Sunday, March 27, 2011

John 4:5-30,39-42 - "A Different Woman"

Third Sunday in Lent (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, March 27, 2011

This is the story of a woman, a different woman. This is the story of today’s Gospel reading from John. Not a story as in a fable or fiction, but a description of an event that really took place. I’ve expanded this story with details to help us understand that woman, to help us see ourselves in her story.

She didn’t have time for this. The day was hot—the kind of hot where the wind just moved the heat around, kicking up some dust to stick to your skin and sting your eyes. She just needed to get the water and get back home. She didn’t have time to make conversation with a stranger. She didn’t have time to get water for this strange, traveling man.

And yet, it didn’t really surprise her to meet a man at the well. Every once in awhile there was one waiting for her. She guessed that they figured she was easy picking, easy to lure. There weren’t many reasons to be fetching water from the well in the heat of the day. Men knew to hang around a well at midday if they were looking to meet a woman who was unattached and already had a damaged reputation. She was one of those women. She figured he was one of those men.

So it didn’t surprise her that he asked her for a drink from the well, but that didn’t mean she had time for this. Just because she had a damaged reputation, was a social outcast who couldn’t fetch water in the morning with the other women, didn’t mean that she wanted to get picked up by a man. Not today.

So his request didn’t surprise her—but his accent did. This strange, traveling man asking for water was a Jew. Jews hardly ever traveled through Samaria, and even if they did, they’d never talk or associate with Samaritans. On top of that, Jews knew just as well as Samaritans what kind of women went to the well at noon.

She decided to try to blow him off as directly as she dared. She just wanted to draw the water and get home. She says, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan, a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” And what she was thinking to herself was, “Are you dense? Are you that thirsty that the fever has clouded your better judgment? Do you not care about your own sacred rules?”

The man says to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and if you knew who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

She could’ve kicked herself. Her blunt way of pointing out their differences was supposed to end the conversation, but instead, it seemed to make this man more interested in chatting. Couldn’t he see that she was different, different from him by race and culture and faith and gender? She was a different woman. She was one of those women. He wasn’t supposed be to talking to her.

And yet, she thought, and yet what was it that he just said? If I knew who he was, I’d be asking him for water? Then he’d give me water, living water, water that brings life, water that is a gift of God? This thought was intriguing, and for a moment, she forgot her frustration with the conversation.

She puts down her water jar and says, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?” She thought she had him there.

But before he could answer she realized this man was claiming to be able to give her water that was better than the water from the well. That was a claim that stood in the face of history, so she says, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his flocks and herds?” Not even a Jew would claim to be better than Jacob, the father of Joseph, the father of 12 sons, the father of the Twelve Tribes, Jacob also known as Israel, the father of the nation.

The man answers, pointing towards the well, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman no longer was concerned about what was appropriate or what she had to do that day or what her reputation was like. She wasn’t worried about being a different woman. This man was offering her something special, some kind of special water, some kind of elixir. To her it sounded like the way to end these daily trips to the well and the daily embarrassment of doing it at noon. She says, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

To this, the man says, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

The woman sinks to her knees. For once, someone was offering her something special—water to keep her from being thirsty. For once, she wasn’t a different woman. This man had been looking past the fact that she was from a different country and a different faith and a different reputation; he was looking past all of this to treat her like she was important and special. For once, her dream of being loved was almost coming true—and then he had to ask about her husband.

She couldn’t hide. She couldn’t leave. There was no use in trying to lie—sinking to her knees gave her away. She might as well tell this strange, traveling man the truth. Could it be that he’d still look past her bad reputation when he knew the truth?

She says, “I have no husband.”

Even as she said it, she lost all hope that this man would really continue talking to her. Before, her bad reputation was just a guess. But now there it was, out in the open. Now he knew for sure that she was a different woman. Her eyes drop to the ground in shame waiting for the ridicule or the snide remark or the slap or the lewd request.

The man says, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

Even in her shame, she couldn’t resist looking right in his eyes after he said that. She stares at him in disbelief. He could’ve guessed about her reputation because she was at the well at noon, but there was no way that he could know her whole life story. No one in town really knew the whole thing—not about all five husbands. And he couldn’t have figured this out by watching her. There was only one conclusion to make:

“Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” He had to have been a man of God to know so much. He had to be a holy man. Here she was suspecting that he was trying to seduce her, and he’s a holy man. Ah, enough regret, here was her chance. Since he was a prophet, he would know how to answer the question welling up inside of her. She had had five husbands, five divorces. She lived with a man now who wouldn’t even give her a legal marriage. She was a woman torn apart by sin. This strange, traveling man had seen that. And maybe this man would know how she, a Samaritan woman, could receive forgiveness for her sins.

She says, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain in Samaria, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” It was a critical question. She wanted forgiveness for her sins, but meeting this Jew threw her world upside down. She doubted whether she could find true forgiveness without going to the temple in Jerusalem, but Samaritans were barred from that place.

The man says, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we Jews worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.”

She wasn’t sure that she understood all he had said. It sounded like she didn’t have to go to Jerusalem to worship and seek forgiveness. It sounded like God was bringing His forgiveness to her, right there. And if that was true, the world would drastically change. If the world was drastically changing, maybe this prophet was saying that the time had come, the day of the Lord had come, God was sending the Savior. Soon. Now.

She says, “I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

The man says, “I who speak to you am he.”

The woman was silent. The man was silent, a grin on his face that lit up his eyes. The sound of moving water came up from the well which was fed by a spring that kept it constantly moving and kept it clear and clean and fresh.

This man is the Messiah, the woman thought. The Promised Savior wasn’t in Jerusalem. He was right there with her in the midday sun at the well. He had revealed his true identity to her even though she had confessed her sins to him. She had come before God’s Messiah, and she had been so spiritually unclean, so sinful, so blatantly unholy. And yet he had not rejected her. He had offered her the gift of God, living water. He hadn’t seen her as different; he had seen her as special. Even when he revealed how much he knew about her dreadful past, his words penetrated her soul like. . .cool, refreshing water.

He had given her living water. Applied it to her very soul where she needed forgiveness and life. Soaked her in it. Her soul wasn’t thirsty anymore; her soul drank from the spring of eternal life.

The woman was silent. The man was silent. The sound of moving water came up from the well.

Without a word, without picking up her water jar, the woman took off and hurried back to town. Momentarily she forgot about what other people thought of her, and she spoke to everyone she saw. She didn’t worry about her reputation, because this man, this prophet, the Messiah, had made her a different woman. She was different than the woman that had come to the well. She was more different than she had ever been. Now she was different because she was forgiven and freed and loved and special. She was a different woman because God’s Savior had given her the water of life.

So in town, she simply began speaking to everyone without giving it a second thought. She says, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”

Her story intrigued the people even though normally they would have ignored her or shoved her away. And her theory that this man was the Messiah intrigued them even more, because even they, the people of the town, the people of good reputations, even they didn’t dare think that God’s Messiah would really come to them—the Samaritans. They were different; they weren’t Jews; they weren’t in Jerusalem. They knew there wasn’t much hope that God would choose to come to them. They were sinners. They were a different people.

Many of the Samaritans, though, already believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, the testimony she kept repeating and they kept repeating, “He told her everything she ever did.” This woman’s story was so convincing that they left town and went out to him.

And when they found him, sitting next to the well, the Samaritans urged him to stay with them, and this strange, traveling man, this Jew, this prophet, this man of God, the Messiah, stayed with these Samaritans, these different people, for two days.

And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

And they’d always emphasize that He is the Savior of the world, because like the woman, the town people realized that God had sent His Savior to them, a different people. God meant to include them in His salvation, His love, His mercy, His forgiveness.

Jesus came and gave them living water, the promise of eternal life. He applied it to their souls, and he made all of them different. Once they were different: thirsty, tired, sinful, forgotten, rejected, and now they were different: filled, refreshed, forgiven, remembered, loved, saved.

The woman’s water jar stayed at the well—empty, but she had brought back enough water for generations and generations.

Take a cool, refreshing, forgiving drink. This is the Gospel of our Lord.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

John 3:1-17 - “When They Come with Questions Like ‘How Can This Be?’”

Second Sunday in Lent (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, March 20, 2011

(Reading from a devotional book): Charles H. Spurgeon, one of the greatest and most popular preachers in the nineteenth-century England, asked Christians some hard-hitting questions: “What have you been doing with your life? Is Christ living in your home and yet you have not spoken to Him for months? Do not let me condemn you or judge; only let your conscience speak: Have we not all lived too much without Jesus? Have we not grown content with the world to the neglect of Christ?”

Even today Jesus calls out to people: “Follow Me!” Those who are wise listen and—without hesitation—leave their old ways behind. They find in Christ a new direction, a new purpose, a new identity—a radical new life.

(Throw book across the floor)

Without hesitation? People who are wise follow Jesus without hesitating? That devotional book says that it talks about “Real Faith,” but that doesn’t sound like any real faith that I’ve ever experienced. I get so tired of devotional books and Christian music and preachers who make it all sound like being a Christian is automatic, always confident, always 100%, never hesitating.

Don’t you ever get tired of that, too? Without hesitation? Whoever really comes to Jesus without hesitation? There’s always the tug and pull, the way the Holy Spirit draws us to faith but the way our sin drags us back away. There’s always the joy of knowing forgiveness but there’s also the temptation to just do our own thing.

When Jesus said, “Follow Me,” to the disciples, I don’t know if we should think that they didn’t hesitate. I mean, these are the disciples, the guys who spent so much time with Jesus and still they often got the wrong answer, got the wrong idea about Him, ended up abandoning Him on the night He was betrayed. I don’t think we should imagine that those disciples had automatic, 100% faith all of the time, and I don’t think that we should imagine that’s the kind of faith we can have either.

I think our faith is a lot more like Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the religious leader among the Jews, the guy who came to see Jesus at night, the guy that I’ve often heard be kind of made fun of for sneaking out to see Jesus. People kind of treat Nicodemus like he isn’t a model for our faith, because he was apparently ashamed to be talking to Jesus. People kind of roll their eyes at Nicodemus, because he doesn’t get Jesus, doesn’t understand, asks those silly questions, like when he says, “How can an old man be born again? He can’t go back inside his mother a second time to be born, can he?” (GOD’S WORD).

Silly, Nicodemus, asking about going inside your mother’s tummy again, that’s not what Jesus means. Silly, Nicodemus, don’t you get it? Jesus is talking about spiritually being born again. I mean, really, Nicodemus. And we roll our eyes.

Of course, while we’re rolling our eyes at Nicodemus, we’re making sure that everyone sees that we’re rolling our eyes. We wouldn’t want anyone to see that we hesitated, that we paused just for a moment, that when we heard Nicodemus asking those questions that we paused for a moment because we, too, had a question; we, too, wondered what Jesus meant. We roll our eyes to show everyone that we’re a better disciple than that silly Nicodemus, but inside, well, we’re very, very aware that we’re hesitating, we’re wondering, we’re confused, we’re struggling to believe, we’re in the same boat as that. . .silly Nicodemus.

So honestly, I’m Nicodemus, and I have a hunch that you’re Nicodemus, too. We’ve had our moments of wanting to come to Jesus under the cover of darkness, a bit embarrassed by our questions about our faith. We’ve had our moments of asking questions about the Christian faith, asking questions that seem overly simple, questions that show that we just don’t get it yet.

Nicodemus ends up asking, “How can this be?” kind of like throwing up his hands and just admitting, “I don’t get it, Jesus.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there. I’ll admit it. I’ve been there with Nicodemus. Call me silly if you must, but I’ve said, “How can this be? I don’t get it, Jesus.”

And once it starts, the questions really start rolling off my tongue: How can I be born again? How can I have new life through baptism? How can I be made new when I’m so aware that I’m a sinner? How are You going to do this, Lord, how are You going to make me into Your creature again? How can it be that I’m a new creation and still sin so often? I don’t get it, Jesus. I don’t get how you’re doing what you’re doing in my life.

And when I realize how quickly those questions roll off my tongue, how much I hesitate and wonder and get confused and struggle to believe, when I realize that, well, then I stop rolling my eyes at Nicodemus and stop calling him silly. Realizing that I’m a lot like Nicodemus, well, that’s what makes me put down those devotional books. Without hesitation? Who me? That’s not me. That’s not “real faith.” Real faith, the faith I’ve experienced, the faith I’ve seen in me and the Christians around me, real faith hesitates, wonders, gets confused, and struggles to believe. Real faith looks at Nicodemus as an example of sorts.

I read this week where someone called Nicodemus “the patron saint of the curious” (“A Curious Man,” Margaret B. Hess). Another writer says that Nicodemus and others like him “appeal to us because they have color and depth, questions and problems. They are like the rest of us who do not jump into discipleship without a lot of wavering and caution. Jesus encounters these people individually and addresses each one personally. They respond honestly and realistically” (“Discipleship in John: Four Profiles,” Mark F. Whitters).

And that’s it exactly. That’s why the story of Nicodemus appeals to me—because Nicodemus hesitates and asks questions. It’s a realistic picture; it’s real faith. And from what we know, Nicodemus does become a follower of Jesus. Later the Gospel of John calls Nicodemus one of the followers of Jesus, and we hear him speak up in defense of Jesus. Then after Jesus dies on the cross, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea put the body of Jesus in the tomb. Just because Nicodemus hesitates at first doesn’t give us any reason to roll our eyes and call him silly when, in fact, he becomes a follower of Jesus.

And how does Nicodemus get to the point of being a follower of Jesus? Well, certainly the way Jesus reacted to him had a lot to do with it. When Nicodemus hesitates and asks questions, we don’t see Jesus rolling His eyes at Nicodemus. Jesus doesn’t call him silly. Jesus reacts with patience—answering the questions Nicodemus has, the questions that are perplexing Nicodemus and his faith.

Jesus is patient, and then He also teaches Nicodemus based on things that Nicodemus already knows. When Jesus is talking about being born of the Spirit, this wasn’t completely new language to Nicodemus. Jesus is making reference to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. In Ezekiel chapter 36, God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you…” (36:25-27).

Nicodemus, as a religious teacher of the day, would’ve known his Scriptures very well; the whole talk about being born of the Spirit should’ve caused echoes to ring in his head.

Then when Nicodemus still doesn’t get it, Jesus brings up the snake being lifted up on a pole in the desert by Moses. It was in the time of the Exodus when the people were in the wilderness. They had once again turned away from God’s ways, and so God sent poisonous snakes to punish them. They cried out for mercy, so God told Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and then when anyone looked at the bronze snake, they’d be saved from the poisonous bites.

Again, it’s a story that Nicodemus would’ve known; Jesus is drawing Nicodemus in based on things that Nicodemus knew. Jesus starts on common ground with Nicodemus to teach him something new. Jesus doesn’t roll his eyes at Nicodemus; He patiently teaches Nicodemus, starting on common ground and then taking him to a new place.

Now I’m going to guess that Jesus has done the same thing for you, that somewhere in your life, sometime in your faith life that Jesus has used someone, maybe multiple people, Jesus has used someone in your life who was patient with your questions and struggles, someone who didn’t roll their eyes at you, someone who listened to you and then helped you learn the faith by starting on common ground with you, starting with what you already knew and then took you to a new place to learn the forgiveness, love, and mercy of God. Jesus has used someone like that in your life; that’s why you’re here. You’re certainly not here because someone rolled their eyes at you and called you silly; you’re here because when you felt like Nicodemus, someone was Jesus to you, someone was a patient teacher.

And what’s the result, what’s the result of being like Nicodemus, what’s the result of needing Jesus to send a patient teacher into your life? The result is that you’re a follower of Jesus. I mean, you’re still Nicodemus; I’m still Nicodemus. You and me, we’re still hesitating and wondering and getting confused and struggling to believe, but Jesus has drawn us to Himself, Jesus has given us faith, we’re followers of Jesus. A hesitating believer is still just that—a believer, someone who clings to Jesus for salvation. Jesus died and rose again for all people—including us who are struggling believers. Jesus conquered death and promises eternal life to all people—including us who have big questions and wonder about how this all works out. Hesitating, wondering, confused, struggling to believe people are the people that Jesus saves from sin, death, and the devil. Jesus came to save you.

So are you Nicodemus?

Do you hesitate and wonder and get confused and struggle to believe?

And if you’re Nicodemus, that means you’re also out there seeking for answers—even if it’s after dark, even if it’s a whispered questions after church, “Pastor, could we meet this week?” even if it’s a casual cup of coffee with a Christian friend that turns into a deep conversation, if you’re Nicodemus, that means you’re on a spiritual journey, seeking the truth, asking God to show you the way. I hope that if today’s made you realize that you’re on that spiritual search, I hope and pray you’ll reach out to someone who will be a patient teacher, someone who will encourage you in the faith. I pray you’ll reach out today before you forget.

And what’s the other result of being like Nicodemus, what’s the result of experiencing that patience and love of Jesus in your life? The result is that you’re ready to do the same for someone else. I don’t want you to go out and act like being a follower in Jesus was always easy, always 100%. I want you to go out and be patient teachers with your family and friends. I want you to go out and admit that you’re Nicodemus. I want you to go out and admit your struggles, so that as people come to you talking about spiritual things, they’ll realize that you’ve got real faith, you’ve got a faith that hesitates and wonders and gets confused and struggles. I want you to go out and from your experience admit who you are, where you’ve been, where you’re not, where you’re asking God to take you, admit where you still need Jesus every day to keep the faith.

If you’re Nicodemus, if you’re recognizing your own struggles of faith, if you’re seeking out answers from God, well, then you’re in a prime spot for God to use you in someone else’s life, someone else’s faith journey.

So when your family and friends come to you, when they come to you asking questions like “How can this be?” you can honestly say, “I’ve wondered that, too. Let’s go to Jesus together to see if He’ll lead us to answers through His Word and by His Spirit.” When someone asks you, “How can this be?” now you know they need exactly what you need—a patient teacher who starts on common ground with them.

So you are Nicodemus; I am Nicodemus; we are believers in Jesus who hesitate, wonder, get confused, and struggle to believe, but by God’s grace, by His Spirit, we’re believers in Jesus Christ, we are His followers, we have His promise of eternal life.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Genesis 3:15 - "Tracing the Promise"

First Sunday in Lent (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, March 13, 2011

This text is the rough notes and list of biblical passages that I intended to use in tracing the promise of salvation through the Old Testament. I ended up not using all of them in my sermon, but I have preserved them here for study. I didn't write a full manuscript for this sermon.

Today’s reading from Genesis, well, it explains everything, it explains everything about why we are entering Lent, why we’re entering a season of repentance, a season of remembering our sins. The whole reason we have Lent is because Adam and Eve fell into sin causing all of us to be sinful, causing all of us to be separated from God.

That would be completely disheartening if that was the only message in today’s reading from Genesis. If we only found out that we’re all sinful and separated from God, if we only found that out, well, we’d be without hope. But in the middle of the whole fall into sin, in the middle of punishment for sin, God steps in and speaks the first Gospel, the first words of Good News for sinners, the first words that promise forgiveness and salvation. God steps in and says that Satan will be crushed.

(on the left side of chancel (my right))
Genesis 3:15 – SATAN CRUSHED
15 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.

(right side of the chancel (my left))
Points to Jesus
Points to what Jesus did for us
Today’s reading is just the beginning—resists the temptation of Satan, but will crush Satan through defeating death on the cross

(on the left side of chancel (my right))
Genesis 3:15 – SATAN CRUSHED

(moving a little towards the right side of the chancel (my left))
Genesis 9:8-11 – NO FLOODS
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” [RAINBOW]

(moving towards right side of the chancel (my left))
4 “I will heal their waywardness
and love them freely,
for my anger has turned away from them.

(right side of the chancel (my left))

(on the left side of chancel (my right))
Genesis 3:15 – SATAN CRUSHED

(moving a little towards the right side of the chancel (my left))
Genesis 12:2-3 – BLESSING TO ALL
2 “I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

(moving towards right side of the chancel (my left))
Exodus 3:7-10 – OUT OF SLAVERY
7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

(right side of the chancel (my left))

(on the left side of chancel (my right))
Genesis 3:15 – SATAN CRUSHED

(moving a little towards the right side of the chancel (my left))
2 Samuel 7:11-16 – FOREVER KING
“‘The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: 12 When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. 15 But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’” [TO DAVID]

(moving towards right side of the chancel (my left))
Isaiah 9:6-7 – RIGHTEOUS KING
6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.

(moving towards right side of the chancel (my left))
Zechariah 9:9-11 – RIGHTEOUS KING
9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.

(right side of the chancel (my left))

(on the left side of chancel (my right))
Genesis 3:15 – SATAN CRUSHED

(moving a little towards the right side of the chancel (my left))
Ezekiel 34:11-16 – LORD AS SHEPHERD
11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

(right side of the chancel (my left))

(on the left side of chancel (my right))
Genesis 3:15 – SATAN CRUSHED

(moving a little towards the right side of the chancel (my left))
Joel 2:28-32 – SPIRIT POURED OUT
28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.
32 And everyone who calls
on the name of the LORD will be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
there will be deliverance,
as the LORD has said,
among the survivors
whom the LORD calls.

(moving towards right side of the chancel (my left))
Jeremiah 31:31-34 – COVENANT IN HEARTS
31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the LORD.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time,” declares the LORD.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

(right side of the chancel (my left))

(on the left side of chancel (my right))
Genesis 3:15 – SATAN CRUSHED

(moving a little towards the right side of the chancel (my left))
15 Look, there on the mountains,
the feet of one who brings good news,
who proclaims peace!
Celebrate your festivals, O Judah,
and fulfill your vows.
No more will the wicked invade you;
they will be completely destroyed.

(moving towards right side of the chancel (my left))
Zephaniah 3:14-17 – DO NOT FEAR
14 Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
O Daughter of Jerusalem!
15 The LORD has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
17 The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”

(moving towards right side of the chancel (my left))
Lamentations 3:21-26 – MERCIES NEW EVERY MORNING
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.

(right side of the chancel (my left))

Monday, March 07, 2011

2 Peter 1:16-21 - “A Light Shining in a Dark Place”

Transfiguration (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, March 6, 2011

And you will do well to pay attention to the word of truth, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

In September 2009, my dad and I biked from his house in Minneapolis to where we then lived in Milwaukee. It was a five-day adventure that mainly saw us using the rails-to-trails system across Wisconsin, the old railroad beds that have been converted into bike trails.

One of those trails is the Elroy-Sparta Trail which features three railroad tunnels. One of the tunnels is about ¾ of a mile long. It’s cut through the rock of the hills, and as you begin to enter it, you realize the rock is seeping with water, water flowing in small gutters on either side of the trail. You’re surrounding by rock which is stained black from the years of train smoke. You take a few steps into the tunnel, and then looking forward, you can’t see a thing. It’s pitch black. There’s a cool breeze blowing through the tunnel; there’s the constant sound of running and dripping water; but you can’t see a thing. You enter the tunnel, your eyes get adjusted to the dark, and looking ahead, you can’t see a thing except for a distant light from the other end of the tunnel. You can see that the tunnel is open on the other end, but that’s about it. It’s not like the light from the other end of the tunnel is really going to help you walk the length of the tunnel. Essentially, it’s pitch black with just a glimpse of the future, a glimpse of the opening at the other end.

What this means is that you have to walk your bike. Riding a bike in those conditions is impossible; it’s too dark. You use a bike light or flashlight to see your way through, to help you stay in the center of the tunnel where the trail is dry. You depend on that bike light as you get deeper and deeper into the tunnel’s darkness.

And you will do well to pay attention to the word of truth, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

In that Elroy-Sparta tunnel, there’s the promise of the light at the end of tunnel, the opening on the other end, but it’s a distant light, a distant promise. What you depend on, what you count on, what you need as you take each step is the bike light, the light that shows the trail immediately ahead of you. You will do well to pay attention to that light until you get to the other end of the tunnel.

And you will do well to pay attention to the word of truth, pay attention to the word about Christ, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, until the Last Day when Christ appears again.

We need a path that’s going to bring us out of here, because we’re walking through a dark tunnel. There’s a cold breeze that blows. There’s the constant sound of running and dripping water. The walls of this life are stained black. It’s pitch black inside this life. We’re surrounded by sin and its effects. It’s pitch black, and left on our own, left without any light, there’s no chance of navigating this world. Even if we think there might be a light at the end of the tunnel, even if we think there’s some kind of hope beyond death, without the light to guide us, without the light to lead us, without the light to bring us through this life, well, there’s just not any hope of getting through the black tunnel.

We would do well to pay attention to the word of truth, we would do well to pay attention to the bike light, we would do well to pay attention to the light that points out the path that leads us out of this dark tunnel of life.

Pay attention to the word of truth, the word that points to Jesus, the word that gives us life in this dark tunnel. Pay attention to the word of truth until the morning star rises in your hearts—the Morning Star meaning the star that appears at dawn, the Morning Star meaning the best and brightest of the stars that’s still shining even after all the others have disappeared, the Morning Star meaning Jesus, the Morning Star meaning the light at the end of the tunnel.

We’ve got that promise of the Last Day, the promise of the day when Christ will appear again, the promise of the light at the end of the tunnel, the day when things will open up to eternal life, the day when we will rise with Christ and live with Him in the new world, but it’s a distant light, it’s a light that appears far down the tunnel. And until that day dawns, until we reach the end of the tunnel, until Christ brings us to that day, until then we would do well to pay attention to the light that we do have, the light we have for now, the light in the midst of this dark tunnel of life, the light that shows us the trail today. We would do well to pay attention to the word of truth, we would do well to pay attention to the Scriptures, to the word about Christ, to God’s Word that’s light for us.

So back in the tunnel, my dad and I were very thankful to have bike lights. We couldn’t have gone through the tunnels without bike lights. We would’ve had to turn back and find another way around. We were thankful to have those bike lights, but the trip wasn’t about the bike lights. Our memories of the trip aren’t about the bike lights. The trip was about the trail. It was about the relationship we had to the trail, to the way that would lead us home, to the way that would get us out of that tunnel, to the road that passed underneath our tires. The light shined, but the path was the key.

So, too, with Scripture. We need Scripture, we need the Bible to shine its light of truth, but the path is the key, the way to everlasting life is the key, Jesus is the key. And that means that the word of truth is only as good as what it points to. The word of truth doesn’t point to itself; it points to Jesus.

So when I call you today to pay attention to the word of truth, I don’t mean just pay attention to the Bible; it’s not just about an intellectual agreement with what the Bible says; it’s not first and foremost about the Bible. Our understanding of God doesn’t begin with what we say about the Bible; our understanding of God begins with what we’ve heard about how He saves us, how He brings us into a right relationship with Him.

Calling us to pay attention to the word of truth, well, that’s about paying attention to what the word of truth is about—Jesus Christ. The Bible is the bike light, the Bible is the thing that shines light on the path, but it’s the path that we need, it’s the relationship with Jesus that we need, it’s the way to eternal life that we need, it’s the way out of this dark tunnel, that’s what we’re called to pay attention to. It’s about the relationship we can have with Jesus Christ, our Savior, the One who will guide us to eternal life, the relationship the Holy Spirit gives us through faith.

And you will do well to pay attention to the word of truth, pay attention to the word about Christ, as to a light shining in a dark place, as to a light shining on the path.

And that’s significant. Because the danger is that we could make our faith to be about the Bible. We could test each other about our knowledge of the Bible. We could make faith in Jesus to be all about faith in the Bible. We could doubt one another’s faith if we find out that we struggle to know the Bible, or struggle to believe everything in the Bible.

But it’s not about the bike light; it’s about the path. It’s not just about the Bible; it’s about Jesus being the Way to eternal life. The Bible’s the source of knowledge, the Bible’s where we find out about God, but that’s not what our faith is in. Our faith is in Jesus. I mean, the Bible does tells us confidently about who Jesus is and what He has done for us, but ultimately, our faith is in Jesus, our relationship is with God, our trust, hope, peace, confidence, comfort, joy, and all of that is in Jesus. It’s Jesus that saves us through the cross and resurrection.

Today as welcome new members and celebrate all of the people who have joined Bethel this past year, today we’re not focused on their relationship with the Bible. We’re focused on celebrating that they have a relationship with Jesus.

Does that make sense?

Because if it was just about the Bible, well, then we’d just be standing in a dark tunnel with a bike light. We’d be content with what we had. We’d be content with having the Bible, but that would mean very little for how we moved forward, how we lived our lives, how we thought about ourselves.

Instead, if it’s about Jesus, well, then we move forward with the help of the light of the Bible; it’s about the path that shows up in the light of God’s Word. We’re not content to stand here in the darkness; we want to see where this path leads. We’re not resigned to staying here in the darkness; we’re moving ahead and calling others to come move ahead with us. We’re moving forward, being led by God, being led by the path of Christ, being drawn by Christ to follow Him to eternal life. We’re in a relationship with Jesus.

And you will do well to pay attention to the word of truth, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

This is a message for anyone who has ever struggled with doubting the Bible, struggled to believe what the Bible says, struggled to say for certain that they believe everything in the Bible is true.

This is a message that says there’s room for everyone here, even when we struggle to believe in the Bible. There’s room here, because the most important thing is your relationship with Jesus. That’s the key, that’s the path, that’s the way out of this dark tunnel. We teach that the Bible is a light for that path, but our relationship is with Jesus.

When someone comes to me who’s going through something difficult or just has a spiritual struggle, my first question to them is not, “How’s your faith in the Bible?” My first question is usually something like, “Where’s God in this?” My concern is primarily about their faith in Jesus. Believing in the Bible, that can come later. But first, do you believe that Jesus died and rose again? Do you believe that Jesus saves us from our sins so that we can have eternal life? Do you believe that God has called us to be in community with other believers? Do you believe that God will lead us out of this dark tunnel?

That’s what this light is for. That’s what this word of truth is for. That’s what the bike light is for. It shines on the path, the path that leads us out of this dark tunnel. The path gives us hope beyond the darkness that we see all around us. That’s what we pay attention to. That’s what we’re called to see. That’s what we’ve been given through the word of God and the Holy Spirit. We’ve been given a light for the path, the path to the other end of the tunnel, the path to eternal life.

And you will do well to pay attention to the word of truth, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.