Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

Do You Look Like God?

Like Jesus

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:4)

Our Jewish sisters and brothers are very focused on something from Genesis that is central to the human story. All of us are made in the image of God. While this generic truth is important to us as Christians, it seems to be even more deeply woven into the fabric of Judaism.

That’s why this commandment is so important and so early in the list. We are to be the image of God for the world. Our lives are to reflect the same goodness and creativity and commitment to the world that God has. Because God is love, we are to love. Because God is creative, we are to be creative. Because God is good, we are to be good. The list goes on. If it is of God, it should be of us.

For Christians, this connection to the image of God receives an added dimension. In our baptism, we are connected to Jesus. Paul refers to Jesus as the “new Adam.” What he means is, what creation started out to be finds its fulfillment in Jesus. If you want the best image of who God is and what God is about, we no longer look to the first people, we look to Jesus at the cross. “No one has seen the Father…” Jesus tells us. But we have seen Jesus and Jesus let’s us know what God looks like in the flesh.

Whenever we settle for something less than God to replace God, we deny our purpose in life. We are created to look like God, act like God, and to do God’s work. Idolatry means we look for a cheap and easy out to the call of discipleship. Rather than doing the hard work of making our lives reflect God’s image in ways that God desires, we simply cop out.

That’s why our Jewish brothers and sisters take this commandment to heart. Idolatry is a copout. God is the most important thing in our lives. Our lives are called to reflect and demonstrate that the God who made the world and the God who comes to us in Jesus are the most important things in our lives. Anything less is simply to miss the mark.

So this week, take a moment to look in the mirror. As you do, reflect on your work, your relationships, your character and your spirit. Do you look like God? If not in all the ways you wish, give thanks that we are saved by grace and not by works. God loves you anyway! But don’t settle for cheap grace. Allow God’s Spirit to speak to your heart and commit yourself to responding. Someone might just encounter a glimpse of God in your life and it may make a difference to both you and them!

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God Goes First

Exodus 20-2

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;” (Exodus 20:1-2)

It is not our favorite thing to admit, but we have no control over who our God is. God is who God is and God decides how to exercise that truth. God always initiates and goes first. We are always the result and called on to respond. But while our response may determine much about how we understand life and our part in it, our response will never change the truth about who our God is. Regardless of what we decide, God has already decided to be our God.

Much of American religion struggles with this. We are presented choices and forced to make a decision. Is God our God or not? If we choose wrong and declare that God is not our God, we are told that God will reject us and damnation is our destiny.

The Bible tells a different story. God comes to the people of Israel because they need a God who will set them free. God does that and then, while they are wandering in the wilderness as a band of former slaves with no place to call home, God declares that God is God and doesn’t consult with them first to see if that’s OK. God just states the truth and that makes it so.

In Jesus, we see that same God continue to operate out of that same identity and promise. People rebel and reject Jesus and try to figure out how to take charge of their own destiny. They live as though God’s choice to be our God is an optional reality – just because God says it doesn’t mean that they have to agree that it is so. They have forgotten the basic principle from which the world began: God says, “…” and it becomes so.

This week we begin a four week series focusing on the ten commandments and God’s direction about how people who recognize the truth that God is God will live. But before God offers even one command, God starts with a truth: God is our God. You are God’s people. And that is the essence of the Good News that scripture wants us to know.

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Rejoice (Always)

Philippians - Paul's Letter of Joy

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)

Depending where you are in life, you may hear this and say, “You have to be kidding! Do you know what has happened to me in the last week? How can you tell me to rejoice always?”

We tend to confuse joy with happiness and happiness with joy. Because of that, it is hard to figure out how we are to rejoice when we aren’t happy. Part of this is a lack of awareness of what rejoicing involves and where it comes from.

Happiness is situational. Things go well and we are happy. Someone goes out of their way to do something nice for us and we are especially happy. But when things go poorly, we may replace happiness with sadness, anger, frustration, or any one of a variety of difficult emotions. One thing is clear: it is hard to be happy and sad at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive.

But joy is deeper than happiness. Joy comes from a place of wellbeing. In that sense it has more to do with the connection between hope and shalom (wholeness). Joy is the sense of wellbeing that comes from believing that God can and does work in all things and that difficult things may make us sad or mad, but they do not stop God from working in them and from the reign of God from coming in to our lives.

I saw this last week when, at a funeral, the son of a woman who had died shared memories about her. It was both a sad and a joyous occasion. The woman had been a faithful part of Christ’s church and knew that she belonged to Jesus. She had lived a long time and maintained a positive spirit through a variety of physical struggles during the last years of her life. As her death approached, she looked forward to it with the release from her struggles. It would be a right and fitting end to her journey and a chance for her to join with God in eternity. And so her son shared, with both sadness and joy, the completion of a life. The grief of saying goodbye combined with the faithful confidence that God was still at work and doing a good and wonderful thing.

When Paul urges us to rejoice always, he is hoping that our faith will always inform our circumstances. When that happens, while all things may not be good or bring us happiness, even in the midst of pain and struggle, the promises of God in Jesus continue to be at work as well. So, let your faith dwell deeply within you and rejoice (always!).

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Working Out Your Salvation…

Philippians 2-12

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

In general, Lutherans have heard a phrase like “work out your own salvation…” as heretical. It is our commitment to God’s grace coming to us as a gift. There are no works involved in salvation. We simply receive it through the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

As a result, Lutherans are often viewed as spiritually a bit lazy. While our theology has a definite place for works as a response to grace, we have always known that they aren’t required in order to make God love us. We could skip them altogether and simply trust that God loves is in Christ and the gates of hell would not be waiting for our arrival. God is good and we are graced by receiving that goodness!

But Paul is clear, and so are Lutherans who go more than an inch deep in their faith, that we are to work and that it is serious business to do so. This is not because God won’t love us if we mess up. But it is because we are actually joining in with God who has claimed us. We are now dealing with the very presence and power of God, being transformed by grace and figuring out what it means to live lives now as an extension of God’s work.

So, Paul says that we should do this with “fear and trembling.” The gift of life has been given to us in Christ by the giver of life. God is not only deeply in love with us, God is also deeply at work within us as well. God’s desired outcome is that our lives would both want what God wants and work toward that end.

So, while many Protestant traditions are clear that works are not needed to earn God’s favor, scripture is also equally clear, once you know that you are loved by God, becoming who and what God intends for you to be in Christ is a calling that will shape and focus your whole life.

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We Need Each Other


I thank my God every time I remember you… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. (Philippians 1:3, 7)

It is truly an American characteristic to want to appear self-sufficient. In fact, often our pride requires we pretend to be fine when we are not or to take full credit for something that relies on the help of others. We all want to appear “self-made” and in political circles, the spin that someone is “self-made” carries all sorts of respect and sympathy and can sometimes even leverage a few extra votes. Nothing fosters the respect of Americans like being a self-made person.

But the truth is, no one is self-made. From the families we come from to the kinds of communities we live in, we have help and access that comes from a much wider circle of people. The healthiest people know this, honor this, are thankful for this, and admit it. But the temptation is to try to convince ourselves that because we work hard we have earned all that we have. We want to be indebted to no one.

The Christian life teaches us a different message. ALL of us are dependent on the grace of God. God always goes first and 100% of everything we do starts with God and not with us. That means pride is replaced by gratitude for all who are people of faith. In addition, it is the nature of life in general and the nature of the church in particular, to be communal and to live in relationship with the God we encounter in Jesus and with each other. Autonomy is not an option for the faithful.

Paul has no such self-made illusions about himself. Despite being a proud Jewish lawyer (Pharisee), he knows that his work depends on the work and support of others. The Philippians have been especially supportive and especially generous. His work has been heavily underwritten by their love and generosity. He depends on them and is deeply thankful for their support, companionship and partnership in the gospel.

The temptation to try to believe that we are responsible for ourselves will still be there. The world will send examples and try to make us forget the truth about God and about life. But if we believe that God is a God of grace, then we will all be humbled and grateful for the gifts that have come our way. We will be thankful to those who have shared them with us. And we will be generous in sharing them with others, for they are not ours anyway. It has all come, in one way or another, from God.

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Talking and Listening to Anyone

Paul in Athens

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” Acts 17:32

We live in a world of increasingly diverse people, religions, and ideas. In fact, the city in which we live is one of the 30 most diverse cities in America. There are people from all corners of the world and people who practice all faiths. They are people of all colors, people of all sexual orientations, people of a multitude of languages.

In America today, it is tempting to hide in a bubble. Social media makes this possible. I can read things from people I agree with and shut out the input from people I don’t. I can easily hang out with people who look, think and act like me. In many corners of our society, that’s what people do. In the process, it is easy to see something on TV or a story on the internet and then overgeneralize about people. “People from this group are…” and then we fill in the blank with stereotypes and generalizations that aren’t accurate.

I am amazed how often I talk to someone who says something negative about some group of people. Sometimes I ask them, “Which person in that group do you know who actually did that?” Almost always the answer is, “I don’t know anyone who did.” But whatever thing is on their mind: immigrants, Muslims, or something else – they have heard somewhere that what they think is true and have no actual experience to back it up. This is how the world slowly falls apart.

In our lesson this week, we see another approach. Plunged into a world of diversity, Paul is an Athens in the midst of people who think all sorts of things. They practice many religions and think thoughts based in many different philosophies. He takes time to listen and observe what they think and teach. He looks at the symbols and monuments they erect in order to see what matters most to them. He finds connections between his faith in Jesus and the things they value or wonder about. And he shares honestly and respectfully.

In the verse above, not everyone is convinced. Some think he’s teaching foolishness. That doesn’t bother him – he’s confident enough in his identity to not be threatened by the different beliefs of others. And some are intrigued. They are willing to listen to more and curious about Paul’s message about Jesus.

There are lessons for us today in this. One, we need to respectfully watch and listen to others and try to understand what they think and believe. Second, we need to maintain dialog with people who are different from us and try to maintain good relationships with them. Third, within a good relationship comes the ability to share what we think and listen to what they think – we can tell others about Jesus. And fourth, not everyone will be swayed by our view of the world in Christ. But some will be curious and open to more.

It is not our job to save the world. God in Christ is doing that. But we can share openly and respectfully what we see God doing and maintain good relationships with the people around us, whether they end up believing what we believe or not.


Are You a Good Guest?


He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. (Acts 16:34)

The people in many congregations are doing some amazing things. It is especially true here where we host and serve at Soup Kettle, we are a mainstay at Food for Greater Elgin, and we mentor in the schools. We are now looking at hosting a summer lunch program, starting an after school program and overhauling our Sunday School to use a new model called “Godly Play.”

In addition, we are growing in worship attendance. We are reaching people and some of them are seeing this as a place to call their spiritual home for this part of their faith journey. This week, as we worship, we will have a baptism and welcome five new adults through Affirmation of Faith. Overall, things are going well.

But the lesson this week raises a point that would still stretch us and can stretch us to do not more work, but actually make some shifts to also do better work.

Paul and Silas had been in prison for the missionary work they were doing. An earthquake has set them free and the jailer, essentially the night watchman who lives adjacent to the prison, encounters these prisoners in a new way and decides to join them. He is baptized and so is his family.

After the family is baptized, the story takes a twist. While in our ministry we often have a reception and provide a cake or snacks to welcome ne members, in this case the jailer and his family provide the food and Paul and Silas are their guests. This practice of “reverse hospitality” is a standard practice in the book of Acts. A missionary person shares the gospel, new people are baptized and welcomed into the faith, and the new people provide the food and hospitality.

Why is this? Because it is always easier to eat your own food than that of a stranger. It is always safer to serve the meal since you know what is in it. But a sign of true acceptance and trust, is to eat the food of someone else, especially if they are new to you and you don’t know their culture very well. It can make you wonder, “What’s in this?”  Reverse hospitality was a sign that these new people were truly in. They were fully accepted and trusted as new members of the community of faith.

As we continue to connect with and reach out to new people in our community, we will continue to meet new people who are different from us in many ways. It will be tempting to “play it safe” and stay in control of things. But biblical hospitality means being willing to not just be a good host, but to also be a good guest.

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The Courage to Obey


But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; (Acts 9:13)

While many of us know a lot about Saul, who we more commonly refer to as Paul – few of us give Ananias a second thought. Saul, a Jewish leader who wrote as a Christian under his gentile name of Paul, is the prototype for missionary activity and evangelism in the church.

But Ananias has to respond with courage and go against his best judgments in order for Paul to come out from under the blindness of his encounter with Christ, and be able to then move forward and do the work that God has chosen him to do.

Ananias knows that Saul is dangerous. Word of the persecutions that Saul has led is well known. The fact that Saul oversaw the murder of Stephen has been etched in the minds of every active Christian in what is still a relatively small community of people. The last thing that would have crossed Ananias’ mind was that he should do something to help Saul.

But God has a different eye for what we can do and who we can be. Saul’s opposition to Christ is the perfect platform for the transforming power of Jesus to be on display. And when Saul comes to grips with what has happened to him, the persistent, stubborn and driven nature that made him such a dangerous opponent will also be the same characteristics that will make him such a powerful worker to spread the word that God has done something amazing in Jesus.

So, while we all know that Saul/Paul was one of the keys to the early church spreading its wings to many places across the Mediterranean world, the courage of Ananias, who was willing to step back from his instincts and just listen and obey God’s guidance may be just as miraculous.

Each of us have the ability to simply react like usual, or step back from something and ask God, “What would you have me do?” Listening and then acting on God’s call can surprise even us, and the results might just change a life (or even the course of history).

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The Bible Hopes You Believe


“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

This week’s lesson has a lot in it. The disciples meet Jesus in the Upper Room and he sends them out to do his work. Thomas isn’t there and doesn’t believe that the others saw Jesus. Jesus shows up and Thomas does believe. There are three several messages just in the summary of this paragraph!

But the verses at the top of this article are where we will focus today.

Jesus had a huge impact on the people who spent time with him. It was evident early on, that Jesus was not exactly like ordinary people. There was something different about him and that difference was amazing. Everywhere he went people noticed. After Jesus moved on, people who had seen him told stories about what he had done while they were there.

John’s gospel is one very transparent example of this. The author simply tells us that he saw Jesus do all sorts of things – way more than he shares in this book. That in itself is to expand your awe at who Jesus is. The things John shared are amazing and they only scratch the surface!

But John is also very clear. He picked these things so that you would know what he knows. Jesus is something special. He hoped that by reading this book and encountering Jesus in these pages, you would discover an amazing truth: God has come in Jesus to be the Messiah! Because if you believe that, John knows you will discover that there is life in his name.

Martin Luther called the Bible “the manger in which the Christ was laid.” By that he meant that the whole point of scripture was for us to meet and trust Jesus. So, when you read scripture, always be asking, “Where does what I am reading point me to Jesus?” When you encounter Christ and discover life in his name, the Bible will have done its work!


To Be a Fool for Christ

Foolish Gospel

It is an odd thing for April Fools Day and Easter to fall on the same day. It isn’t unheard of – it has happened before and it will happen again. Because Easter is based on the date of the first full moon after the spring equinox, the date for Easter floats. If there is a full moon right after the first day of spring then Easter is early. The there is a full moon right before the first day of spring then the next full moon can be almost a month away and Easter is late. This year, Easter is fairly early and April 1st is the date.

If you are a member of the millennial generation, this is the first time Easter has happened on April Fools Day in your lifetime. As I write this, I am nearing the 30th anniversary of my ordination. I have never preached an Easter sermon on April Fools Day. If I live long enough, I may get another chance in 2029 when I am almost 69 years old. This may be a once in a career coincidence for me.

But April Fools Day does provide more than a chance to play tricks or act silly. The whole notion of foolishness has a long tradition with deep meaning in the Christian tradition. Grounded in Paul’s words to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 4:10, where Paul writes, “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” Paul was talking about the sacrifice that he and others were making to share the good news about what God had done in Jesus.

This term “fools for Christ,” was eventually taken up as a badge of honor. It was a title given to those people who had made the “foolish” decision to give up what they had in the world and to take up some sort of simpler and less affluent life. The dessert fathers and mothers (ancient wise leaders who lived in the wilderness and prayed, reflected and wrote about their life with God) gave much attention to the idea. The term was rooted in scripture and lived out in the life of the church. It came to mean “someone who had made apparently foolish worldly choices out of a desire to follow Jesus.”

Of course, Jesus was the ultimate fool. Unwilling to make logical choices all along the way, Jesus’ life stood out as an oddity. That’s what made him so interesting to the crowds. That’s what made it so hard for Pilate to figure him out. That’s what got him killed.

Easter morning will be a chance for all of us to reflect on our lives and discern how we are doing at following the risen Christ. Sometimes the things Christians do may need to look a bit crazy in the eyes of the world. But then again, there may be no greater badge of honor for us than to be so committed to following Jesus that people look at us and call us “fools for Christ.