Delivered at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. Epiphany 6, NL Year 4.
Texts: Ps 34.1-10; Jn 6.35-59
Note: today we celebrated the baptism of a baby girl named Emma. I refer to her in the sermon.
Thinking about baptism today, as we welcome Emma into our congregation, I remember a child I baptized in a private service some time ago. When I met with the child’s mother and asked her why it was important to her to get her baby baptized, she said, “Well, if he dies, I don’t want him to go to hell!” I give this mother a lot of credit, because she said what lots of us are thinking. Coming to church, attending Sunday school, getting baptized—it all becomes about what pastors often call “fire insurance:” making sure we don’t go to hell when we die. We come here and go through the motions to assure ourselves a spot on “the list.”
Lots of folks, both Christians and non-Christians alike, think that’s all the bible is: some manual that tells us how to live or what to believe in order to come back to life after we die. If you’ve ever seen one of those religious tracts that pop up from time to time, that’s how the bible is depicted: 5 steps you can take to ensure that you will have eternal life.
Jesus mentions eternal life today, but like most of the times Jesus talks about eternal life or the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven, he’s not talking about the resurrection; he’s talking about something we have now, rather than something we will have someday. You can see this in sentences like verse 40, where Jesus says, “…all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” Eternal life and the resurrection, though related, are different.
This is not just an interesting factoid; it is an important distinction that we too often fail to understand, and in so doing, we are missing out on the real good news of the gospel. It is a truly wonderful promise that we will live again after we die; that promise shows us how permanent and unstoppable God’s love for us is. It is a solid and comforting word of hope for those facing their own death or the death of a loved ond. The trouble is that for many people, that’s where the gospel ends.
We have become as misled as those poor people who followed Jesus all the way around the lake just so that they could be sure of getting another square meal. In all the gospels (but especially in John’s gospel) people follow Jesus around like puppies because they see the great stuff he’s doing and they want some of it. Feeding, healing, casting out demons, turning water to wine—their idea is that if you hang out with Jesus, you will have everything you want! Jesus becomes little more than a divine vending machine, dispensing whatever it is you happen to need.
That’s true, to a degree, but the problem comes when there is nothing that you need. What happens if you can count on being fed regularly, if you have a roof over your head and good health insurance? What more could you want? A colleague of mine recently asked one of his parishioners if he ever prayed. “No,” the man answered, “Why would I pray? I don’t need anything.” A vending machine is useless if you have all you want. People are beginning to realize that you don’t need to go to church to learn how to be a good person, and so if you are not interested or not sold on the concept of life after death, then this understanding of Jesus has nothing to offer.
Jesus’ point in this very long, somewhat confusing monologue is that bread might keep your body alive, but in the end, you will still die. In the synoptic gospels, when Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness with bread, he responds by saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” What Jesus offers is better than bread; it will do more than just keep your heart pumping and your lungs working. What Jesus offers is eternal life.
One translation of that means what we think it means: life that never ends, immortality, never dying. However, we all still die. And yet, listen to what Jesus says: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” Not will have, not might have, but has—present tense. Each of us here has eternal life. Emma has eternal life—she’s living it right now. Since we all still die, clearly there is something more to eternal life than just immortality.
Up to this point in John’s gospel, everything that we’ve seen Jesus do and all the things we’ve heard him say have been signs pointing us to one reality: Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; although no one has ever seen God, God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has seen God, and has made God known to us. Jesus is the one who reveals God to us, who brings us out of the darkness of the world and its evil thoughts and motivations and actions and into the light of being in relationship with God—through him we become God’s children.
This relationship with God is eternal—there is no end. Even death does not end it; we continue to be God’s children while we are alive, when we die, and after we are resurrected. This eternal relationship with God is what makes life eternal. It’s like a rope tied around our waist that follows us wherever we go and keeps us connected to the anchor point: God.
Resurrection is only part of the story. If that’s all we want, then we are just like those poor saps crying for bread and missing out on the real food. The living water, the bread of life, the birth from above, the miraculous healing—whatever you want to call it, that thing is Jesus himself, because he shows us the Father and through him, we become God’s children.
That’s the reason we come here, week after week. That’s why we expect somebody like me to drone on every Sunday morning. That’s the reason we splash our kids with water and why we line up to eat those stale little crackers and drink cheap wine; because somehow, for some reason, Jesus has chosen to be present with us in such simple, common things as words and water, wine and bread; and he is the one we’re here to meet. We’re not here to check off a requirement on some list to get into heaven or to learn to be moral, upstanding citizens; we are here because this is one place we can be assured of experiencing the risen Christ, and he is the bread of life.
So here’s my question for us: for what are we being fed? We eat food and drink water so that our bodies can function and we have the energy to go out and provide for ourselves and our families and contribute to society, right? God clearly calls us here to be fed, so what are we being strengthened and nourished to do? Are we using God’s gift well? Are we being good stewards of the gospel, of the ministry we’ve been given? Is our baptism changing the community around us in the way God would have it changed? This eternal life we’re living is an extraordinary gift; are we living it to its fullest?
Delivered at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. Epiphany 4, NL Year 4.
Texts: Ps 65.5-13; Jn 4.1-42
Why are you here? I want all of us to think about this question for a moment. What is the reason you’ve come here today? Why aren’t you still in bed, or out at the cabin, or simply enjoying a quiet morning with no responsibilities? Why are you here?
This is the question I keep coming back to as I think about this story from John. As it begins, we learn that Jesus is traveling through Samaria, on his way from Judea to Galilee. He didn’t have to go through Samaria; in fact, traveling between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north, most people went out of their way to go around Samaria, to avoid the people who lived there. Jews and Samaritans hated one another—a Jew wouldn’t even drink out of the same cup as a Samaritan because it was considered disgusting; and yet, Jesus intentionally goes through Samaria, his disciples intentionally go into a Samaritan town to by bread from Samaritans, and he himself asks a lone Samaritan woman drawing water from a well to share her cup. What was he doing there?
You probably missed it in the introduction, but John tells us why Jesus is there. “He had to go through Samaria,” John says—it was necessary. Since it clearly wasn’t necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria, John must not be talking about geography; which means he must be talking about God. It was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria because there was something there he had to do.
This story is actually the second half of the story we heard last week. Nicodemus, a leader and teacher of the Jews, came to Jesus in the middle of the night, asking questions. When Jesus answered him, he was confused. We never did hear how he responded to Jesus’ words (at least not yet). Today, our story takes place not in the middle of the night, but the middle of the day. The other character is not an important, educated, religious man, but an unimportant, strange woman; a Samaritan woman. She did not come to Jesus; he came to her. Nicodemus came and talked with Jesus about God and salvation and being born from above; but today all that happens is Jesus asks this woman for a drink.
From that one, simple question, many people come to believe. First, the woman becomes convinced that the man she is with is extraordinary; not just because he will strike up a conversation with a strange woman and share a water cup with a Samaritan, but because he knows her, he can tell her things about herself that he shouldn’t be able to. Then, she goes and tells the town, and many from the town come to see for themselves and end up believing because of his words.
When Nicodemus heard what Jesus had to say in Jerusalem, nothing happened. He faded out of the story, and that’s the last we heard; but when Jesus travels to Samaria, all of a sudden, followers begin coming out of the woodwork. God had work for him to do there, and that’s why he was there.
As Jesus is sitting at the well with his disciples, he begins talking to them about laborers and harvesting. “Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” You know what they would have seen if they looked around them? Samaritans. Lots and lots of Samaritans.
Earlier in John, it made sense when Jesus called his disciples to come and follow. Andrew and Simon, Philip and Nathanael… they were all Jews, coming to follow a Jewish teacher. Andrew asked Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” and Jesus replied, “Come and see.” Nathanael asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip replied, “Come and see.” Now, here in Sychar, this unnamed woman leaves the jar she brought to fetch water and runs into town shouting, “Come and see! Come and see a man who knows me, even though I’ve never met him!”
Ultimately, it is that testimony that brings people to Jesus. She does not talk to them of living water, or of life after death, or of how great his disciples are. She tells them how Jesus somehow knows her as if he had been around for her whole life. That relationship, that intimate knowledge is what brings all these Samaritan people coming to see this Jewish traveler, and why they ask him to stay with them.
So, again I will ask you: why are you here? What brings you to this place? What about this congregation or these people or this worship service has brought you here? We talk a lot in the Church about how to get more people to come, more people to participate, more people to get involved and give time and money. We talk a lot about how to make our congregations grow. We talk about it so much because we look around and see how they are not growing, how they are, in fact, shrinking.
Then there’s Jesus, happening through a town in a region that was openly hostile towards him; all he had to do was ask for a drink of water and BAM! All of a sudden, he is surrounded by people. Why don’t we experience the same? There are plenty of people in this town who do not have a worship community, who do not have a relationship with God. Why aren’t they here with us?
The obvious answer is that we are not Jesus. He had a way about him, a way of connecting with people that we don’t. He’s the person who could turn water into wine, trash the temple and walk out without being arrested. He’s the person who could die on a cross and get up again. That’s not us. He’s the one, John tells us, who made the Father known to us.
People came to Jesus because he knew them and loved them, and he introduced them to God. Jesus showed those people a God who didn’t care about the distinctions between men and women or Jews and Samaritans. He showed them a God who would love them in spite of all the terrible things the Pharisees saw when they looked at them, simply because they belonged to God. Jesus showed them a God who was willing to listen to them, to heal them, and even to die for them, without even being asked.
So maybe that’s it; Jesus simply isn’t here to show them that God anymore. But that doesn’t sound right, does it? That doesn’t sound like what we’ve been taught about the Church. Where two or three are gathered in his name, there he is, right? And aren’t we the Body of Christ? Isn’t this his flesh and blood on this table, ready for us to eat and drink so that his life can transform ours?
I ask again: why are you here? If we are indeed the Body of Christ gathered for worship, then just like Jesus in Sychar, we are here because it is necessary for us to be. I don’t just mean in this building, but in this town, in this state. Just like Sychar, there are people in this community—people we know—who have yet to be introduced to Jesus. Look around you: aren’t the fields ripe for the harvest?
When we talk about what we can do to be more welcoming and inviting, we talk a lot about our style worship, what programs we can offer, how we can advertise. What we don’t talk about is God: how have you grown in relationship with God here? How has this community and this place changed your life? How has your experience in this congregation revealed God to you?
That’s why people came to Jesus, even Samaritans; not because of the music he sang or how long he talked or how well he taught Sunday school, but because (as John says) “no one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” Jesus introduced people to God. Are we doing that?
We sometimes think that we’re not qualified to do that kind of work. We don’t know how, we don’t have the knowledge or the confidence or the ability. That’s what we pay the pastor for. How could any of us shoulder that kind of responsibility? But the truth is, all the “professionals” in this story were not the ones who brought the crowds: Nicodemus and the disciples, they were not the ones running into town crying “come and see.” Instead, it was the Samaritan woman, the one who knew nothing about the Bible, who had no formal training, who wasn’t even supposed to speak to men she didn’t know, who doesn’t even have a name in this story. She’s the one who made the invitation, and others accepted. And what was the good news she had to share? “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done.”
There are lots of people out there who have not met God, and even more who have been introduced to a God that we would not recognize—angry, judgmental, vindictive. We are here because this is where God has placed us. There is work for us to do here. We have been given the task of carrying on Jesus’ work of making the Father known.
Feeling like you’re not up to the task? That’s one reason we worship; we listen to God’s word and we are fed for the journey with Jesus’s body and blood. It’s hard work, but simple: All you need to do is answer one simple question: Why are you here?
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. Epiphany 3, NL Year 4.
Texts: Ps 139.13-18; Jn 3.1-21
Today we have read one of the most famous verses in the bible. This was the first verse I ever memorized, and the same is probably true for many of you. It’s a verse that is so familiar to us, that it’s easy as we listen to sort of tune out everything else and focus on just that one sentence: “For God so loved the world, that he sent is only Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” It has been described as the one-sentence summary of the whole bible. In spite of that, if we are to understand what it means, we have to step back and look at the story in which it sits.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader and teacher of the Israelites. After the stir that Jesus caused with his miraculous signs like turning water into wine and his disruption at the temple, something drives Nicodemus to come visit Jesus and figure out what he’s up to.
He comes in the dark. In John’s gospel, the dark is symbolic. The dark represents all that is without God, the fallen world which does not no God and has not received God’s Word. It is out of this darkness, from the world that does not recognize God, that Nicodemus comes, representing those who have not yet “seen the light” of the Word.
Because Nicodemus is a teacher and religious leader, he is very knowledgeable. He knows all the laws, all the prophetic writings; but when he begins to question Jesus, he learns that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does.
To be fair to Nicodemus, Jesus’ words here are quite enigmatic. Even reading them today, it’s hard to understand fully what he means by being born from above and about people born of the Spirit. In this gospel, Jesus often speaks very mysteriously, often confounds those who question him by answering questions they did not ask.
Perhaps Jesus does this, especially with Nicodemus, because of how much Nicodemus thinks he knows. He has come with all his certainties and knowledge to see where Jesus fits into his beliefs. Jesus confounds him, throws his certainties out the window, leaves him wondering and confused, asking, “How can these things be?”
Once Nicodemus has finally been shaken off his firm foundation of faith, Jesus begins to level with him, to share the good news. This world—this broken world, existing in darkness—is loved by God; so much so, that God’s only son has come to rescue it. In order for this to make any sense to Nicodemus, in order for him to hear it, he first had to have his certainties removed and his faith shaken. He needed to stop knowing and start listening.
In that way, Jesus’ words about being born again begin to make a little more sense. Being born is something that happens to us, not something we can decide or do on our own. In the same way, belonging to God and having faith is not a decision we make or an action we perform—it is something that happens to us, just like being born. In order for Nicodemus to understand this, he had to come before Jesus as someone who had just been born, someone with no preconceived notions about God and God’s work, someone who has no agenda or ideology to fit Jesus into.
Perhaps we need to do the same. We all have lots of preconceived notions about God and God’s work—both things that we have learned from Sunday school and the bible, and things that we have learned from our culture. We have ideas about what certain bible stories mean and who Jesus was, about heaven and hell, and about how the world will be judged. I don’t mean to say that we need to throw all that out the window every time we hear God’s word, but sometimes we need to set it aside and realize that we can sometimes be mistaken.
Even this morning, as we were reading, when we heard that famous verse, all of us have a number of thoughts, memories, ideas and images that pop into our heads, things that help us interpret that sentence and give it meaning, but which sometimes also keep us from hearing the full truth of it. We need all those images and ideas to help this word of Jesus’ make sense, but we also need to remember that it is Jesus himself that gives us the truth, not our own constructed meanings.
Jesus talks about God coming to rescue a condemned world. He says nothing about God condemning it, or about heaven or hell; in fact he emphasizes in the next verse that the Son does not condemn, but save. He says that the way people can escape the power of death is through faith. “Faith” here can also be interpreted as “trust;” perhaps that is a more helpful word.
Think of it this way: the world exists in darkness, because it has not yet received the light of God’s Word made flesh. It’s like a condemned building—it’s not unsafe and dangerous because God has made it that so by way of punishment or anything else; rather, neglect and ignorance have taken their toll. We have forgotten who God is, replaced God with our own idols—our ideas of God and what God wants of us.
Because this world is dangerous—condemned—God has sent the Christ to come rescue us from it; but will we listen? In order for us to follow, we have to trust that he is who he claims to be, that he is indeed doing this for our safety and security. If a stranger raced into your home in the middle of the night and tried to pull you out, would you resist? What if this stranger were wearing the uniform of a firefighter?
Too often, we interpret this verse as double-predestination: God has condemned all of us to hell, but those who profess a certain set of beliefs will be saved. What if that is not what this verse is saying at all? What if our certainty about Jesus’ words is actually getting between us and his message?
Nicodemus fades out of the conversation here, and we are not sure if he has been convinced or not. He came first out of the darkness, but he also came seeking the light. Pay attention as we continue our journey through John’s gospel, because Nicodemus will appear two more times; then we will see what effect Jesus’ words have on him.
As for us, like Nicodemus, we, too, need to have our cages rattled from time to time; we, too, need to remember that we do not have all the answers, but that Jesus does. In the end, that’s what it means to “believe” in him: to trust that though we do not know exactly how God works or what God is thinking, Jesus shows us everything we need to know. We trust that though we have never seen God, God the Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has seen God, and makes God known to us. We may not always understand it, but Jesus seems to be exceedingly patient, willing to meet us in the middle of the night and explain it to us one more time.
Greetings, Dear Readers!
I apologize for the delay in posting these past two weeks. On the 5th of January, we canceled worship at Shepherd of the Hills on account of bad weather, so the sermon I had written was never delivered. Then last week, my wife and I went to Decorah, IA to a benefit concert at Luther College for the 4th anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Stephanie lost a seminary classmate, Ben Larson, in that earthquake, and so it was a time for us to catch up with some of her other seminary friends, including Ben’s wife and cousin as well as others.
It was also a time for us to be reminded that though the tv cameras and 24-hour news channels have moved on from Haiti, there is a lot of work left to do there to recover from that terrible disaster, and lots of lives that are still affected by it. We heard stories from people working down there still, rebuilding, ministering to the community, and trying to offer hope and opportunity to a country that, in addition to being crushed by an earthquake, has lived in crushing poverty for centuries.
So, I have no sermon to post for this week, but for those who are following along with our Narrative Lectionary, here is a link to the psalm and story we heard in worship this weekend: Psalm 104:1-4, 14-16; John 2:1-11. Blessings on your week, and I’ll try to be more prompt in getting this weekend’s sermon up for you to read.