Sunday’s sermon: A Hunger So Deep

Text used – John 6:35-59

  • The smell of fresh-baked bread. There’s nothing quite like it, is there?
    • Walking into Grandma’s house as a kid after she’d just baked bread
    • Maybe it’s a hobby you picked up during the pandemic, either out of interest (something you always wanted to try but didn’t feel like you had the time for before) or out of necessity (to avoid going to the store)
    • Doesn’t have to be homemade → get that same mouth-watering, warm, yeasty smell when you pop a batch of premade rolls from HyVee or wherever into your oven
    • Even if you’re someone who’s never once baked any kind of bread in your entire life, you know that if you walk into a Subway at the right time of day, you’ll catch a whiff of that wonderful, fresh-baked-bread aroma.
    • Bread isn’t just delicious → it’s elemental to the human experience
      • Some type of bread found in some form in basically every culture around the world
        • Flat breads
        • Risen breads
        • Quick breads
        • Every day breads
        • Dessert breads
        • Fancy loaves and rolls for special occasions/celebrations
      • And you know, one of the most beautiful and most amazing things about bread is that from some very, very basic ingredients – some type of flour or grain, water, and salt … from these incredibly ordinary and humble ingredients, there is truly no end to the kinds of bread that can be made. 
        • Different breads in different cultures
          • Bannock cooked by the Inuit people who’ve made their home in the Artic for millennia
          • Injera – crepe-like flat bread common in Ethiopia and Somalia used as platter, utensil, and meal
          • Pillow-soft Japanese milk buns
          • Crackling crust and soft interior of a French baguette
          • They even found a petrified but fully intact loaf of nearly 2000-yr.-old bread in the ruins of Pompeii![1]
          • Maybe most recognizable here in the Midwest: potato-tinged familiarity of lefse (whether you add butter and eat it with meatballs … or add butter and sugar and cinnamon … which is not a war we will wage today)
        • Different recipes handed down from one generation to the next within the same culture
        • Even variations made on family recipes from one generation to the next! → Maybe Grandma used walnuts in her Christmas loaf, but you prefer pecans. Maybe your great-aunt’s recipe for hot cross buns calls for raisins, but you prefer currants. Or maybe you’ve gone completely off the rails and added crazy ingredients like saffron or a raz el hanout spice blend to your great-great-great grandfather’s favorite biscuit recipe … just to spice things up a bit!
    • The bottom line is, bread is essential to who we are as a people. It both expressed our own heritage and build bridges between cultures because bread – in one form or another, in one flavor profile or another – is something we all have in common.
  • It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus spends so much time talking about bread in our passage this morning.
    • Disclaimer before we get any further with today’s passage: reading/contemplating/preaching anything from John = like a game of theological pick-up sticks
      • Handful of major theological themes scattered throughout every passage
      • Can’t pick up one theme without bumping into all the others
      • Also can’t pick up all of them at once
      • Which is my way of fully acknowledging that there’s a lot that we could tackle in this passage, but we just can’t get to it all. But, as always, if you’d like to talk about any of it further, I’m more than willing to sit down with you … maybe over a cup of coffee … and some bread.
    • So let’s dig into this “bread of life” passage a little more.
      • Context w/in the greater narrative of the gospel
        • Comes on the heels of two pretty miraculous occasions
          • Beginning of ch. 6 (vv. 1-15) = Jn’s account of the feeding of the 5000 → Now, all of the gospels include some version of Jesus feeding the crowd of 5000+ people with nothing but a couple of loaves and fish. Only in John’s gospel does that meal come from someone in the crowd – a young boy. But all agree that after blessing and breaking the bread, and after the disciples shared the meal around, there was still an overabundance of bread and fish leftover.
          • Next passage starts with disciples heading out onto Sea of Galilee by themselves (Jesus went up on a mountain to pray after the feeding of the 5000 … today, we call that self-care, y’all … even Jesus did it!) → water becomes rough, and in the midst of the wind and the waves, Jesus walks out to the disciples’ boat across the surface of the water
            • No mention of Peter joining Jesus out on the water in Jn’s gospel à this account just ends with: Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.[2]
          • Part of the passage directly leading into today’s reading = discussion btwn Jesus and the crowd → crowd had gone looking for him after they realized he was no longer with them following the feeding of the 5000 → Jesus gets a little contentious with the crowd: When they found [Jesus] on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” (Sounds like an innocent-enough question, right?) Jesus replied, “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you at all the food you wanted.”[3] → From there, Jesus launches into his discourse on the Bread of Life.
  • And let’s be totally honest, here – it’s a pretty heady discourse. It’s not exactly easy reading, right? – text: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” … Jesus said to them, “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”[4] → It’s a dense passage. It’s a rich passage. Like I said earlier, there’s a lot there, and some of it could get us digging really deep theologically.
    • Whole “flesh and blood of Christ”/bread and wine idea could lead us down the path of talking about the Catholic theology about communion vs. the Lutheran theology about communion vs. the Reformed theology about communion → If that’s what pulls at your heart and your mind with this passage, I would love to talk to you about it further. Later.
    • Could also spend all sorts of time taking a deeper diver into Jesus’ multiple assertions of his inextricable connection with God and how those who seek God must inevitably do that seeking through the person and work of Jesus himself → Again, if that’s what pulls at your heart and your mind with this passage, let’s talk more … later.
  • What really pulls at my heart and mind when I read this passage is how truly and fully embodied God is in Jesus Christ. God took on all that it was to be human in the incarnation in Jesus Christ. God literally put on flesh and bone and hair and eyelashes and goosebumps. God put on coarsely woven clothes and rough leather sandals. God’s own stomach rumbled and God’s own mouth watered at the smell of fresh-baked bread.
    • Rev. Dr. Jamie Clark-Soles (prof. of NT at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX): If we are going to experience God, it will have to be in our bodies. This is, after all, the Gospel of Incarnation … John 6 is as embodied as it gets … Ingesting Jesus (a phrase used by Jane Webster who has a book by that name), eating his flesh and drinking his blood makes us commingled with him, and therefore God, in the deepest way.[5] → Friends, it was God who created us – created our bodies in all their beautiful and frustrating and confounding glory, created all of our daily needs to be fed and nourished over and over again, created each individual olfactory receptor that allows us to smell that baking bread and each individual taste bud that allows us to savor it. Remember, it’s in John’s gospel – John 10:10 – where Jesus promises those gathered around him (disciples, crowds, and Pharisees) that he came so that “they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.”[6]
    • And that’s the other really powerful connection that I love about this passage. Jesus is very specific. He is not just bread but “the bread of life,” “the living bread.” Over and over again, Jesus uses these two phrases.
      • vv. 35 and 48: “I am the bread of life.”
      • v. 51: “I am the living bread.”
      • v. 50: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats it will never die.”
      • vv. 51 (further in) and 58: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
      • Also v. 51: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world”
      • Again and again and again, Jesus links himself and abundant life with bread – the most common, humble, varied, and accessible food element throughout history. → powerful for 2 reasons
        • FIRST: wide-spread accessibility of it all → text: Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.[7] → Gr. “world” literally refers to the whole world in the most inclusive sense
          • Humanity
          • Everyone
          • All peoples
          • WHOLE. WORLD. Period. Full stop. God embraced and took on the fullness of humanity in Jesus Christ for the whole world. No exceptions.
        • Also powerful because of that Eucharistic link that we touched on earlier – that distinctly communal element → Every single time we gather together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together – every time we break bread and share it, every time we partake together and pray together and praise God in our shared presence together here at this table, we participate in and are nourished by that abundant life.
          • Rev. Dr. Clark-Soles: We experience God in the flesh. Our flesh is invigorated by the Spirit. Jesus, God, and the Spirit indwell us; we participate in them in our actual bodies. … For all of us, the eucharist (or communion, or the Lord’s Supper) reminds us we are part of a community, a community of life. Human beings were not made to be alone and cannot attain or maintain abundant life without others. We are in it together. Period.[8] → Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/07/07/ancient-bread/.

[2] Jn 6:21.

[3] Jn 6:25-26 (with my own insertion).

[4] Jn 6:50-51, 53-58.

[5] Jaime Clark-Soles. “Commentary on John 6:35-59” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/bread-of-life/commentary-on-john-635-59-2.

[6] Jn 10:10.

[7] Jn 6:51 (emphasis added).

[8] Clark-Soles.

Sunday’s sermon: Promises Promises

Text used – John 4:46-54

This sermon was given on the Sunday of our annual meeting in 2022. The tradition in the congregation that I serve – the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco – is to intersperse the business of the annual meeting within the worship service. It helps us remember that all the work we do – the mission work, the compassion work, and even the sometimes-tedious administrative work – is work that we do for the glory of God.

 

          For the last few weeks, Jesus has been traveling. A couple of weeks ago, we read about that little incident at the wedding in Cana – the whole water-to-wine thing. After that, he and the few disciples who had already joined him headed up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover where he met the Pharisee Nicodemus in the secret of the night, then spent some time winding their way through some of the more remote parts of Judea. Then, of course, we read about Jesus’ adventure into Samaritan territory and his life-changing encounter with the woman at the well last week. All in all, this is the kind of journey that probably took a couple of weeks: probably 4 days or so to walk from Cana in Galilee to Jerusalem, time to celebrate the Passover, and probably a week to make their way back north to Cana (because last week’s Scripture reading told us Jesus and his disciples spent a few days in the Samaritan village). All told, it’s a journey of roughly 80 miles one way.

          Today, we catch up with Jesus as he and his disciples have finally returned to Cana in Galilee. But this isn’t a simple, uncomplicated returning for Jesus. He’s been doing things. He’s been healing people. His disciples have been baptizing. They traveled through – and stopped in! – Samaria! (gasp!) He’s back at that place where he turned simple water into the best of wines. People know him now. So when he and the disciples did finally return to Cana, word got around. Word got around far and wide. All the way to Capernaum, another 12 (or so) miles northeast of Cana, and in Capernaum, word reached a certain royal official whose son was sick. It’s interesting that the gospel writer tells us that this man is a “royal official.” It could mean that he’s a Gentile – a Roman citizen of some sort. But it could also mean that he’s a Jew whose been employed by the Roman Empire. Either way, he’s an outsider, because Jews who were voluntarily in the employ of the Romans – the oppressors – were despised within the Jewish community as a whole. (Think of Zacchaeus and Matthew, the tax collectors!)

          But to this father – this father’s whose son is deathly ill – none of that matters. He would travel ten times as far as those 12 measly miles between Capernaum and Cana if it meant his son could possibly be made well again. But he’s heard all the rumors flying around about this Jesus fellow, and he knows … he knows! … that this man can heal his son. Even though it’s a long shot. Even though his peers all think he’s crazy. Even though the possibility – the hope – is just a mere flicker … even though it’s barely a spark, it is a hope.

          So he goes to Jesus and asks him to heal his son. And he will not be deterred. Even when Jesus tries to put him off – tries to tell him that he doesn’t really believe. He hears Jesus say to him, “Unless you see miraculous signs and wonders, you won’t believe.”[1] He hears it, but he continues to plead: “Lord, please. Lord, please. Come. Come now. Come quickly. Come before my son dies.”[2] And even as he’s standing there shaking and weeping … even as he is silently and ceaselessly praying … even as he is pouring every ounce of his hope and his faith into this strange and miraculous rabbi in front of him, he hears the words he’s been praying for: “Go home. Your son live.”[3] And just like that, the man knows it’s true. He doesn’t have to see it. He doesn’t have to feel his revived and whole and living son in his arms. He knows. He believes. He mumbles thank you upon thank you upon thank you as he swiftly leaves this Jesus man’s presence and hurries home.

          And it is true. Before he can even get close to his home, he sees one of his servants running toward him along the road, shouting that his son is well. His son is well! And not only is he well, but he was made well at the exact moment that Jesus said it. When he finally walked back into him own home … when he finally did feel his revived and whole and living son in his arms … he told his whole household about his incredible encounter with Jesus, and they all believed.

          This is probably one of the shortest but most powerful stories in the gospel of John – powerful not because of Jesus’ actions but because of the man’s belief. Undeterred. Unfailing. Unwavering. He couldn’t know for sure what the future held, but he believed. He believed it not only could be better but it would be better. He believed without seeing.

          Friends, I don’t normally do this. In fact, I’ve never done this, but this morning, I want to read my pastor’s report to you:

          Many of you know that I’ve been working on a doctorate through the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary for the last 2 years – a Doctor of Ministry (DMin for short … and yes, it sounds exactly like “demon” … commence the ironic laughter). More specifically, it’s a DMin in “Pastoring for Renewal: Discipleship, Liturgy, and Catechesis.” The cohort description that appears at the top of every semester’s syllabus says,

“Renewed pastors lead renewed ministries. Renewed communities encourage and support joyful discipleship in Jesus Christ–loving God, neighbor and self–for the life and healing of the world. For renewal to be lasting and vital, it must address the personal and corporate worship life, education in the faith, and practices of discipleship. This UDTS Doctor of Ministry program will offer students the opportunity to explore the relationship between renewal, liturgical formation, catechesis, and practices of discipleship, both personally, as pastors, and within their parishes, congregations, or faith communities.”

          I mailed in my application for this program toward the end of 2019 and began in February 2020. Little did we know at that time what the next two years would look like. I’ve often joked about how ironic it is that I’m studying renewal in one of the least renewing times in history. And yet, I’ve come to recognize that it’s also incredibly fortuitous. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it abundantly and irrevocably clear that the Church is in the midst of deep and significant change. This isn’t something that was brought about by the pandemic. Far from it. It’s a change that’s been on the horizon for decades, but the realities and challenges of the pandemic both shed a harsh and unrelenting light on the need for change and accelerated the timeline of that need.

          And here I am, in the midst of all of it, taking a deep dive into renewal: the theory, the practices, the theology, the roadblocks and pitfalls, the practical steps, etc. I cannot think that this is an accident. This is what my Fun Nuns would call a pretty mighty “showy God” moment. Because, friends, we are in need of renewal.

          Stating the obvious, we are in need of renewal because of how drained and disconnected these last 2 yrs. of pandemic life have left us. But it goes far beyond that. Nearly five years ago, this congregation made the unanimous decision to dissolve the yoke with First Congregational Church UCC in Zumbrota. When we made the decision to dissolve the yoke, we did so because we’d looked at our finances and realized that we had maybe 3-5 yrs. left if nothing changed. Following that decision, we experienced a quick shot of renewal. People were coming or coming back to worship. Our finances became more stable through a couple of significant gifts and some savings in a few crucial areas. We had lots of energy and ideas. More than that, though, we had the excitement and fervor for the mission and work and worship and life of this congregation.

          But over the last few years, that renewal has been waning. After a few years of our budget staying in the black at the end of the year, we slipped back into running a roughly $10,000 yearly deficit. Participating and attendance – in worship but also in our various activities – has gone down. This is not a “fault” thing. It’s not because someone didn’t do something or forgot to do something or did something wrong. But it is still true.

          And here I am, in the midst of all of it, taking a deep dive into renewal. With this DMin program, I’ve reached the point of needing to figure out and propose my final project – my dissertation. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and praying and discerning a project that would be something that speaks to where my deepest heart lies in ministry but also something that would be truly and lastingly beneficial for the life of this congregation.

          And so I share with you “Come Alive!”: Exploring Discipleship through Prayer and Story – my DMin Ministry Focus Paper. Everything that I’ve read so far has made it clear how crucial it is that a congregation experience spiritual renewal before any kind of numerical renewal. Our spiritual bones need to be strong before we start thinking about reaching out and branching out in any sort of outreach. As one of my course books puts it, “A community of people growing up in their faith would never decide that they were not interested in reaching others with the gospel that is transforming their own lives.”[4]

          So we’re going to do some deep diving together into renewing our spiritual lives as individuals and our spiritual life as a congregation. It’s going to involve discipleship. It’s going to involve prayer. It’s going to involve story – God’s Story through Scripture but also our own stories of faith through testimony. We’re going to make a concerted, intentional effort to reconnect to God and to reconnect to one another as this body of Christ here in this particular time and place. Because that’s why we come here, right? I would hope so.

          The thing is, I can’t do this alone. Literally. I cannot undertake and participate in an entire congregational curriculum by myself. I need your help. I’m asking for your participation, but more importantly, I’m asking for your heart. I’m asking for you to take part in this endeavor not because you feel like you have to but because you want to – for yourself and for the life of this congregation.

          Let me tell you a story. A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few hours on a Saturday afternoon sitting on the floor of my office really working on the particulars of this Ministry Focus Paper. I was surrounded by books and papers and pens and a rough (very rough!) outline that I’d already put together. Before I began, I lit one of my candles – something I always do in my office because it reminds me that the light of Christ is ever-present. And I was listening to music … because I am who I am. More particularly, I was listening to Lauren Daigle, a contemporary Christian artist. As I was sitting there elbow-deep in plans, a song came on – a song called “Come Alive.” The lyrics for this song come from Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones in the valley (Ezekiel 37:1-14):

          But we know that you are God, yours is the victory.
          We know there is more to come
          That we may not yet see.
          So with the faith you’ve given us,
          We’ll step into the valley unafraid, yeah …

           As we call out to dry bones, come alive, come alive!
          We call out to dead hearts, come alive, come alive!
          Up out of the ashes, let us see an army rise.
          We call out to dry bones, come alive!

          As I sat there surrounded by and steeped in thoughts and plans and prayers for renewal – specifically the renewal of this beloved little white church on the hill – with this song and these lyrics resounding in my ears and my heart, I was overcome with this vision of what we could be. It was full of hope. It was full of joy and possibility. It was full of God’s Spirit. And it brought me to tears. I hope and pray that you’ll take this journey with me in the year to come.

          Friends, it’s time to believe without seeing. Let’s do this. Amen.

[1] Jn 4:48 (emphasis added).

[2] based on Jn 4:49.

[3] Jn 4:50.

[4] Harold Percy. Your Church Can Thrive: Making the Connections That Build Healthy Congregations. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 31.

Sunday’s sermon: Living Water: Geyser of Grace

Text used – John 4:1-42

  • Old Faithful. Probably the most famous geyser in the world, right?
    • Located in Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park
    • Blasts 200˚F water and 350˚F steam anywhere from 100-180 ft. into the air every 60-110 mins. (ends up erupting 20 times a day)
      • Hot enough that early pioneers actually used the water to wash their clothes before Yellowstone was made a national park
    • Evidence surrounding Old Faithful and around the rest of Upper Geyser Basic speak to the long and established history of Native Americans with the land[1] → Old Faithful “discovered” by Washburn Expedition (i.e. – white people finally found it) in 1870[2]
    • But of course, Old Faithful isn’t the only geyser in the world. → in general[3]
      • Geysers are hot springs that erupt under geological pressure
      • Geysers made from tube-like holes that run deep into the Earth’s crust → tube fills with water → magma near the bottom of the tube heats the water → water begins to boil and is eventually forced upward as super-heated water or steam
      • After the eruption, water slowly seeps back into the tube and process starts all over again
    • Geysers also found in other parts of the U.S., Russia, Chile, New Zealand, and Iceland[4]
    • Truly, y’all, geysers are an awe-inspiring force of nature! How many people here have seen a geyser in person?
      • Geysers are powerful
      • Geysers are somewhat unpredictable
      • Geysers come from a deep, deep place
  • Today’s Scripture story = another story of amazing, awe-inspiring water → water that’s a lot like those geysers: powerful, somewhat unpredictable, and unfathomably deep → I have to say that, although I know it’s a long portion of Scripture to read on a Sunday morning, I’m so glad that the Narrative Lectionary highlights this entire story because it’s such a powerful witness. I think this story – another one that’s particular only to John’s gospel – gives us a really interesting insight into Jesus.
      • Both interesting and important that our text starts off by telling us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria”[5]
        • Jesus is traveling back to Galilee – back to his home territory – after spending some time in Jerusalem and Judea → makes me wonder why Jesus “had” to go this way
          • Gr. = literally “it was necessary to go through Samaria”
          • And yet, this is an area that would have been diligently and deliberately avoided by faithful Jews. Samarians were those with mixed blood – part Jew and part Gentile. More specifically, part Assyrian. After the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, the Assyrian rulers planted some of their own people among those left in Israel, and some of the remaining Israelites intermarried with some of those Assyrians.[6] The Samaritans were the result of those marriages, and for that transgression – for daring to marry outside God’s chosen people – the Samaritans were completely and wholly despised by the Jews. So why did Jesus have to go through Samaria?
            • Maybe it was geographically shorter … but surely Jews at the time were used to skirting this scorned territory
            • Or maybe it was necessary for a reason that had absolutely nothing to do with physical distance and travel time.
  • And from this route divergence, we get what might be my favorite exchange in all of Scripture! Jesus and this Samaritan woman have this incredible back-and-forth discussion in which she plays, not the part of the subservient woman but the rhetorical counterpart to Jesus.
    • Jesus asks for a drink → Samaritan woman’s response = spirited, not subservient: “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?”[7] (I like her already!)
    • Jesus begins to tell Samaritan woman about living water → But this woman is having none of this crazy Jewish man’s ramblings! – text: The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you?”[8] → So not only does she attempt to call his bluff, but she also takes the time to remind this Jew – whose people have looked down on her people for centuries – that, in fact, they have a shared history … a shared ancestry. Truly, this is diplomatic discourse at its best!
    • Jesus extolls the eternal and plentiful nature of this living water → Samaritan woman comes back with a fabulously practical reply: “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”[9] → Drawing water from this well for cooking, for washing, for household chores, and for everything else is no small task that needs to be done every single day. This is a practical and pragmatic woman who knows she has other things she could be doing with her time! C’mon, Jesus … help a busy girl out!
    • Jesus turns the debate tables a bit when he pulls out the “husband” card[10]
      • Instructs the woman to go and get her husband
      • Woman’s response: “I don’t have a husband.”
      • Jesus: “You’re right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband. You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”
      • This part of the exchange piques the Samaritan woman’s interest, at least a little bit … but even in this interest, she holds her own, using her response to first flatter this Jewish stranger a bit (“Sir, I see that you are a prophet.”) before taking a bit of a jab at one of the things that separated the Jews from the Samaritans: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”[11] → Can’t you just hear the ”What do you think about that?” that goes unspoken at the end of this exchange? This woman has guts, and I gotta say I cannot help but admire her for that. But we also have to admire Jesus in this exchange. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t get dismissive. He doesn’t get self-righteous. He doesn’t get up and leave. He stays in it. He stays.
    • Jesus finally drops his ace in the hole: The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.” Jesus said to her, “I Am – the one who speaks with you.”[12] → Now, we’re not really used to Jesus declaring his identity because he doesn’t really do that in any of the other gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it’s everyone else who declares Jesus as the Messiah – the cast-out demons, the sinners, the Gentiles, those who have been healed. But not Jesus. But here in John’s gospel, Jesus is clear … clearer than we may even realize.
      • Jesus’ response – “I Am – the one who speaks with you” = same language that God used when giving Moses God’s own name at the burning bush: “I Am Who I Am”[13] → This is that most precious, most revered, most sacred name of God – the name that isn’t even spoken or written in Jewish culture, both then and today. And Jesus is applying this name … to himself. It’s a name the woman would have absolutely recognized. And in that moment, she believes.
        • Runs to tell the rest of the villagers about this life-altering Rabbi
        • Bring them all to the well to see this Jesus
        • Text: Many Samaritans in that city believe in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.”[14]
        • Jesus stays in the city – in this Samaritan, despised, Gentile city for two more days – text: Many more believed because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.”[15]
  • We said that geysers were powerful, and in this incredible exchange between first Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman and later between Jesus and the entire Samaritan town, we see just how powerful the living water of God can be.
    • Powerful enough to grab hold of this Samaritan woman and quench a thirst she may not even knew she had: a thirst for acceptance and community → I remember reading somewhere once (probably in one of my commentaries, though I don’t remember exactly where) that the fact that this woman was coming to the water by herself indicated that she was something of an outcast.
      • Most of the water-gathering was done in a group → time for the women of the village to come together and chat/catch up with one another/gossip → And yet, this Samaritan woman shows up to the well alone. She isn’t part of the group.
      • Most of the water-gathering was done in the early part of the day before it got too hot BUT Scripture tells us this woman showed up around noon, the hottest part of the day → indicates that she deliberately went to the well at a time when it was unlikely that others would be there
      • Also important to point out what the text doesn’t say here – scholar: The text does not say the woman is a prostitute; it says she had husbands, not customers. We have no idea if the husbands died, if she was divorced, if Levirate marriage was involved. The text does not say. … The main point involves Jesus and this woman having a deep, rich theological debate that allows them to form an intimate connection across real and perceived differences such that the woman receives the first theophany (manifestation of God) in the Gospel of John and then evangelizes her community.[16] → Through this discourse with Jesus, she becomes so overwhelmed by her belief that she runs back to her village – the village that has shunned and excluded her – to share the news with them. And in that sharing – first, her intimate sharing with Jesus, then her public sharing with her village – she finds that community that quenches her lonely spirit.
  • We also said that geysers were somewhat unpredictable, and this whole story is somewhat unpredictable.
    • Unpredictable in that Jesus, a faithful Jew, chooses to not only journey through Samaria but to stop in that despised territory, first for a drink of water, then for a few days so he could teach this village about God’s love and grace – about God’s living water
    • Unpredictable in that the focus of this sophisticated political and theological back-and-forth is not a fellow Rabbi or even a Pharisee … but a woman → hear the unpredictability of this in the disciples’ sole (short) appearance in this story: Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman.[17]
    • Unpredictable in the outcome that the majority of this Samaritan village – this Gentile village – come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah after just two short days
    • At the same time, this story is wholly predictable in that it shows us once again that indeed, God’s living water – God’s unearnable grace and unquenchable love – are available to all.
  • And we said that geysers came from a deep, deep place – the kind of place that brings the Incarnate God, the Messiah and Savior of the world, to a humble well for a life-changing interaction … the kind of place that births profound revelations of faith … the kind of place that inspires an ostracized woman to witness to her whole village … the kind of place that can renew our faith again and again and again.
    • Brings up the major difference between geysers and this living water that Jesus presents in our story today: Geysers are rare. They need exactly the right geological conditions to occur. They need hot rocks below, an ample source of groundwater, a subsurface water reservoir, and fissures (those tube-like formations) to deliver the water to the surface. The confluence of all these conditions is so rare that there are only about 1000 geysers around the world.[18] But God’s living water? God’s living water is not rare. God’s living water of grace can wash over us no matter the circumstances. There is no heart too distant, no spirit too broken, no person too alone, no life too lost for God’s living water to spring up in you with all the power and hope and transformation of a geyser of grace. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from. No matter what you bring with you. Let God’s living water flow! Amen.

[1] Richard Grant. “The Lost History of Yellowstone: Debunking the myth that the great national park was a wilderness untouched by human hands” from Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lost-history-yellowstone-180976518/.

[2] Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan. “About Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s Famous Geyser” from the Yellowstone National Park official website, https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/geysers-hot-springs/about-old-faithful/.

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/geyser/.

[4] Hobart M. King. “What Is a Geyser?” from https://geology.com/articles/geyser.shtml.

[5] Jn 4:4.

[6] Alyssa Roat. “The Samaritans: Hope from the History of a Hated People” from https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/the-samaritans-hope-from-the-history-of-a-hated-people.html.

[7] Jn 4:9.

[8] Jn 4:11-12a.

[9] Jn 4:15.

[10] Jn 4:16-18.

[11] Jn 4:20.

[12] Jn 4:25-26.

[13] Ex 3:14.

[14] Jn 4:39.

[15] Jn 4:41-42.

[16] Jaime Clark-Soles. “Commentary on John 4:1-42” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/the-woman-at-the-well/commentary-on-john-41-42-3.

[17] Jn 4:27.

[18] King, https://geology.com/articles/geyser.shtml.

Sunday’s sermon: Seeing God’s Kingdom

Text used – John 3:1-21

  • The scene opens on a dark side street. One man stands there alone, apparently waiting patiently, but he’s soon joined by another man. The newcomer seems nervous and uneasy. He keeps looking furtively around like he’s afraid someone will see him with this patient stranger. There are no streetlights around, so the only light that illuminates this hidden meeting is the light cast by the moon above. One of the men comes with questions. The other comes with more answers than his companion even knows to seek.
    • Sounds like it could be the opening scene for all sorts of different blockbuster movies, doesn’t it?
      • International spy thriller … a lá James Bond or Jason Bourne
      • Explosive-packed action movie … a lá “Die Hard” or “Air Force One”
      • Strikingly similar scene toward the beginning of “Star Wars: Rogue One”
    • And yet it’s not a scene out of any such script. It’s a scene straight out of our Scripture reading this morning – the scene in which we meet Nicodemus. → Nicodemus = really interesting character in Jn’s gospel
      • Today’s passage = 1st of 3 appearance made by Nicodemus throughout the text
        • 2nd appearance (which we’ll read in a few weeks) = ch. 7 Nicodemus speaks up on Jesus’ behalf in the midst of some controversy after Jesus taught in the temple[1]
        • 3rd appearance = with Joseph of Arimathea at the tomb following Jesus’ death but before his resurrection It’s Nicodemus who brings the necessary items for ritual burial – the myrrh and the aloe, “nearly seventy-five pounds in all”[2] – to prepare Jesus’ body.
        • And it all begins with today’s encounter – this moment when Nicodemus seeks out this new and radical rabbi from Nazareth in the middle of the night.
  • Rev. Dr. Patrick Hartin (in Exploring the Spirituality of the Gospels): Jesus’ dialogues with many individuals lie at the heart of John’s gospel. In each encounter, Jesus challenges the individual to enter into a spiritual relationship with him. In illustrating these encounters, John shows the level of their faith relationship.[3]  As today’s encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is just such a dialogue and relationship – the first that we find in the gospel, in fact – let’s talk a little bit more about Nicodemus as a character this morning.
    • Only in Jn’s gospel that we meet Nicodemus at all isn’t mentioned or named in any of the other three gospels
    • Who Nicodemus was in society = given at the very beginning of today’s passage: There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.[4]  These two titles – “Pharisee” and “Jewish leader” – may not seem like much to us, but they indicate that Nicodemus was a rather powerful person within the Jewish hierarchy.
      • Pharisee = experts in Jewish law scholars who knew and interpreted that law for the general population
      • “Jewish leader” = tells us Nicodemus was one of the Sanhedrin sort of like the Jewish Supreme Court at the time It was up to the members of the Sanhedrin to not only interpret the law but dole out judgments and appropriate punishments according to that law when it was broken. Ultimately, it is the Sanhedrin that will accuse and convict Jesus and demand that Pilate crucify him.
    • Who Nicodemus was as a person = two important insights that we get from today’s text
      • FIRST: Nicodemus was conflicted – text: [Nicodemus] came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”[5]
        • On one hand, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness
          • Can’t be seen
          • Can’t be recognized
          • Sure seems to indicate that he’s concerned about this meeting – that he’s worried about it
        • On the other hand, Nicodemus addresses Jesus with respect
          • Calls Jesus “Rabbi” (cultural and respectful way to address a learned teacher)
          • Also admits that “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God” pretty significant admission, partly because of Nicodemus’ role as a Pharisee and partly because of how early we are in Jesus’ ministry At this point in John’s recounting of Jesus’ ministry, not much significant has happened.
            • Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist
            • Jesus has called a few disciples[6]
            • Jesus has performed the miracle of changing water to wine at the wedding of Cana[7] (which we talked about a few weeks ago)
            • Jesus has overturned the tables of the merchants and money changers in the Temple[8] (which you read with Rev. Erica Schemper last week) passage that ends with a vague reference to “the miraculous signs” that the people in Jerusalem saw Jesus do[9]
            • That’s it! Being the omniscient observers that we are – the ones who already know the rest of the story, know the other miracles that are coming (including the ultimate miracle of Jesus’ own death and resurrection) – we know just how amazing Jesus is and the salvation that will come through him. But at this point, Nicodemus doesn’t know any of that yet. And still, here he is! Who Jesus is and what he has done has already been powerful enough for Nicodemus, the Pharisee and Sanhedrin member, to seek him out in the dead of night to learn more.
      • Leads us to 2nd insight we get from our text about Nicodemus personality: he is a curious man, a man who seeks answers
        • Initially comes to Jesus under the cover of night because he has questions – questions he knows only this rabbi sent from God can answer
        • Continues to question Jesus further every time Jesus gives him a new answer: “How is this possible, Jesus? How is this possible? How are all these things possible?” In these questions, we see the Pharisee in Nicodemus coming out. As far as we can tell, he’s not asking in any kind of challenging, contentious manner. But he’s been trained to understand even the smallest, most insignificant elements of the law – understand them inside and out so that he can interpret them for others. Like a lawyer, it is engrained in him to ask questions, not just from one angle, but from all angles so that he can best understand whatever problem or situation is in front of him.
          • Scholar (describing Nicodemus): [One who keeps] the rules but [knows] something is still missing.[10]
        • And in this way, are any of us so different from Nicodemus?
          • Probably one of the most relatable characters in the whole of Scripture for this reason In the course of this strange midnight encounter, Jesus tells Nicodemus some incredible things – things about needing to be born anew, about being born of water and the Spirit, about earthly things and heavenly things, about God’s own Son being sent into the world, about darkness and light, about truth … enough incredible things to fill a whole year’s worth of sermons! Things that we’re still wrestling with … still trying to understand … still unsure about … still asking questions about 2000 years later! So when Nicodemus asks Jesus over and over again, “Jesus, how is that possible?” we feel like we could be standing right behind him nodding and voicing our agreement. “Yeah, Jesus. How is that possible? Please … please … explain it to us. But in ways we can understand.” Because we are desperate to understand. Our hearts and our minds and our spirits are yearning to understand. Society is pushing us to understand – even to understand to the point of being able to “prove it.”
            • Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis (Lutheran pastor, author, chair of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul): Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb and is subject to all of the ambiguity, uncertainty, and indecisiveness of being human. Having an incarnate God necessitates an incarnational faith: believing is just as complicated as being human.[11]
  • And that’s the really hard and challenging part of today’s Scripture reading: John gives us all of Jesus’ flowery, theologically dense explanations … but it’s still not super clear, is it? Not as clear and concise as we’d like it to be, anyway.
    • Jn = challenging gospel to read and study and preach because it is so theologically entwined Remember, John was chronologically the last gospel written. It was written around the turn of the 1st nearly 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. There was a lot of doctrine and dogma that had developed within Christian circles by the time John was written, so there’s a lot to unpack even within this gospel.
    • That being said, there’s something that stuck out to me at the very beginning of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in today’s reading – something seemed to sort of shelter a lot of these theological ideas under one unifying theological umbrella: seeing God’s kingdom. – text: [Nicodemus] came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”[12]  From the outset, Jesus makes it clear to Nicodemus that The Point – the whole point of all of it: birth and baptism, ministry and miracles, teachings and trials – the whole point is seeing God’s kingdom.
      • Point of “being born anew” – text: Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.”[13]  Being born anew in the Spirit allows us to tune our hearts and our lives and our souls to the moving and working of God’s Holy Spirit in the world around us – those thin places where we feel God moving and see God’s kingdom shining through in the people and interactions around us.
      • Point of Jesus life and death to come – text: No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.[14] Jesus alluding to sort of obscure story out of Numbers in which God instructs Moses to mount a bronze image of a snake on a pole so that any Israelite who had been bitten by just such a snake in the wilderness could look upon the bronze serpent and be healed … Turning eyes to the One lifted up in order to be healed … to be saved … to be made whole. Resting our hearts and our hopes on the One lifted up reveals God’s kingdom in salvation and extraordinary grace.
      • And, of course, seeing God’s kingdom in love that familiar text that, while so many know it by heart, few remember that it’s part of Jesus’ secret nighttime conversation with a Pharisee who believes – text: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.[15]
  • Jesus knew that Nicodemus was a man seeking answers. But more than that, he was a man seeking Truth – the kind of Truth that would help him not only see the kingdom of God breaking through all around him but also embody that kingdom of God in the ways that matter most: through an openness to the Holy Spirit, through faith, and through God’s unending love and grace. Jesus gave Nicodemus all that he sought and more. Jesus opened his eyes before he even fully understood how and why they needed to be opened. So where is Jesus inviting you to open your eyes … to open your hearts … to open your faith and see God’s kingdom today? Amen.

[1] Jn 7:50-51.

[2] Jn 19:39.

[3] Patrick J. Hartin. Exploring the Spirituality of the Gospels. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011), 67.

[4] Jn 3:1.

[5] Jn 3:2.

[6] Jn 1:35-51.

[7] Jn 2:1-12.

[8] Jn 2:13-25.

[9] Jn 2:23.

[10] Brett Younger. “John 3:1-8 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – John, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 59.

[11] Karoline Lewis. “Second Sunday in Lent – John 3:1-17 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 73.

[12] Jn 3:2-3 (emphasis added).

[13] Jn 3:5-6.

[14] Jn 3:13-15.

[15] Jn 3:16-17.

Sunday’s sermon: Expecting the Unexpected

“Water to Wine” by Hyatt Moore

Text used – John 2:1-11

  • There’s a show that I used to watch with one of my roommates during my senior year of college. Friday nights were laundry nights for us, so we’d sit there folding our laundry and watching this show.
    • Show on TLC called “What Not to Wear
      • 2 fashion experts would ambush someone (with the help of their friends and family) and present them with a choice: you can have this $5000 gift card for a shopping spree BUT you have to …
        • Come to NYC with us
        • Bring your entire wardrobe
        • Let us throw away anything we want to from that wardrobe
        • Shop by our rules
      • Before getting to the shopping, though, they would do this part of the show where the person receiving the makeover would put on a couple of their favorite outfits, then stand in what they called the “360˚ mirror” – literally surrounding them with an octagon of mirrors. → hosts would point out things about what they were wearing that were undesirable: poor fit, clashing colors/patterns, clothes that weren’t age appropriate
      • Shopping
        • Short time of shopping with the hosts following their “rules” (mostly about finding the right fit or finding different cuts and styles that flattered that person’s particular body)
        • Short time of the person trying to shop on their own (always ended disastrously)
        • Finished up with the hosts swooping in helping correct some of the mistakes made during the person’s solo shopping excursion all 3 of them finishing out the shopping spree together
          • Clothes that were appropriate for the workplace
          • Clothes that were appropriate for a night out or a special event
          • Clothes that were appropriate for hanging out at home
      • Makeover portion new haircut/color and makeup
      • 1st reveal = person showing off their new look to the hosts
      • 2nd reveal = person showing off their new look at home to their friends and family It was always fun to watch that last part – the looks of shock and amazement on the faces of the person’s friends and family as they showed off their new look and the comments that their friends and family often made:
        • “She looks even more like herself now than she did before!”
        • “It really seems like his appearance on the outside matches his personality on the inside now!”
        • And those comments really get to the crux of it – of why we enjoyed watching the show so much. In the end, it wasn’t about making everyone who appeared on it a cookie-cutter copy of the fashion plates of the day. It was about helping them express their uniqueness and individuality – helping express what was special about them – in ways that made them look and feel their best. In the end, it was always fun to see the people simultaneously the same but changed at the end of each episode.
    • Today’s gospel reading from the beginning of Jn = interesting story of Jesus who begins the story in one way but ends the story changed
  • We’re pretty near the beginning of John’s gospel at this point, so not much has happened yet.
    • Sun. before Christmas read beginning of John – “the story of the Word,” as the CEB Study Bible[1] titles it: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.[2]  This is as close as John gets to any kind of birth narrative in his gospel.
    • Following that = story of John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus culminates in Jn’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River[3]
    • Then story of Jesus calling first disciples: Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael[4]
    • And straight after that calling, we come to today’s story: The Wedding at Cana.
  • I love this story because it’s such an odd little story within all the gospels. I think it presents such a human side of Jesus. begins the story as just another guest at the wedding
    • Come to celebrate
    • Come to enjoy the day
    • Come to be with his community – just another member like any other
    • As far as we can tell, Jesus doesn’t come to this wedding with any miraculous, divine intentions. As far as we can tell, this was a pretty normal wedding. – text: On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration.[5]  There are so many spaces left for wonder in this story – so many places I want the gospel writer to pause and fill in some details for us.
      • Whose wedding was it? A cousin, perhaps? A neighbor? Or a friend from Jesus’ childhood?
      • What was the celebration like? Was it a days-long affair of hospitality and dancing, feasting and blessing?
      • Were Jesus and his disciples having fun?
      • I know these aren’t necessary details. The gospel writer’s task is to move the story along to the “good part” – the miraculous part – but when we open our imaginations into this Scripture story, we still have to wonder, don’t we?
    • The problem of this story – the main issue or conflict that our main characters are up against – is presented in short order. Just after telling us that Jesus, his disciples, and his mother are all present at this wedding celebration, we’re also told that the wine has run out. Sure, this sounds like a problem at any celebration – running out of refreshments.
      • Have to remember what a big deal this would have been in that culture – culture that places the highest emphasis and importance on hospitality Yes, running out of refreshments at a wedding before the night was over would be sort of embarrassing today. But back then, it would have been shameful. It would have been dishonorable to your guests – an insult, even. It’s an oversight that would have been unforgivable – one of those occurrences that would have haunted the entire family for generations to come, that people would have talked about and talked about and talked about.
      • Brings to mind for us all the times we have “run out”
        • Run out of something physical that we’re trying to provide, sure à run out of food or drink at some sort of gathering or event
        • Run out of ideas or inspiration in the middle of a project
        • Run out of energy or drive in the midst of some large undertaking story of Jen and I walking the 3-Day almost 7 yrs. ago and running out of stamina after the 2nd day
    • Text makes it plain that even in the face of such a social catastrophe as this host who has run out of wine too soon, Jesus doesn’t expect any sort of out-of-the-ordinary experiences at this wedding Jesus’ mother (who’s never actually called “Mary” throughout John’s gospel) approaches Jesus and informs him that the wine has run out, and Jesus’ response is more disinterested than we are used to hearing from Jesus
      • No proclamations of who he is
      • No promises of God’s goodness and faithfulness
      • No lesson wrapped in the narrative folds of a parable
      • Just a simple dismissal: “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.”[6]
        • Important to note that, while this may seem like an odd response to us – even disrespectful in the way that Jesus speaks to his own mother – it is, in fact, a fairly colloquial way for the two to converse This is one of those bits of Scripture where the nuance has been lost to us through the work of translation and the passage of time. Jesus addressing his mother in this way is not nearly as disrespectful and dismissive as it sounds.
        • And yet … pastor, author, and scholar Rev. Gibson “Nibs” Stroupe puts a finger on the challenging aspect of this exchange between Jesus and his mother: There definitely is tension in this conversation. Jesus’ mother … has an idea about her son’s power, and she is hoping that he can rescue the situation. Jesus seems hesitant or irritated (or both) at this request. Perhaps he wants his first sign to be a bit more glorious or controversial … Maybe he is even beginning to imagine how long the list of requests for action will be, once the word gets out that he has special powers. His answer to his mother – “my hour has not yet come” – indicates that this miracle is a bit premature for Jesus.[7]
    • But despite Jesus’ reluctance, his mother’s faith never waivers. – text: His mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby were six stone water jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each able to hold about twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water,” and they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some from them and take it to the headwaiter,” and they did.[8]
      • The expectations (or lack of expectations) of those around them didn’t matter to Jesus’ mother
      • Even the lack of Jesus’ own expectations didn’t matter to Jesus’ mother
      • All that mattered to her was that she believed in her son. She believed in his ability to bring aid in the midst of a difficult situation. She believed in his purpose to help and to provide and to embody the goodness of God. She believed in all that her son was and all that he would be. Jesus’ mother believed, and her believe was met with breathtaking abundance.
        • 6 stones jars that held 20-30 gallons each
        • 6 stone jars that, even when empty, would have taken more than one person to move them
        • 6 stone jars that the servants filled with water all the way to the brim
        • 6 stone jars that Jesus turned to wine à Without a word. Without a gesture. Without any recorded movement or hint from Jesus, all that water was suddenly and inexplicably turned to wine. And not just any wine, but the best
          • Abundance of quantity
          • Abundance of quality
          • Abundance that left even Jesus changed – a different man, at least in perception, than he was when he and his disciples walked into that wedding
          • Abundance beyond expectation … well, almost all expectations, anyway. – scholar: The mother of Jesus is a woman of remarkable faith and insight. Her words to the servants indicate her own trust in the words of the one who is the divinely-human Word. They are words for us today to hear and to ponder: to build our lives upon.[9]
  • And so, friends, let us look to Jesus’ mother in this story. In the face of all that appears and feels and is lacking in the world around us and even inside ourselves, let us hold tight to the faith of Jesus’ mother.
    • Not a directing faith
    • Not a conditional faith
    • Not a faith restrained by caveats and “what ifs”
    • In preparation for the abundance, Jesus’ mother doesn’t give the steward contingencies – no Plan B or Plan C. She doesn’t micromanage either his actions or Jesus’ actions with her own ideas or directions or micro-expectations of what is to come. Her faith in Jesus is open-ended and full and sure: “Do whatever he tells you.” And that is our call still today. To come before God. To kneel before Jesus. To open ourselves up to the workings of the Holy Spirit with the words of Jesus’ mother as our surest hope and motivation: “Do whatever he tells you.” It’s daunting. It’s uncertain. It’s full of the unexpected. But through that openness, miraculous things can happen. Amen.

[1] CEB Study Bible. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), 170 NT.

[2] Jn 1:1.

[3] Jn 1:19-34.

[4] Jn 1:35-51.

[5] Jn 2:1-2.

[6] Jn 2:4.

[7] Nibs Stroupe. “John 2:1-12 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: John, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 47.

[8] Jn 2:5-8.

[9] Dorothy A. Lee. “Commentary on John 2:1-11” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/wedding-at-cana-2/commentary-on-john-21-11-7.

Sunday’s sermon: Good News: Then, Now, Always

Text used – Matthew 2:1-12

  • Stars are fascinating, aren’t they?
    • So many stars in the whole of the sky that we can see that we can’t even begin to number them … let alone the vastness of the universe that even our most powerful space telescopes can’t capture!
      • Illustration from Facebook[1]: On Sept. 3, 2003, the Hubble Space Telescope began pointing its camera at a small area in the night sky …
        • “The area, about a tenth the size of the full moon, appeared to be complete blackness with no stars visible to the naked eye.” → PICTURE: full moon in a black sky full of stars with a tiny, completely black box of sky highlighted
        • “Hubble kept its camera pointed there for over 4 months, taking in all the light it could. This is what Hubble saw …” → PICTURE: I’m going to walk this picture around so you can see it for yourselves. And for those of you at home, I’m just going to pop it up instead of our video feed for a few minutes.
          • Each dot in this image is an entire galaxy ENTIRE. GALAXY. full of stars!! Up to 1 trillion stars each, to be more precise. And if our galaxy is any indication, each star may have a system of planets around it. In this photo alone, there are over 10,000 galaxies.
          • There’s a particularly large galaxy. In the picture, it’s in the bottom right corner. It’s yellowish in color and sort of spiral-y looking. Scientists have figured out that this single galaxy contains 8 times as many stars as our Milky Way Galaxy. “It’s so large, it technically shouldn’t exist according to current physics theories.”
        • And just in case your mind isn’t blown enough already, “These are the most distant objects ever photographed. They’re more than 13 billion lightyears away.” → Imagine for a minute just how old the light from these stars is. Think about it. The light from our own sun takes 8 minutes to travel from the sun to earth. Light travels at 3 million kilometers per second, and the sun is 150 million kilometers away from Earth.[2] So the light from the Sun is already 8 minutes old when it reaches Earth. And while looking back in time 8 minutes may not be quite so exciting, when we apply that same principle to the rest of the stars, things get really interesting.[3]
          • Arcturus, one of the brightest stars that we can see from Earth (located just off the handle of the Big Dipper) is just under 37 lightyears away → So the light that we’re seeing when we find Arcturus in the night sky is just under 37 yrs. old. When we look at that light, we’re looking back 37 yrs. into the past.
          • Betelgeuse (makes up the upper left shoulder of the Orion constellation) = 642.5 lightyears away → So when we look at Betelgeuse, we’re looking 642½ yrs. into the past.
          • Rigel (makes up the right foot of the Orion constellation) is just over 864 lightyears away
    • It’s easy to understand why space … the night sky … the heavens … whatever you want to call it has fascinated so people for so long – millennia, really. It’s both concrete and mysterious. We can see space with our eyes. We know that it’s there. That it’s real. With the help of first rudimentary telescopes and eventually infinitely more complicated apparatuses, we can see what’s out there in greater detail. And yet, we also know that even the mind-boggling vastness that we can see is nothing compared to what’s truly out there. We know that there’s so much more that we can’t see. And thinking about space like this – as both concrete and mystical … as seeming to exist, at least to some extent, outside the normal bounds of time – sheds a whole new light on the celebration of Epiphany and Matthew’s story of the magi, doesn’t it?
  • Now, I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to read a fairly large passage from one of the commentaries that I was looking at this week.
    • Commentary: Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1[4]
      • Explain what a commentary is – BASIC
      • Explain why I like this particular commentary series
    • This passage: written by Rev. Dr. Susan R. Andrews, now honorably retired in the Presbyterian Church (USA) but served multiple churches throughout her more than 4 decades of ministry as well as serving as the moderator of the 215th General Assembly in 2003 → Dr. Andrews did such a beautiful, eloquent job of highlighting the mystery and the majesty of this Epiphany passage that I wanted to share it with you.

         When I was in college I fulfilled my science requirement by taking astronomy. Our main assignment for the semester was to study the stars, to carefully draw the changing heavens over a four-month period. So every night, with a flashlight, mittens, and my dog-eared notebook, I would climb to the roof of my dorm and gaze starward. Soon the close and holy darkness began to pulse with wonder. It became clear to me how reasonable the skies are, how predictable the patterns, and how logical the language of those glowing gases inching themselves across the sky night after night after night. It also became very obvious when something did not fit the pattern – a falling star or an airplane light or a meteor streaking across the sky.

          Those wise men from Arabia would have easily spotted the strange star so long ago, and having exhausted the reason of nature, they would quickly have turned to a second kind of reason: the reason of knowledge. What would other wise seers in other parts of the world know about the stars, and what was written down about the truth of the heavens? This is how they ended up in Jerusalem, picking the brains of Herod’s scholars. …

          In order truly to follow the star, the wise med had to move beyond reason to intuition. They had to move beyond science to faith – trusting the journey even though they did not know where they were going, trusting a wisdom beyond their own to take them where they needed to go. Yes, the wisdom of the wise men was a wondering, wandering kind of wisdom that ended up in worship, in their offering homage to the wider and more wonderful Wisdom of God.

          In these postmodern times, many within the younger generations are moving away from the rationalism of their parents and grandparents. Through incense and meditation and experience and beauty, they are seeking mystery and embracing wonder. Rather than doctrine, they seek delight. Rather than ideas, they explore imagination. Rather than rationality, they yearn for relationship. Like the magi, they are willing to take risks and explore the unknown in order to find the Holy. Ask and keep on asking. Seek and keep on seeking. Find and keep on finding. Their faith is a Jesus faith – a journey faith – and like the wise men, their intellectual curiosity and spiritual hunger give them courage to leave behind all that is familiar.

          Biblical scholar Ken Bailey has opened our hearts to a fresh understanding of the Christmas story, based on his own experiences living and studying in the Middle East. Jesus was not born in the cold stink of a barn, rudely marginalized by an insulting innkeeper. Instead, consistent with the ethic of hospitality ingrained in the cultural DNA of Arab and Semitic peoples, Mary and Joseph were warmly welcomed by their relatives in the countryside of Judea. They were invited to sleep in the warmth of a big family room – a gracious, but well-used space commonly shared with the animals of the family. Yes, Jesus was born in a living room – and continues to dwell in the living room of our lives.

          What this means, of course, is that the wise men followed their intuition and their hearts to this same living room – discovering the meaning of the star not in the corrupt halls of Herod’s power, but in the swaddled heart of everyday life. So, in the fullness of time, wholeness was born. Mind and heart, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, powerful and simple: they all meet in the living room of God’s imagination – God fully alive in the fragile familiarity of flesh. Incarnation can be understood only through intuition and imagination, through the real stuff of real living. …

          Albert Einstein captures the necessity of wonder: “The most beautiful emotion was can experience is the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science. The one to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” – Susan R. Andrews. “Matthew 2:1-12 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 14, 16, 18.

  • Today, friends, I encourage you to remember to hold space for the mystery of faith – for that “beautiful emotion of experiencing the mystical,” as Einstein put it. Too often, we find ourselves feeling like we have to explain everything – every belief, every action, every decision, every movement – in such exhausting detail. We forget just how powerful mystery can be. We forget how moving the unknown can be. We forget how freeing it can be to be completely without all the answers … or even any More than 2000 yrs. ago, a light shined down on a brand-new family in the little, backwater, nothing town of Bethlehem. Knowing what we know about stars, I have to wonder how old that light was. Light from the beginning of time, perhaps? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word, nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.”[5]
    • The Word … past, present, and future … then, now, always → The Word that spoke to people then … that speaks to people now … that will always speak to people ready and open to listen.
    • The Light … past, present, and future … then, now, always → Light that drew people to the Savior then … that draws people to the Savior now … that will always draw people in need of and seeking a Savior.
    • The Good News of the Gospel: that God’s Love Incarnate came into the world in Bethlehem that night more than 2000 yrs. ago to make us all children of God, to bridge a gap that we as humans couldn’t bridge on our own → the Good News of the Gospel … past, present, and future … then, now, always. → Good News that changed lives then – the lives of shepherd, the lives of magi, the lives of a simple woman and her husband, the lives of disciples and those seeking healing and those yearning for a new way. Good News that changes lives now – the lives of those seeking hope and those yearning for a new way, the lives of those who have had a relationship with God from birth and those who find their way into that relationship later (sometimes much later) stumbling, crashing, aching, and rejected everywhere else. Good News that will always change the lives of those with willing hearts and eager spirits. Amen.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/Lovebyabhisar/photos/pcb.4144558385647954/4144556648981461.

[2] https://www.scienceabc.com/pure-sciences/are-you-looking-into-the-past-when-you-look-at-the-stars.html.

[3] https://www.google.com/search?q=how+far+away+is+the+star+rigel+from+earth&oq=how+far+away+is+the+star+r&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j0i512j0i22i30j0i390l3.7678j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.

[4] Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2013.

[5] Jn 1:1-5.

Christmas Eve message

  • I have to admit, friends, that I’ve started this message about 15 times in the last few weeks.
    • Tried to write some of the image-conjuring poetry that I’ve written in the past à But I just couldn’t get the words to come this year.
    • Tried a couple of different illustrations that I thought I could carry throughout the sermon à Only to find out that they’re illustrations I’ve used in the past. (Hey … at least I’m consistent, right?)
    • Tried a lot of different things
    • But I seemed to keep ending up staring at a dauntingly blank page and a maddeningly blinking cursor. This year was just a struggle. This year … was just … a struggle. In all the ways. Right?
  • But tonight, we’re still here. Here in person or here virtually in our hearts. And the angels’ ancient good news is still our good news: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”[1] And on hearing that joyful declaration, friends, the shepherds dropped everything and made their way to the side of the manger. They went immediately. They went eagerly. They went with haste, as Scripture tells us. And they went as they were.
    • Didn’t pause to consider the implications of their impromptu journey
      • Political implications
      • Career implications
      • Social media implications
      • Expectations (their own or anyone else’s)
    • Didn’t stop to pack anything – not the things they would definitely need … or the things they’d probably need … or the things they might need … or the things they probably wouldn’t need (but decided to pack anyway … just in case)
    • Didn’t stop to freshen up or change their clothes or make themselves “presentable” (whatever that means) → They arrived in the presence of the Savior dirty, road-worn, tired, and unsure of what exactly they were encounter. But still, they came. And tonight, friends, still … we come. We come seeking the Wonderful Counselor the guide us through the immense and overwhelming complexities of this world that we live in. We come seeking the Mighty God to bear our burdens when our strength fails us and we can no longer lift our foot … or our head … or our heart. We come seeking the Prince of Peace to wash our worries and anxieties and looming fears with peace everlasting.
      • Don’t come because we’ve done enough
      • Don’t come because we have enough
      • Don’t come because we’re prepared enough
      • With the shepherds, we come to the manger because God is our enough. When we’re out of words … when we’re out of trust … when we’re out of prayers … when we’re out of ideas … God is our enough. Tomorrow. Two weeks from Thursday. Six months from yestertime. Everyday. Always. God is our enough. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Lk 2:10-11 (NRSV).

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in the Word

Text used – John 1:1-18

  • Increasingly, friends, it seems as though we live in an “either/or” society.
    • Either something is right or it’s wrong
    • Either you are with someone or you’re opposed to them
    • Either you’re for something or against it
    • Either you do something all the time or you would never dream of doing it
    • Increasingly, we are drawing bold, jagged lines between ourselves and those “opposed.” Or, if we aren’t necessarily drawing the lines ourselves, we’re passively allowing others to draw them for us.
      • Either you vote this way or that way
      • Either you pray this way or that way
      • Either you speak this way or that way
      • Either you believe this way or that way
      • And never the twain shall meet, right?
      • In part, the gospel of John that we read this morning was born out of a world of dangerous dichotomies.[1]
        • Written roughly 100 yrs. after Jesus’ birth
        • Gospel born out of religious turmoil
          • Persecution of Christians by Roman empire
          • Intra-religious struggles btwn. different factions of Christians at the time → different groups trying to decide exactly what they believed about who Jesus was in relation to humanity and in relation to God
        • Gospel most heavily influenced by Greek philosophy (extensive use of sharp dualistic, “either/or” language throughout Jn: dark/light, good/evil, flesh/spirit, etc.)
    • But how often is the starkness of those “either/or” choices true to reality? Logicians call these “either/or” dichotomies false dilemmas or either-or fallacies because they assume a certain problem (or belief system or experience or even simple choice) has only two potential answers or outcomes and that those outcomes must be mutually exclusive.
      • Blatantly obvious false dichotomy = offering either chocolate or vanilla ice cream doesn’t exclude every other fabulous ice cream flavor out there
    • Reality = most problems and experiences come not with one or two obvious choices but with a multitude of options and possibilities → More often than not, the answer to some problem or the choices that lie before us are more “both/and” choices than “either/or” choices.
  • Scripture reading this morning = “both/and” sort of Scripture → Most of the time, we talk about God as Divine – holy and sacred and unequivocally “other,” so far beyond us … so much greater than us … so much more than us that even within our deepest imaginings and our wildest dreams, we cannot even begin to wrap our frail and feeble human minds around the reality that is God.
    • Certainly have this reinforced in Scripture
      • Reading from Is last week: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.[2]
      • Passage from Ps 139: There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t know completely. You surround me – front and back. You put your hand on me. That kind of knowledge is too much for me; it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.[3]
      • Paul’s words in 1 Cor: Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? … The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.[4]
      • Naming God’s innate, divine “otherness” is even a part of the prayer that we pray every Sunday: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name → “hallowed” = holy … sacred … revered … set apart … beyond me
      • Truly, friends, we cannot deny that the God we gather to praise and to worship every Sunday … the God to whom we offer our prayers and our longings and our hearts and our very lives … the God who calls us and names us and knows us inside and out … Truly, we cannot deny that our God is sacred and “other” and wholly awesome.
        • “Awesome” in the truer, older sense of the word (as opposed to the 1980s California surfer dude sense): extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear → Indeed, as Michael W. Smith’s popular praise song declares, our God is an awesome God.
    • Awesomeness and sacred otherness = woven throughout this morning’s prologue from the gospel of Jn: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.[5] → Clearly this God of whom this gospel speaks is set apart … is more … is beyond. And since John tells us that the Word was with God and the Word was God, we can say that this Word is also set apart … more … beyond … wholly and holy “other.”
      • Clearly Gr. “Word” is more than just a couple of simple letters strung together → Gr. “Word” (logos) = word that carries an idea or expresses a thought[6] → This is word with a purpose. This is word laden with meaning and motive. This is word that has its own way of being in this world.
        • Rev. Dr. Sharon Betsworth (ordained UMC minister, NT scholar, director of Wimberly School of Religion in OKC): Logos is commonly translated as “word,” but it has a broader semantic range including “that by which the inward thought is expressed.”… The Christ is not just a “word” from God, but an expression of God’s own being. By the end of the Prologue this will be fleshed out as Christ being the beloved child of God.[7]
    • Encounter the mystery and majesty of this sacred otherness in the last verse, too: No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.[8] → No one has ever seen God … but through this Word – this sacred expression of God’s own being – God has been made known to us.
  • But then, in the midst of extoling this mystical awesomeness of God, we encounter God doing a whole new thing! – text: The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God. The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.[9] → “The Word became flesh and made his home among us!” Or, as the Message translation puts it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Suddenly, it’s not the overwhelming divinity of God that we’re talking about but the flesh-and-blood humanity of God! In one night – in one night fraught with overfull inns and drafty stables and the blood, sweat, and tears of human birth – in one night, God went from an either/or God to a both/and God … both divine and
    • Not the first time in ancient story that a deity interacted with a human to bring about another being or even the first time that a deity took on human form → lots of that scattered throughout the pages of Greek mythology
      • Plenty of instances of Greek gods taking the shape of humans BUT those are always instances of those gods taking human form for their own personal gain as opposed to for the good of humankind
        • For revenge
        • For love
        • For sex
        • For the purpose of manipulation or blackmail
      • Also plenty of demigods in Greek mythology: Greek beings who were part mortal, part god → But for demigods like Hercules and Perseus, they were always considered less than the Olympus gods – considered less specifically because of their humanity.
    • But in this incarnation – in the tiny, vulnerable, divinely-conceived and human-born baby for whom we wait – our God Almighty did, indeed, do a whole new thing. A “both/and” thing.
      • Foretold by God through the prophet Is: Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.[10]
      • New thing in that this was not about the possessive love of Greek mythology (not about God’s selfish, self-serving love for one specific human) but about the salvific love of God for all of God’s own children (for humanity, broken and striving as we are) – text: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given to Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.[11]
        • Late Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day (ordained UCC minister, college and seminary educator, and prominent/prolific NT scholar): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” These two claims are the foundation on which the rest of [John’s] gospel is built: Jesus is the incarnate word of God. … It is as the Word made flesh that Jesus brings God fully to the world. Jesus’ revelation of God is thus not simply that Jesus speaks God’s words and does God’s works, although that is part of it. It is, rather, that Jesus is God’s Word. No line can be drawn between what Jesus says and what he does, between his identity and mission in the world. Jesus’ words and works, his life and death, form an indissoluble whole that provides full and fresh access to God.[12] → “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood!” Our human neighborhood, imperfect and messy and beautiful and ragged as it may be. Our human neighborhood, full of love and laughter, hope and hesitancy, worry and warring, pleasure and pain. Our human neighborhood … all because God so loved the world. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Gail R. O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction” from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 493-511.

[2] Is 55:8-9.

[3] Ps 139:4-6.

[4] 1 Cor 1:20, 25.

[5] Jn 1:1-5.

[6] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/john-11-18-a/.

[7] Sharon Betsworth. “Commentary on John 1:1-18” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/word-made-flesh-2/commentary-on-john-11-18-3.

[8] Jn 1:18.

[9] Jn 1:9-14.

[10] Is 43:19.

[11] Jn 1:16-17.

[12] O’Day, 495.

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in Abundance

Text used – Isaiah 55:1-13

  • Julia has been asking about snow and dying to make a snow angel since before Halloween.
    • Not really sure where the idea came from or who reminded her about snow angels
    • Been practicing on various floors and patches of ground (grass … cement … gravel … doesn’t really matter what) for weeks
    • And then, on Tuesday, it finally snowed. By the time I left my office on Tues. afternoon, there were at least 3 inches on the ground, and the conditions were perfect for snow angels.
      • Snow wasn’t so deep that she’d have trouble getting up or moving her arms (not like the snow we got on Friday!)
      • Snow was fluffy and soft → easy to sweep aside as she moved her arms and legs back and forth
    • But you know what? She didn’t even wait for the afternoon. Because our daycare was sick this week, Julia was at home with Peter on Tuesday, and not even an hour after the snow started, Peter texted me picture: Julia all dressed up in her snow gear (boots, hat, coat, mittens, snow pants) making a snow angel on the driveway → There was barely an inch of snow on the ground, but for that little girl who had been dreaming of making a snow angel for so many weeks, it was enough. The saying goes that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but I think we can make a slight adjustment to that. I think we could say that “abundance is in the eye of the beholder” as well, and for Julia, just that little bit of snow was enough – enough for her creativity, enough for her joy.
  • Need to seek out abundance – to find that “enough” = situations Isaiah’s hearers were well accustomed to
    • Background we’ve already discussed: Is was written during the time of the Babylonian exile → Isaiah himself was part of the contingent of Jews who were captured and transported from Jerusalem to live in Babylon
    • Other background for this particular passage from Is
      • (commentary from RevGalBlogPals) Rev. Julia Seymour, pastor at Big Timber Lutheran Church in Big Timber, MT: In Isaiah 55, the people of Israel have been exiled a little over two generations. Since the prophecies Second Isaiah are generally considered to be contemporaneous with Ezekiel, these words are likely coming after the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the death of many who believed God no longer favored God’s first people.[1]
      • Dr. Stephanie Mitchem, professor and chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies at the Univ. of South Carolina give further insight into the theme of this portion of Isaiah: Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah are grouped together as the Book of Consolation. This Book of Consolation had a significant place in the life of the Israelite community because it developed during the exilic period, speaking words of hope and consolation to people cut off from their homes and caught in political situations. This consolation defies the oppressive situation of their lives.[2] → Remember, the general role of prophets like Isaiah was to deliver God’s word to the people, and nearly every prophet (with the exception of Jonah) was called by God to deliver that word during a time of difficulty in the lives and history of the people of Israel.
        • Usually delivered during a time of “falling away” – a time when the people of Israel had turned to other deities and cultic practices from other cultures to satisfy their spiritual needs instead of to God → words of the prophets were a call to return to following and worshiping God
        • Usually delivered as part rebuke and part promise → There were the kind of words that we would probably try to spin as “constructive criticism” today, but let’s face it: no one likes to be corrected, especially when they don’t really think they’re doing anything wrong in the first place right? So the job of a prophet was often a difficult, thankless, and unpopular job.
          • Certainly is plenty of that rebuke – that “constructive criticism” – throughout the book of Is → But today’s passage is the other side of the coin – the promise and the reassurance from God that balances out the rebuke.
            • Promise of God’s provision for the people
            • Promise of God’s presence among the people
            • Promise of good to come in the midst of the bad
    • And through Isaiah, God frames that promise in the celebration and community of a meal – text: All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts.[3]
    • From there, God moves into the language of true promise and covenant – a promise of relationship and God’s own steadfastness to the people in return for the people’s devotion to God and God alone. → powerful section full of redemption, forgiveness, and hope
      • Recalls the grandness and righteousness of the people’s past by referencing King David – their greatest king, the king who brought them together as the united kingdoms, the whole people of Israel – text: Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples.[4]
        • All those times that God implores the people to “listen” – Heb. = listening with attentiveness, with discernment, with intelligence, with obedience → God is asking the people to listen with their whole hearts and their whole minds, their whole lives and their whole being. This is active listening at its most truly active – listening that changes who you are and how you go about being in this world.
        • God is also reminding the people of the abundant, saving, eternal nature of God’s own promise
          • Heb. “everlasting” = particular word for time that is cyclical and unmeasurable → This is a word for time that is more drawn out and boundless – a word for time that has no beginning and no ending. And God uses this word in relation to God’s own covenant with the people, promising them a relationship that is immense and boundless and wholly inexhaustible.
          • Heb. “faithful loyalty” = two very special words combined into one phrase
            • First part = word with no true English equivalent but most often gets translated as “steadfast love” or “loving kindness” or “mercy” → word almost exclusively applied to the relationship that God has with God’s people – scholar: God’s loving-kindness is that sure love which will not let Israel go. Not all Israel’s persistent waywardness could ever destroy it. Though Israel be faithless, yet God remains faithful still. This steady, persistent refusal of God to wash his hands of wayward Israel is the essential meaning of the Hebrew word which is translated loving-kindness.[5]
            • Second part: amen = word that we’re probably actually too familiar with – Rev. Dr. Matt Schlimm (from 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know): We say [“amen”] at the end of almost every prayer. Functionally, it means, “The prayer is over. We can all open our eyes now.” The Hebrew has several shades of meaning. “Amen” comes from a cluster of words that refers to what’s true, trustworthy, reliable, and faithful. … Truth implies a commitment to reality, and faithfulness implies a commitment to others. … When we say this word at the end of prayers, we’re signaling not only that we agree with the prayer but also that we’ll do what’s needed on our part for the prayer to come true. We commit to living in a way that helps see the prayer reach fruition.[6]
            • These two words combined together put a powerful, wholehearted, authentic, desperately loving emphasis to the promise that God is extending to the people in this passage. God is offering never-ending love. God is offering God’s own presence and provision.
    • God goes on to make it clear that this is a two-way relationship. In fact, despite having been rebuffed and ignored time and time again by the people, God invites them into this blessed relationship of sacred abundance. – text: Seek the Lord when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the Lord so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness.[7] → passage rich with promise[8]
      • Heb. “found” = word that implies togetherness → promises the people that finding God means being in relationship with God
      • Heb. “near” = all-encompassing – physically near, near in time, and near in connection/allied → promises the people that God will be near to them in every way possible
      • Promise contingent on one thing: repentance – text: Let them return to the Lord so that [God] may have mercy on them. → Heb. “return” = same word as “repent”
        • Dr. Schlimm fleshes this idea out for us (again, 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know): [The Hebrew] gives people concrete images that teach them about the dangers of sin and how to get back into a right relationship with God. Instead of making religion something abstract, it’s about getting in “the zone” of a covenant with God. When we pass through God’s covenant and find ourselves in sin, we need to turn from wickedness and return to our Creator.[9]
    • Passage today ends with God’s reminder that while that promise and provision may not always take the form that we want it to take, God is with us, working and loving and healing and teaching and saving among us and through us – text: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans. Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend. Yes, you will go out with celebration, and you will be brought back in peace. Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you; all the trees of the field will clap their hands. In place of the thorn the cypress will grow; in place of the nettle the myrtle will grow. This will attest to the LORD’s stature, an enduring reminder that won’t be removed.[10]
      • Rev. Julia Seymour: Poised in this liminal and hopeful state, between exile and homecoming, God is clear. The people are in a safe space to perceive the possibilities of God’s blessings and promises. Leaning into God’s faithfulness will help them to step out in trust, to return to their land, but to that their strength is in the Lord. … The space that is here and now, the life we have, is the arena in which we learn, truly, that God’s ways are not ours. God’s words and deeds bring life, light, and love. Advent is the season, the time, when we are prepared (before being distracted) to re-focus our minds and hearts on God, especial God in Christ. … If the message of Ezekiel 37 was that nothing is too dead for God, surely the message of Isaiah 55 is that when God brings life, it will be (is) beyond anything for which we would dare to hope, much less ask.[11] → Salvation has come … is coming … will come again, friends. As we wait and wonder, question and worry, ponder and hope this Advent season, may God open our eyes to the abundance of the salvation – the “enough-ness” of that salvation – in all the circumstances we face. Amen.

[1] Julia Seymour, https://revgalblogpals.org/2013/12/09/narrative-lectionary-what-ho-edition-isaiah-55/.

[2] Stephanie Y. Mitchem. “Proper 13 (Sunday between July 31 and August 6 inclusive) – Isaiah 55:1-5, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 290.

[3] Is 55:1-2.

[4] Is 55:3-4.

[5] Norman H. Snaith, http://www.bible-researcher.com/chesed.html.

[6] Matthew Richard Schlimm. 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 16, 17.

[7] Is 55:6-7.

[8] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/isaiah-551-13/.

[9] Schlimm, 69.

[10] Is 55:8-13.

[11] Seymour.

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in the Breath

Text used – Ezekiel 37:1-14

  • When I was a kid, we used to listen to a particular cassette tape in the car all the time: Anne Murray’s “There’s a Hippo in my Tub.” (If you have kids or grandkids and haven’t tried out Anne Murray’s music, I highly encourage it. You can find them all on YouTube.) On that album, there’s a particular song I’ve been thinking about this week. It’s a song called “Why Oh Why.”
    • Premise: adult trying to get a child to go to sleep → child is full of questions
    • Starts off innocently enough:
      • Q: Why does a camel drink water? → A: Because a camel gets thirsty just like you and me and everybody else does.
    • Devolves from there:
      • Q: Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar? → A: Because a mouse’s stomach isn’t big enough to hold a streetcar.
      • Q: Why can’t a cow have kittens? → A: Because … well, uhhh … because cows have little calves and cats have little kittens, and besides, dear, it’s easier that way.
    • Unanswerable questions, right? They certainly come from more than just kids.
      • Silly ones
        • Which came first – the chicken or the egg?
        • Why is the objective of golf to play the least amount of golf?
        • Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar?
        • Mom, kids, and I came up with a really fun car game for this while we were up north last summer: What’s the opposite of _____________? (something that doesn’t have an opposite) → What’s the opposite of cloud? What’s the opposite of train? What’s the opposite of purple?
      • Serious ones
        • How big is the universe?
        • What is heaven like?
        • What’s my purpose here?
        • How long, O Lord?
    • The question posed in our Scripture reading this morning seems to be just such a question: “Human one, can these bones live again?”[1] Can these bones live again? [PAUSE] A seemingly-unanswerable question, right?
      • Hear the unanswerable nature of that question in the response given in Scripture: I said, “Lord God, only you know.” → The Biblical version of “God only knows,” right?
        • Said with exasperation?
        • Said with confusion?
        • Said with resignation?
        • Said with hope?
        • Said with faith?
        • Another unanswerable question. But how does God’s seemingly-unanswerable question continue to impart answers about God’s hope for us today?
  • To move that particular questions into the “answerable” category, we need to first understand a little bit more about Ezekiel, both the prophet and the book.
    • Greatest context comes from the beginning of Ezekiel – text: In the thirteenth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.[2] → You may have caught that word “exiles,” and if you did, you might have also guessed that Ezekiel is yet another one of those prophets who spoke God’s word to the people during the Babylonian exile. So Ezekiel is a contemporary of both Isaiah and Jeremiah (though we have to remember that the Babylonian exile spanned an entire lifetime, so being contemporaries doesn’t mean that Ezekiel actually knew either Isaiah or Jeremiah). → a few differences
      • Ezekiel’s role in society (from the intro to Ezek in The CEB Study Bible): Though known to readers as a prophet, Ezekiel was first and foremost a priest in the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem. As a temple priest, he belonged to a select, privileged, educated class in Judah’s ancient society.[3]
      • Tone of Ezekiel → Ezekiel is unwaveringly blunt and even harsh in his words of judgment for the people and the nation of Judah. The God portrayed in the book of Ezekiel is not a kind and compassionate God at all.
        • Rev. Dr. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr (author and Prof. of Hebrew Scripture at Boston University’s School of Theology): Ezekiel’s oracles of judgment are filled with passion and utterly devoid of sentimentality. The God we witness through Ezekiel’s words is consumed by wrath, bent on violence, and hungry for vengeance.[4]
      • Form of Ezekiel: As we’ve seen over the past few Sunday, Isaiah and Jeremiah are more accounts of conversations between the prophets and God while Ezekiel’s prophecies come more from visions and oracles. → scholars break these into 3 general section[5]
        • chs. 1-24: sign acts and oracles of doom against Judah and Jerusalem
        • chs. 25-32: oracles against foreign nations and rulers
        • chs. 33-48: oracles concerning Israel’s future restoration → And it’s in this final section that we find our Scripture reading for today – Ezekiel’s infamous vision of the valley full of dry bones.
  • So let’s dig into that vision a little more.
    • Significant that in his vision, God places Ezekiel “in the middle of a certain valley”
      • Makes it fairly clear that Ezekiel himself is right there in the midst of the strain and brokenness, the lostness and sinfulness of the rest of the people → God didn’t set Ezekiel on the rim of the valley so he could look down on all those dry bones. God didn’t hover Ezekiel over the whole scene. God placed Ezekiel smack dab in the middle of the valley in and amongst all the rest of the dry bones, including even God’s own prophet in the deficiency and parchedness.
      • Being placed in the center of the valley also ensures that Ezekiel will be able to see it all – that Ezekiel will be able to witness and attest to the full extent of all that lies in the valley → From the center of the valley, Ezekiel cannot miss a single bone or dust cloud. He will be fully exposed – physically and visually – to the arid nature of the valley and the desiccated state of the bones. No matter where he looks, Ezekiel cannot help but see. He cannot help but witness.
        • Element of longevity/endurance to this placement – Heb. “set me down” = settle, remain, camp, wait[6] → implies that this is more than a brief visit – that God is doing more than breezing Ezekiel through this scene → There is purpose to Ezekiel’s visit to this valley of dry bones, and here he will remain until God’s message is delivered in full.
        • Just to be sure of this, God takes Ezekiel on a little tour through the valley – text: While I was in the Lord’s spirit, [God] led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. [The Lord] led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.[7]
          • Again, we see in the Hebrew just how important it is that Ezekiel fully witness the nature and state of his surroundings. → Heb. “hinneh” (that little, attention-grabbing word) = untranslated before both the phrase “there were a great many of them on the valley floor” and the phrase “they were very dry”[8]
    • Come to our seemingly-unanswerable question – text: [The Lord] asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?” I said, “Lord God, only you know.”[9] → But instead of giving Ezekiel a simple answer that he could take back to the people, God chose to enact an answer instead.
      • Answer that comes in three phases, each set in motion by God
  • First phase = reassembly
    • Ezekiel prophecies to the bones as God commanded → bones come together → sinews cover the bones → flesh covers the sinew → skin covers the flesh
    • But at the completion of this first phase, there’s still something missing – text: There was still no breath in them.[10]
  • Second phase = BREATH
    • God to Ezekiel: [The Lord] said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”[11]
    • Ezekiel does as God commands → breath enters the throng of bodies before him → text: When they breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.[12] → need to take a step back for a minute and talk about this breath because this is The Key
      • Heb. “breath” = ruach – word for wind, air, breath, and spirit → So those dry, lifeless bodies that populated the valley all around Ezekiel were devoid of God’s spirit. The spirit of God was not in them. Hold onto that nugget for a while in your mind.
  • Final phase = rising up – text: [The Lord] said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people.”[13] → concludes with God’s promise and reassurance that God will, indeed, do this
    • But none of this could happen without the breath … without the spirit. Without the spirit of God, these bones would remain lifeless. Dry. Scattered, broken, and incomplete. But with God’s breath … God’s spirit … within them, it’s a whole different story.
      • Rev. Dr. Lisa Thompson (author, ordained Baptist minister, and Assoc. Prof. of Black Homiletics and Liturgics at the Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School): The restoration will not stop with breath; it will attend to the fleshiest matters of this situated reality from muscles to skin tissues. These bones are to become upright, Spirit-filled flesh once again. And the Holy One is the acting agent who offers the word that life can come again, precipitates the reassembly of the bones, brings forth the breath from the winds, and restores muscles and flesh.[14]
  • So what do we do with this idea of God’s spirit?
    • More often read this oracle from Ezek on Pentecost – the day when we celebrate the Holy Spirit – God’s Spirit – alighting on the disciples after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension back into heaven → We say that’s what we celebrate … we say that’s what we believe … and yet in the mainline Protestant church in particular, we seem to have forgotten about the Holy Spirit or, worse yet, intentionally neglected the person and work of the Holy Spirit altogether.
      • From Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power by N. Graham Standish: Many of today’s mainline members fear the Holy Spirit because of what they see in the Pentecostal movement, which tends to focus mostly on the Holy Spirit. … Unfortunately, too many of our churches, by ignoring and remaining closed to the Holy Spirit, have developed respiratory failure. Since we no longer breathe with the breath of the Holy Spirit, we neither aspire to become open to the Spirit nor allow ourselves to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. As a result, our churches eventually expire. We suffer such chronic respiratory failure – the failure to breathe in the Spirit and life – that our churches eventually take their last breath and die.[15] → Friends, especially in this time in which we find ourselves feeling dry and depleted, utterly spent and discarded on the valley floor, it is essential – literally, the essence … the very intrinsic nature of our faith – that we remember the power of God’s Holy Spirit with us and among us.
    • In our churches and in our lives today, we find ourselves in this time of Advent – this time of waiting.
      • Waiting for the birth of the Savior – the birth of Salvation … waiting for Salvation to come … and to come again
      • Waiting so often involves waiting in the midst of unanswered questions … questions that feel scattered around us as prominent and devastated as those dry bones
        • Rev. Dr. Thompson: As we end this calendar year, we may survey the places in our world that lay waiting for an infusion from the holy-life-force. We are living in a global pandemic. We’ve had continual racial unrest, migration crises and border struggles, wildfires, and oil spills. Ongoing social and personal upheaval are not foreign conditions in our immediate neighborhoods or across the globe. The vibrancy of life sustained eludes us daily. And yet, the mysterium tremendum of the passage is: the presence of death, loss, and grief do not thwart the uncertain but emboldened participation in the tangible possibilities of life renewed. This may be an invitation to imagine these places of participation in very concrete ways for our contemporary contexts, even as we hope against hope in a full forward-facing recovery to come.
          • Spirit that raises dry bones to new life and purpose
          • Spirit that is aching to bring about the birth of the Christ-child in our midst and in our hearts
          • Spirit that can breathe new life and new hope into even the most desolate waiting … Amen.

[1] Ezek 37:3.

[2] Ezek 1:1.

[3] John T. Strong. “Ezekiel: Introduction” from The CEB Study Bible. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), OT 1315.

[4] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr. “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 1085.

[5] Ibid, 1089.

[6] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/ezekiel-371-14d/.

[7] Ezek 37:1-2.

[8] Levy.

[9] Ezek 37:3.

[10] Ezek 37:8.

[11] Ezek 37:9.

[12] Ezek 37:10b.

[13] Ezek 37:11-13.

[14] Lisa Thompson. “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/ezekiel-valley-of-dry-bones/commentary-on-ezekiel-371-14-10.

[15] N. Graham Standish. Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power, 2nd ed. (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 33.