2012-09-30 12.50.11

When Dreams Get Real – Sermon on Genesis 45:1-11, 25-28

You can watch the video of this sermon here.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen that in the Bible there are two story lines. The upper story is God’s story where God fulfills his purpose and the lower story is the human characters’ story with all the complexities and details of life. Sometimes those details look like God is acting unfairly.

It doesn’t seem fair for God to kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, for example. It doesn’t seem fair for God to favor Isaac over his older half-brother Ishmael, either. But God’s purpose is only made known to us when we see things from an “upper story” perspective. God calls us to capture the upper story and its effects on our lives. The story of Joseph is a great example of how the upper and lower story lines come together in the Bible. Help me out here. Tell me when you think something that happens to Joseph is good (thumbs up), and when it’s bad (thumbs down). Then let’s see how God uses the bad to create good through Joseph.

The story starts in Genesis 37, when Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. (That’s bad) Joseph is 17 and is “the favorite” of his father Jacob (Rachel’s son). (That’s good) Joseph had dreams of his brothers and parents bowing down to him. This does not make him popular. (That’s bad) Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph to a band of Ishmaelites, and they tell Jacob that Joseph was killed by a ferocious animal. The Ishmaelites take Joseph to Egypt as a slave. (That’s bad)

Joseph is sold as a slave to an Egyptian official named Potiphar and becomes Potiphar’s right hand man. (that’s good) Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. (that’s bad) When Joseph refuses her advances, she falsely accuses him of assaulting her, and Joseph ends up in prison. (that’s bad) While in prison Joseph gets a reputation for correctly interpreting dreams. (Baker, cupbearer) (that’s good)

Joseph never plays the victim card, but he stays connected to God.
Over and over, we read that “The LORD was with Joseph” (39:2, 23). (That’s good)

Pharaoh has troubling dreams that none of his wise men and magicians can interpret for him. (that’s bad) But remember the reputation Joseph built in prison for being a good dream interpreter? (this could be good) Joseph is called to Pharaoh and correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and counsels Pharaoh to prepare for what they say about the future. (that’s good)

Dream #1- Egypt will have 7 years of bountiful harvests (that’s good)
Dream #2- Egypt will have 7 years of famine. (that’s bad)

Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of carrying out a plan to prepare for the years of famine, and this puts Joseph exactly where he needs to be in God’s upper story of redemption. Joseph is promoted to Deputy Pharaoh in Egypt at age 30 (Genesis 41). (that’s good)

The famine hits Canaan, where Jacob and his other sons still live. (that’s bad) Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to ask for food, and they do bow down to Joseph. (is this good or bad, do you think?) Joseph is now age 39. It’s been  22 years from the time of his initial dream to its fulfillment.

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for in Joseph’s story. Continue reading


By Faith – Sermon on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12

Last week we discovered that God’s vision in creation is to be with us. Adam and Eve chose a different vision. By their choice, sin and the sinful nature entered the human race. Yet, God passionately pursues us at great cost. God will do whatever it takes to get us back.

The deal with Noah hadn’t worked.
Sin was still the problem, even in the most righteous person God could find.
So instead of working with the most likely candidate for the job, God goes with the least likely possibility, an old man from Ur.

Ur was very near where Eden may have been, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Nearby, many people who all had one language had tried to build the Tower of Babel. God confounded their language and the nations scattered.
God chose to create a new nation in this area of the world.

God chose Abram and Sarai when they were very old, well past the age to have children. Their parents and grandparents had worshiped pagan gods. They were probably the least qualified people on earth to give birth to a great nation that would bless the whole world. God chose an old and unlikely couple so that all people would look to God, knowing that all that happens is God at work. God wants people to see him and understand his plan. And it’s pretty simple, really.

In Genesis 12, God lays out the deal for Abram. In this agreement, God states clearly what he expects from Abram when he says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (12:1)

Then God goes on to offer his share of the deal. He makes four promises: Continue reading


Eating Carp – Sermon on James 3:13-18 Pentecost 15B

September 6, 2015

My first husband liked to scuba dive and spearfish. These are great sports if you live near the ocean. We lived in southeast Kansas. The only bodies of water available for scuba diving and spear fishing were old strip mining pits, and the only fish you could legally spearfish were carp.

Carp are bottom-feeders. They eat muck. They taste like muck. It doesn’t take much imagination to rearrange the letters in “carp” to come up with another word that fully describes their flavor. And they are full of tiny bones, so they are difficult to eat. It doesn’t really matter how you cook them, they are still going to taste like carp, and you will always have a little pile of bones on the edge of your plate when you finish the meal.

So why did we keep settling for mining pit carp, when we could have been fishing for river trout or lake bass? James asks a similar question in today’s passage: why settle for worldly wisdom, when your life can be guided by heavenly wisdom?

Sometimes, we don’t even realize we are settling for carp. We think we are eating good fish, and we can’t figure out why it tastes so bad. Think of the times in your life you have settled for less than God intended for you. Maybe you have taken the easy way out when faced with a choice, or maybe you’ve struggled to have your work recognized, and you felt hurt when your efforts to serve have gone unnoticed.

It seemed like what you were doing was good and worthwhile, but you found no satisfaction in it. Things just didn’t go the way you wanted them to go, and you couldn’t figure out why you were fighting so hard and getting so little return. You thought you were eating good fish, but you kept finding carp bones in your teeth.

You might tell yourself it really doesn’t matter much; you don’t mind the taste of carp. But when it comes to living out our lives as followers of Jesus, the wisdom we draw upon matters a great deal. Allowing worldly wisdom to seduce us away from heavenly wisdom can have dire consequences for us, and cause great spiritual harm to others who look to our example.

As servants of Christ, we need to be able to tell the difference between God’s wisdom and our own, so that we can let God’s wisdom guide our speech and actions, and so we can avoid becoming a stumbling block for others.

So, how can you tell when there’s carp on your plate? How can you know when you are being guided by heavenly wisdom instead of earthly wisdom? James identifies several characteristics that will help us recognize the difference between heavenly wisdom and worldly wisdom, and he gives some clear examples of the evidence we can look for to make sure we are depending on wisdom from God. As we begin to let heavenly wisdom guide our lives, we can stop settling for carp.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)

Teachers use ‘best practices’ to help students remember – and use – the skills and concepts needed to master a particular discipline. The best way to teach a skill is to provide careful coaching until the skill is performed correctly once, then use repetitive practice until the skill is mastered. The skill must be performed correctly at least once before any repetitions can be called “practice.” (Until then, repetitions are just “attempts”.)

But to learn a concept, or idea, we need lots of examples to identify the concept’s critical attributes, or characteristics. We need positive examples, to establish what the concept is, and we also need negative examples to learn what the concept is not.

James is a good teacher. He wants us to follow heavenly wisdom, and he gives us both positive and negative characteristics we can recognize in our own speech and conduct, so we can determine when heavenly wisdom is guiding us.

First of all, heavenly wisdom is pure, and last of all, it is sincere. These bookends of purity and sincerity frame the list of positive characteristics. Purity of heart is easy to spot. The world might call the spiritually pure naïve or gullible, and some might even try to take advantage of this. But remember that purity is a mark of wisdom. There is no guile or deceit in heavenly wisdom. It is transparent and honest.

Linguistic experts insist that the legend surrounding the origins of the word ‘sincere’ is no more than a folk tale, but that folk tale is a good one. It goes like this:

In ancient times, a potter who wanted to disguise an imperfection in a vase or vessel could fill the crack with wax, buff it smooth, and pass off a damaged piece of pottery as whole. The only way to see the crack would be to hold the vase up to the light. So potters of integrity began to advertise their wares as Sine Cera, or ‘without wax.’ To be sincere meant you weren’t hiding anything, or trying to pass off imperfection as perfect. Whether or not James knew the story about the potter, he certainly knew that heavenly wisdom would never try to disguise an imperfection. Heavenly wisdom always tells the unvarnished truth.

Sandwiched in between purity and sincerity, James lists characteristics that are very closely related: peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial… that last one must have been referring to the problem James addresses in chapter two, where the wealthy were being treated with favoritism in the early church.

Being at peace with others seems to be the primary focus of heavenly wisdom in this passage, for James restates this idea in verse 18: peacemakers who sow in peace will reap a harvest of righteousness. Righteousness here can also be translated as justice, goodness, or being made right.

What do all these characteristics of heavenly wisdom hold in common? They describe how we are to interact with others. The focus is outward, considering the other’s need with personal humility, acting and speaking in love.

To make sure we get the point, James gives us some negative examples, as he lists the characteristics of earthly wisdom: selfish ambition, bitter envy, boasting, denying the truth. Just as heavenly wisdom results in peace, James tells us that earthly wisdom results in disorder ‘and every evil practice’. Such chaos is the exact opposite of peace.

But notice what earthly wisdom’s characteristics hold in common: selfish ambition, envy, boasting, and lying are all inward-focused tendencies. Instead of being all about another’s need and well-being, earthly wisdom is all about me. My needs, my desires.

Isaiah 5:21 says, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” They depend on earthly wisdom. They discover they have been eating carp.

Being guided by heavenly wisdom is certainly important as we strive to live out our call as Christians, but let me remind you that our call is to some form of ministry, and ministry always means ministry to someone else. Will we benefit personally? Certainly! But our own good is not what we look for when we seek heavenly wisdom. It is the good of others that drives us.

If we take a look at this passage in the context of the entire letter from James, we see that this lesson about heavenly wisdom falls in between two lessons on taming the tongue. James is eager for our interactions with others to reflect Godly wisdom. This means governing our speech so the things we say show compassion and mercy instead of pride and envy. Psalm 141:3 says, “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.” And Jesus admonishes us to remember, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10)

Heavenly wisdom isn’t something to acquire and keep to ourselves as some special secret knowledge. Its purpose is to help us as we speak and act, teach and encourage, ministering in Christ’s name to those he died to save. Heavenly wisdom’s greatest purpose is to show love.

So, what’s on your plate? Is it a melt-in-your-mouth, freshly caught fish fillet? Or is it mucky-tasting carp? If your speech reflects your own ambition or bitter envy, it’s time to clean the carp bones out of your teeth. If the words falling out of your mouth express sincere, compassionate, humble love, may God continue to grant you the grace to show heavenly wisdom in all you say and do.

The big question, however, is this: how do we get such heavenly wisdom? The answer is found in the pages of the Bible. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we read in the psalms and proverbs. (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 9:10) We develop a healthy fear of the Lord by reading his Word.

That is why we are taking on this journey through the Bible called The Story. As we read together from the beginning to the end of God’s biblical story, we will learn how God’s great love for us has been demonstrated time and again. And we will discover how our own stories are part of God’s story.

On Wednesday night, we watched a short video made by Randy Frazee’s church, as they were beginning this same journey together. In the video, actors put on a skit about being on the game show Jeopardy. As the skit begins, there is only one category left on the Jeopardy board – The Bible. It’s pretty clear that the players know very little about the scriptures. They can’t get a single question right, even though their answers are pretty funny.

We didn’t watch the next part of Randy’s video, but I can tell you that it is based on the game show Deal or No Deal. Have you watched that before? 26 suitcases hold dollar amounts from .01 to 1,000,000, and the contestant’s job is to choose, by process of elimination, the suitcase with the highest dollar amount. As the game progresses, the banker makes a cash offer to the player. If the player accepts the deal, the game is over.

Today, I’m going to make you the same offer Randy Frazee made to his church, when The Story had just begun. In your bulletin is a commitment sheet. We’re going to go through it together. You can decide “Deal” or “No Deal” for each of the items listed on the page. When we’re finished, you will have decided how much you want to commit to this process, how much you want to invest in heavenly wisdom. …





Made for a Purpose – Sermon on Genesis 2:4-9, 15-17

We’ve had a great start to reading The Story together.
Several of you have already told me about the way this has impacted your lives, and it is good to see God already at work among us.  If you missed the discussion on Wednesday night, let me bring you up to speed.  (Then plan to join us this Wednesday, as we dive into chapter two!)

Here’s what we have so far:

The beginning of our journey through the story of the Bible is like the beginning of an action-packed movie. If you miss the opening scenes of a good action movie, you will probably not understand the rest of the story. There is so much packed into those first few minutes, it’s worth sitting through all the previews to make sure you’re in the theater when the action starts.

It is the same with the Bible’s grand story. The story of Creation sets the scene for the whole revelation of God in the Bible. So many things happen here at the very beginning, and so many characters are introduced that you may miss an important fact if you skip this first chapter.
If you come into the theater after this movie has begun, you might think this is a story about Adam and Eve, and what happens to them.  

And you would be wrong.

The main character of the Grand Story of the Bible is God.
This is a story about who God is, and what God does.  The very first thing God does in this story is create. From Genesis 1:1, we learn that the beginning of the universe is not an impersonal accident, but the result of the creative purpose of a personal God.  

The story of creation is presented to us as a poem. It is art. The book of Genesis is traditionally attributed to Moses, but he wasn’t around at the beginning, so what he wrote probably came from words that had been spoken from one generation to the next. The easiest way to remember an important story and pass it along to others is to put it into the form of a poem or song. Here in Genesis, we have a beautiful work of art that tells us how the world was formed.

It’s arranged in an order that makes sense, and is easy to remember. First, God makes the places, and then he creates the things that belong in those places. So, on the first day, God makes light and dark, one the second day, he divides sky and water, and on the third day, God creates land and covers it with vegetation. Then on the fourth day, God puts stars and moon and sun where they belong, to rule over the day and night that were created on the first day. On day five, God puts birds into the sky and fish into the sea, and on day six, God populates the land with animals. God saves his crowning achievement for last. The final thing God makes is humankind.  God’s core passion is people, made in God’s own image. 

We read in Genesis 1:26-27:

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

All the beauty of creation is secondary to you. Let this truth sink in. God made you in God’s own image, whether you are male or female, for a purpose: to live with God while caring for his creation. God’s supreme passion is to be with us at all costs, to give us everything that is good. 

“In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:4-9)

“15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (2:15-17)

Notice that the tree of life was not forbidden for food. Only the tree of death, knowing good and evil.
And almost from the beginning, something goes wrong. We call it “the Fall” but it really should be called Adam and Eve’s rebellion. 

You see, when God made humans, his purpose was to live together with us in friendship. But God knew that the only way that could work would be if humans chose to love God the way God chose to love us. God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to choose.
They could choose life in friendship with God, or they could choose death, by knowing both good and evil.

God does not force love.
Love must be given freely, or it isn’t love. So God let Adam and Eve choose, and they made the wrong choice. Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate from the forbidden “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and God’s vision to be with people was ruined. 

But here’s the good news: the rest of the Bible is about God’s pursuit to get us back!

Sin damages the whole human race.
Because Adam and Eve chose a different vision than God’s vision, sin became part of their spiritual DNA and they produced more sinners. Their children were born with sinful natures, one brother even killing another out of jealousy. And the sin virus was passed on from generation to generation, until things got so bad, God said, “I want a do-over.”

So God looked for the most righteous person he could find, and he chose Noah to start over. But it didn’t work. The flood erased the wicked human race, but did not erase the sin nature from Noah and his family.  Once they were off the ark, Noah planted a vineyard, and made wine from the grapes. One day, his youngest son found Noah drunk and naked, and he went snickering to tell his brothers about it.

“When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.”
(Genesis 9: 21-23.)

There’s a clue at the very beginning of God’s story that God has a plan to save us, and Noah’s nakedness points us back to that clue. After Adam and Eve sinned and became aware of their nakedness, they made fig leaf clothing to cover their nakedness. God took away the fig leaves and covered Adam and Eve with the skins of animals. Here’s the clue:  For God to restore humans to their place in Gods created order, blood must be shed. 

God created the world with the grand vision of living together with us in the world. It is God’s supreme passion to be with you. God gave us freedom of choice. Adam and Eve chose out of the freedom of their will to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and ruined God’s vision of living with us.  
Sin was deposited permanently into the nature of Adam and Eve, a deadly virus separating them from a holy God. God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and set angels to guard it, in order to keep them from the Tree of Life, which would sustain life forever. Without access to this tree, they would eventually die.

We think God is being cruel by letting us die. But it’s actually an act of God’s grace to keep us from being able to sustain our life forever in a state of sin and hatred. Man’s choice resulted in separation from God, and it broke his heart. The ‘rest of the story,’ the entire Bible, tells us of the relentless pursuit of God and the extent to which he will go in order to get us back.

The flood is God’s first attempt to go to great measures to get us back. But it doesn’t work because it doesn’t deal with sin. Sin goes onto the ark with Noah, and it disembarks with him. But God isn’t finished. He will not let his good creation go.

Let’s review…

When God replaced Adam and Eve’s fig leaves with garments of skin, he gave us a clue as to how far he would go to fulfill his supreme desire to restore a relationship with us. Even when we are ashamed and feeling vulnerable, he covers us in order to restore our relationship with him, but covering us requires the shedding of blood. We are invited to soak in the fact that the God of the universe wants to be with us more than anything else on earth. You are the point of The Story.

God wants to be with you. Think about that. You. God wants to personally be with you. At great cost to God, God has done everything possible to get you back. You are valuable. Recognizing your own personal worth begins by believing what God says about you.

In Psalm 139 we read:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
 before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
 they would outnumber the grains of sand— (Psalm 139:14-18)

There was a time in my life when I had to read those five verses out loud to myself every day. I did not feel fearfully and wonderfully made. I felt completely worthless. I was sure that God didn’t care about me anymore. I had wandered away from God. I had turned my back on him, and I was afraid to turn around, because I had convinced myself that God had turned his back on me. Yet, when I read these words, I began to realize that God had been waiting for me all along. God wanted me back.  

Then one day, I glanced backward in my Bible and read the last verse of the psalm right before this one, psalm 138. The psalmist writes,
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever! Do not forsake the work of your hands.” 

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for you. God made you for a reason. He gave you a purpose when he formed you, before you were even born. No matter how far away from God you wander, no matter how much you rebel against his plan for you, he wants you back.

The rest of the story is all about God’s work to restore each of us to our place in his perfect creation. We can take the first step toward that restoration when we confess our sins and ask God to forgive us. Psalm 139 ends with these words:

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

The way everlasting is the path back to God, whose love endures forever. His purpose for all of us is to live in loving relationship with him, and he has created you to do that in a way that is completely unique to you. God made you for a purpose that only you can accomplish. Will you let God fulfill his purpose for you? He will not forsake the work of his hands. His love for you endures forever.

Will you take the first step back to God?

Let us pray.

Lord, you formed us and made us in your image, but we don’t do a very good job of reflecting your glory sometimes. You made us to walk with you in friendship, but we often turn away from you. We know this breaks your heart. Yet, you don’t give up on us. Your steadfast love endures forever. 

Help us, Lord. Help us to see your way in front of us, and help us to follow in that way. We pray for the things that continue to break your heart: for the migrants fleeing war and terror with no place to go, for those who suffer from incurable disease, for those who mourn. We pray for leaders to rise up among your people who will stand for justice and righteousness. We pray all this in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, Amen.

2013-10-13 receiving new members2

The Implanted Word – Sermon on James 1:17-27 Pentecost 14B


August 30, 2015

Tradition tells us that the author of the book of James was the brother of Jesus. James was not one of the original twelve disciples, but he quickly became a leader among the believers in Jerusalem after Christ’s resurrection. In the greeting of this letter, James addresses “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1) so we can imagine that his intended audience includes Jewish followers of The Way who have fled from Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen.

Christianity was in its early stages; it was still considered a Jewish sect. Followers of Jesus weren’t even called Christians yet, but they were already experiencing persecution. James wrote to these believers, who had scattered into the world beyond Jerusalem, to encourage them in their suffering, and to give them guidance.

We have just spent five weeks listening to Jesus describe himself as the “Bread of Life.” Jesus has used very graphic language to insist that, if we are truly going to be his followers, we must take him into ourselves and become like him. Lip service won’t do: we must go all in if we are to become true disciples.

We don’t know if James was present when Jesus gave his “Bread of Life” sermon, but it seems to me that he must have understood what Jesus meant. In today’s passage from James, listen for the connection he makes between simply hearing the word and doing the word. For James, and the people to whom he wrote, going all in for Jesus was guaranteed to be a risky business, but failing to commit carried an even greater risk.

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act–they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. – James 1:17-27

James seems to have just two questions in mind here. First he asks, “Who is God to you?” Then James wants to know, “Who are you to God?”

It only takes a couple of verses for James to explain who God is to us. He is Father, Creator, the giver of life and light. God is unchangeable, and therefore dependable. God is truth and righteousness, fulfilling his own purpose in us. And that brings us to the second question, “Who are you to God?” Continue reading


To whom can we go? Sermon on John 6:56-69 Pentecost 13B

August 23, 2015 
[Jesus said,] “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  

He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?
Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
But among you there are some who do not believe
For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.
And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:56-69

Lord, to whom can we go?

Just a few hours after our friend Brad took his last breath on Thursday, another friend’s son also breathed his last following a courageous battle with cancer. Atticus was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma when he was 13 months old. He didn’t make it to his second birthday. As I think about Brad and Atticus, the question Peter asks takes on a different meaning than it had for me a week ago.

 “Lord, to whom can we go?
You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.” 

What does this mean for us? How do we come to know and believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God? What is this eternal life that Jesus has been talking about for the past five weeks, as we worked our way through the sixth chapter of John’s gospel? Where else could we find such life?

The passage we just read had to borrow a few verses from last week’s reading, or we would not even know that Jesus is still talking about bread. Specifically, he is talking about himself as the Bread of Life. His own body and blood are food for the world, just as the loaves and fishes were food for the people who are listening to him in today’s reading.

Once again, we hear the offensive language from last week about gnawing on the flesh and blood of Jesus being what gets us to abide in him, and him in us, giving us life through his life source. And this life is not like the life of those who ate manna from heaven as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses. This is life in Christ, a life that starts immediately and never ends. It is life in the eternal now.

Somehow, the scene has shifted as Jesus has been saying these offensive words. The conversation that began back in verse 25, when those who had chased him around the lake finally meet up with him on the beach, has moved into the synagogue of Capernaum. Now Jesus is in a position of authority as he speaks to his followers, and what he has to say is not something they want to hear.

The disciples grumble about the difficulty of this teaching – but it isn’t clear what they find difficult. The word for grumbling, or murmuring or complaining, happens only four times in John, and three of them have been in chapter six. Back in verse 41, the Judeans grumbled among themselves about Jesus’ claim that he came from heaven, and in verse 43 Jesus tells them to stop it. Later on, in chapter 7, the Pharisees will hear that the people are murmuring among themselves that maybe Jesus is the Christ after all, and they will send temple guards to arrest him. But here in verse 61, it’s the disciples who are doing the grumbling. These are the ones who have been following Jesus faithfully up to this point. These are the ones who claim to believe he is from God. But do they really?

Jesus asks if his followers are “scandalized” or offended by his talk about flesh and blood, and then he offers something even more scandalous: the claim that he not only comes from heaven, but that he will also return there. This gets us to the heart of the matter: Jesus offers spirit and life, life that is eternally grounded in a heavenly home. Near the end of John’s gospel, he will tell his closest friends, “In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I tell you that I go to prepare a place for you? .., And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (Jn 14:2-3)

Throughout this chapter, we have had little reminders of the Exodus story of Israel. Jesus feeds people in the wilderness with bread and fish, and Moses led Israel through the wilderness as they lived off the manna and quail God sent them. In both stories, the same people who get fed are the ones who complain and grumble.

The issue isn’t really the grumbling, though. It’s the lack of trust in God that the grumbling represents. Jesus says, “among you there are some who do not believe” (v.64). The Greek word pisteuo occurs more than 80 times in John. That’s more than in all of Paul’s letters together (Douglas R. A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 385.). Pisteuo usually gets translated as “believe,” and we might think this means intellectual belief. But its more common meaning is to trust or rely upon someone. The problem is not a cognitive one, but an issue of trust. Pisteuo never occurs in the form of a noun. It is always a verb in John. Faith is not something you have but something you do. Believing is an action, not a thing. Not believing is nothing short of betrayal.

Karoline Lewis writes that betrayal, in John’s gospel, is disbelieving. “The real betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.” We betray Jesus when we think that real, abundant life in the eternal now could never be ours. Maybe it’s easy to imagine that God loves the world, but when it comes down to you, personally, you think you aren’t really worthy of God’s love. You can’t imagine how God could love someone like you, and you aren’t sure you want to trust in a relationship that might just be a figment of your own imagination.

“Because at the end of the day, life, real life, life lived, abundant life, is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours.” You’re unable to accept that abundant life could be true, you’re reluctant to imagine, to dream, to picture that when God says God loves the world that he actually means you. Maybe that kind of life is for someone else, but not for you. Yet, Jesus says, “That’s not the way it is.” At least, that’s not the way it has to be.

You see, there comes a moment when you must decide. You have to choose between trusting Jesus and betraying him. You have to decide to go all in, or get out. Many of the disciples who had been following Jesus up to this point in the story “turned back and no longer went about with him.” They decided they couldn’t handle being a true disciple of Jesus. They couldn’t trust him to be who he said he was, to give what he promised.

So, many of them left. When the picture of discipleship Jesus painted got too graphic for their tastes, they turned away. When his words upset the comfortable and familiar way they thought things ought to be, they gave up. It was too hard. Not too hard to understand, but too hard for them to accept. They weren’t ready to become “scandalized” by the gospel Jesus was offering them. They couldn’t commit to the cost of discipleship if it meant identifying with scandal in the eyes of the world.

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

This is the first time in John’s gospel that he names the closest followers of Jesus as “the Twelve.” These are the ones who have been called out, the ones he invited personally into his ministry. They are the ones who started following him before they knew what they were getting into. As the others leave, Jesus turns to his best friends and gives them an out. If they think the road is going to be too rough, now is the time to bail. Now is the moment when they must choose. Jesus looks around the group as he waits for their decision. He already knows that one of them, Judas, will eventually betray him. He makes eye contact with each of these men, but none of them speak. Except for Peter. And he speaks for all twelve.

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

Why do some turn away from Jesus and others trust him? Some can’t accept the scandal of the gospel, but those who accept it know there is no other way. For some, eating bread that can go stale is the only thing they’ve ever known, and they can’t imagine eating real bread, living bread. Some simply cannot trust God to love them. Some won’t commit to a life that is all consuming, even though it is continually fed by the Holy Spirit. And some just want to avoid being identified with the scandal of the gospel, a scandal that could embarrass or humiliate them in the eyes of the world.

But why settle for bread that is not bread? Bread that will grow stale, and will not satisfy? Why settle for life that is not rich and full of meaning? Why fear humiliation, when Christ himself suffered the ultimate humiliation of death on a cross for our sakes?

Peter knew that he had found the source of all meaning in life. He knew that Jesus was the Holy One of God. He knew that no where else would he ever find the words of eternal life. He had come to believe and know that there was no where else to go, no one else who could take the place of Jesus in his life. He realized that he had no hope, except in giving himself completely to Jesus.

Is this teaching too difficult for you to accept? Does it offend you to hear that Jesus demands all of your trust, all of your obedience, all of your life? Do you also wish to go away? Or will you follow, as part of the community of faithful people in this time and place who stand with Peter and say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”


Chew on This – Sermon on John 6:51-58 for Pentecost 12B

August 16, 2015

One afternoon, more than 30 years ago, I picked up my son from his day care center. It was a good preschool, and we all really liked my son’s teacher, Miss R. As I pulled up to the entrance, I saw my son visiting with his teacher, and it was obvious they were both enjoying the conversation. I signed him out, thanked Miss R., and we headed to the car.

As I buckled him into his seat, I asked, “What were you talking about?”
“Oh, I was just chewing the fat on Miss R.,” he said.

Apparently, he had just learned a new idiom. Almost. It would take a few more repetitions before he could use “chewing the fat” appropriately, and apply it to his everyday life with confidence. In today’s reading, John gives us the chance to learn a gospel truth by repeating something we’ve already heard, so we can apply it to our everyday lives with confidence.

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58)

Here we are in week four of this sixth chapter of John’s gospel, and it’s a hard slog, isn’t it? Wading through John’s repetitions, I see my 10th grade English teacher, Miss Kidd, waving her red pencil and shaking her head, saying, “Redundant, redundant, redundant!”

Just how much more do we really need to hear this? How many more times must Jesus say, “I am the true bread from heaven” and “feed on me”? Apparently, John thinks we need to hear it again, and again. Only this time, the message is getting more intense, more graphic, and more alarming. In fact, Jesus is getting downright disgusting.

Our reaction might be very much like that of the little girl who suddenly found herself paying close attention to the Communion liturgy one Sunday. As the pastor recited the words of institution, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you; take and drink, this is my blood, poured out for your sins,” the little girl interrupted the somber moment with a very loud, “Ew, yuck!”

And then there’s the more personal question about this reading: “So what? What does all this repetition about bread and flesh and blood have to do with my life in the here and now? How do these words, full of symbolic meaning 2000 years ago, matter in my present situation?

The Judeans who are listening to Jesus are becoming more agitated, too. Last week, we heard them grumbling among themselves. This week, the grumbling has turned into an argument. Not only has Jesus claimed to be sent from God, now he insists that anyone who believes he is God’s Son must eat his flesh and drink his blood. The Judeans are repulsed by this idea. Beyond the images of cannibalism, consuming blood of any animal violates Jewish dietary laws. What Jesus is telling his listeners to do is not only disgusting, it’s illegal, immoral, and unethical. It’s just plain wrong.

And it gets worse.

English translations don’t always make it clear, but Jesus starts using more grotesque language partway through his answer to the arguing Judeans. “In verses 49-51, Jesus had spoken about “eating” the bread from heaven, using a very common word (esthio). In verse 53, however, Jesus switches to a less common word, trogo, a … word that has a connotation closer to “munch” or “gnaw.” It is a graphic word of noisy eating, the sort of eating an animal does. The [noisiness] of the eating, however, is not the important point; this is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It is eating as though life depends on it, because it does.” (Brian Peterson)

This is where Jesus gets to the heart of his message. Unless we take him into ourselves urgently, desperately, gobbling him up and gulping his life blood, we are dead. “Unless you do this,” he says, “you have no life in you.” It really is a life or death matter to claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In Hebrew tradition, it is the blood that carries the life force of any living being. Unless we take Christ’s life force into ourselves, we die.

John’s gospel doesn’t give us The Lord’s Supper. There is a final meal with his disciples, but it isn’t a Passover meal, and Jesus does not speak the words in John’s gospel that we hear in the other gospel stories. He does not say, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you. Take this cup and drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood poured out for the remission of sins. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you remember my death until I come again.”

Instead, John gives us these words about Christ’s flesh and blood in the context of chapter six, long before the Passion story. This is a passage that begins and ends with life-giving bread. In John’s gospel, the words we say at Communion are less about remembering Christ’s death, and more about taking his life into ourselves.

Jesus says he is the living bread — catch that? The key word here is living, not dying. … this same [word] will be used to describe the Father later in this passage, “just as the living Father sent me” (6:57). What difference does this make? Jesus as the bread of life is connected to the living Jesus, not the dying Jesus. Rather than offering himself on the night he was betrayed, he offers his flesh to eat in the middle of his ministry.” (Karoline Lewis)

It’s all about life, and according to John, eternal life means abundant life (10:10). Throughout this passage, Jesus’ concern is less about getting us to understand and more about getting us to eat. Jesus isn’t making explanation so much as he is making a promise. (Craig Satterlee)

This life isn’t something you can postpone until the future. It’s your promise in the present. This life is the promise of unity with God, abiding in God as God abides in you. This isn’t a memory of what Jesus did in the past, or a dream of what he will do at the end of time, but life lived fully in this moment, receiving “grace upon grace” (1:16).

This is what it means to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood in the here and now. As we consume him, taking his life force into ourselves, this is what Christ promises us: full life in the present, and to be raised on the last day (v 54), to abide in Jesus and have Jesus abide in us (v 56), to live because of Jesus (v 57) and to live forever (v 58).

Next week, we will conclude this march through John 6 with Peter’s recognition of who Jesus really is. All the conversation since Jesus fed the 5000 four weeks ago has been about bread – explaining, defining, and naming it. But Jesus hasn’t really been talking about bread at all. He’s been talking about his own identity.

Ginger Barfield writes: The point missed in the feeding sign was who Jesus was. The sign was to point to Jesus. Instead they got full of food and went back to how things were before. They went back to the literal level and missed the depth and riches that were right in front of them. …
But another miracle was in that first text. Embedded there was the short story of the disciples’ simple recognition of Jesus in the dark once they heard his voice. That voice was enough to take away their fears. No grand miracle. Just a simple recognition of who Jesus was. …
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God, sent from above, to feed the world for all time. Jesus is he who sustains the world in a way that makes living possible. Jesus is the one who speaks and we know he is here.”

As we chew on this awareness of who Jesus really is, we must also hear the demand he makes on all who believe. There can be no half measures, no lip service. It’s all or nothing. Life, or death. We must gulp him down and become part of him as he is part of us, or we die. Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls this the “hard, deep call to obedience.” Jesus wants all of us, just as he wants to give us all of himself. It’s a full commitment to life in Christ, and Christ in every aspect of our lives. Nothing less will do. Let us pray.

(Prayer: Brueggemann’s “A Hard, Deep Call to Obedience”)