Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

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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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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