Friday, January 26, 2018

John 3:1-21 – Nicodemus Revisited...

I call this “Nick Revisited” simply because parts of this passage are sooooo well known. In fact, they are so well known, we and our congregants may not really hear the words unless we slam on the brakes and intone them in a new way. Some of these words may be so familiar that we don’t even notice what they’re really saying, what they mean for us. So, let’s dive into this passage and see what we can learn as we visit again with Nicodemus and Jesus, and hear the words John has recorded.

v.1-14 – Born Again
There is a lot here in this passage, so in the interest of time, I’m just going to focus on the theme of the conversation—you must be born again. We rarely find this curious metaphor elsewhere in Scripture (see I Peter 1:3,23). Even so, many of our Baptist friends use this phrase almost exclusively today when talking about the conversion experience. “Have you been born again?” Some of our Pentecostal brethren take this talk of being born again to refer to baptism...and the talk of ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ (v.5) to mean a baptism of water and a baptism of Spirit. However, Jesus clarifies immediately and removes all questions—“born of the flesh” and “born of the Spirit.” Jesus is talking about our first, natural, out-of-the-womb birth and a Spiritual birth.

This talk of rebirth is wonderful! We often pine for a ‘do-over’ in our lives. We often think about that moment, that day we’d like to live over because we said or did something we wish we could undo. Well, the rebirth is about as close to that as we’re going to get! God offers us the opportunity to start life over, to experience a re-birth...and that is good news. In my own experience, I’m convinced that rebirth, in a sense, can happen over and over and over. My congregation hears me say often, “Our God is a God of second chances.” (This works well in our Latino culture where many have come from Mexico. There, if someone fails a test or even the final exam, the expectation is that there will be ‘una segunda oportunidad’—a second opportunity, a second chance. So, “Nuestro Dios es un Dios de segunda oportunidades.” )

There’s enough ‘Good News’ right there—we could stop this sermon here!

v. 15, 16 – Believe
Believe. This comes from the Greek word pisteu.  Whenever I come to this word anywhere in Scripture, I take time to remind our people that this is not ‘belief’ as we understand it in our Western culture. For us, to believe is to offer intellectual assent to something, to recognize its truth or reality. I believe there is a mountain in the Himalayas called ‘Everest.’ Belief—pisteu—for the Greek-speaking, New Testament world was much more than mere intellectual assent. Belief for the writers and early readers of the NT was an assent that led to action. Belief in something impacted their behavior. Ask your congregation how many of them believe avoiding meat and eating veggies is good for them, for their health. Most will raise their hands. Ask how many have acted on that belief, and the showing may be a bit different. Biblical belief—by definition—leads to action. To ‘believe in Him’ results in a change of behavior.

Now, why is that? Well, that same word pisteu actually translates in at least three ways in our New Testament. Every time we see the words belief, trust and faith, we are seeing pisteu or some variant. To believe is to trust, to have faith in. That’s a bit more than simply recognizing the truth of something! So, if we believe in Jesus, besides acknowledging his reality, we are trusting in him—in what he says, does and call us to; we are placing our faith and confidence in who he is and what he says.

I’m reminded of the tight-rope walker, Blondin, who crossed the river above Niagara Falls. Legend has it that after crossing once, he asked, “Who believes I can cross with a person on my back?” A lot of hands went up. “Who will volunteer?” No one stepped forward. This is NOT belief in the Biblical sense! (Later, he did cross with his manager on his back.) How many times do people say, “Yes, I believe in Jesus!” but really never step forward, never change their lives or allow Jesus to change their lives?

v.18-21 – Our Actions Reveal Us
After affirming that God’s intentions clearly are salvation rather than judgment, John wraps things up talking about how we live—doing evil or practicing the truth. What we truly believe is revealed in what we do or don’t do. That’s fairly simple. We can talk social justice, but if we do nothing, it’s just talk. We can talk faith-sharing and evangelism, but if we do nothing, it’s just talk. We can talk church and mission and faith and trust, but if we don’t go, don’t give, don’t’ll say much more about our true beliefs than the words coming out of our mouths.

But wait! There’s good news: You can be born again! Today is a good day for a second chance, no?

(Go HERE to read my intro to this series.)

Friday, January 19, 2018

John 2:13-25 – Crack the Whip!

Okay. It’s happening already...after just five weeks. John is starting to grow on me. However, things have been rather ‘narrative’ so far, and that’s what I love. Soon, things are going to move to ‘discourse,’...and we’ll see how things go then. For now, let’s see what we can find here in John 2....

V.13 – Passover.
This provides us an opportunity to summarize the narrative we began with back in September. What is the Passover? When did this happen? Why did this happen? “In the beginning...” and then Adam and Eve sinned...and God called Abraham, whose grandson took the people to Egypt...and God called Moses...and part of making good on the Promise included God bringing His people back to the ‘promised land.’ So, whenever we have a chance to remind folks of the story, to repeat important parts of the narrative, we should do so. “Repetition is the mother of all learning.”

V.14-17 – Jesus clears the Temple.
I’ve read through this passage this week in several translations (NIV, NVI, NASB, Message), and I’ve not found anywhere that says or even indicates that Jesus was angry. Even so, I’ve noticed several postings this week in the Narrative Lectionary Facebook group I’m a part referring to or about God or Jesus being or getting “angry.” Nowhere in this passage can I find where it says that Jesus is enraged about what is happening in the Temple. I often worked with parishioners in north Georgia on their cattle farm when I lived and served there. The cows had to be rounded up, and some went off in the wrong direction. One of the fellows redirected the cows with a cattle-prod. He wasn’t angry. He was simply correcting the direction of the animals. Could it be that Jesus wasn’t angry, furious, going nuts on these folks? There was certainly zeal...but John doesn’t really say what that looked like. If we focus on Jesus’ “righteous anger,” we may be forcing something that is not in this text.

We will see below that Jesus is very clear as to his own purpose and identity, so he is probably very clear as to the purpose of the temple...and the buying and selling of merchandise is NOT part of that purpose. Commerce in itself may not be bad, but there is no place in the Temple. So, Jesus makes a whip (scourge) to clear things out. I love this image. He doesn’t fly off the handle; he takes time to make a whip to get the animals out of the temple, to show folks that he means business (even if he’s not terribly angry. 😊 )

V.18-22 – The Jewish leaders demand a sign.
(It always bothers me when John writes, ‘the Jews demanded...’ as if all the Jewish people were doing this. “Over-generalization” simply wasn’t caught by John’s editor....) The sign to which they refer is a sign of authority. Basically, the question is, “By whose authority are you doing this?” Jesus finds the authority within we will see below. And the sign he offers? “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it up” (v.19, NASB).

In this passage, the transition begins of understanding the temple as flesh and blood rather than stone. God no longer (if ever) lives in stone constructs. Now, the temple is finally and forever flesh and indicated by Paul in I Corinthians 6:19-20 and by Peter in I Peter 2:4-5. We’ve been trying to extract God from stone ever since...and we’re still working on it. Just ask your folks about “the church” and they’ll likely give you a physical address. They talk about going “to church.” It’s a place. Jesus begins what Paul and Peter expand on...the church is the body of Christ.

V. 23-25 – Jesus knows people.
He knows us—how we are, how we think. There’s a sense here that Jesus doesn’t really trust the people around him to know who he is. That “he did not need any testimony” indicates that Jesus DOES knows who he is. He understands who he is and doesn’t need anyone else to confirm or affirm what he is about. In fact, contextually, we have to think about who this Jesus is in terms of how John introduces him at the beginning of this Gospel—“the Word” who was “with God”... “was God.” This Jesus has a very clear self-understanding in John.

I believe that this whole passage has to be understood in light of this final bit—Jesus does what he does, says what he says, out of a crystal clear understanding of who he is and what he is here to do. The question is, are we crystal clear as to who Jesus is? Do we have a clear understanding of who he is and what he was/is about? Our clarity on this point helps the rest of theology fall into place.

So, what do we do?
What do we do with this passage? How do we bring it home? What does it have to say to us, to our congregations? Jesus is cleaning house...his own house. It’s Passover—he remembers part of where things started, the price paid. He sees the Temple...the disorder, the distraction, the mix of holy and profane. He decides he needs to act, so he sits...sits...and makes a whip. And, then he cleans house.

Every Sunday can be a “Passover” for us—a time to remember part of what it’s all about. When we walk in, hopefully we see the baptismal font and remember our baptism and our calling. When we see the Bible on the altar, we remember that we have a standard for living. When we see the candles, we remember that God’s Spirit has been poured out upon us to empower, guide, teach, correct. And we should take a look inside our own temples, our own body, and see what has crept in, what is clogging the passage-ways. What commerce or other activity is threatening to become more important than the worship of God, the interchange of prayer? And we must sit and make a scourge, a whip—not of leather and wood and scraps of metal but of prayer and determination and contrition...under-girded by the power and presence of God’s Spirit. And we must clean house. Clean house so that God reigns in this temple—our individual bodies and our congregational body.

Is it time to crack the whip in your life, your congregation’s life?

(Go HERE to read my intro to this series.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

John 2:1-11 – Water to Wine: A Wedding Story

I come to this story, vignette, feeling that it is all too familiar. What new do I see here? What connections can I find? How do I tell this story anew? What does this—water to wine—have anything to do with our lives today?

“On the third day....” Third day of the week? Third day after the Jesus-Andrew-Peter events of 1:35-42? I’m not convinced that understanding the ‘third day’ makes or breaks our preaching of this passage. Best thing is, Jesus & Co. were there!

Wedding. In a previous post, I wrote about the power of words, that words convey ideas...and ideas usually take the form of images in our minds. We need to take the time to talk about 1st Century weddings. This was not a nice, clean, virgin white and black tux affair. The ‘betrothal’ –the real wedding agreement—took place months earlier between the families. Dowries were paid, agreements reached...then, she stayed home and he stayed with his family. Now, it’s time for the consummation and celebration of the familial agreement. These weddings usually lasted 5 – 7 days! So, this is a big, long, feasting, celebrating, loud, drinking, eating event. To run out of wine—that’s bad news. It’s like having a Super Bowl party at your house and running out of snacks and drinks before half-time. That would be embarrassing. This situation in John 2 could be the social disaster of the year that is talked about for decades! “Yeah, remember when Benjamin’s family ran out of wine on the third day of his son’s wedding?! Ha,ha.... Wow... How could they let that happen?” Might have been social suicide. So, Jesus steps in. Wine appears. And all is well.

What part does Mary play in this wedding? Is she the caterer? Is she related to the family? She seems to have a voice of authority in this setting, but John the Evangelist doesn’t think we need to know her part. Okay....

Jesus turns the water to wine. I serve in a tradition that has as many conservatives as liberals. Some folks are going to question whether Jesus turned this water in “wine” or simply ‘grape juice.’ Some will not want this to be real wine. (I hear a real whine.) So, I’m going to state what I believe and what archaeology & church history indicate: Jesus turned the water into wine. This is not the issue of the story or the miracle. He could have turned it into Coca-cola or iced-tea. But, if I were at the wedding, I’d be happy that it was wine.

So what? What’s the big idea or big ideas here??
1) Jesus is not just about the ‘spiritual’ issues of our lives. He is concerned about the common, the ordinary...things like whether we have enough wine for our guests. He is about redeeming ALL of our life...not just the interior, prayer, soul-related stuff that we may be too tempted to focus on. This makes me think of those folks who get it, who have enough faith to pray for their car when it doesn’t start, to pray over electronic devices that don’t work, to pray for food for the rest of the week, to pray that their child can have shoes for school. They’re not ‘crazies;’ they simply get what we may not have gotten—Jesus is concerned about the ordinary, common things of life.

2) How are we doing as a church, as Christians, when it comes to turning water into wine? How are we doing about taking the ordinary and—by God’s grace and power and gifts—turning it into something that has body, color, texture, depth...that brings joy and levity...that takes the edge off of life? Are we content with ‘water’...and forcing everyone else to be content with water? Or, are we stepping in where we can and bring about joy-making, face-saving, reputation-reviving, respect-giving, honor-bestowing changes in the lives of others?

Jesus had just promised his disciples that they would “see greater things” (1:50). I guess Jesus is taking us along in baby-steps. Let’s turn some water into wine....

Happy Preaching!

(Go HERE to read my intro to this series.)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Facing the Future

What is the most beautiful building you’ve ever seen? What is the most majestic construction project you’ve ever come across in your life? What is biggest skyscraper you’ve looked up at…or looked down from?
I am not one to be much about architecture—I notice big, I can see beautiful, but few things stick in my mind. One place I saw a few years ago has, however, stayed in my mind—the Hindu Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.

I’m sure it was a combination of the completely other-worldly look and its location in the suburbs of an all-American city. It is quite a spectacle.
Now, imagine I take a walk on the grounds of the temple. I see some Hindu pilgrims who have come to worship. We greet each other. They stop and ask me, “The Temple, it is amazing, yes?! You like it?” What would they think, say or do if I responded, “Hmmmm. In time, it’s going to fall down—in time, this will just be a pile of rubble…..”
We’ve had this tendency from the beginning to love what we create…just as God loves what He creates. But then we start trusting in and relying on what we create. We persist in hanging on to the physical rather than pursuing the spiritual, preferring the temporal over the eternal, trusting in the human over the Divine. Jesus reminds us that we have things upside-down and backwards…and calls on us to focus on faith over physical.

Mark 13  1As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As the disciples see the Temple, they are rightly impressed. Historians tell us it was constructed of huge blocks of white stone…some weighing up to 100 tons! The historian Josephus tells us that, from a distance, these gleaming white stones made it look like there was snow-capped hill in Jerusalem. Some parts of the Temple were covered with gold panels…panels that blindingly reflected the sun if one stood in the right place. It was an impressive building, and the disciples were obviously taken with its beauty.
Jesus sees things differently—It’s gonna come down.
Now, how would the disciples hear that? How would any Jew hear that? The temple, after all, was that place where heaven and earth intersected. The Temple was that place where the Divine and the human touched. The Temple was THE symbol of “God in our midst” or “God with us.” Effectively, Jesus says, “God no longer with us!”
The fact is, everything we make falls apart. Everything. If humans build it, it crumbles—even holy places. Perhaps that’s why Jesus prepares his disciples and prepares us for that truth through what he shared with the Samaritan woman. Do you remember that encounter?
Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Samaria. The disciples go off to get food and provisions, and Jesus has a ‘chance’ encounter with a woman at a well. In that discussion, the question comes up about where to worship:
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
In the Kingdom, in God’s divine economy, things are ‘in the Spirit’.
Our religious faith, Jesus reminds us, is not about buildings, places and things.
Two thousand years after Jesus says the words we’ve just heard, people are still clamoring to “rebuild the Temple!” Jews, Muslims and Christians are fighting for control of the old “Temple Mount”…the Jews and well-intentioned Christians with a desire to rebuild a Temple that Jesus says is no longer needed.
We have a tendency to focus on buildings as well. How often do we talk about “the Church” yet we refer to the building? I remind you again that “The Church” is the people of God, the gathered People of God. Do you remember the song we sing from time to time? “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together….” For the first 350 years of the Church, there were NO church buildings. None—Christianity was illegal. Now, for the convenience of gathering, we build buildings. The Church gathers in the building. We eventually call the building the Church. The people all leave, the “church” sits on the hill-top.
Wrong. This building, all buildings…are just buildings. WE are the church.
In recent news stories, we’ve seen ignorant, violent, racist people burning the church buildings of Black congregations. Have those churches ceased to exist? Was the burning of the building the end of the congregation? NO. The same is true of other sister congregations that have been destroyed by storm, tornado or flood. They find somewhere else to meet, somewhere else to gather…and they continue being the people of God, the Church.
How often we wrap up our lives in things, homes, cars, buildings, possessions…all of which will be brought down, not one stone left on another.
For the disciples, thinking of the beloved, historical, beautiful Temple—where they had gathered, where they had ended pilgrimages, where they taken and fulfilled vows, where they had offered sacrifice—this was a hard thing to hear. How would we hear Jesus say to us today of our own gathering place—Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down?

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Do you want to know the future?
How would you like to know what will happen tomorrow…next week…next year?!
We are fascinated with the future. What? Not you?
Do you watch the weather FORECAST each evening?
Do you look at economic predictions?
Do you follow the trends of interest rates…fashion?
Do you sit and daydream about next summer? Next planting season? Next party? Next meal?
Yeah, we’re all about knowing the future…and people always have been.
We humans are a curious sort. We want to know the answers to things. What? When? Where? Who? Why? How? These are some of our favorite words. We asked them all the time as children…and now we think them, even if we don’t ask them.
So, the disciples come with questions—When is this grand destruction going to happen to the Temple? How will we know that it’s going to happen? Give us a clue, give us something. Tell us the future!
I remember as a child begging God for a sign that He was real. Sitting in my room, I would pray, "God, if you are real, I don't need a major miracle—just make the book fall off my desk...just leave a mark on the piece of paper here...just, just, just....." No, the book never fell, no marks appeared. I had to move forward in faith rather than base my life on visible certainties.
So, it is no wonder these men want signs, signals. They want to be ready. Like the patriots in Boston, they wanted a "one if by land; two if by sea" sort of signal, so they could be ready.

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
When I started working on my sermon on Tuesday, I could not know how unfortunately appropriate this Scripture would be today. With the world still reeling from the attacks in Paris, we hear these words today with even greater interest.
In our own life-time, works like The Late, Great Planet Earth, the Left Behind series and movie, and other movies and books aplenty have tried to illustrate, grasp and understand ‘last days’ issues. Entire denominations have grown up around ‘end times’ issues. We are enthralled at times with the notion of the end.
While Jesus parts the curtain a bit here in Mark 13 and shows us something of the apocalyptic, end-times world, we would do well to remember that only 2% of all Jesus’ teachings focus on end-times and last days. By far, the greater bulk of His teaching focuses on the here and now, how to live day to day.  Thinking about the future is interesting for some, and for others it’s also easier focusing on the future so they don’t have to think about today.
So we take a peek behind that curtain today, Jesus’ own focus here calls us to look…but then we’re going to move on. In fact, that, too, is part of the message of his teaching.
One of the most important things to remember in reading this is that Jesus only ever spoke like this to his disciples. That is, He never spoke of these things or of things like this to the masses. He never took aside a leper seeking healing and warned him of coming wars. He never added an aside in His discussions with the Pharisees that earthquakes were coming. He never whispered to the woman caught in adultery that
the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
In other words, Jesus never tried to scare people into the Kingdom. Since He only told His disciples about these things, then, makes us realize that none of this was shared with the purpose of scaring people! So why did He tell his disciples about these things?
As our son was preparing all last year to leave for college, we talked about college, college life, and our own experiences in college. We talked about the long study sessions in the library. We talked about all the different kinds of professors we had—the good, the bad, and the completely weird. We talked about cafeteria food…dorm life…and social life. We talked about lean financial times, and about those kids whose parents gave them everything, about the kids who had nothing. We talked about books, books, books…and exams and the importance of self-discipline. We talked about the peer pressure…and the crazy things college kids do.
Some of the things we talked about, no doubt, were kind of scary. But, was our purpose to scare Andrew? Was our intention to leave Andrew with lingering doubts and lasting fears and concern? NO! Our purpose was simply to prepare him, to give him a heads-up on what he was walking into. We wanted him to have a sense of what his future life would be like so he would not be blind-sided, so he wouldn’t be walking into the world with ‘rose-colored glasses.’
Jesus is doing the same thing for his disciples. “If you follow me, if you are a part of God’s Kingdom, tough times are coming. The Temple is coming down. Your way of seeing the world and your way of living the faith is going to change. Suffering is on the horizon…but, the suffering will be like birth pangs—something that you will endure in order to give birth to the Kingdom in your lives.” In this whole chapter, while he talks about wars and disasters and persecution, the real message is repeated over and over and over in the ‘commands’ we find scattered throughout :
Be careful
Do not be troubled
Take care of yourselves
Do not worry
Hang in there
Don’t believe just anything—even if it’s said in my name;
Watch, listen and learn
Watch and pray.

In short, TRUST...keep living the life of faith.
In spite of the uncertainty and upheaval, TRUST.
Even though the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, TRUST.
Wars? Droughts? Natural disasters? TRUST.
Betrayals? Broken promises? Beatings? TRUST.

So, what do we take away today?
Changes are coming our way.
Our families change as children grow, and move, and marry.
Our lives change as we move from school to work, from job to job, from work to retirement.
Our congregation is changing. More and more people are finding our congregation, and we are more and more welcoming of those who come to be a part of who we are. ‘New people’ means change.
We as individuals are growing in our lives of faith—we grow closer to God, we read the Bible more, we pray more, we fellowship more. All good, WONDERFUL steps…and they lead to change.
And, as the Scriptures indicate today, as we align ourselves with God’s plans and God’s will, we can expect push-back from the world and from those whose minds are set on things of this world…on the physical, the temporal, the human.
We cannot see the future. Even so, I am thoroughly convinced that we have an exciting future ahead us as Rio First. I am completely certain that God has good things for you and for me and for US. Yet, I cannot see the future. Going forward requires faith, trust.  Now…now is the time—with changes and a certain yet unknown future that God unfolds before us—now is the time to hold on to the promise we find in Scripture, in Proverbs 3: Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths. 
We can face the future with confidence—falling stones and all—if we but heed Jesus’ call to ‘hang in there,’ ‘watch’, ‘don’t worry,’ ‘pray’…if we embrace Jesus’ call to trust.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

John 1:34-51 ~ New Names and Dreams

On we go through this Gospel of John. It seems that we’ll never get out of this first chapter...but this Sunday will be our last time in chapter one. Finally...we’ll move on!

Many who preach this passage—and I’ve even preached it in the past—focus on how people come to Jesus, come to know Jesus. This is good stuff, without a doubt. Andrew goes and gets his brother, Simon (Peter), and brings him to Jesus. Phillip goes and gets his brother, Nathaniel, and brings him to Jesus. People today come to know Jesus because others whose lives have been impacted by Jesus bring their family and friends to Jesus. When you find something good, you tell others other about it!

However, in my reading, meditation and prayer this week, some other things come to the forefront for me. First, when Jesus meets Simon, he gives him a new name—Peter. Now, Simon is not such a bad name—in the Hebrew, it means something like ‘hearer’ or ‘listener.’ So, Simon was good at listening, perhaps. But, Jesus wanted to give this man a new name, a new identity. This is not unheard of: Abram was renamed Abraham; Jacob became Israel. Now, Simon the Listener has become Peter the Rock. In fact, God wants to give us all a new name.  In Rev. 2:17, we see an indication that God wants to give us new names. Of course, for Jewish culture, a name was more than what someone was called; it reflected, shaped or indicated their character. Jesus was changing Peter’s character! Not just a listener anymore; now Simon would become a rock, a foundation, a brick in this new ‘temple’ Jesus was building that would become the Church. And, Jesus comes to bring us new character. We who may have been ‘lazy’ are now called ‘active;’ the ‘loser’ becomes ‘valued;’ who thought themselves ‘just here’ becomes ‘precious’ or ‘beloved.’ It may be that our character is not ‘bad.’ But, we may not be who God wants us to be. One who was ‘talkative’ may need to become ‘Simon;’ and the one who has been a ‘Simon’ may be renamed ‘teacher’ or ‘preacher.’ Jesus comes into our lives and changes our character.

Second, we find that Jesus knows us and accepts us. We may think that we need to be a certain way in order to come to Jesus, to step into the family of God. But, not so. Nathaniel was seen and known before he ever came to Jesus. He even questions Jesus’ origins—“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” He comes as a skeptic. Yet, he is already seen and known. While my primary text for study and preaching is the NIV (no need to comment—I’ve heard all the arguments, but I get one Bible to preach from, and it needs to be bilingual...and I’ve yet to find an NRSV/NVI combination....), I have decided to keep The Message at hand as I preach through the Gospel this year. I like the way Peterson renders this passage:

45-46 Philip went and found Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the One Moses wrote of in the Law, the One preached by the prophets. It’s Jesus, Joseph’s son, the one from Nazareth!” Nathanael said, “Nazareth? You’ve got to be kidding.”
But Philip said, “Come, see for yourself.”
47 When Jesus saw him coming he said, “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.”
48 Nathanael said, “Where did you get that idea? You don’t know me.”
Jesus answered, “One day, long before Philip called you here, I saw you under the fig tree.”
That last verse—“...long before Philip called you here....” Peterson sees something in the grammatical construct in the Greek that indicates that Jesus sees Nate some time before this day, before the events of this day. And, I get the idea that Jesus sees us all from afar...yet knows us in the same way. We don’t have any surprises for Jesus. Nothing shocks Jesus. And, when we come to Jesus, Jesus just accepts us as we are...and gives us a new name to live into.

One more thought. Verse 51 was a verse I almost axed from the reading (yep, I can do that if I want to!) But, after meditating on that verse, I realized that it’s about dreams...and I’m all about dreams and hopes and plans and expectation (sort of comes with the Christian territory....). Here, Jesus references Jacob’s dream in Gen. 28. Jesus indicates that if these disciples follow him, if we follow him, we’re going to see some amazing stuff...and we’ll see dreams come true, dreams become reality. Now, let’s be clear—not just any dreams; rather, God-given dreams will become reality. But, this happens only if we follow Jesus, if we’re walking with Jesus.

So, in my readings this week, this passage indicates that Jesus gives us a new name; he comes into our lives to change our character. Jesus doesn’t demand or expect that we’re anything more than interested in order to come to him—he knows us long before we come to him. And, if we will but come to him...walk with him...we will see amazing things, dreams will become reality. What better way to be walking into 2018, into this new semester of studies, into this new year, into an new job?

These are my gleanings. What are yours?

John 1:15-34 ~ Deflection

What is new here? What message do we find here that speaks to us today?

This passage seems to divide in two parts easily enough since there are two days (or more) indicated—v.15-28 and v.29-34. So, that’s the way I’ll preach it.

Verses 15-28: The people of Israel have been waiting for someone to come and save them since the times of Isaiah. That’s about 700 years of waiting (based on traditional dating). They have really been waiting since Abraham was called and the promise given that ‘all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Gen.12:3)...and that was some 2000 years before this time of John. Isaiah has promised “a child is born...a son is given....” (9:6). Jeremiah has proclaimed words of promise and purpose (Jer. 29). Ezekiel has preached about a resurrection of the people of God (Ezek. 37). [These are references to sermons from the previous series on the prophets.] Over and over and over, I imagine, the people have heard these words of hope and expectation...and many others. So, it’s only normal that the folks come asking John, “Are you the one?” John spends the main part of this passage denying and deflecting—“I am”  John tells us—and his questioners—who he is not.

Verses 29-34: Everything changes here. We move into the ‘next day’...and focus is all on Jesus. And, what strange or odd proclamations to make. Why not say, “There is the Messiah!” or “That’s the Prophet you’re looking for.” Instead, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Well, this odd...except. Except when we go back to the beginning, to that call of Abraham, we remember why Abraham was called in the first place. God creates the world...sin enters and messes everything up...and God decides to redeem the Creation through this heretofore unknown Mesopotamian fellow named ‘Abram’ (later, ‘Abraham.’) Abraham is called and sent precisely because of ‘sin.’ Through him all the world is to be blessed. Through him, an antidote for sin will come. “Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” (“Lamb,” of course, a reference to the sacrificial practice of the people of God....)

And, the final declaration of John, “...God’s Chosen One,” rendered in some translations as “the Son of God.” Chosen, Son, Messiah (Annointed)....the one set apart and designated for a particular, important part in the grand story of faith.

In the end, one of the main questions these passages place before us seems to be, “Who is Jesus for us?” Is Jesus one of the great teachers of the ancient world...ranked up there with Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu, etc.? Is Jesus one prophet among many? Jesus the one who addresses the problem of sin in our lives?? He Jesus the one who can begin to repair, correct, heal and redeem our broken lives, relationships, egos, and floundering lives? As we go into the New Year, will we walk with Jesus as we strive to do things differently or better? Who Jesus is to us and for us can greatly impact our New Year. I think I’ll follow Jesus into this new year and allow his life and light to illuminate my way. May he illuminate our way as a congregation.... Who is Jesus for you?

Friday, January 5, 2018

John 1:1-14 ~ A New Beginning...

Christmas Eve rolls around, and this year (2017) it falls on a Sunday. So, I have two messages to bring for this Christmas Eve—one in our regular Sunday morning worship service and another at our annual Christmas Eve ‘Carols and Readings’ Candlelight service. The morning service calls for this passage from John.

I have often preached this passage around Christmas Eve...many times at that evening service, so I come to the passage with a little reluctance—is there anything new for me to preach? I can preach a well-known, well-used passage, but it’s always better if I find something new or discover a fresh approach. So, I come to John 1:1-14 hoping to find a nugget not seen before. Of course, something new is not always what’s needed. I have long argued that what we really need to do in a sermon, in a preaching moment, is respond to the world around us, provide answers to the questions people are asking (see this article). So, even if what I find is not new or fresh or clever, may it be something that speaks to the needs, fears or hopes of the people.

I’m wrapping up a sermons series ~ The Songs of the Prophets ~ that began on Nov.19. We have followed the prophets of the Old Testament...all the time preparing for the One who was to be born. John, I argue, is the last least the last “Old Testament” prophet. And, as any good prophet, John comes to reveal the mind of God, to call the people of God back to faithful living, and possibly to foretell some coming event. Yet, his task is bit more focused—John comes to proclaim the arrival of the Promised One...Isaiah’s “child” (Isa.9), Jeremiah’s “hope” (Jer.29), Ezekiel’s resurrection (Ezek. 37). In this Word, we find the fulfillment of 700 years of prophecy.

What do we find in this passage?

v.1-5  – "In the beginning...." This echoes the opening words of Genesis, the beginning words of Creation. John wants us to know that God is doing something new, creative in Jesus. And, this Jesus is no ordinary person—he is the pre-existent one, he was there at Creation, he is the Creator...he is life so needed in our dying world, and he is light so craved in the darkness of this broken world.

Word. Besides being a pastor, I’m also an English teacher. I focus on teaching writing, and writing is all about words. One of the first topics I tackle with my students is, ‘What is a word?’ It’s a joyful time as the students—who use words all the time—wrestle with actually articulating what a word is. Some say a group of letters (dfslexa!?), some say a sound (pron. ‘rumflrtzy’). We all have some good laughs until I finally bring them to it or until someone in the class begins to catch on—a word is an aural or visual symbol of an idea. From there, we go on to discover that ideas function in our minds in the forms of images (when you hear or read ‘pizza’ – do you hear a sound or see letters in your mind? No—we ‘see’ a pizza pie...round, steaming, pepperoni...). Words are important. The best words allow us to visualize most clearly. So, to say that Jesus is the ‘Word’ is to say that Jesus is the visual/aural representation of God...the idea of God made real, experiential for us. I really like the way that Spanish translators of Scripture have rendered this passage. In English, we say, “In the beginning was the Word....” In Spanish, this passage goes, “En el principio ya existía el Verbo….” They use the word “Verbo”…and, yes, we actually translate that as “verb” (the Spanish for ‘word’ is ‘palabra.’) So, the translators elect to use that active word...not just any ‘word.’ I like that!

v.6-8 – John clarifies that he is NOT the One...he’s just someone announcing the One.

v.9-13 – The light coming into the world “gives light to everyone.” Even though he is co-Creator, the creation and the creatures fail to recognize him. But, for those who do recognize him and put their trust in him, they are welcomed into the family of God, made “children of God.”

v.14 – This is the message of Christmas right here. The co-Creator, the Word, the Idea of God, God...became one of us. How do we wrap our minds around that?

Imagine a watchmaker...a person who painstakingly pieces together a time-piece, getting all the ratchets, swivels, weights, springs, pins and jewels in place to form a watch. Then, that person magically becomes a watch. They want to experience what it is like to be what they’ve created—no more arms, legs, eyes, longer able to move on their own...strapped to someone’s wrist, tied there...bumped into furniture...covered for extended periods with a long sleeve...seemingly forgotten, taken for granted...then changed out with another watch, thrown in a drawer until the owner decides to pull this watch out again for some occasion.

Or, think of the carpenter who makes the fine pews or benches we sit on. He planes the wood, sands it...cuts and fits together the pieces with glue, screws, finishing nails...stain is carefully applied...and varnish over that. Finally, the pew is ready. The carpenter magically becomes one of his pews. Placed in a sanctuary, he sees people two or three hours a week; the rest of the time he sits in silence. He cannot move, cannot turn. Kids play under, over and around him before the service starts. Sometimes no one sits on him; sometimes Mr. Gordo and the whole Gordo family sit on him...and it strains his joints. Finally, someone stands before the congregation and decides it’s time to replace the pews with chairs...and he’s stacked in the basement until someone can figure out what to do with him and the others.

God—the Creator of all things—becomes a creature within the Creation. All is given up—unlimited freedom, incomprehensible power, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience...all given up. Suddenly, God experiences something new for the first time. Before this moment, God had never known what it was like to be a human. God does something completely new in the person of Jesus...and history is changed forever. Now, we know that God—who often seems far, distant, different, other—this God knows what it is like to wrestle with very human decisions, to deal with family and friends...and enemies, to experience hunger, exhaustion, and stress. Suddenly, we have a God who truly loves us and who truly knows us and our lives. In the coming of Jesus in the manger on that first Christmas, everything changed—everything. And, this is good news for us....

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Gospel of John ~ A Journey of Discovery

An Introduction ~

John is not my favorite Gospel. In order, I probably favor most to least in this order: Luke, Matthew, Mark and John. Yes, John comes in dead-last. I know, I know...that may seem kind of weird. Some of our very best known, even best-loved, verses and vignettes come from John’s pen—John 3:16, water-to-wine, the encounter with the Samaritan woman, all of the “I am” declarations and so much more. But, I also find in John those very “hard sayings” of Jesus that leave me feeling a bit... ‘meh,’ like the ‘eating his flesh’ stuff (John 6) and the seemingly unending discourses (John 12-17). I don’t know; maybe I’m a sucker for a good narrative, and John simply lacks the more ‘narrative,’ story-telling aspect that Matthew, Mark and Luke are kind enough to follow and use. John doesn’t even have a good birth or baptism story! What??

In any case, I’ll be preaching through the Gospel of John until the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018. Allow me to mention one of the benefits of a “lectionary” at this point. John is not a Gospel I have often preached or preached from. But, because I follow the Narrative Lectionary (others in my tradition follow the Revised Common Lectionary), I am now confronted with preaching something I am neither excited about preaching nor comfortable preaching. But that is GOOD! I need to be ripped out of my comfort zone; I need to be confronted with the challenge of preaching something that does not come easy for me. A lectionary often forces us preachers to deal with something we would rather postpone or avoid. Because it's the 'Gospel of the year,' I will wrestle with John; I will endeavor to ‘suck the marrow’ out of the bones of this book.

To be honest, there is actually a bit of excitement about preaching this Gospel for me. Recently, I read J. Philip Newell’s Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press) in which he indicates again and again that John is the Gospel for those of the Celtic (or seeking a Celtic) worldview. Newell argues that John is most in tune with the God who speaks through nature, the God who is for everyone...and I’m excited to see if I can find traces of the ideas he posits. This gives me a bit more interest in my studies and sermon preparation.

However, let me be clear here as to the purpose of these pieces on John: I will not be posting sermons; I want to share what I find, what I discover in my studies...those things that are new or surprising to me. My hope is that what I write here will be of help to others 1) who love the Gospel of John and 2) who want to love the Gospel of John. Alas, I fall into the second of these two groups, yet I truly hope that when April 8 arrives I have a completely new understanding, appreciation and, yes, even love for the Gospel of John.