Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Difference Between the Cross and a Magic Lamp: Sermon 3/25/12 (5 Lent B)

5th Sunday in Lent (B)

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

 If you could ask Jesus for any one thing, what would it be?

Lots of us would probably ask for health or long life or happiness. The more altruistic would probably ask for peace in the Middle East or an end to world hunger or the eradication of Malaria. Probably some others among us would ask that Tim Tebow come back from the Jets.

Whatever it is, you could argue for your choice because, according to the things you believe to be important, you could justify that request. It would be good and helpful. It might even make the world a better place. We could make the case that what we’re asking for is unselfish, for the benefit of others, or somehow in keeping with the will of God.

I’ve got good news! I’m here to tell you: Jesus actually hears our requests, is moved by our sincerity, and out of a deep love for us, answers our petitions. In response to what we ask, Jesus comes to us and offers us . . . . . . his death.

Yup. His death. The cross is what we get from this Messiah. Not exactly what the crowds are wanting in this text. Why do you think the Greeks are here want to see Jesus? He just raised Lazarus from the dead. His followers are multiplying, He just rode into Jerusalem in triumph. Of course they want to see him! Who wouldn’t? Glorious Jesus! Triumphant Jesus! The One who can take away my troubles! The One who can take away my pain.  The One who can miraculously make my life better. That’s who they came to see.

Isn’t that who we come to see, too? The Jesus who can get me a bigger house, a job, a girlfriend/boyfriend, a clean bill of health, a worry-free life? Isn’t that what we want from our Messiah?

And once in a while we get those things. But that’s not what Jesus promises us. That’s not his purpose as Messiah. Jesus offers us the cross. And what’s more, he says here that “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” It’s not just that he offers us his cross, he expects us to follow him there.

Why? Why all this death talk and cross talk? Why can’t our faith in Jesus just be like a magic lamp that you rub and Jesus comes out and grants our wishes and makes our lives better?

Because the problem of our sinfulness and of this broken world is much more serious than that. God’s mission isn’t to make our lives easier, it is to defeat the powers of darkness and brokenness that have ruled this world. It is to meet, head-on, the power of Rome, the authorities of this world that offer an imitation life. It is to confront the false gods all around us and expose them as imposters in order that we can have real life.

That’s exactly what Jesus did. He met the ultimate political, religious, and cultural authorities face-to-face. Everyone who believed in him as God’s Messiah expected him to beat them up, overthrow them, humble them with the awesome power of God.

This confrontation, instead, ended up with him dying. That is his victory. And that’s what he expects us to do—face the powers of this world, the systems and policies and authorities that keep people in darkness, keep them oppressed, keep them from fullness of life, and meet them head-on. Not simply to overthrow them, but to expose them as false. That means we need to die to our own selfishness, power, and privilege.

In his death, it looked to the entire world as if God’s Messiah had lost. In the ultimate confrontation, Jesus was apparently beaten. He died. It looked to all the false powers of this world as if they had won. The Messiah is dead.

But the kingdom of God is a kingdom of truth and life. Of course false powers would think this was victory, because they know nothing about the kingdom of God. Of course the deceitful authorities of this world see things falsely. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In the kingdom of God, death is not the ultimate power. It is not the authority that declares victory. Instead, Jesus invites us into his death because that is where we our false, broken, sinful selves are exposed as imposters. In his resurrection, Jesus reveals the truth about world powers and authorities that they are defeated and are not the things that provide life. That comes from God.

Do we trust that? Do we trust enough in Jesus to follow him? Even to the cross? Even into confrontation with powers that are opposed to the reign of God?

That doesn’t necessarily mean grandiose things like taking on Al Qaeda. It more likely means having the cross expose falseness in our own beliefs and behaviors. What greed, racism, and selfishness need to die in us? What political opinions need to die because they lift up the powerful while pushing down the powerless? Or try this one: in what ways does this congregation need to die? How does our way of being church serve ourselves at the expense of the lost, the lonely, the least?

Is our faith such that we trust Jesus enough to let the cross expose those false parts of us? Or do we think of our faith as a magic lamp, where Jesus can grant our wishes?

Jesus hears our requests, is moved by our sincerity, and out of a deep love for us, answers our petitions. In response to what we ask, Jesus comes to us and offers us his death.  In this, we have life. In the death of our sin, falsehood, imitation powers, a new life is given. With Christ. A life that no enemy or authority can overcome. When Jesus shares his cross with us, he shares his life.

“And I,” he says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And in his cross we are given truth, peace, and life.

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Posted by on March 25, 2012 in Sermon


John 3:16 is Not a Weapon! Sermon: 3/18/12 (Lent 4 B)

4th Sunday in Lent (B)

John 3:14-21

 I think I’ve figured out why the gospel of John is sooo not my favorite: there’s so much in it that it’s overwhelming. I prefer gospel writers that take a whole lot of verses to make one point, not take one verse to make a whole lot of points. John is deep, thick, rich, multi-faceted, and operates on several levels at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in this gospel. You just can’t read it quickly or superficially. If you think you understand the gospel of John, take a step back and look again. Because chances are you’re missing multiple layers that God can open up for you.

Which is why I’ve never been impressed by the “John 3:16” craze, which is one of the verses in this text. To take one verse out of John reduce it to a single, shallow, sometimes judgmental rallying cry not only does a tremendous disservice to the complexity of this gospel, but misses almost every layer of what John is conveying here. This isn’t a verse about trying to get people to believe in Jesus; and it’s especially not a verse threatening them if they don’t. It’s a verse that fits into a whole gospel, rich in its own context and overflowing in abundant grace. What was a word of hope and life for John’s little church overrun by Rome can quickly become a word of condemnation in our world where Christianity has long been a dominant institution.

But that’s not the part I’ve been wrestling with. We get so hooked on John 3:16 that we often miss the rest of this section. Verse 18 is the splinter in the bannister for me. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

“Those who do not believe are condemned already.” Seems harsh, doesn’t it? I think there are assumptions we make here that are simply too shallow for the gospel of John.

We have to understand that John’s little community was insignificant in its neighborhood. So the author making contrasts between those who believed and those who didn’t had very few consequences because it wasn’t a statement of power. But today, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries. From that position of power, we have used these words in John to exclude people, judge them, and coerce them.

John was attempting to encourage his overlooked little community to be faithful, to keep at it, to persevere in the face of overwhelming persecution. There is life eternal with Jesus, so hang in there. Don’t allow yourself to fall prey to the darkness. Don’t let yourselves be separated from the community of faith. What was meant as encouragement for those inside the church has in our day become a word of judgment against those outside of it.

Here’s what concerns me about all this today: that we have settled for a superficial interpretation of this verse, and believe our own hype that we are on the inside track in God’s favor because we believe. If that’s not bad enough, I’m afraid those outside the church have only heard our shallow interpretation of this verse, and based on centuries of church power, have further reason to stay away from the church and the light of Jesus.

If we are to live out the gospel, we owe it to the world to dig a little bit deeper in order to be authentic to this text. We can’t afford to a shallow voice of condemnation and judgment. If the gospel message of forgiveness, love, compassion, and generosity is to be lived by us, we can’t let a superficial understanding of one or two verses get in our way.

What John means as inspiration to those inside the church, we cannot use as judgment of those outside the church. You may has a little bit of an image problem around being judgmental.

In the face of a world power that was focused on destroying them, John encourages his tiny little church to hold on to their faith, to continue to trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, to band together as believers without giving up hope. We can’t be true to this text when we make it nothing more than a benchmark of who’s in and who’s out.

Instead, John’s message of trust and encouragement is still for us. When faced with insurmountable odds, we encourage one another to continue to trust in the One who brings life out of death. I have a friend whose husband just died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). What astonishes me about her journey through his diagnosis, deterioration, and ultimately his death is that she continued to trust in the promises of the God of life. This isn’t because she’s so much more faithful than I would probably be, but because she, like John’s little church community, banded together with people of faith and clung to them. For her, these verses in John are not a relief that her husband was “inside,” believing in Jesus and therefore not condemned. Rather these verses are an encouragement that even in the face of death, when all else is falling away, the light of Jesus continues to shine brightly. And she can trust that. It is for her; it is for her husband; it is for us.

Our witness isn’t judgment of those outside the church. No, our witness is that no matter what we face, no matter how difficult or painful or shameful, the light of Jesus shines in truth and in life. As we encourage one another with the light of Christ, we are then a witness to the world—not in judgment, but in truth and love.

Don’t settle for judgment and condemnation. Seek the light of Christ, the truth of God’s love. For part of this text also includes verse 17, Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. That is our witness. That’s what the world needs to hear. That’s what they need to see in us. Because that’s what we trust God has done for us.

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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in Sermon


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God-Given Passion: Sermon, 3/11/12 (3 Lent B)

3rd Sunday in Lent (B)

Exodus 20:1-7; John 2:13-22

How would you describe Jesus’ actions here? . . . When was the last time you let your passion lead your actions? When has your behavior come out of such conviction that you didn’t fully measure the consequences?

Usually we tend to think of those behaviors in negative terms—perhaps because most of our passionate responses would be out of anger or revenge. But eliminating road rage, bar fights, or politics, think about passionate behavior in terms of your faith.

That’s what Jesus is doing. His bizarre behavior is led by passion. He’s not necessarily upset by the corruption of the temple market—no indication it was corrupt. He’s not fighting social injustices. No one has insulted him or his family. The selling of sacrificial animals was a routine part of the culture. It was a lot easier to buy cattle or sheep than to bring them to Jerusalem for the Passover—not to mention feeding them, caring for them, cleaning up after them. It made religious life simpler to let that be done in the temple courtyard, and at the time of sacrifice simply purchase the required animal. And, of course, you couldn’t use the Roman denarii used everywhere else. You had to pay the temple tax in Tyrian shekels or half shekels. That money had to be converted, and there was a small but expected fee for that service as well.

This system had been in place for decades if not centuries. Everyone knew it, used it, and even appreciated it because it made it so much easier to fulfill their religious duties on these holy festivals, such as Passover.

Jesus is not driven by anger over an unjust system. He’s not necessarily appalled at the evil-doers in the temple taking advantage of the poor—there’s no indication of that. This isn’t really about justice or anger or fixing an abusive system. It’s his passion for what his Father is doing, and Jesus’ role in that.

The temple was a symbol for the presence of God among us. So there was more at stake for Jesus than maintaining an established religious system that was working pretty well. Rather, the presence of God had become a system of rules rather than a relationship. He knows he has come among us to open that relationship up between us and God, to bring that into the world regardless of whether people approve or not.

Jesus is driven by devotion to his call within his Father’s mission; certainly not diplomacy or keeping people happy. People were offended by his actions. They demand an explanation (which is really pretty tolerant of them). What sign can you show us for doing this? How can he legitimize this abhorrent and disruptive behavior?

I’m not promoting offensive behavior, but this gets me thinking: what part of God’s work in the world are we that passionate about? What about God’s mission is more important to us than considering whether some action or word is offensive or foolish?

By his actions in the temple, Jesus is reminding us that the most important thing is what God is doing, and our call in that—anything else is just a personal agenda.

We know what God is doing in Jesus Christ. We know that what God is doing is forgiving those who’ve offended, caring for those who are powerless, loving those no one else loves, giving to those who may abuse the gift. But that takes any multitude of forms. How can our passions line up with that?

For the people in the temple, the zeal was for preserving the church system that had been in place forever, and that was working quite well. The zeal was for maintaining a church where people could follow particular traditions, patterns, and norms in order to consider themselves justified.

For Christ, the zeal was for his Father’s presence, his Father’s mission, and his Father’s activity in the world.

I would invite you this Lent to consider your own zeal. Where do you exert the most energy? What do you get most excited about? What can you talk about for hours without stopping? And then, where might God be in the midst of that passion?

Take some time and consider what gets your blood pumping, whether it’s a religious thing or not. What are you willing to devote time to just because it is exciting for you? Baseball, travel, writing? Is it friendships, academics, music? Perhaps children, helping people, problem solving?

Whatever it is, consider the possibility that it is a God-given passion. Reflect on how God might be calling you to into God’s work through that passion. Be willing to imagine  and connect God’s forgiveness with your love for animals; outlandish generosity with your ability to make new friends; Christ-like mercy with a passion for sports. Where is God calling you in the midst of your zeal? Take some time, use your imagination, be willing to try some things. You never know what God is up to, and how God is calling you to participate!

Consider God’s call to you this Lent. By the power of the Holy Spirit, who has created enthusiasm and zeal within us, may living our new and zealous life in Christ be that important for us.

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Posted by on March 11, 2012 in Sermon


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Generosity: A Measure of Discipleship (3/4/12)

2nd Sunday in Lent (B)

Mark 8:31-38

Immediately before these verses, Peter had this great insight as to who Jesus actually is. You are the Messiah. But the next thing Jesus says to him, in our text today, is, Get behind me, Satan! Does that bother anyone else but me? Satan? Really? If Peter said something incorrect, why doesn’t Jesus just say, Good try, Peter, but that’s not quite right. Thanks for a really good effort, though. Let’s work on this together, OK? But, no, he calls him Satan. That doesn’t square with our common perception of Jesus as nice guy and good teacher.

I give Peter the benefit of the doubt, here. When someone you care about talks about dying, the natural human response is for us to not want that to happen. Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him so. It’s just human. And Jesus blasts him for it.

Because here’s the deal: what Jesus is saying about his coming death and resurrection is so desperately important that he simply can’t afford to be nice. There isn’t time. It’s like a child starting to run out into the street. You aren’t so worried about being polite, you simply grab them however you can and pull them back to safety.

That’s the sense of urgency here. The difference between divine things and human things is that important. It’s life and death. Get behind me, Satan!

So as far as Peter’s rebuking Jesus, just because something is a common or even an expected human response doesn’t make it good, right, or Godly. In fact, often the divine things fly in the face of common sense and human expectations.  “The last shall be first.” “Love your enemies.” “Leave the 99 sheep to go look for the 1 who is lost.” “Give to everyone who asks.” “God’s Messiah must be rejected, suffer, die, and be raised.” Jesus adds another one right here, those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Let’s bring this home: I don’t think Jesus is talking about losing your life as in dying, but more losing the things that we think will give us life. When someone talks about “living the good life,” don’t we usually think that means having lots of money, financial comfort and security, and surrounding ourselves with the good things money can buy? In our human culture, it makes sense to us that more money equals better life. So we talk that way, live that way, and all seem to agree. We do whatever we can to make more money and to keep more money. Because we believe that having more will give us a better life.

Then when Jesus throws the divine thinking on us, saying something about giving away so much that we have to adjust our good lifestyle, we either ignore him as “oh, that silly Jesus,” or, just like Peter we quietly take him aside and rebuke him. C’mon, Jesus. You know that can’t be true. I work hard because I only want to provide good things for my family. Surely you’re not saying that my children should do without, are you?

And Jesus replies, Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

But Jesus, I’ve got to provide for my kids. College expenses will be coming up. I’ve got to save for retirement, don’t I? That’s just being responsible!

And Jesus replies, For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. It’s that important.

Since so much of our culture, our identity, our sense of what life is about is tied directly to how we feel about money, I think that’s one of Jesus’ primary targets for us. We have accepted the notion that more money equals more life, but Jesus says that’s the type of human thinking that leads only to death. Get behind me, Satan. It’s that urgent.

When it comes to money, the divine thing in the face of our human thinking is generosity. The nature of God is that God gives us everything, constantly, continuously. Whether we deserve it or not, whether we believe in God or not, whether we go to church or not, whether we are generous or not—God is generous to us. The gifts of creation are constant. As Martin Luther wrote in the explanation to the first article of the Apostles’ Creed,

I believe that God has created me together with all creatures. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. God does all this out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.

Forgiveness and unconditional love are given to us day after day after day. And it’s not that God sits back and doles this out to us out of some excess reserve. The divine nature of God’s generosity means that God gives God’s own Son, the Son gives his own life, for our sake.

We’re still early in Lent, this season of deliberately changing our minds from human things that we believe give life to divine things that actually do. So let’s get specific about that. Jesus tells us in this text that if we want to become his followers, we would deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.

This Lent, why not make a conscious move from saving our lives to losing them? This Lent, why not try giving more and keeping less? Biblically, a general guide for generosity is giving away 10% of our income; at least in the Old Testament. The New Testament refers to giving away everything. But 10% is a pretty good gauge, I’ve discovered. So try it. If you’re already giving away 10%, try 15%. Outrageous generosity is a divine thing. See what happens when we set our minds not on human concept of having more, but the divine concept of giving more. Try it this Lent. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? It’s that important. It’s that urgent.

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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Sermon


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