Tag Archives: testing

“The Gospel in a Nutshell” – Sermon on John 3:1-17

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“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I was growing up, I never understood why some of my friends would try to do things they were not supposed to do or do things they didn’t want others to find out about in the middle of broad daylight… where the likelihood of getting caught was quite high.

When you want to eat that extra cookie Grandma said you can’t have, you wait until she is watching her evening show before you tiptoe through the dark kitchen and sneak into the pantry.

Or when you try to avoid the teasing of your older sister, you snatch up the cordless phone, slip into the dark hall closest, and talk softly to your new boyfriend so your sister doesn’t figure you out.

Most of us know that it is in the dark where we will least likely get caught or found out by others.

And I think this is why Nicodemus chooses to go to Jesus at night just before today’s Gospel passage in John. It is in this darkness where nobody would be able to see where he is going and find out what he is up to.

You see, not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who knew the Mosaic law backwards and forwards and strictly followed it. But he was also a member of the Sanhedrin court, an elite group of Jewish leaders who taught and enforced the Mosaic laws. He was an expert and a rule-enforcing judge, and when someone broke any of these stringent rules or threatened the religious legal system, Nicodemus was one of the few who would get to determine the rule-breaker’s punishment. (Which – as we know in Jesus’ case – could be quite merciless.)

And, of course, by the third chapter of John, we see that Jesus had already become quite the rule-breaker and was gaining influence among the people. He had been performing miracles and was developing many followers. He had started to challenge the ways of the system, angrily turning over the tables in the Temple and driving out the money-changers who were taking advantage of the poor.

People began to talk. And some were even saying he was the Son of God, the King of Israel, or the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world.

This Rabbi named Jesus was unorthodox, and he was beginning to pose quite a threat to the religious system.

And so as word about Jesus spreads to the Pharisees and some of the members of the Sanhedrin court, they begin to talk, as well. But as they voice their concerns to one another in broad daylight, they likely don’t speak too kindly of Jesus.

And yet, for some reason, Nicodemus decides to go to this Rabbi, himself. To see him with his own eyes and to hear this rabbi’s words with his own ears. Nicodemus is curious. Maybe even hopeful. And so he sneaks off to see Jesus through the darkness of the night.

And when he reaches Jesus, Nicodemus says to him: “We know you are a teacher who comes from God because those great miracles and signs you have performed could not occur without the presence of God.”

However, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is unclear: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born anew.”

This concept is foreign to Nicodemus, and he doesn’t understand. So Jesus further explains: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”

Now Nicodemus is really confused. Not only is Jesus saying that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above, but one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.

*****

It makes sense that Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He was born a Jew, was a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who had devoted his life to studying the Torah, and a member of the elite Sanhedrin court, who strictly enforced the Mosaic law. If anyone were to see and enter the kingdom of God, it would be Nicodemus. He had all the credentials and was more religiously qualified than anyone else. How could Jesus tell him that his heritage, obedience to the law, and positions of leadership counted for nothing?

And not only that, but was Jesus saying that this kingdom of God might be accessible to anyone who was born anew, to anyone who was born of the Spirit? To those who were not even ancestors of Abraham? Or those who did not even observe the Mosaic law? This was completely unheard of.

*****

Jesus continues to explain these things to Nicodemus. But this time Jesus makes reference to a story that – as a dedicated Jew – Nicodemus would have known quite well. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

To give you a little background of this story: the Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for a while and were getting impatient. And as their impatience increases, they loose site of where they came from – oppression and captivity in Egypt. And they loose site of how they got into the wilderness and away from Egypt in the first place: God – by way of Moses. And as they wander in the wilderness with their eyes closed to what God has and was doing for them, they begin to complain about their food and their living conditions to Moses and they complain against God.

So God punishes the Israelites for rebelling against God. And how does God punish them? By sending them poisonous serpents, which would have immediately reminded them of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the evil in the world. Many of the Israelites are bitten. And some of them even die.

And as more and more of them are infected by the venom of the serpents, their eyes are opened and they begin to see and gain a bit of perspective. They repent and cry out to Moses and God. They are ready go back to living in covenant relationship with God.

And so God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and lift it up before the people. And if they were bitten, they were instructed to look at the bronze snake, and they would be healed.

Now this story is very bothersome for me. Honestly, I don’t like that God punishes God’s people by infecting them with poisonous snakes. This doesn’t seem like good news to me at all.

But for Jews in the ancient world, this story was very good news. It was a story that represented God’s mercy, love, and grace. It was such an important story for the people of God in the ancient world, that the bronze serpent was placed in the Temple for hundreds of years so that whenever they looked at it, they would remember this event that took place in the wilderness. They would acknowledge and call out the evil systems in the world, they would recall their own sin – their own snakiness and rebellion against God, and they would remember that God extended grace and salvation to God’s people despite of it all.

*****

And Nicodemus would have immediately known this when Jesus referenced it.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

God’s saving acts in the wilderness. God’s mercy and grace for God’s people. The Son of Man is offering this kind of mercy, salvation, and grace. Now Nicodemus is finally starting to see…

But Jesus continues. And this is when he goes on to say the most well-known verse of the New Testament, the verse that Martin Luther describes as the “Gospel in a nutshell.”

“For God so loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, the eternal life Jesus is speaking about is not necessarily what we often think of when we see this verse on bumper stickers or hear it quoted by street preachers. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-like” or having “the quality describing a particular age” or period of time.

According to Strong’s Greek Concordance: this eternal life “operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. [It] does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession.”

To put it in other words, eternal life is an age of being in the presence of God. Eternal life is an age and a state of being in which we experience and understand the love and grace of God that is realized in and through God incarnate, God in the flesh.

And for the author of John, eternal life is not just about some kind of life after death that we can only reach in a different time and a different realm. God is not in a place that is distant and separate from us. Rather, God is always with us in our current place and time. Thus, eternal life is a new life we are born into from above, when we are born anew. A life that we may experience in the future, but one that begins in the here and now, as we believe in, put our trust in, and follow Jesus Christ in his radical and inclusive way of love.

Eternal life is a new life we enter into as we are born of the waters and Spirit… a baptismal life that is full of grace. A transformational life that is experienced when we open our eyes, look to the cross, and bring to light our own snakiness. A life that is experienced when we recognize and begin to let go of our fleshly and worldly desires to put ourselves first, to strive to be on top, and to dominate over others… And when we start to repent of our own participation in and benefits from today’s oppressive systems.

This eternal life is experienced when we remember what God has and is doing for us. That God offers us salvation from the evil in the world and calls us to take part in freeing ourselves and all our neighbors from it. That God saves us from the sins we have been in bondage to and from all of our past snakiness that haunts us – no matter how snaky it may have been.

This eternal life is one in which we can experience because of God’s great love for us, not because of anything that we have done.

*****

The eyes of the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus are finally beginning to open. He is starting to come into the light. The kingdom of God Jesus is telling him about involves grace, justice, and abundant love, which is extended not just to those in the inner-religious circle. For God does not only love the descendants of Abraham and those who are good rule-followers and meticulously obey the Mosaic law. Rather, God loves the cosmos.

God loves the whole world.

And God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son – not so that God would condemn the world, but rather so that God would save it.

Save the whole world from captivity and oppression. Save the whole world from the bondage that evil and sin has on it.

And those who believe in Jesus, put their trust in him, and follow him in dismantling the evil systems of this world and sharing God’s inclusive love to the world will begin to experience this eternal life Jesus speaks of.

Now this – I think – is good news. It seemed to be good news – for the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus, who later defends Jesus at a meeting with the Sanhedrin court and who – after Jesus’ death – takes his body from the cross, lovingly wraps it with spices in linen cloths, and lays it in the tomb.

And I think this is good news for us, as well.

For God so loved the whole world. For God so loved Nicodemus.  For God so loves me.  For so God loves you… in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in, trusts, and follows him, should not perish, but may have eternal life.

Yes, this truly is the Gospel – the good news – in a nutshell.

 

 

“Work In Progress” – Lent 1A Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 (#fast4families)

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Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
  and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’ 
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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A few weeks ago, two of my youth group adult leaders and I took 10 ECT youth (our joint youth ministry among Immanuel, Ebenezer, and Unity Evangelical Lutheran churches in Edgewater) to Lutherdale Bible camp in Wisconsin for a winter retreat with the Chicago synod.  There, we met up with 150 other youth and youth pastors for games, fellowship, worship, and discussions about the sacraments.

At this retreat, we encountered Jesus in a new light: we encountered Jesus when we gathered with 150 other Chicago area youth for worship and felt we were beloved for who we truly are… We encountered Jesus when we met new friends and strengthened our relationships with old ones…  We encountered Jesus when we gathered with our ECT group during free-time and sang and danced to popular hip hop songs… and when we crowded onto a long bobsled, held onto each other as tight as we could, and flew down the steep hill toward the ice-covered lake, screaming and praying the whole way down.  (At least, that’s what I was doing.)  And we encountered Jesus when we ended the weekend in tears, as we communed together around the Lord’s Table, we hugged, and we said to one another “I love you like a chicken” and we really meant it.

And though exhausted, our group left Lutherdale Bible Camp last month on fire…

On fire for God.  On fire for church.  On fire for fellowship with one another.

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Like the disciples who encountered the transfiguration of Jesus on their retreat to the top of the mountain in our Gospel text last week – where they saw Jesus shine as bright as the sun – we, too, had a special mountain top experience on our retreat.

… But then, as we all know how the saying goes:  What goes up must also come down.

And so we, too, eventually had to come back down from the mountain top… to the realities of every-day life…

To school work.  Basketball practice.  ACT prep.  To the struggles of balancing a job and homework and the anxieties we had about having to face bullies when we went back to school.  To what seems to be the never-ending busyness of our every day routines.

And many of us may be already longing to escape and get away from all of this… to get away from work and practice, to get out of town, to go meet up again with our Chicago synod friends at Lutherdale.

To go back up to the comforts we experienced at the top of the mountain.

I’m sure many others of us here can relate to this.  I’m sure many of us can relate to having a mountaintop experience in our lives and then having to come back down the mountain to the reality of our daily stress and routines that often keep us running so fast that we can’t catch our breath.

And yet here we are at the beginning of Lent… at the bottom of the mountain, being extended another great invitation to retreat.  Now, this is not the same type of retreat our ECT youth experienced at Lutherdale or the same type of retreat many of us have gone on with Immanuel as a congregation or when we have attended a powerful faith conference or event.   

It’s not a retreat back up to the mountaintop. 

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This Lenten invitation is to enter the wilderness… not just for a day or a weekend… but to dwell and wander in it.  It is a retreat from the busyness of life, to empty ourselves so that we can be filled by the grace of God, and to think about what it means to be marked by the sign of the cross in ashes on our forehead – to think about what it means to be human and to belong to God (and not anyone or anything else.)  And this invitation is to thoroughly examine our own lives – which will not, in fact, last forever on this earth (sorry to disappoint) – and to reevaluate how our lives have and can have meaning in this world…

Because our world needs each and every one of us. 

Now this might seem more like a burden and an interruption rather than a great invitation to many of us when we think about others who have gone through the wilderness before us… When think about the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 long years and Jesus, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 long days and 40 long nights.  And we may even be a little troubled to think that we are being invited into this wilderness, this same place where Jesus experienced a great testing by the accuser after he had already fasted for those 40 days, was famished, and was likely at his weakest.

Now, I am not going to downplay this wilderness period.  There will be times when we feel tested.  There will be times when we feel like we’ve already wandered through the wilderness for long enough and we are too parched, exhausted, and famished to have to take on one more thing.  And in these times, at our weakest state, we may – like Jesus – still run into the most difficult temptations and times of testing.

And so in our weakness, we may wish to take the easy way out – to give into the dangerous temptations and quickly snatch up control, domination, and worldly power that our accuser taunts us with.

But this is why we are invited to go into the wilderness in the first place: to examine our lives, and to empty and prepare ourselves so that we might know how to respond to the testing of our accuser.  So that in our weakest moments, we might know how to look deep within ourselves and be reminded of who and who’s we are. 

You see, though we may – and most likely will – experience testing in the wilderness – in this Lenten season – the wilderness is ultimately a place and time of preparation.

We tend to forget this because when we begin Lent by looking at Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we often focus on the temptations and his withstanding of them.  And yet, meanwhile, we also forget that there were 40 long days and 40 long nights that Jesus spent fasting, praying, and preparing before this encounter with the accuser even occurred.

And because we loose sight of this, we also tend to focus so much on how we, ourselves, lack the ability to resist our own temptations, that we turn Lent into a time of legalism and of beating ourselves up: through self-shaming, self-doubting, and self-hating.

And yet, I don’t think this is what the wilderness is really about.  It is not about loathing over our inadequacies and our shortcomings and attempting to meet perfection.

Rather, it is about transformation.  It is about recognizing that we are indeed human beings.  And like all other human beings, we have our faults and we make mistakes… And yet, as humans, we are ultimately made in the image of God… and are constantly a work of God in progress. 

On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we heard the prophet Joel call out to us to join him in a fast: “Return to the LORD, your God… with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

This is why we need to wander in the wilderness.  This is why we need Lent…

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Just as Jesus wandered in the wilderness 2000 years ago between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry to prepare for what was to come, Lent is also our time to return to God over and over and over again as we wander in the wilderness in preparation for the journey to the cross and to the life-giving resurrection that comes after it.

As Jim Wallis in his article, “How Fasting and Prayer can Change Us – and Our Country,” puts it:

“Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to.  As Christ suffers with us in our sin and spiritual poverty, we are slowly taught how to suffer with others and mourn with those who mourn. Lent is a time for that. That’s why Lenten disciplines often contain fasting and decisions of self-denial.”

Though our Gospel text does not give us any details about Jesus’ experiences in the wilderness for those 40 days and nights before his encounter with the accuser, there is a video on youtube that provides an artist’s beautiful portrayal of what he may have encountered.  The video is a slideshow of 40 drawings of Jesus, one for each day he was in the wilderness.  (If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you check it out.)  

Rev. Jennifer Mills Knutson describes the video on her blog.  Her explanation goes like this:

“’For my thirtieth birthday,’ it begins, ‘I gave myself some time away from it all.’  Saying “no” to companionship, to food, to work, to the comforts of home, Jesus in the wilderness discovers the joy of playing with pigeons, frolicking with foxes, gazing at the moon, and watching a flower grow. Jesus embraces weakness, as his skin grows ragged and his body thinner, so that he comes to know the strength of God. He experiences fear and anguish over his own life and death as the vultures circle. He confronts his pride in the presence of the Tempter, which in this depiction appears as simply a stronger version of Jesus himself, urging him to say yes to strength and power again. The Tempter urges him to rely on his own powers, judgment, control, certainty–instead of placing his life in the hands of God. When he refuses his own strength, he knows the presence of angels, who minister to him, who lift him up and carry him back home again. ‘And now,’ he says at the end, ‘I’m back.'”

Last week during ECT youth group, we talked about the meaning of Lent and all of us decided that we would respond to our invitation to follow Jesus and enter this wilderness.  That night, each of our youth and leaders made a commitment to take on the ancient practice of fasting or “giving something up.”   Whether chocolate or coffee, Facebook or tv, we chose to take on this practice of fasting – not as a means to prove our willpower or to cut a few calories in our diets – but rather as a means to cut out something in our lives that we depend on or that consumes us and takes us away from experiencing the grace of God in our spiritual lives, in others, and in ourselves.

And each of us also decided to take on the practice of “taking something on” in our lives (in that newly created space) to help us return to God and to focus on the important things in life that we too often miss in our busy schedules: whether it be a prayer or other spiritual practice, a new family activity or ritual, a form of community outreach or service, or a physical activity that will improve one’s health.

And the invitation to enter the wilderness is extended to each one of us, as well.

Whether we choose to take on one of these practices, or join Jim Wallis and many others around the country in fasting on Wednesdays for families and Immigration reform and citizenship, or whether we choose to take on another practice, let us respond to the prophet Joel’s call to join the fast and be intentional this Lenten season about opening our ears to hear and our eyes to see the ways God is present in our lives and around us.

And let us return again and again and again to our God with all our hearts.

I’d like to leave you with a benediction –  a charge – from d365.org, a daily online devotional:

There before you lies all the world,  Given as a gift.  Go into the world as a work in progress,
 Someone who is not yet who you will be,
  But someone who is on the way.  The world will be better and blessed,  Because you are in it,
 Growing, becoming, gleaming with the light reflected from above.

Amen.

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Additional Ideas for Lenten Practices:

Ash Wednesday Reflections and Lent Activities for Families (musingsfromabricolage)

40 Ideas for Lent (rachelheldevans)

House for All Sinners and Saints’ 40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent (nadiabolzweber)