Apr. Newsletter Piece



Believe it or not, Holy Week is just around the corner. The deacons in both OZ congregations are busy ordering palms for Palm Sunday and starting to put together the necessary order forms for our Easter gardens. The readers for our Good Friday Tenebrae service are all lined up, and I’m hoping to enlist the help of some of our youth for the Maundy Thursday service.


But why is it that we have such a busy week in the church year to begin with? Is it really necessary to go to church on Palm Sunday … and then again on Maundy Thursday … and then again on Good Friday … and then again on Easter Sunday?? Can’t we just go either Thursday or Friday and call it good? I mean, that’s a lot of church, right?


True. It is a lot of church. But the Maundy Thursday service and the Good Friday service each bring to life a very different point in Jesus’ final days. Each service represents a different step along our journeys of faith, and each service speaks a different message to our hearts.


So let’s talk about those different messages and meanings a little bit.


Maundy Thursday

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. ~ Matthew 26:26-30


We hear these words each month when we gather at the table to celebrate communion. But on Maundy Thursday, we hear them in a new way. We gather at a time when we don’t normally gather – a special time, a sacred time. That night, the disciples were gathering with Jesus for a special, sacred time, too. Scripture tells us they were gathering to celebrate the Passover together. They were gathering to remember the night that God had spared the lives of their sons in Egypt. They were gathering to combine their voices in holy prayers that had been passed down through the generations. They were gathering together not because they had to but because they could – because they wanted to be together … because they loved each other, and they loved Jesus.

And so we gather with one another on Maundy Thursday. We gather to share in that intimate, blessed meal that Jesus first shared with his closest companions and dearest friends. We gather to serve and be served, to bless and be blessed, to love and be loved by the One who created us, redeemed us, and continues to sustain us. This is a night to remember that even though Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice is right around the corner, it was a sacrifice born out of love.


Good Friday

Then Jesus took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what he said. ~ Luke 18:31-34


In one single day – one brief 24-hour period – we move from the devotedness and love of the Last Supper to Jesus’ betrayal and arrest and humiliation and pain and finally, Jesus’ death. The soft candlelight that bathed us in the Upper Room steadily dwindles until we are enveloped in darkness. We feel Jesus’ anxiety and distress as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. We watch as the disciples abandon the Son of God one by one. We feel the sting of Peter’s threefold denial, the sting of the crown of thorns as the guards force it on Jesus’ head, and the sting of the whip. We hear first Herod’s goading, then the crazed shouts of the angry crowd – “Crucify him!” – then finally Pilate’s pronouncement: death. We walk with Jesus to the cross. We sit with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the beloved disciples and watch with tears in our eyes as the centurions drive in the nails, mocking and taunting Jesus even to his final breath.


The mood of the Good Friday Tenebrae Service (“Tenebrae” meaning shadow or darkness) is far different than the mood of the Maundy Thursday service, but it is just as crucial to our lives of faith. We cannot go through our own lives pretending that only the good and comfortable and happy parts exist. Likewise, we cannot experience the miracle and elation of the resurrection on Easter Sunday without first acknowledging and coming to grips with the torment and sacrifice of Good Friday.


Sunday’s Sermon: Water, Water Everywhere

  • I have what’s probably going to be a startling news flash for you this morning: there are still snow piles all over the place!
    • Thinking back to December
      • Excited about snowfall – romantic idea of white Christmas!
      • Thought snowfall was beautiful – sit curled up on the couch in a blanket with a warm cup of coffee/cocoa/tea and stare nostalgically out the window *sigh*
      • Certainly know a few snowmobilers who were pretty happy to see all that white stuff coming down from the sky, too
    • Okay … but now it’s March. In fact, it’s almost April! Is anyone else getting a little tired of this not-so-pretty-anymore white stuff? Is anyone else ready to watch it melt into oblivion, never to be seen again … not until next winter, anyway?
      • Warmer weather we’ve had recently has done a pretty good number on many of the snow piles → went from mounts of sparkling white to dingy piles of “snirt” (snow+dirt)
        • Don’t get me wrong … I’m thrilled that the snow is finally starting to disappear! It’s just that the more it melts, the more it reveals all the yuck underneath.
          • Build-up of sand from snowplows all winter
          • All the debris that’s been hiding all winter (trash, etc.)
          • Melting is also starting to create quite the mess …
            • Potholes
            • Giant puddles
            • MUD
      • Bottom line: all this melting snow is creating all kinds of uncomfortable challenges But I have to remind myself that, especially after the extremely dry summer/fall that we had, the ground is going to be in serious need of the refreshment and renewal that all this melting snow is going to bring.
  • It seems that the water in both of our Scripture stories this morning also reveals some uncomfortable challenges.
    • Israelites at Massah and Meribah → actually lack of water that becomes revealing
      • Reveals petulance and short-temperedness of Israelites – text: Give us water to drink.[1]
        • Obviously not polite request – both Moses and narrator call it “quarreling” and Moses’ response: Why do you test the Lord?[2]
      • Reveals tenuous nature of their faith – text: Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?[3] → a lot packed into this question
        • Suspicion/accusation
        • Anger
        • Fear
        • Doubt
      • Worst part = uncomfortable challenge is immortalized for all time – text: [Moses] called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
        • Heb. “Massah” = despair, test, proving
        • Heb. “Meribah” = strife, contention
        • Do we encounter times like this in our lives – times when we feel more like the uncertain and wary Israelites than the confident and devoted Moses? Sure. We have doubts. We have questions. Sometimes we come to God tentatively. Sometimes we come to God reluctantly. Sometimes we come to God upset. And that’s okay! Because God is big enough to take it. But at least when that happens to us, there aren’t places that are named after our struggles. Our challenging moments aren’t immortalized like that!
    • But the people of Israel aren’t the only ones for whom the water becomes uncomfortably revealing. For the woman at the well, what starts off as a seemingly-trivial discussion about water ends up revealing more than she probably ever expected when she left home that morning.
      • Jesus starts with what sounds like a simple request – text: Give me a drink.[4] → request is actually far from simple – fraught with all sorts of inappropriateness and backstory
        • Apparent in way she reacts to Jesus – text: The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, as a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”[5]
        • Apparent in narrator’s added comment – text: Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.[6]
        • Scholar pinpoints issue: The Samaritan woman responds to Jesus’ request with amazement because it violates two societal conventions. First, a Jewish man did not initiate a conversation with a woman. … Second, Jews did not invite contact with Samaritans.[7]
          • Text also covers cause of historic animosity between Jews and Samaritans mentioned by scholar: The woman said to him, “… Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”[8] → basically a difference in theological geography
            • Samaritans – center of worship is Mt. Gerizim
            • Jews – center of worship is temple in Jerusalem
      • But this isn’t the only uncomfortable revelation that the woman at the well experiences. – woman’s initial reaction to Jesus himself
        • Jesus first tells her about living water – woman’s response: Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?[9] → Can’t you just hear a little attitude in her voice? A hint of sassiness? Maybe a little scoffing? Here’s this Jewish guy sitting at her well, and not only is he being inappropriately forward, he also seems to think he’s greater than one of the greatest ancestors of their faith. I mean, who does this guy think he is?!
          • Her disbelief is evident in Gr. – question begins with small but important word: mey = indicates she expects a negative response → She expects Jesus to backpedal, to say, “No, no, no … of course I’m not greater than Jacob!”
          • Later revelation – text: The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming. … When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”[10] → Oops. Looks like this crazy Jewish guy hanging out at the well might just be greater than Jacob. But this Samaritan woman certainly isn’t the only person to have ever missed a glimpse of God in the midst of her everyday life, is she? How often have we only seen God in the looking-back?
            • Hindsight = 20/20, right?
      • And final, most uncomfortable revelation – text: Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right … for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”[11] → Yikes. You have to wonder if this response made her do a double take. “Wait, wait, wait … we were talking about water, about a simple drink of water! How did we make this uncomfortable, improbable, intimate leap into my personal life?”
        • No part of ourselves or our lives is hidden from God à can be an uncomfortable thought
  • But here’s the thing about all those uncomfortable revelations. They also reveal just how renewing and rejuvenating the living water can be.
    • Even in face of Israelites’ unbelief in Ex passage, God provides what they need – text: The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” And Moses did so.[12]
      • Water renews Israelites’ bodies
      • Water also renews their faith
    • Woman at the well’s uncomfortable experience leads to 2 important revelations
      • First is personal revelation, reveal Jesus’ identity – text: The woman said to him, “I know the Messiah is coming … When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”[13] → There is exceptional significance in Jesus’ words here. Jesus is admitting to being more than just the Messiah. Jesus is revealing that he is indeed God incarnate.
        • Gr. “I am” = ego eimi, crucial phrase – Heb. equivalent is “Yahweh” à This is “the One who exists … who was and is and is to come.” The roots of this word tie into life and being and existence. This is the divine name that God tells to Moses from the flames of the burning bush, the name so sacred that it is not pronounced or even fully written out in Hebrew today.
      • And the woman at the well is so inspired and astounded by this that she runs to share her experience with everyone in her town, bringing the revelation to them in turn. → see the fruits of that testimony – text: Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. … And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believed, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”[14] → find ultimate renewal in this revelation
        • Renewal of spirit
        • Renewal of heart
        • Renewal of faith
        • All because of a simple little drink of water. And in the life of the church, our spirits, our hearts, and our faith are also renewed by a few simple little splashes of water.
          • [POUR 1/3 WATER] In the name of the Father
          • [POUR 1/3 WATER] In the name of the Son
          • [POUR 1/3 WATER] In the name of the Holy Spirit
          • The waters of baptism welcome us into the family of faith. These waters reveal us as children of God – precious creatures claimed by the One who created us in God’s own image. And when we remember and reaffirm our baptism, we are renewing our faith, but we’re also renewing our covenant with God to live as God’s people.
            • People of faith in the face of skepticism
            • People of strength in the face of weakness
            • People of love in the face of hate
            • Scholar wraps up joy and grace of revelation as well as our responsibility to share it like the woman at the well: Jesus is thirsty at the well, and we are the ones with the bucket. … Can a little thing like a cup of cool water, offered in love, be the beginning of a salvation journey? Yes; and we will never know until we meet the stranger, and tend to the human need first.[15] Amen.

[1] Ex 17:2.

[2] Ibid (emphasis added).

[3] Ex 17:3.

[4] Jn 4:7.

[5] Jn 4:9a.

[6] Jn 4:9b.

[7] Gail R. O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 565-566.

[8] Jn 4:20.

[9] Jn 4:11-12.

[10] Jn 4:25-26.

[11] Jn 4:16-18.

[12] Ex 17:5-6.

[13] Jn 4:25-26.

[14] Jn 4:39, 41-42.

[15] Anna Carter Florence. “Third Sunday in Lent – John 4:5-42: Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 95.

Sunday’s Sermon: These Footings Go Deep

  • Story of purchasing our first house
    • Without Peter
      • His first walk-through
      • The back room → As near as we can figure, the first half of the back room was originally a porch that was simply walled-in, and the second half of the back room was originally some sort of lean-to that was also walled-in, probably to incorporate the entrance to the basement into the rest of the house. But whoever did the work of walling these areas in didn’t do it right. They took the easy way out, quickly slapping up some siding, maybe reinforcing the walls a little (maybe!), and calling it good.
        • Frustratingly apathetic approach to home “improvement”
        • Dangerous – nothing secure this whole part of the house to the ground!
        • Peter had to work really hard to fix this. He dug and poured 5 or 6 new footings, grounding the entire back room deep in the earth and providing that part of the house with a stability and permanence that it didn’t have before. He gave that part of the house the strong base that it needed.
  • Unfortunately, we live in a world that revels in instability and impermanence.
    • Society → worship celebrities – the more erratic they act, the more we reward them with our undivided attention
    • Reality TV → more often than not celebrates things like lies, betrayal, scheming, and doing whatever you can to be the last one standing
    • Gap between the wealthy and the poor is growing every day, plaguing the lives and living situations of hundreds of thousands of Americans with economic instability
    • Family time seems to be all but a thing of the past, everything else in our schedules is more important, more permanent than our families
    • In the midst of all this chaos, it’s no wonder everything seems to take priority over faith. But this is the easy way out. Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it’s easier to doubt God and take matters into our own hands than it is to step out in faith.
      • God is used to having people take the easy way out à Massah and Meribah
        • Going to read this passage next week
        • Mentioned in Ps 95
        • Basic story: Israelites wandering in the wilderness → complained and quarreled with Moses about water → Moses cried out to God and was instructed to strike a rock → water poured out
          • He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”[1] → The Israelites turned their backs on God in doubt.
      • How often do we turn our back to God in doubt? How often do we try to force God to act in the way we want instead of trusting in God’s goodness and God’s plan? How often do we squelch the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst?
  • Good news: God does always – has always – will always desire us … and because of that desire, even when we’ve turned away, God still draws us in. → beginning of Eph text: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.[2]
    • Lots of things draw us away from God – make us “far off”
      • Busy schedules
      • Inattentiveness
      • Pride
      • Addiction
    • But God knows that we need the stability and permanence that we can only find in God. And by the grace afforded to us through Christ Jesus, God draws us near.
  • What a blessing this is to us because in the midst of the chaos of our society and our lives, God is our strongest base and support. God is our firm foundation.
    • Proclaimed at the beginning of our psalm for today: O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation![3] → names God as our foundation
      • Eph says that we have been “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”[4]
      • Reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock. … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.[5]
  • God is the unshakable foundation of our lives, and this is certainly a comfort for us as individuals in dark and desolate times. But there are still going to be times when we have trouble remembering this blessing – times when we’re too tired, too distressed, too weak, too beat-down. So God blessed us with a community – a family gathered together in God’s name. God is our strongest base and support as individuals and as a community.
    • Ps is all about “us” worshipping God – plural, not just me worshipping God all by my lonesome
    • But just because we are in community doesn’t mean that everything within the community is going to be perfect or easy all the time.
      • Scholar: It is revealing that in Psalm 95 it is not the forces of chaos that resist God’s claim, nor is it the wicked or the nations. Rather, God’s own people resist God’s claim.[6] → Sometimes, as a community, we turn our backs to God in doubt. We want to take matters into our own hands, resisting God’s plan and squelching the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
      • Along those lines, Eph acknowledges our need for reconciliation: For [Jesus Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he … has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.[7]
        • Reconciliation between one another
        • Reconciliation between us and God
  • So what does a community that emulates this reconciliation and relationship look like? With God as our foundation, what are the building blocks of a healthy faith community? How do we make sure that our work as the body of Christ is grounded deep in God?
    • Eph: So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near[8]
      • Gr. “proclaimed” = GOOD NEWS! → message of the gospel
      • Building Block = sharing and living that gospel message with one another
        • Message of love and acceptance
        • Message of repentance and forgiveness
    • Ps: O come, let us bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the sheep of his hand.[9]
      • Building Block = commonality
        • We worship the same God.
        • We are all saved by the same Jesus Christ.
        • We are all instruments of the same Holy Spirit.
        • And we’ve all chosen to be here!
          • Scholar: God does not coerce obedience. God warns that the consequences of disobedience are severe, but God refuses to be an enforcer. It leaves God in the vulnerable position of having to implore the people to obey, but such is the price of integrity and love.[10] → Every one of you has responded to that integrity and love by coming here this morning to this common, sacred ground.
    • A final building block of healthy community: appreciation of differences
      • Most obvious in Paul’s writings
        • “A body is made up of many parts, and each of them has its own use.”[11]
      • Also hidden in Ps 95 → “come” in vv. 1, 2 & 6 – Heb. are all different words
        • Connotations of walking, reaching, meeting, confronting, arriving, coming home, and being fulfilled
        • We all come to God differently. We come walking. We come running. We come skipping and dancing. We come dragging our feet. We come with different needs, different baggage, different hurts and fears, different delights and strengths. And it’s exactly these differences that make us the body of Christ!
          • Remember Paul: “A body is made up of many parts, and each of them has its own use.”[12]
          • These differences are what provide the most striking building blocks because they come from God.
            • Eph: In Christ, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into dwelling place for God.[13]
            • Look around you. Look at the walls. Look at the [stained glass] windows. Look at the grain of wood in the pews [and the ceiling]. Look at the carpet. [Look at the chandelier. Look at the organ.] Look at the communion table.
              • Different colors
              • Different textures
              • These things add depth and character to our worship space.
              • Now look at the people around you.
                • Different gifts
                • Different talents
                • Different spiritual needs
                • These all add depth and character to our worshipping community.
                • Line from the movie “Saved”: Why would God make us all so different if he wanted us to be the same?[14]
  • When I was probably about 10 years old, we went to the Mall of America for the first time, and I remember setting foot in Lego Land. I’d never seen anything like it!
    • Giant creatures and crazy contraptions made out of millions and billions of those tiny, colored plastic bricks → remember the dinosaurs most vividly
      • Builders tried to make the “skin” look varied and mottled à used all sorts of different blocks all right up next to each other
        • Different colors
        • Different sizes
        • Different shapes
        • No block looked like the one next to it, but they all made a structure that was beautiful and strong and inspiring. This is what God has done and is doing here!
  • God is our strongest base and support. Like the new footings Peter put in our old house, God provides us with stability and permanence both as individuals and as a community. God created us each to be different and unique. Instead of letting these differences cause chaos – instead of letting them be an excuse for taking the easy way out – we should embrace them, nurture them, and let them grow us into the community that God wants us to be. Amen.


[1] Ex 17:7.

[2] Eph 2:13.

[3] Ps 95:1.

[4] Eph 2:20.

[5] Matt 7:24, 26.

[6] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 1062.

[7] Eph 2:14, 16.

[8] Eph 2:17.

[9] Ps 95:6-7a.

[10] McCann, 1063.

[11] Rom 12:4 (CEV).

[12] Rom 12:4 (CEV).

[13] Eph. 2:21-22.

[14] “Saved,” United Artists Production Company, released Sept. 14, 2004.

Sunday’s Sermon: Finding Faith in Footprints

  • Story of Jessi trying to follow Peter through the backyard as he was measuring for the fence
    • Peter: slogging through drifts up to his thighs
    • Jessi: leaping from footprint to footprint in an attempt to make headway → drift was taller than she was!
    • But it’s not just all this snow that encourages us to follow in other people’s footprints.
      • Dancing
        • Heartwarming image of little girl/boy dancing with daddy/mommy → hand-in-hand, child’s feet on the parent’s feet following along
        • More technical side = dance step diagrams → have to follow or you’ll get lost
      • Adventurous – scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
    • There are lots of different reasons that we end up trying to move in other people’s footprints. And the footprints that we encounter in Scripture this morning are simultaneously some of the most important and some of the most difficult footprints we will ever follow: the footprints of Jesus in the wilderness.
  • Context of Scripture – follows on heels of Jesus’ baptism, directly follows God’s declaration “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[1] → And yet instead of getting a moment to take pleasure in this revelation, Jesus is immediately led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit not for a renewing retreat or some nice, contemplative time of communing with God … but to be tempted.
    • And isn’t that always the way it goes? Things are going well – really well – and then all of a sudden, BAM, we find ourselves struggling. We find ourselves in the wilderness.    
      • Not the pretty, calming, BWCA kind of wilderness → harsh, empty, dangerous desert wilderness
      • In our lives …
        • Wilderness of illness (ourselves/loved ones)
        • Wilderness of economic instability (job loss, insufficient wages, debt)
        • Wilderness of conflict (home, work, friends)
        • Wilderness of personal struggle (addiction, depression, mental illness)
  • And as if wandering around in the desert hungry for more than a month wasn’t enough, Jesus is suddenly accosted by the devil and all those temptations.
    • Important to note that temptation doesn’t come minute Jesus enters wilderness – text: He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished.[2] → It is only when Jesus is in this weakened state that the tempter comes.
      • How much more vulnerable to temptation are we when we are weakened? When all our energy has been spent battling, striving, persisting …
        • Weakened physically by illness/pain
        • Weakened emotionally by fear
        • Weakened spiritually by weariness
        • As we struggle through our own wild, desert places, we see Jesus’ footprints. We know that God has fought just as we fight. God has labored just as we labor. God has been there, too.
  • Devil presents Jesus with opportunities
    • Bread for his empty stomach
    • Proof of his identity/God’s protection for him
    • Worldly power
    • Core of these temptations = making life easier for Jesus
      • Ease of a full belly
      • Ease of security
      • Ease of being in control
      • And we could all use a little bit more easy in our lives, right? A shortcut here. A little bit of a break there. And it’s not the easiness itself that’s the problem. But we have to ask ourselves what that easiness is going to cost.
        • Strength of others
        • Dignity of others
        • Peace of others
  • Despite weakened state, Jesus resists each opportunity → lays out pattern for resisting that we can follow: turning to God’s Word
    • All quotes in Gospel text from Deuteronomy, all part of Moses’ sermon/exhortation/instruction for the Israelites (again … wilderness!) after receiving the 10 commandments
      • “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[3]
      • “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”[4]
      • “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”[5]
      • Instead of falling into the trap of the devil’s goading, instead of feeling this need to build himself up and prove himself at any expense, Jesus leans on the Word of God.
    • Doesn’t mean it’s easy to resist – I don’t know about you, but I don’t picture a calm, collected, appeasing Jesus here. [imitate] I picture an exasperated Jesus. I picture a tense Jesus. I picture a man with sweat on his brow and pain in his eyes.
      • Wilderness has taken its toll
      • 40 days and nights of fasting has taken its toll
      • And then in comes the devil with all these temptations, and Jesus has had enough! I picture him speaking these words of Scripture through gritted teeth or shouting them from the pinnacle of the temple at the top of his voice.
      • If it was a struggle for Jesus (Son of God, Prince of Peace, Suffering Servant, Savior of the World) – sometimes more than we can take
        • Our missteps → Sometimes, we’re not able to withstand the temptation. Sometimes we give in. Sometimes we take the bait. Sometimes we just don’t have any fight left in us.
  • The good news is that even when we have faltered, we find footsteps to follow that will lead us back to God. Psalm 32 lays out that path today: confession
    • Acknowledges that we will have missteps – speaks of sin not as an “if” but as a “when”
      • Heb. reveals variety of ways[6]
        • “sin” = most general term, means “to miss the mark”
        • “transgression” = willful rebellion
        • “iniquity”/ “guilt” = enduring, destructive effects of disobedience
    • Makes it clear that confession must be active
      • Heb. in Ps “acknowledge” (sins) = experience, realize, declare → implies a dynamic, active, eye-opening interaction with our own sin – not something we can do halfway, not something we can be detached from
    • Ps also alludes to how difficult confession is – text: While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.[7]
      • Wasting away = unpleasant experience à want to avoid unpleasant experiences → still opted for wasting away over confession for a time → confession must be even more unpleasant experience than wasting away
        • Quote from Christian writer Anne Lamott: Though theologians insist that grace is freely given, the truth is that sometimes you pay for it through the nose.[8]
  • Today is the first Sunday of Lent.
    • Lenten journey = wilderness journey in and of itself
      • Journeying with Jesus through the wilderness
      • Journeying in/through our own spiritual wilderness to find Christ
      • Throughout this journey and certainly throughout the rest of our lives, we will wrestle with our own temptations just as Jesus did. But as we walk this road together, it’s also important that we remember that there is light, there is hope, there is joy on the other side. We have the privilege of knowing the ending of the story – the joy of knowing that Jesus’ life won’t really end up there on that cross.
        • Ps hints at joy at the end of the journey – text (very first phrase): Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.[9]
        • See this in Heb., too – “confess” = also “praise”!
        • Scholar gets at essence: Psalm 32 emphasizes the power of sin, but also the promise of joy. It lays out the journey of the forty days that are ahead. We are called to acknowledge our sins, to confess them to God, to receive God’s forgiveness, and finally to experience the joy and relief that comes from that new life.[10]
    • Jesus’ steps in the face of temptation = bigger → swallow up temptation itself
    • God’s forgiveness = greater than even our biggest missteps → swallows up our sin
      • Just like the way Jessi disappeared into Peter’s footprints in the snow because she’s smaller than they are → how it is with God
        • You see, in Jesus Christ, God took on the fullness of humanity, living and working and loving as we do. Feeling as we do. Struggling as we do. But because Jesus was also God, the imperfections of humanity were made perfect.
        • Our footprints – our missteps – are still there (and always will be) but they’re totally encompassed by God’s own footprints in our lives and hearts: compassion, forgiveness, grace.
  • YouTube video – janitor shoveling crazy path across courtyard
    • Thankfully, we know that the path we follow is not a futile path. It’s not an aimless path. It’s not a hopeless or ineffective path. The path we follow was laid out for us by the footprints of the One who came to save us.
      • May seem wandering sometimes
      • Temptations threaten to pull us out of these footprints – temptations that threaten to turn us away from God and the path that God has laid out for us. And while we may not always choose correctly, we can always return to the Word of God for guidance, reassurance, and strength. Amen.
Link to Janitor’s Revenge video:

[1] Mt 3:17.

[2] Mt 4:2.

[3] Mt 4:4; Deut 8:3.

[4] Mt 4:7; Deut 6:16.

[5] Mt 4:10; Deut 6:13.

[6] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 805.

[7] Ps 32:3.

[8] In Andrea Wigodsky. “First Sunday in Lent – Psalm 32: Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 34.

[9] Ps 32:1.

[10] Wigodsky, 34.

Ash Wednesday Meditation: On Authentic Faith



Much of the world that we live in can be called disingenuous at best. We live in a culture of “reality” TV … programs that, more often than not, are anything but real. We live in a culture of empty calories … foods full of things that don’t do one bit of good for our bodies. We live in a culture that is at times so focused on our online worlds – our worlds of facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets – that when we gather in a room with one another, we spend more time “interacting” with people online than we do with the person sitting right next to us. We spend hours upon hours staring at screens – computer screens, tablet screens, smartphone screens – tapping and tapping and tapping away … and when our heads hit the pillow at night, we wonder why it is that we feel so out of touch, so disconnected, so lonely.

This detachment … this ungenuine way of being … this lack of authenticity is not what God desires for us. This is not the life for which we were created. And yet somehow, this is what fills our hours, our days, our lives. Even as we embark on our Lenten journey this evening, as we turn our faces toward Jerusalem with Jesus and set our feet on a path that we know will only end at the foot of the cross, we strive to be our own authentic selves.

But this authentic self … this is the “self” that God calls us to be. This is the “self” that God wants us to be. This is the “self” that God created us to be. We hear God crying out for our authentic dedication through the words of the prophet Isaiah. God gave Isaiah a powerful command: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”[1] God recognizes that the people have been seeking after a relationship with God, but their seeking is far from authentic. Their fasts are empty fasts. Their words are empty words. Even their praise is empty praise. And so God lays out this insincerity before their eyes and their wondering, wandering hearts: “Look, you serve your own interest on your own fast day … Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.”[2]

Jesus’ own words in Matthew’s gospel are no less convicting: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”[3] Jesus warns against a “showy” piety – a faith that looks perfect on the outside to hide the imperfect lives we all lead. He makes it clear that God does not desire grandiose, public displays of our faith. Extravagant giving for the sake of those who witness the giving … loud and flowery prayers for the ears of the one praying … conspicuous fasting displayed for the world to admire … this is not the genuine way of faith for which we were created.

Instead, God speaks through both Isaiah and Jesus to the power of authentic actions of faith – actions that come from the deepest needs in our hearts and the truest needs of the world around us. Theologian Frederick Beuchner describes it in this way: The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is the place where we find our authentic selves. This is the place where we find our authentic practice of faith. Isaiah calls us to this authentic practice – being God’s hands and feet among those who are struggling, pouring out God’s grace and mercy in a world desperately in need. And Jesus calls us to authenticity in our hearts – to give and pray and fast because we truly desire nothing more than to journey closer to God. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[4]

Tonight, we gather as God’s own children – weary, worn-down, searching, questioning, in need of a Savior. We bring only ourselves because in the end, that is all we have to give to God. We gather to remember our own mortality. We gather to repent – as a community and as individuals – bringing to God all those things about ourselves that we’d rather forget … those things that we’d rather not see … those things that we try to hide. We gather to embark on this journey of Lent together because we realize that we have been blessed to not have to walk this road of life and faith and humanness alone. And we come knowing that even when we are far from perfect, God desires us as we are – real in our need, authentic in our repentance. In this authentic faith, we find blessing. Isaiah said it: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly … Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”[5]

[1] Is 58:1.

[2] Is 58:3b-4.

[3] Mt 6:1.

[4] Mt 16:21.

[5] Is 58:8a, 9.

Sunday’s Sermon: Who Do You Belong To?

  • Not too long ago, I purchased something from Amazon. This time, it wasn’t a book … but it was something that you use for books. It was a book embosser – one of those tools that presses an image into the paper.
    • This one → seal: From the Library of Lisa Joanne Johnson
    • Kind of like a permanent bookplate
    • Now, this is not something that I plan to use on just any old book that crosses my path. This embosser is for the special books – the ones that I think are really important. It’s for books that I know I’ll be keeping forever – books that I can’t imagine living without.
      • Bibles, commentaries, and seminary books
      • Classic kids’ books like Love You Forever
      • Favorites like Harry Potter series, Bridge to Terabithia, and Jane Austen books
    • Tendency to mark things that belong to us starts at a young age – We want everyone to know that this cool, beautiful, interesting thing right here … it’s mine! It belongs to me. But how often do we stop and consider that we ourselves have been claimed and marked in a similar way?
      • Especially significant question as we look toward Lent
        • Ash Wed. – literally marked by sign of the cross
        • Something to ponder throughout Lent – what does it mean to be claimed by God?
      • This is what we encounter in our texts for today – God claiming us as God’s own once and for all. Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we are extended grace strong enough to keep us in God’s presence for eternity.
  • Psalm 121 tells us that God is our keeper.
    • Tells us … and tells us … and tells us à word “keep” shows up 6 times in 8 verses
    • Pretty clear in English but made even clearer in the Heb. – v. 5: “The Lord is your keeper” is “preceded and followed by exactly the same number of syllables.”[1]
      • Quite literally the central point of the psalm
    • And in addition to simply telling us that God is our keeper, the psalm also describes what it means for God to be our keeper. → 2 elements of this
      • Element #1 = protection: The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.[2]
        • We’ve encountered this Hebrew word for “evil” before. This is that word that encompasses just about anything and everything bad you could possibly think of – inferiority, discontent, viciousness, something that is disagreeable or unwholesome or annoying, and so on. When we care about something enough to mark it as our own, we want to keep it from getting ruined, right? According to our psalm today, that’s exactly what God wants to do for us – protect us from harm and keep us from getting ruined.
      • Element #2 of God being our keeper = provision: the Lord is your shade at your right hand. … The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.[3] → Basically, God will provide for you.
        • Scholar: “No place, no time, no circumstance will be able to separate the psalmist from God’s loving care.”[4]
  • Now, these ideas of protection and provision also align with the idea of the shepherd presented in John. Shepherds protect their flocks and provide for them by leading them to lush pastures and clear streams. This takes a pretty in-depth knowledge on the part of the shepherd. – text: I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.[5]
    • Think about this for a minute. We often focus on the beginning of that verse: “I know my own, and my own know me.” Sounds good, right? God knows who you are … and that’s great! But it goes so much deeper than simply cataloguing your name in some giant, cosmic list.
      • Listen to end of the verse – “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Jesus had a relationship with God that was beyond intimate because he was God! His knowledge of God was infinite and profound and utterly complete. And Jesus is saying he knows us in that same way – completely, profoundly, to the depths of our souls. Despite this intimate knowledge … and even because of this intimate knowledge, God desires us. God claims us as God’s very own.
    • Some of you are probably familiar with Pixar’s Toy Story movies.
      • Basic premise: toys come to life when people aren’t around → something bad always happens that puts the toys in danger of being lost forever, but somehow, they always find their way back to their boy – to Andy
        • Andy’s toys often encounter other toys – abandoned by previous owners
          • Tend to be pretty bitter and jaded
          • Try to convince Andy’s toys that Andy doesn’t love them anymore – that he’s abandoned them
          • But Andy’s toys always have proof that he loves them – that he wants to keep them and protect them. You see, Andy’s name is written on them somewhere – the bottom of their shoes, for example. He marked them as his own, and the knowledge of that mark always gave them the strength and encouragement that they needed to them back to Andy.
            • Okay, I know that these are just toys. Toys break and wear out. They get lost. We eventually grow out of them. But think back to the amount of care you gave your favorite toy. Now imagine how much more God cares for us – those whom God created, those whom God has marked as God’s very own.
            • Our mark isn’t on the bottoms of our shoes or anywhere that can be seen – in 2 Cor, Paul speaks of this mark: written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of the human hearts.[6]
  • Psalm 121 tells us how long this mark will last: from this time on and forevermore.[7]
    • Special Heb. word here: olam = forevermore, constancy, eternity
      • How long will God desire us? Forever.
      • How often will God be there for us? Constantly.
      • How much time will we get to spend with God? Eternity.
    • Constancy – emphasized in John → First, Jesus describes the way the hired man deserts the sheep in the face of danger because “he does not own the sheep,” nor does he care for them.[8] In contrast, Jesus presents the good shepherd, the one who cares so much that he chooses to “lay down [his] life for the sheep.”[9] The good shepherd is the one willing to stick around – through the hard times, the scary times, the unsure times. God is the one willing to stay with us through it all.
      • This willingness led to ultimate sacrifice → provides us with grace upon grace
        • Look back at Ps 121Heb. “keep” can also mean “save” → He who saves Israel will not slumber. He who saves Israel will not slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your Savior. The Lord will save you from all evil; he will save your life.
          • This is the essence of the cross! God came to earth in Jesus Christ to lay down God’s own life so that our lives might be spared. A life for a life.
            • Scholar: Thus Jesus’ journey led finally to a cross, but the good news is that God was there, too, keeping his life. And as we follow Jesus on that way, God is our keeper as well.[10]
  • We are extended grace through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. And it is this act that keeps us in God’s company for eternity.
    • Book embosser leaves a mark that can’t be erased or rubbed out → physically changes the appearance of the page
      • According to Paul, we are marked in the same way – Eph: In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.[11]
      • “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” → this is permanent – a mark that cannot be erased or rubbed out
    • God has claimed you. God has marked you as God’s very own, and because God desires you so much, Jesus sacrificed the utmost – life itself – to give you sufficient grace to spend eternity in God’s presence. As we approach this season of Lent – this season of repentance and contemplation and searching and rededication – my question for you is this: Are you ready to proudly declare who it is you belong to? Amen.


[1] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 1181.

[2] Ps 121:7.

[3] Ps 121:5b, 8.

[4] McCann, 1181.

[5] Jn 10:14-15a.

[6] 2 Cor 3:3.

[7] Ps 121:8.

[8] Jn 10:12, 13.

[9] Jn 10:15.

[10] McCann, 1182.

[11] Eph 1:13-14.