hear about who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing. How can you be a more effective witness as God calls on you to share the good news?

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Holy Week’s Reversal

Palm Sunday A

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. (Matthew 21:12)

It may seem odd to share the verse from above in a post on Palm Sunday but in Matthew’s gospel, this story happened on Palm Sunday!

Jesus entered into Jerusalem to the shouts and praises of an excited crowd. Coats and palm branches were strewn on the ground in front of him as a way of honoring him. It seems like everyone loved Jesus!

Perhaps that’s why Jesus went straight to the Temple after things had calmed down a bit. It must have been exhilarating to have people so excited about him. It must have been uplifting to have them want him to be their king. It must have been tempting to simply bask in the offer of becoming the kind of leader they so wanted him to be.

So Jesus went to the Temple to get regrounded. It represented the place most focused on God’s role at the center of his life and the life of all of Israel. It was the logical place to go to regroup and refocus in ways that allowed him to shed the temptations to simply be what people wanted him to be and for him to remain true to who he was and focused on why he had come in the first place.

But when Jesus got there, he was immediately confronted with the sad fact that even the Temple culture needed to regroup and refocus. Instead of everything about the Temple fostering a way of giving God full attention, what Jesus found was a market and moneymaking things that had become way out of control. In fact, it was so bad that Jesus was more irritated than helped by his time there. And so in frustration he ran through the market, turning over tables and kicking everyone out.

This incident is as central to Palm Sunday in Matthew’s gospel as the triumphal entry and the branches waving as people praised Jesus. Jesus remembered who he was and what he was about – even when the world around him was hoping for something else, tempting him to become something else, and even opposed to what he was up to.

That’s why Jesus died. When humanity asked Jesus to be something he wasn’t and hoped he would settle for being a good earthly ruler, Jesus said “no” and instead focused on being a history changing savior. The people turned on Jesus and nailed him to a cross. But Jesus didn’t turn on them. Three days after the people would be finished with Jesus, the risen Jesus was back at work bringing peace where there was no peace and life where there had only been death. This is the message of Holy Week.

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A God Forsaken Place?

jesus crucifixion

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

This week during our Lenten midweek worship we read from Psalm 139. It is a magnificent Psalm filled with many images and beautiful language. While it isn’t the focus of this post, it’s message is essential to understanding it. The bottom line for the writer of Psalm 139 is this: There is nowhere you can go where God isn’t there with you. This is true whether you have wings like a bird and fly off to the farthest or highest points. This is true whether you find yourself dead and in the depths of Sheol (which mean “the grave” or “the place of the dead.”)

In other words, the notion of something being “God forsaken” is a real human experience but at the same time it is also always an illusion and a lie. There is no place where God is not. We just sometimes are so low and so trapped in our pain that we can no longer sense it or hang on to that important truth.

That’s why the cross is so central to the Christian faith. At the cross the gospel writers tell us that Jesus was in anguish and suffering so deeply as to lose sight of God. We might wonder how Jesus (who is the Word made flesh and the incarnation of God in the world) could somehow not at least remember that, by definition, he has to be in the presence of God since he is the presence of God! But suffering and pain, if they are real, have voices of their own. Jesus was a fully human being as well. His pain and his impending death were as painful, real and threatening to him as they would be to you and me. The voices he heard nagging him as death approached and his breathing grew labored are the same voices we often hear when we are suffering.

In the end, we know something about Jesus’ at the cross that his experience shouted down for him. We know that even though Jesus felt like the cross is a God forsaken place, it is at the cross that we actually most clearly see the depth of God’s love. What pain and suffering blinded Jesus to, our faith informs us in ways that we can see it. God was in Jesus! The cross is not a God forsaken place. The rabbi hanging on the cross is Lord and Savior, God in the flesh.

Hopefully that gives us strength when we suffer. We are not alone. “God forsaken” is a phrase that has no meaning. It is a lie. No such place exists. No matter what is happening, God is with us.

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God Was (and is) in Christ

Jesus is God

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)

We often think of Jesus as the Son of God but often think of that as something that began when Jesus was born in a manger. It is hard to conceive of what it means for the Son of God to have already existed before Jesus. How can that be, if Jesus was born at a specific date and time?

But scripture is clear that the Son of God was here long before Abraham. This claim by Jesus puzzled and even angered those who heard it. He was an itinerant preacher in his late twenties when he said it. What kind of delusions prompted him to claim to have been here nearly two thousand years earlier, when Abraham and Sarah traveled to Israel and began the nation?

Jesus is claiming that he and the one who said “I am who I am,” to Moses from the burning bush are one and the same. Jesus is claiming that he is the embodiment of the divine. This claim makes people, especially religious leaders, furious with him.

To be clear, if God is eternal and if God is in Christ, then the God who is in Christ could not have simply started with the birth of Jesus. The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, had to be fully present before the first moments of creation. While Jesus’ life has a specific beginning at his birth, the Son of God came down to be present in him and has always been, even before time began.

So when you take time to reflect on Jesus, give thanks for the amazing truth that stands at the center Jesus. God is in Christ.

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