First Lesson: Acts 2: 1-21
Responsive Reading: Psalm 104: 24-35
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13
Gospel Lesson: John 20: 19-23
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
When I was in High School, I had a friend named Matt. Matt like a lot of kids didn’t like school. Matt would rather have spent his time playing golf, driving cars, and making money. When other kids were deciding upon where they were planning to attend college. Matt didn’t want to go. Matt had to struggle with the idea that going to college was what a person is supposed to do after high school. One of Matt’s high school teachers told Matt “That he would never make anything of himself until he went to college." Matt never went to college. Matt worked a variety of jobs, mostly in sales working towards developing his craft. Matt is eventually selling cars, and Matt has become quite good at it. Matt’s now a Sales Manager at a Kia dealership in Mankato. Matt developed his gifts apart from the traditional way of college. Matt developed his gifts, in a way, different from everyone else around them. For Matt, this non-traditional approach worked.
An interesting story about Matt, I was talking to him on the phone this week. Matt married a girl who graduated from Saint Olaf. Matt and his wife Heidi attended her college reunion where had the opportunity to catch up with many of his Heidi’s friends from Saint Olaf. As Matt talked to the Oles about where they were in life all, he heard was complaining. “I don’t like my job”, “I have too much debt." Matt can not help to feel vindicated by his going against the grain decision to skip college years earlier. Matt pointed out something important as we were talking about this “The issue isn’t how much money they are or should be making, the real issue is living a purposeless existence where you’re not doing something that you see as valuable.”
What makes something that we do valuable? Matt’s story brings us to our lesson for today from 1st Corinthians.
Let me begin by giving a brief summary of 1st Corinthians. The Apostle Paul wrote this book as a way of addressing a church conflict amongst the earliest believers. The Corinthians met in individual homes out of fear for persecution. The Corinthians probably did not have many people in their house church at any one time. So the Corinthians got to know each other quite well. Perhaps the Corinthians got to know each other too-well as they encountered the non-saintly aspects of their fellow Christians’ lives from the sexual immortality to their own our sense of selfishness played out in everything from food squabbles to power struggles.
Paul wrote this chapter on Spiritual Gifts because the people in Corinth kept trying to create layers and artificial divisions amongst themselves based on what they thought they brought to the table.
The story in Corinth is not the story of a unique church. The story of Corinth is the story of every church. When you bring sinning sinners together, sparks are always going fly within the midst.
Paul wrote this letter to the Church in Corinth because he wanted to create a different type of religious culture. Paul wanted to unite the culture between the spiritual have and the have not, the athletic have and the have not, the intellectual have, and the have not, along with the financial haves and the have not. Paul wrote to the Corinthians as a way of trying to bring them together in the middle of their division that was threatening to devour them.
Paul understood that a miracle of sort was taking place in Corinth. The miracle wasn’t that more people weren’t leaving the church in Corinth. The miracle was that people were coming to the church in Corinth at all. The Corinthians had experienced pastoral turmoil, the Corinthians fought over Roman politics and the Corinthians had endured all sorts of rude treatment at the hands of their fellow members even including lawsuits being filed against their fellow believers, yet they still gathered.
The miracle was the Holy Spirit’s effectiveness as the Corinthians gathered together time after time to confess together that Jesus was their Lord and Savior. Paul wrote that the nature of the church is such that they were no longer a series of identities, but rather one identity brought together as the people of God in Christ Jesus.
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the identity of their spiritual gifts, what Paul was seeking to remind the Corinthians is that their spiritual gifts didn’t just belong to their preacher; their spiritual gifts belonged to each and every member of the Corinthian church.
What Paul is seeking to remind the Corinthians is their disputes are not between those who possess the Holy Spirit versus those who don’t. Rather we all serve together the same spirit, the same lord.
Right before starting in the Seminary, I was asked perhaps the most important question that I’ve ever been asked in my life, “How do I know that it’s God, not the devil calling me into the ministry?”
In being asked this question, I was forced to confront a struggle that we will all face as we seek to discern God’s direction for our life versus that of our own whims and wishes.
What we are left with is asking ourselves: “Do our actions build unity or disunity amongst God’s people?” and “Do our actions seek to bring a word of comfort and forgiveness to our neighbor?” and “Do our actions proclaim the Gospel?
We make excuses why these things with which Paul speaks don’t apply to us. People say that they might be too old to make a difference. People figure that what you are good at might not be that important.
Let me tell you a story. There was a woman’s group at a Lutheran Church that had the same 10-15 woman meeting month after month for what seemed to be decades. The oldest member of the group was a woman named Catherine. When these women bickered, Catherine would always interrupt with her kind and gracious demeanor to give perspective. When the church was in conflict, the members fighting amongst themselves, Catherine would seek to bring people together for a greater purpose. When woman would start to gossip, Catherine would try to change the conversation a different direction. Catherine at ninety some years old brought a wisdom and knowledge to that group that at times kept it from falling apart. Once Catherine moved away, a void was going to be felt at every single meeting. Once Catherine moved away, the meetings started to get a little testier. Catherine’s grace and leadership were invaluable to all that came across her; it didn’t matter one iota what her age.
“Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues – these are the gifts that Paul celebrates in our lesson for today. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).
These gifts come to us in many forms; healing can come to us in the forms of doctors and nurses whether it seems obvious to them at the time or not. Prophecy involves the ability to interpret how the past, will play out in the future. Tongues come to us when people become convicted that one of God’s people needs their prayer in a particular moment. Tongues come when people are overwhelmed in an unexplainable fashion by God’s own spirit.
An important distinction for this morning is pointing out the difference between “ gift” versus “ talent” as it relates to our lesson.
This week, the NBA Finals began between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. The Heat’s Lebron James is arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time. Lebron James has the type of raw talent when it comes to things like speed, strength, passing ability, and footwork that might not be equaled by any other human being on the planet for the next one-hundred years. Lebron James possess earth-shattering talent; Lebron James’ talent has led to him making more money then generations of his ancestors will know how to spend.
As Paul was writing to the Corinthians he wanted to let them know that a spiritual gift was even more valuable than talent. The thing about talent is that it only serves to better yourself, whereas a spiritual gift serves to better the whole community around you.
Paul makes this distinction as the people of Corinth were infighting amongst themselves that their ministry needed to be focused inward, rather than outward for the sake of their own survival. Christ is not seen necessarily in one’s talents, whereas Christ can be seen through one’s gifts.
To further illustrate the distinction between talents and gifts, I want to close this morning with the story of Alice the Maid, otherwise known as Alice from the TV Show The Brady Bunch.
Alice was played by the actress Ann B. Davis. Ann B. Davis died last weekend. If you only know Ann. B. Davis as Alice the Maid you are missing a fascinating story. Right as the Brady Bunch drew to a close, Ann B. Davis became a born again Episcopalian. While doing a play in Denver, Co, Davis would become close friends with an Episcopalian Bishop William Frey.
Davis then slowly transitions out of show-business by moving into a religious commune with twenty other people. When Davis got calls about job offers in Hollywood, she would often pass saying that she found something better. Davis spent the last years of her life traveling around the country speaking at various churches, singing in the church choir, taking seminary classes in her free-time while also doing laundry for an area homeless shelter. Reading a tribute of hers this week, someone said they never saw joy on her face like when Ann B. Davis would reunite stray socks while folding a load of laundry at a homeless shelter.
What made Davis’s life so different from that of her fellow Brady Bunch cast members is that she found meaning in life for something much greater than chemical addiction, or illicit sexual liaisons. Davis found her meaning in life from how she served others in her own unique way.
The message for Pentecost is that ministry doesn’t have to look a certain way. My friend Matt didn’t have to go to College to find success in life. If you lie awake in terror at the thought of public speaking, you don’t need to be a preacher. If you can’t boil water, you don’t need to work in the Kitchen. My point is not to make your life look like Alice the Maid’s. My point is rather to cultivate your own spiritual gifts. The more people and the more ways that we reach out, the more and more ideas that are brought to the table, the stronger we are as a faith community.
My point is to consider the extent of the mission field that lies before you. How we live out our spiritual gifts cannot be separated from the Christian freedom won for us on the Cross. We are not defined by God because our lives look a certain way. We are instead claimed directly by God so that our lives may be given new meaning from the day of our Baptism forward. In Baptism we are reminded that our lives from every day forward are ultimately not about us anymore, but rather the one that we are called to serve.
As we celebrate Pentecost today. We reflect on the meaning of our own spiritual gifts: diverse and varied. We possess gifts that God gives us to reach the world around us, gifts that God gives us to bring us together as the body of Christ. These were the gifts that were given to Jesus’ earliest of followers, the gifts that have been given to those before us to bring us to this place today. Amen .
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from Luke the 24th Chapter. It’s the tale of Jesus and the Disciples saying their final goodbyes to each other as Jesus sought to leave the disciples with a word of promise, right before Jesus ascended out of the Disciples sight to never be seen in the flesh by them again. Crucifixion then Resurrection then Ascension, we spend almost all of Lent getting ready for the Crucifixion, we then spend almost all of Spring then celebrating Easter, whereas the Ascension of Jesus is the least talked about of these three big events. This morning’s sermon is the first that I have ever given on the Ascension. If Easter is the day where Christ achieved his victory over sin and the grave, then the Festival of Ascension is the day where Christ returned to his throne.
Ascension Sunday raises an interesting question for us of “Where exactly Jesus went when he left the Earth?” The Common way of thinking of the world even amongst Christian people has been the three-tiered universe which we could also know as the three-tiered planet.
Heaven is up above us. Popular culture often portrays Heaven as existing up in the clouds. Heaven is the place where your loved ones even the rascals go when they die.
Down below us underneath the ground is Hell or the Underworld, Hell is where apparently Satan pokes and prods people that have been naughty. Hell is where your neighbor who doesn’t clean up after his dog, and makes a lot of noises late at night or early in the morning tends to end up. Hell is the domain of people we don’t like.
Right in between this is all is where we live in the here and the now. Heaven, Hell, and Planet Earth all contained between the North and South Pole is the traditional understanding of the three-tiered universe.
The question for this morning would be “Is this understanding, right?”
When Jesus is proclaiming his message of salvation to the people of Capernaum in Matthew 11 he says the following: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to Heaven? You will be brought down to Hades.”
When Jesus speaks to this belief of Heaven being above us, and Hell being below us he is merely reinforcing the beginning of the Book of Genesis which states:
6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse[a] in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made[b] the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven.[c] And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”
The waters that are spoken about in the creation story as being above the Earth are thought to be the waters that separate God from his people. So the actual creation story itself points to the sky as the dividing barrier between God and his people. The creation story doesn’t go into details as to where exactly God nor the Heavens exist at the present time.
This all brings forth an interesting point about the location of Heaven. Either the location of Heaven is somewhere in the clouds that ultimately we cannot see, or Heaven ultimately resides in a place that we cannot find on a map or any GPS?
So where is Heaven located then? The question was not one that I ever previously sought to form an answer. Although a while back, I was having Pizza over at Jimmy’s with Pastor Brostrom from Faith Lutheran, who put forth an interesting idea that “Heaven does not exist within the traditional confines of the Earth, rather Heaven is located possibly in an alternative dimension."
I realize that such a suggestion sounds quite odd talking about alternative dimensions and Twilight Zone stuff. There are a few points about all this for us to consider this morning.
Within the last twenty-five years as scientists keep discovering more and more about the Universe what can conclude is that there is a lot out there that we don’t know definitive answers. For example, ninety-five percent of all matter within the universe would be dark matter, or matter that cannot be seen with a telescope because it does not emit light or any measurable magnetic pull. So to claim that we have all the answers to how the Universe works or what exists within it with five percent of the relevant material would be a proclamation of foolishness.
Even defining what we know about the Universe proves that our knowledge is limited. The Universe has been thought of as possessing four dimensions (length, width, height, and space- time) since the initial work of Albert Einstein on Relativity Theory. Einstein's work has been expanded upon for our understanding of the planet in recent years. Quantum Physics a science that studies the behavior of subatomic particles suggests that there beyond the four observable dimensions of which Einstein spoke that there exists the possibility of several additional dimensions that cannot be directly detected. The most popular theory “M-Theory” regarding the behavior of subatomic particles suggests eleven possible dimensions.
What this means for us this morning as we consider the location of heaven is that we can’t say whether God created an invisible spiritual dimension that operates outside the space-time continuum of this world. What we can say is that the Universe in all probability possesses dimensions that can’t be physically inhabited by us in our present condition.
We must not view Religion and Science as at odds with each other. What Science is revealing to us is patterns of behavior of even the tiniest sub-atomic particles that go way beyond human understanding. We can’t understand the ability to control time, let alone understand the possibility nor inner-workings of alternative dimensions.
Turning this discussion back biblically, one of the big themes of the Book of Revelation is the distinction that it makes it in the constant switch in the two scenes between Earth and Heaven. The whole point of Revelation is that things of the spiritual world are gradually becoming made known to the Apostle John. When Revelation makes such a sharp distinction between Heaven and Earth what it seems to be indicating is that Heaven is not merely a part of the Earth rather Heaven is a completely separate reality from Earth. The whole point of the Book of Revelation in John’s letter to seven persecuted churches is to give believers confidence that their earthly persecution and situation will not last.
Perhaps our greatest misunderstanding of Heaven and Earth is laid out in Revelation 21:2 which states: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
Perhaps the way for us to think about the Afterlife isn’t so much in terms of us ascending into Heaven but rather in terms of God coming down to Earth. The exact location of the New Heaven or it’s connection with the New Earth isn’t what is ultimately important, but what is important is that God promises to come yet again for his people. The language that surrounds our Gospel is important. The key thing about Jesus’ ascension into heaven isn’t whether Heaven is located physically above us as we point towards the sky. Rather the key thing about the Ascension is that it turned his death and resurrection into a present reality for not only the Disciples, but all those who believed in it.
So how does Jesus conclude the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension before he says goodbye to the disciples until the day of their own resurrection. Jesus leaves the earth behind with a word of promise “Behold; I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Last week, we had our Pastors meeting down in Duluth. I was talking to a Pastor Paul Reiff from down in the Moose Lake Area, who had recently done a funeral for a sixteen year old boy who committed suicide. This boy was having issues with his girlfriend. They were communicating on what is called “Snap Chat." Snap Chat is a way for kids to communicate over the phone that communicates quickly without leaving behind any evidence. This boy’s Girlfriend used Snap Chat to flick him off as a way of telling him that their relationship was no more. The Boy’s response was then to take a gun to himself, shoot a video of him ending his own life that would be sent immediately received by everyone that he communicated with on a frequent basis. What makes this story so sad is this young man’s warped sense of self-worth, how he saw his value in life coming merely from the affirmation of a sixteen year old girl. What makes this story so important is there are infinite people out there who feel the way this kid does.
What I like to believe is the promise that Jesus is giving to the Disciples as he ascends from their presence is that in the moments when we want more than anything to see his presence, he is not absent. Jesus understood that as he left the disciples, the great human fear of being alone.
Pope Francis said a while back that “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”
These statements initially struck me as missing the mark, but perhaps these things are merely expressions of the present human condition. Where the Ascension story comes to us today is that proclaims that Jesus does, in fact, live on for those who most need to hear during the struggles of their everyday existence.
The Disciples’ response to Jesus’ departure was quite a bit different than their response to his crucifixion that occurred several weeks earlier. Where as the Disciples had fled from the scene out of great fear at the time of Jesus’ arrest, the Disciples looked onto Jesus’ departure with a confidence that in spite of Jesus being removed from them that they would be all right. Maybe these feelings were a result of the promise of the coming or Holy Spirit, or maybe it had to do with Christ was not going to be that far gone.
As we reflect upon our lesson for this morning we remember Jesus’ final words from the Book of Revelation, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen-Revelation 22:20
I think it’s important as we consider questions regarding the possible location of Heaven within the universe that while these questions are fascinating, they are ultimately what’s not important. What’s important is that Jesus’ presence in our lives is not confined to any single place or any single time, nor is Jesus going to be gone for good. Amen
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
There’s a saying amongst pastors that Confirmation students ask the best questions. Where as older adults might hesitate to ask certain questions for fear of being perceived as rude, inappropriate, or making others uncomfortable. Confirmation students often lack any such filter, so they just blurt out the first thought that inevitability pops into their head. So this morning I wish to begin our sermon by answering one of the best Confirmation questions, it’s a question that probably all of us have wondered about at some time in our life.
The question to consider this morning is “If believing in Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, then what happens to a man living on an island in the South Pacific that never has encountered any missionaries, nor even heard Jesus’ name. Would God be so mean and unfair as to condemn someone for all eternity for either bad luck or ignorance”?
I think before answering this question, we need to consider the concept of God’s fairness. What should be stated is that Heaven is the unfair outcome, whereas Hell is the fair outcome. If I were to die in a car accident this afternoon, death would not be an unfair result, hell would not be an unfair result, what would be unfair would be God’s forgiveness, what would be unfair is to be a recipient of God’s promises of eternal life.
We speak of salvation by grace, salvation by what is unmerited or undeserved for this reason. So the question about the South Pacific Islander’s eternal destination is not a question about God’s fairness, but rather a question about God’s nature.
So does God save the man born in the middle of nowhere who has never heard the Gospel? I think the first thing to point out is that God ultimately wants to save all people and come to knowledge of the truth.-1 Timothy 2:4
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son”-John 3:16
We remember that Christ came not to condemn the world, but rather Christ came to save and redeem the world. Christ wept at the awfulness of sin as he witnessed his friend Lazarus’ death. We are continually reminded throughout the scriptures that God can save the non-believer through any means that he chooses.
In the Book of Acts, God saves Cornelius a religious man who had never heard of Jesus Christ by choosing to make him the first gentile to convert to Christianity.
In the Book of Joshua, God worked through the prostitute Rahab who limited knowledge of him or the scriptures, yet was later referred to in the Book of Hebrews as a person of great faith.
God poured out his grace upon the Syrian Army commander Namaan, even as he lived in and served a nation that was openly hostile towards his ways.
So we must be continually brought back to the nature of God’s mercy being poured out upon the most unexpected of people.
I think what we must ultimately come back to when considering the fate of the unevangelized is Jesus’ emphasis on the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Jesus said to “Bring the Gospel forth to all nations."
The Disciples then proceeded to risk their life and reputation for spreading the Gospel. If Christ’s earliest and closest of followers didn’t believe that sharing their faith mattered for the sake of heaven/hell then, their actions would make no sense.
For whether God might grant mercy to all people at some point in time, I can’t say. We reflect on this question of the South Pacific Islander, who never heard the Gospel in many of the same ways as we reflect upon the question of unbaptized babies. I think it’s best to point towards the nature of the God that we do have. The God who proclaimed to an unbaptized Thief hanging alongside him “Today you will be with me in Paradise”
We can very rarely answer with any certainty questions regarding anyone’s salvation, all we can do is take comfort in the God that we have, the God that went forth to the Cross. While I believe that people cannot receive salvation apart from the Gospel of Christ, what I can’t say with any certainty is how far his Gospel can reach. I believe that the potential reach of the Gospel goes way beyond my own prejudices and biases. I wake up every morning giving thanks that the fate of humanity is not governed by my own whims and wishes, but rather by God’s mercy and grace.
I ultimately don’t consider myself to be a Universalist (one who believes that everyone is automatically saved) not because I have any certainty whether it is so. I have trouble with universalism because it says that Word and Sacrament don’t matter. Universalism makes the Death of Jesus into an unnecessary event. Universalism also doesn’t speak to why Christ’s closest followers were so were to risk their lives in the Church’s earliest days.
One of these stories from the Church’s earliest days comes to us this morning from the Book of Acts the 17th Chapter in the story of Paul preaching at Mars Hill. There is a very large church in Seattle called “Mars Hill” because when they started out their whole mission was reaching the unchurched and religiously unaffiliated of the Pacific Northwest. Our story for today is perhaps the Bible’s greatest tale of evangelism.
Our story for today begins a few verses before our lesson. The Apostle Paul is out walking through the streets of Athens where he is disturbed by all that he sees. Paul sees religious idols everywhere that he walked. Paul could have easily given up, and figured it was all a lost cause. Paul could have gone back to his home and been much more comfortable than trying to engage strangers in a foreign culture.
Paul instead decided to engage with the people of Athens and deal with the inevitable consequences. Paul’s first stop was the Agora, where Paul debated academics. Most of the people rejected Paul that he encountered, but some were willing to give him a second chance. Leading to our lesson for today where Paul speaks at Mars Hill. What makes Paul’s speech, so remarkable is his approach to the people of Athens, Paul doesn’t seek to lash out at them rather Paul commends them for their pursuit of religious truth. Paul was willing to engage the people of Athens, where they were at, not where Paul hoped they should be.
Let me tell a story, I know a lady named Janie. Janie’s a kind, sweet, old lady who seems to love everyone that she encounters. Janie’s getting up there in years; she has to have oxygen and walking is quite difficult without losing breath. Janie has four children and nine grandchildren. Janie overtime started to realize that she wasn’t seeing her grandchildren as much as they moved away, or got tied up with school. Janie noticed that her phone calls were being returned way after the fact. So Janie at seventy some years old decided that she was going to learn how to send text messages on her cell-phone to communicate with people better.
What I admire about Janie so much is that she is terrible at text-messaging. When I worked as a substitute teacher I would see kids that could send message after message keeping their phones inside their pockets the entire time. Some kids can text 30-40 words a minute with ease, whereas for Janie every letter that she types into the phone time. Janie trying to identify a letter on her phone might look like a bird trying to find a worm on the ground. The reason Janie learned text messaging is because she believes that it’s important for her to stay connected. The thing that I admire so much about Janie is she reaches out, even when it involves doing something uncomfortable for her because she knows the cost of it all is of infinite worth.
Janie teaches us something important about evangelism that evangelism isn’t ultimately about being a great mind. Evangelism is instead the act of becoming.
Janie reminds me of Paul at Athens. Paul knew the Athenians were lost in the wilderness in their pursuit of spiritual truth. Paul didn’t view the Athenians as his enemies; Paul rather viewed them as fellow travelers in pursuit of trying to figure life out. Paul sees that the Athenians had built an altar to an “unknown god," so Paul takes what was unknown to seek to make it known.
Paul made it known that the God he worships has so much power that he raised a man to life who had been in the tomb for three days.
“People who inspire others are those who see invisible bridges at the end of dead-end streets”- Charles Swindoll.
Some rejected Paul's message to the people of Athens on that day, yet Paul also gained willing ears wanting to hear more.
“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”-Acts 17:32
There are two types of churches out there. There are churches that are just seeking to survive. Churches whose sole focus takes place inside their walls: budgets, numbers, and traditions. Churches whose focus is on sorting through power struggles and appeasing their own members. The second types of church are churches that are seeking to thrive. Churches that seek to reach the community, churches that seek out new relationships, and churches that seek out new ways of reaching people.
People of Sychar years of declining membership have beaten us down, old age has beaten us down, conflict has been us down, yet none of these things is our future. I have hope because I see joy on people’s face as kids go down the aisle to collect the well offering. I have hope because I see visitors welcomed as friends. I have hope because we understand that our existence is much bigger than ourselves, we define ourselves as a faith community by the forgiveness of sins.
I was having dinner with a friend a while back down in Duluth. This friend had grown up in a real religious home, yet over the years has drifted away from the church. The one thing though he couldn’t escape from Christianity is the beauty of forgiveness. Hearing that your sins have been declared clean from someone who believes it is a message that will not replicate through any other human community which people claim can replace the church.
For in the words of Thomas Edison, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Too often we have the wrong idea about increasing church membership. We merely think we need to invite someone to church. We say “come to our church, I’ll maybe see you there.” “If I’m feeling particularly outgoing that day, I might even wave at you and send you well-wishes.” When what we need to do is not invite people to church, but rather bringing people to church. Bringing people to church goes beyond offering rides. Bringing people to church involves taking people into your lives no matter their personality quirks. Bringing people to church involves taking people in the midst of both their joys and sorrows. Bringing people to church involves a promise to be a support system for someone through thick and thin.
Paul went forth to Athens with great risk; Paul dared to proclaim salvation in a God whose name no one had ever heard. People had been put to death previously for doing what Paul was doing. We risk something different; we risk losing the church we know and the church that many of us love. Nothing stays the same forever. People come; people go, and people come to believe that their needs are best met elsewhere. These challenges are normal. What instead defines us is a message that is bigger than any one individual. So Blurt It Out! Sychar Lutheran is not museum for the saints; Sychar Lutheran is rather the hospital for sinners. Sychar Lutheran is the place which promises you that you do not go through life alone. Sychar Lutheran like Athens is the place that God will never give up on. Amen
 Acts 10
 Joshua 2
 Hebrews 11:31
 2 Kings 5:1-14
 Luke 23:43
 Acts 17:16-21
 Acts 17:17-18
 Acts 17:23
 Acts 17:31
First Lesson: Acts 2: 42-47
Responsive Reading: Psalm 23
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 2: 19-25
Gospel Lesson: John 10: 1-10
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Let me begin this morning with a story from my childhood. When I was eight years old, my dad had put up a tree house about seven feet off the ground for my friends and I to use. My parents being quite cautious attached to this tree house a ladder that was meant to be used for every journey up and down from the tree. I had a group of friends from the neighborhood that would frequent the tree house. As a child, I was the most risk averse of the children in our group. My friends Tommy and Danny discovered that they could jump down from the tree house, rather than take a boring ladder. So Tommy and Danny began to jump down quite frequently from the tree house, while I would watch. Tommy and Danny in all their jumps never managed to get hurt, so I believed that I could jump down like them also. So one day, I decided I was going to make my first jump down from the tree house. Now when Tommy and Danny jumped they always managed to jump straight down. They maybe even hung with their legs dangling along the edge before jumping off. I had a different idea for my first jump though; I was going to jump as high into the air as I could, thinking that I would be able to fly like superman. Judging by the title of the sermon as you probably guessed; my first jump would end up being my last jump. Soon I would be an eight year old boy having to use a walker, and the next three months were going to be spent in a cast. What does this tale of my broken leg; have to do with our gospel lesson? I’ll get back to broken legs in a little bit.
Our Gospel lesson for today comes to us from John the 10th chapter. This lesson takes place right after Jesus heals a Man who born blind, the discussion before this miracle between Jesus and his disciples centered on the following question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Our lesson for today occurs right after a long debate regarding the meaning of the Blind Man’s healing. The passage consists of two basic parts. The first part of the passage consists of Jesus describing the work of his ministry in comparison to herding sheep. The second part of this passage makes sense of the analogy.
So why does Jesus seek to interpret the Blind Man’s healing by comparing the people of Israel to sheep?
1. Sheep are vulnerable to attack.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”-John 10:10
Second story- when I was at Luther Seminary, I managed the Seminary Mailroom. One Saturday early afternoon a guy came in who appeared to be frantic. The Guy said he lived across the street from the school; this story seemed plausible with so many different people living either on or near campus. This guy claimed that he had locked himself out of his house, and he needed $20 bucks to pay a locksmith. This guy said he would come back in twenty minutes, and give me $40 bucks to go buy lunch. Being my normal self, I handed the guy twenty without giving it much thought. As you can guess, I never saw this guy again.
As I tell the story I realize how completely sketchy this guy’s story was, and to be totally honest I am somewhat embarrassed to admit it. This story reminds us all though how we often fail to see and recognize the forces both spiritual and earthly that are out to attack us before it is too late to respond.
The reason Jesus compared his followers to sheep is because of the nature of our enemies, how we are often defenseless against the wolves and coyotes of life in sin, death, and the power of the devil. Those who are seeking to destroy our faith along with crushing our spirit.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
We know these words from the 23rd Psalm.
We hear these words and we immediately know they are words of comfort directed at us. Perhaps the greatest image of the Lord being our Shepherd is the Sunday school painting with Jesus holding a lamb in his arms no differently than a mother would hold her child. We see this painting, and it quickly brings us peace. We do not want kids to be done with Sunday school without understanding the meaning of this painting.
For even though none of us probably know shepherds, there are a few things we know about shepherds. We know shepherds as being caring and loyal in every circumstance that comes before them. A shepherd cares for his sheep, no differently than a mother would care for a child that she carried in her womb.
The relation that Jesus speaks of between the sheep and the shepherd only makes sense if one realizes the nature of the very forces which seek to threaten us nearly every single day.
2. Sheep often stray
“All like sheep gone astray”- Isaiah 53:6
I want to tell you this morning the story of a Major League pitcher named Barry Zito. Barry Zito came up with the Oakland A’s and was a star. Two years into Zito’s career, he won the Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the American League. After six and a half seasons in Oakland, Zito signed a seven year contract with the San Francisco Giants for $126 million dollars. Zito’s contract was the richest given to a pitcher at the time that he signed it. Zito’s time though in San Francisco was a disaster. Zito ended up in such low regard that just four years into his contract; he was left off the San Francisco Giants roster as they won the World Series.
Zito had been brought up in a very religious albeit non-traditional religious home. Zito had been brought up in New Age Spirituality. New Age Spirituality tends to place emphases on flowery ideas such as humanity’s inner goodness. Christianity tends to stress humanity’s differences with God; whereas New Age Spirituality tends to emphasize humanity’s oneness with God. The New Age Movement tends to de-emphasize things such as sin, evil, and judgment. The New Age Movement teaches humanity’s problem is one of sheer ignorance, keeping them from reaching their full illumination as individuals.
New Age Philosophy has been brought to the mainstream by people like Oprah Winfrey, Shirley Maclaine, and plenty of 21st century churches. As Zito kept encountering disappointment after disappointment from the highest of highs, he began to reconsider some things about the nature of his faith.
Barry Zito heard that there was no sin, yet such a statement is the very opposite of comforting when all you see around you is darkness.
Barry Zito eventually gets injured.
A few months after Zito’s injury, he was talking to his best friend who told him the story of the shepherd. How a shepherd will be leading his sheep and one of the sheep will be walking astray from the pack. The shepherd will then take the radical step of breaking the sheep’s leg, so that the sheep will have to rely on the shepherd to get better. But once that leg is completely healed, that sheep never leaves the side of the shepherd ever again.
This story illustrated to Barry Zito something important about the nature of faith. Faith is not dependent on our own sense of inner-goodness or motivation, faith is rather dependent on the promises of forgiveness that come to us as strayed sheep in our Gospel.
What Barry Zito’s story reminds us of is something important, Barry Zito needed to truly stray from the path that he designed for his life, to be able to find answers. Zito had to walk along a path that he would have never chosen for himself, yet it was on this path that the Shepherd’s ultimate work was revealed to rescue lost sheep.
3. Sheep need to be guided.
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”- Matthew 9:36
The thing about sheep is that they are not dumb animals. The thing that makes sheep, so unique is their inability to act apart from the rest of the sheep. If the head sheep won’t eat, none of the other sheep will eat. Sheep tend to follow the crowd. I saw friend after friend jump out of the tree house; I needed to do it next. When you are eight years old, you will follow your friends over the edge of a cliff. Herd instinct will be stronger than intelligence.
When I was in high school, I was playing in a golf meet talking to a kid that had recently moved to a new small school. This kid’s new school drove him crazy! If one kid had a particular pair of jeans, then within two weeks, everyone else would make it a priority to have the same time of jeans. One kid would smoke, soon everyone else would smoke. Studies about human decision making tend to portray humans as risk adverse in all walks of life, the main reason that humans are so risk-averse is they fear standing out for the crowd.
Sheep at the end of the day are ultimately fearful creatures that will not lie down unless they know that the shepherd is in sight.
“A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”-John 10:5
What our lesson in comparing humans to sheep reminds us of, is our need for a shepherd, a shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.
Our Good Shepherd leads us to the Cross. It is on the Cross, that the Shepherd stays beside those who have strayed from him there whole lives. The Good Shepherd goes before us into the valley of the shadow of death and seeks to call his own sheep by name, so that they may come out upon the other side. Our Good Shepherd reminds us that we shall not go through anything that he has not already endured. On the Cross, the Shepherd became the Sheep, the Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world, who cleanses us from all sin.
“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”-John 10:3-4. Amen.
 John 9:2
 Lannon, Nick. “Barry Zito, a Broken Leg, and the Outer Christ.” MBIRD. 12.Dec.2012. Web.
 Keown, Tim. “A man in the game.” ESPN the Magazine. 1.Dec.2012. Web.
 The Asch conformity experiments of the 1950’s are one of many studies which highlight this general phenomena.
First Lesson: Acts 2: 14, 36-41
Responsive Reading: Psalm 116: 1-4, 12-19
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 1: 17-23
Gospel Lesson: Luke 24: 13-35
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
I want to begin this morning with a story. There once was a man who was bald. This man was known for his patience, mercy, and kindness. One day this man was out taking a walk, when he encounters a large number of youth that begin to taunt him. They made fun made fun of his “baldness” and wished for his death. The bald man was both hurt by their insults, but frightened for his safety. The man then issues a curse against those who were taunting him. Right when it looked like the Bald Man’s life could be taken, out of the nearby woods come a couple of female bears, the bears then mauled to death forty-two youth.
With the exception of Gunnar and Nick along with the rest of the confirmation students, I’m not sure if anyone here really knows this story. It’s the story of Elisha and the she-bears that comes from the Book of 2 Kings 2.
This is a strange story that seems devoid of any real religious meaning. Yet it comes from the pages of our holiest of books. What should we think about the bald-man and the she bears? We’ll get back to that in a little bit.
Recently the American Bible Society and Barna Research released their 2014 State of the Bible survey which contained some interesting findings regarding people’s attitudes towards the scriptures.
Here are some of the more interesting findings from within this survey. For those of you who don’t care for numbers, I promise this breakdown will be brief.
-79% of Americans believe that the Bible is a sacred book. This number is somewhat noteworthy since it’s down from 86% in 2011. The Bible receives it’s most positive scores for being seen as encouraging forgiveness, patience, and generosity. 88% percent of American households report reading the Bible once a week or more.
-56% of Americans believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God with little in the way of errors. 37% of Americans read the Bible once a week or more.
-Perhaps the most interesting finding of this survey was that the number of people who are considered Bible skeptics defined as those who believe the Bible to be nothing more than mere words of men now sits at 19% of the U.S. population, this number is roughly equal to those who are Biblically engaged defined as those who read the Bible at least four times per week.
These surveys always find interesting things about American attitudes towards the Bible. It’s not uncommon for these surveys to discover that a majority of Americans believe that the Bible contains everything that one needs to live a meaningful life, where as a majority will also fail to open the Bible less than 5 times a year.
I think what these surveys reveal more than anything is that Americans have a fascination with the Bible. In 2014 alone, Son of God about the Life of Jesus and Noah has already been released.
In December a big budget production of the story of Moses and the Exodus is coming to the big screen. I think what all this shows is America wants to know the Biblical story, yet at times often can’t make sense of it.
I’ll always be surprised when I encounter people who never attend church, yet frequently partake in religious specials on TV. We deal with an interesting tension regarding the scriptures and these issues.
So this raises the questions of “How do we make sense of the Bible?” and “What role should this book play in our daily lives?”
This brings us to our lesson for this morning from Luke the 24th Chapter. The story begins with two men who were followers of Jesus (but not disciples), leaving Jerusalem on the third day after his death. These men then begin a seven mile walk to their home in the village of Emmaus. They then encounter a man on the Road to Emmaus who they are unable to recognize.
They describe what happened during the last week as an event that brought forth great disappointment “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
As someone that has gone to a lot of sporting events, I know the worst feeling in the world is watching the other team celebrate. Seeing other fans have enjoyment that you yourself wished you had. You hope more than anything that someday all your emotional investment pays off, and the thought that it might not payoff, makes you question why even care?
I have a friend who is a Pastor in Pennsylvania, she used to dread more than anything in her job having to perform wedding ceremonies, and this task was a constant reminder of all that she didn’t have in life.
This was the type of feeling that these men had as they mourned Jesus’ death. They knew Roman power, they had been crushed by Roman power, these men were returning home with what seemed like the crushing realization that nothing was going to be different from them the next time around.
Yet as these men were expressing their disappointment in the outcome of holy week, this man who they still didn’t recognize began to point out a few things to them.
How these men were just reinforcing something that had been difficult for centuries in how hard it is for us to believe. How the scriptures declared that the Messiah (the holy one of Israel), the one that they had been waiting had to suffer and die to reconcile God to humanity. This man then took these two disciples aside and began to explain the scriptures to them starting with the Law and the Prophets-Luke 24:27. Jesus began to tie the scriptures together for these two disciples.
So how does one tie the Bible altogether? Joe Burgess is the most brilliant mind that I have ever come across. Joe is considered the foremost Lutheran expert in the Office of the Pope in the world. A generation ago, Joe was part of the International Lutheran-Catholic Dialogues because of it. Joe’s got a PHD in New Testament, and keeps so many books in his house that even his oven is full of books.
Joe wrote an article on how the scriptures all tie together as Jesus explained to the men on the Road to Emmaus in this unrecorded conversation.
I share for you Joe’s thoughts on this day.
1. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament. Earlier I was telling the story about Elisha and the she bears. Many of you probably didn’t know what to make of this story, and that’s intentional. Perhaps a few more details will help bring about understanding. Elisha was being mocked for his religion, by a large number of youth during a great time of religious conflict within the nation of Israel’s history. The group that Elisha had encountered on that day was marching towards the spiritual center of the country the city of Bethel, perhaps to inflict even more damage upon the faith communities. Perhaps God’s action with the she bears was to prevent a far greater spiritual calamity. God’s involvement did not work. Elisha’s people were eventually brutally conquered. Yet God did not stop seeking to bring about reconciliation between him and his people. The thing about so many stories within the Bible is they often don’t make a lot of sense unto themselves; they only begin to make sense in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament because the New Testament is what brings forth cross and resurrection. Our faith is not based on a series of events a complicated puzzle that must be interpreted, our faith is based on one event.
2. The clear interprets the unclear. A while back the Jehovah Witnesses stopped by my house; I tend to engage Bob and Peggy whenever I see them. They start quoting scriptures at me. Yet what I noticed about every scripture verse that they quoted at me was that it was either from the Book of Revelation or the Book of Daniel. I was chuckling under my breath as I watched them seemingly play a game of ping pong between these two books. While these are useful books, they are ultimately not the books which shape our belief system. Due to the fact that oftentimes the world’s brightest Bible scholars can’t agree on their meaning. We must always let the clear promises of scripture; influence how we interpret stuff that is difficult to figure out. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” We must never loss sight that the scriptures can only be seen through the lens of the human predicament of sin and how God acted in response.
3. Scripture interprets itself, we have no higher authority. What the scriptures ultimately do in our lives is it reminds us that we do not stand in judgment over them; rather the Bible stands in judgment over us. Scripture points to Christ and Christ gives the scriptures their authority. So how we understand the scriptures. Martin Luther describe the scriptures “the cradle which holds the baby Jesus.” The Bible itself is not our hope; the Bible is rather from where we draw our hope. The Bible is where we hear the great word of God’s love for sinners, where we encounter promise, forgiveness, and salvation.
4. We always need to ask when looking at the scriptures. What drives Christ? Or what promotes Christ? Let me quote a Bible verse for you. 1 Timothy 5:23- The Apostle Paul instructs the Apostle Timothy to “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) Is this wine-drinking advice useful? Perhaps, yet it’s really not that important to our Sunday mornings. Let me now quote another Bible verse Ephesians 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Are these verses equally important? No. One verse offers debatable advice, where as the other verse issues the promises of heaven. Which of these two verses should have more authority for your life? The verse that speaks to the Bible’s mission and purpose.
5. Scripture can only be interpreted within the Church. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story from our Gospel lesson is that these men receive the greatest Bible lesson they could ever hope to receive, yet they still don’t recognize Jesus. It is only when they share a meal together later that their eyes were opened. It was only then when they came to realize that there hearts were burning as Christ spoke to them on the Road to Emmaus. Scripture can only really be interpreted inside the Church, because interpreting scripture is not about the brains in your head, it’s rather about the faith that has been created within your heart. Since the scriptures are the vessel by which the Holy Spirit creates faith.
David Zahl who is a blogger for Mockingbird describes having a youth pastor friend who fears giving access to the Bible to his students. This youth pastor fears how too many people approach the Bible. How they see it as nothing more than a set of rules and requirements that they need to abide by, to get in on the right side of heaven.
The Bible breaks down our whole world view that our notions of success and reward aren’t quite right. The scriptures don’t feed us as payment for a hard day's work; rather the scriptures nourish us when we’re famished. The scriptures give us relief, when the world seems to be crashing around us no different then these men on the Road to Emmaus. What’s the scriptures remind us is that our salvation is not an accident.
Around the turn of the 19th Century, there was a German philosopher with perhaps the greatest German name ever in Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. I leave you with Von Goethe’s words this morning “The Bible grows more beautiful, as we grow in our understanding of it.”
The Bible, death, resurrection, forgiveness, and new life for this is the beauty of what Jesus gave these two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Amen
 2 Kings 2:23-24
 American Bible Society and Barna Research Group. “American Bible Society’s State of the Bible 2014”.www.americanbible.org. Web. Apr.29.2014
 Hagen, Kenneth. “The Bible in Churches: How Various Churches intrepret the Scriptures. “ Burgess’s article appears on pages 101-126. The five principals of Lutheran scriptural interpretation occur on pages 115-117. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. 1994. Print
 John 11:25
 Zahl, David. “Bible Bible on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of Them All?” Mockingbird. Christ Episcopal Church. Charlottesville, VA. 28.Apr.2011. Web. Apr.30.2014
First Lesson: Jeremiah 31: 1-6
Second Lesson: Acts 10: 34-43
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 28: 1-10
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 28 is ultimately a story about a Mother and a Son.
It’s a tale of a Mother who was amazed by her child at early age of twelve as her son had gotten so smart that he even amazed the greatest religious scholars of his day.
It’s a tale of a Mother who was present at the first miraculous thing that he did in his life, when he turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Yet what most people don’t realize about this miracle is that it only took place after her son had received his Mom’s encouragement.
It’s a tale of a mother who just two days previous saw her son being nailed to the cross in agonizing pain, yet all she could do was hurt on the inside as she saw her son in pain. The relationship between Mother and Son was close. Mary had followed her son to the cross even when the disciples did not.
It’s a tale of a Mother who went to her Son’s tomb on a Sunday morning, even though she knew it would be painful. The Mother was a real stickler for tradition. It was custom to return to your loved one’s tomb for days after their death to mourn. The Mother was going to return to her son’s tomb, just like she returned to the tomb for days after her husband’s death years before. The Mother approached the tomb on that Sunday morning, slumbering through; the previous few days had been emotionally exhausting as she had lost a child too young.
The Mother was experiencing a moment in life that many of us know. The Mother was experiencing that time when our minds can’t stop thinking about those who have been taken from us whether it be a spouse, a parent, a grandparent, a child, or a friend. The Mother went to the tomb that Sunday morning overwhelmed by the loss of her son, while thinking how she would stop at nothing to bring him back to her.
Yet something strange had happened at the crack of dawn that Sunday morning. An earthquake had shaken Judea. This was the second earthquake to hit Judea in a two day period. The previous earthquake had happened two days before, right at the moment of her son’s death.
The Mother didn’t know what to make of this earthquake? She thought it to be nothing more than random chance.
Yet, as the Mother and another woman, Mary Magdalene approached her son’s tomb that Sunday morning they saw something amazing! An angel appeared before them appearing brighter than lightning. This Angel then proceeded to roll away the stone which sat in front of her son’s tomb and sit on it. The Roman soldiers who were guarding the tomb were so scared by the meaning of all this that they fainted in fear.
The first words out of the Angel’s mouth were “Do not be afraid”.
These words had been spoken to the Mother one other time in her life, when an angel Gabriel had appeared before her to proclaim to her that she would soon bear a child to be called “Jesus”.
These words of “Do not be afraid” spoken to the Mother were important because they were meant to announce to her that everything she went to the Tomb thinking about death previously was no longer going to apply.
The Angel’s next words to Mary the Mother spoke to this truth, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” “Come; see the place where he lay”.
Earlier that week her son had spoken words that no one quite understood what they meant at that time “Tear down this temple and it will be rebuilt in three days” These words were thought to refer to the physical place, her son was when he spoke them.
Yet what these words really meant is that the words that her Son had spoken throughout his entire ministry were true. God’s promises were certain. God will forgive your sins.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
For when Mary was told to “Come, see the place where her son had previously laid”, Mary had been given a new hope that she couldn’t have fathomed before she had awakened on that day.
In 1982, one of the most popular movies of all time came out in: ET: The Extra Terrestrial. E.T. tells the story of a ten year old boy named Elliott who longed for more than anything a deeper connection with the world around him. Elliott’s whole world changes when he discovers ET, an alien, hiding in his family’s tool shed. E.T’s supernatural power is on display in the film as he is able to revive a previously dead germanium. The majority of the movie centers on the friendship between Elliot and E.T. E.T though one day begins to grow very sick due from being away from his own planet. So Elliot and E.T. devise a plan for E.T. to phone home so he can be rescued. Yet before ET can go home, the Government discovers E.T., quarantines him, and E.T. slowly dies.
In the most heartwarming scene of the entire movie Elliott begins to grieve over a motionless E.T., grieving over the loss of his closest friend in the world. It was right when Elliott was at his lowest that he noticed something unbelievable out of the corner of his eyes (The very same germanium, E.T. had revived, had died, and was now coming back to life. E.T’s own lifeless corpse, then comes alive! You can’t describe the look in Elliott’s eyes at this moment, but it was probably similar to the look that came over Mary’s eyes on that Easter Sunday morning as she was told that her son was dead, no more!
For there is a lot you can tell about a person from looking into their eyes. I know as a Preacher there are certain people you don’t want to look at, when you’re giving a sermon on Sunday morning.
The eyes tell you of a person’s interest, the eyes tell you of a person’s grief, and the eyes tell you of a person’s pain even when their mouth might claim otherwise. There is no more magical moment in the world when eyes that are going through grief are given a word of hope.
Hollywood makes movies with happy endings, where truly good news can only come when we’ve been shaken from our previous way of life, when rock bottom has been flipped upside down.
The Apostle Paul writing about 20 years after Christ’s death in a letter to the church in Corinth, described the Resurrection well when he said:
“Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed!”
The ultimate meaning of Easter is that there is life beyond the grave. Death no longer stands in judgment over us. The interesting way that the New Testament speaks of death is it speaks of it most commonly as “sleep”, a casual time of rest before awakening for the new day of resurrection.
For what we are reminded today is that the same Jesus who wept bitterly over his friend Lazarus’ death right before Palm Sunday knows the suffering involved in death. How death is the most emotionally and spiritually painful thing that we shall ever encounter, this is why God went through death on the cross. What the resurrection reminds us ultimately is God has dealt with the failures of our past, by declaring us to be perfect in Christ Jesus, thereby giving us hope for the future no matter what we shall endure.
As Mary went to the tomb grieving that Sunday morning, it speaks to the nature of all our grief. We grieve because death is unnatural. Death is not what God intended for his creation. Death reminds us that we were not intended to be separated from God and our loved ones this way. We were not born to live short lives and then die.
But we do no want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the those who have no hope”- I Thessalonians 4:13
This is the meaning of resurrection.
Luther described Easter best years ago when he said “In the midst of life we are ringed ’round by death,’ but the gospel reverses this, saying: in the midst of death we are ringed ’round by life,’ because we have the forgiveness of sins.”
Mary the Mother and Mary Magdalene left the tomb that day with fear and great joy. They had fear because they did not know what the days ahead ushered in by this new reality of resurrection might bring, yet they had great joy because they were convinced that there is life after death. They left the tomb with great joy, because they were now convinced that eternal life was unlike any life they had previously known. They came to realize that this event they had just witnessed was so earth-shattering to their existence that they are described as running to Galilee over 70 miles away to tell the disciples about it.
What Easter ultimately meant to Mary was that those whom she held dear, would not be forgotten, they would not be abandoned. Mary could go forth in confidence because the victory over sin and death had already been won. Mary could go forth with a voice of reassurance given by the one who overcame sin, death, and the grave.
He is risen. He is risen indeed! Amen!
 Luke 2:41-52,
 John 2:1-11
 Matthew 28:2
 Matthew 27:51
 Matthew 28:3
 Matthew 28:4
 Matthew 28:5
 Luke 1:26-38
 Matthew 28:6
 John 2:19
 John 11:25
 John 3:16
 1 Corinthians 15:51
 John 11:35
 Ted. R. “Michael Spencer Has Died”. New Reformation Press Blog. 5.Apr.2010. Web. Apr.16.2014
 LW 13:43
 Matthew 28:8
 Matthew 28:10
First Lesson: Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Responsive Reading: Psalm 130
Second Lesson: Romans 8: 6-11
Gospel Lesson: John 11: 1-45
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Our story for today begins the week before the last week of our Lord’s life.
Jesus had just received word that one of his closest friends a man named Lazarus was ill. Jesus was quite close to not only Lazarus, but also his sisters Martha and Mary.
They were so close to each other that Jesus would frequently dine at their house as mentioned in an earlier Gospel story. The terms that the Disciples use to describe Lazarus’ and Jesus’ relationship of “Lazarus whom you love” were so unique that they were only bestowed upon one more of Jesus’ relations the Apostle John.
Lazarus wasn’t supposed to be so ill at such a young age. Jesus and Lazarus were about the same age near 30. They had joked around together and enjoyed each others stories.
If Lazarus had died it would have been devastating for his sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus was the breadwinner for the family. Lazarus had done quite well for himself. If Lazarus had died, his sisters’ financial situation would have been devastated. Woman didn’t work outside the home. Martha and Mary would have seen the family’s savings slip away, and be left to live the remaining of their days as nothing more than charity cases.
When the Disciples informed Jesus of Lazarus illness, Jesus’ response to them was odd. He believed that Lazarus’ illness would not lead to death. Jesus had a confidence that the Son of Man was going to be glorified through what had happened. The Disciples had heard this language before. Just recently, Jesus had healed a man born blind where he stated that this man’s blindness occurred “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” The Disciples had witnessed all sorts of unbelievable things in their time with Jesus.
-Jesus had changed Water into Wine
-Jesus had healed an Official’s Son on his death bed
-Jesus had healed a man who had been unable to get out of bed for 38 years
-Jesus had managed to feed 5000 people with five barely loaves and two fishes 
-Jesus had walked on Water
So when the Disciples heard Jesus predict that Lazarus wasn’t going to die. They didn’t think anything of it. What the Disciples found odd is that Jesus said they were going to wait two days before traveling to see Lazarus.
Lazarus lived in Bethany just outside Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples were camping out by the Jordan River about 20 miles away. The last time that Jesus had visited Lazarus previously, he was nearly stoned to death after claiming that “He and the Father were one”.
Some of the Disciples were hesitant that going to see Lazarus was a good idea. They feared for their own life.
Yet Jesus needed to go see his friend “His friend Lazarus who had fallen asleep, so that he may awake him.” One of Jesus’ disciples, a man named Thomas. A man who would later be known as “The Doubter” insisted that they travel to Jerusalem together. Thomas figured that if Jesus was going to die that “that he was going to die with him”.
After two days the Disciples started their journey, they finally neared the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Lazarus had already been buried in the tomb for four days.
Martha the older sister heard that Jesus was in the vicinity, so she went to meet him outside the village. I should tell you a little bit about Martha. Martha was blunt. Martha had no filter as to what was appropriate to say. Martha was going to tell you what she thought. She didn’t care how religious Jesus might have been. The last time that Jesus had visited Mary and Martha for dinner, Jesus had to chide Martha for chewing out her sister Mary for her laziness.
As soon as Martha saw Jesus approaching her, she was ready to confront him. The first words out of her mouth were said in a mix of sadness and anger when she stated ““Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Martha knew that God alone could have saved Lazarus’ life. Jesus had dealt with angry people before. Yet there’s something different about seeing anger in someone as close to him as Martha.
So as Jesus heard Martha’s complaint about his lack of presence at her brother’s death, he merely mouthed the following words “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha thought this sounded all good that her brother would rise at sometime in the distant future, perhaps at the end of time itself.
Yet these words did very little to ease Martha’s actual pain at this given moment. Then Jesus paused for a moment. The next words that came out of Jesus’ mouth would be words that Martha was always going to remember. These words gave Martha a faith and a hope regarding her brother’s death that she couldn’t have imagined having just moments prior.
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
He then asked Martha “Do you believe this?”
To which Martha responded “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
At this moment, Martha and Jesus traveled to their home with Martha. Martha went inside the house to go get her sister Mary.
I suppose I should tell you a little bit about Mary. Mary was the younger sister. Mary was the free-spirit and the life of the party. Mary’s emotions played out though a bit differently then Martha’s. Martha would get angry in her grief, where as her sister Mary was perpetually sad.
In the four days since her brother had died, Mary had done nothing it seemed but cry and cry some more. Mary’s emotions were so strong that had been tough to witness. Mary’s other friends were afraid to leave her alone because she was having such a hard time dealing with her brother’s death. As soon as Mary laid eyes upon Jesus, Mary mouthed the same words as her sister “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus’ response to though to Mary was different than it was for Martha. Jesus was overwhelmed by the emotion in the room. Jesus decided now was not the time for a sermon. Jesus was going to say nothing. Jesus was deeply moved by all the grief that he was witnessing for not only Mary but also her friends. All Jesus could ask was “Where have you laid Lazarus?”
Then everybody in the room witnessed something they never expected to see. Jesus wept. Jesus whole being was overwhelmed by the emotion of this moment. What made Jesus weeping so surprising is that people cry at moments of powerlessness, at moments that they can’t fix the situation that they are in. Yet Jesus weeping was different. Jesus wept because he couldn’t stand seeing Martha and Mary in pain. Jesus couldn’t stand the thought of his good friend Lazarus lying in the tomb. Jesus’ emotions were such that he was acting like someone who had just lost their best friend to a cancer or a car accident. What this scene indicated was that the one who claimed to be of God was not indifferent to the human plight.
Once Jesus began to compose himself, then Jesus, Martha, Mary, their friends, and the Disciples approached Lazarus’ tomb. The tomb was a cave with a giant stone lying in front of it. Jesus commanded that the stone be removed from the front of the tomb. Martha dreaded this happening because of the stench of four days of death having been upon Lazarus. Martha saw no point in moving the stone from the front of the tomb only to see her brother’s dead body. Martha had given up on ever seeing her brother Lazarus again.
Then Jesus said to Martha “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
And as soon as the stone was lifted from in front of the tomb, Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven saying “So they took away the stone.
And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When Jesus had said all these things he cried out in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out.”
What Martha, Mary, their friends, and Jesus’ disciples saw next was the most unbelievable thing that he ever seen in their whole life. Out walks a mummy with his hands and his feet bound with linen strips along with his face wrapped in cloth. Lazarus had risen from the dead!
Word of this miracle spread quickly. Many of the Jews in attendance quickly believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Where as others went to the Pharisees and Chief Priests with fear for what they had just witnessed, the Pharisees and the Chief Priests grew greatly nervous that this Jesus fellow was going to provoke a popular uprising amongst the people. This was going to cause the ruling Romans to removing the religious authorities from their position of powers for failing to keep the crowd under control. In the meantime, rumors of Jesus’ miracle in raising Lazarus started to spread amongst the people of Jerusalem like wild fire.
The word was that he was going to march into the city the very next day. This crowd would gather alongside the road waving palm branches. They had a hope that this Jesus was going to make the upcoming Holy Week of the Passover the most memorable one they had ever witnessed. When the Chief Priests heard of the crowd that was gathering on Jesus’ behalf they plotted to take Lazarus’ life so word of his miracle not spread any further.
Later that night, Martha, Mary, Jesus, Lazarus, and the Disciples gathered for Dinner. At this dinner, Mary the free-spirited sister did something quite odd. Mary grabbed an expensive bottle of perfume (worth one’s year salary) and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. One of Jesus’ disciples named Judas was mad about this display. Judas couldn’t believe that Mary wouldn’t rather instead sell this bottle of perfume and give it to the poor. Judas didn’t really care about the poor; he rather instead wished to steal from the Disciples’ common purse. Yet Jesus realized the significance of Mary’s actions. Mary was preparing Jesus for his burial. Jesus knew that as dined at the house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary that he was about to begin the last week of his life.
Jesus’ life would end that next Friday. Standing by Jesus as he hung to death on the cross were Martha and Mary. Martha and Mary then accompanied his body to it’s burial. Just like was the case with their brother Lazarus, mourners were supposed to return to the tomb for three days after burial. The following Sunday, Jesus would walk out of the tomb before their very eyes no different than their brother Lazarus.
As for Lazarus, he and his sisters were amongst the first Christians. They proclaimed to everyone they encountered that there Lord had risen from the dead, and he had promised to be the resurrection and the life for them. They proclaimed God’s love for all people just like he had for Lazarus.
Eventually Lazarus, Martha, and Mary left Bethany behind to move to the island of Cyprus where Lazarus would become a Bishop. Many would come to faith because of their testimonies. According to tradition, Lazarus lived thirty more years after his resurrection. Yet Lazarus never smiled during this time. In the four days of his death, Lazarus had journeyed to Hades where he had to see the fate of unredeemed souls. The sights that he saw caused him to never look at life the same way again.
Lazarus, Martha, and Mary would all pass on in Cyprus. Yet when each one died, their siblings would look at the death bed remembering the time that Jesus wept alongside them in their grief. Yet they were always reminded of those most important words of Jesus’ ministry that he had spoken to Martha long ago when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Amen
 Luke 10:38-42
 John 20:2
 John 9:3
 John 2:1-11
 John 4:46-54
 John 5:2-17
 John 6:1-15
 John 6:15-21
 John 10:31, 39
 John 10:30
 John 11:11
 John 11:16
 Luke 10:38-42
 John 11:21
 John 11:23
 John 11:24
 John 11:25-26 a
 John 11:26 b
 John 11:27
 John 11:33
 John 11:33
 John 11:34
 John 11:35
 John 11:38
 John 11: 39a
 John 11:39 b
 John 11:40
 John 11:41-42
 John 11:43
 John 11:44
 John 11:45
 John 11:48
 John 12:9-11
 John 12:1
 John 12:4
 John 12:5
 John 12:6
 John 12:7
 John 12:8
 This is according to Eastern Orthodox Tradition.
 Eastern Orthodox Tradition.
 John 11:25-26
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
When I was in 7th Grade, 8th Grade, and the 9th Grade, the majority of my summer days were spent playing basketball down at the local Methodist church court. I spent plenty of time after this shooting hoops in my parents’ driveway. I watched plenty of basketball on TV hoping it would lead to me becoming a better player. I had some decent skills on the court; I was an unselfish passer, a decent shooter, and had a wide enough base to get position for rebounds. Yet I had certain physical traits that prevented me from being a great basketball player. Junior Varsity games were spent sitting on the bench, although to be fair, I wasn’t that effective when I was in there. I had a few pesky little things that held me back as a basketball player. I’m 5 foot 8 in shoes and that’s probably being generous. 5 foot 8 and flat footed is a bad combo as a basketball player. So as I sat on the bench or in the stands watching games, I kept wondering why I had to be so physically ungifted?
I figured if I was 6 feet tall, then I would have played quite a bit on the varsity. But what would have been even better if I was 6 foot 4. I figured no one could touch me on the low-blocks, I had all sorts of moves that I’d be able to use once I overcame my vertical challenge. I figured if I was 6 foot 4 that I would be the best player in the conference.
If I was 6 foot 4 then I would have a more striking presence whenever I walked into a room. Yet, as I await my 35th birthday in October, my potential growth spurt is looking ever less likely. I’ve heard the sad truth is that I’m more likely to grow shorter in the future. Yet perhaps there is a reason why I’m only 5 foot 8 other than to disturb my own sense of personal vanity.
Second story, when I was in seminary, I had a classmate named Brian. Brian had Cerebral Palsy. Whereas other students would just glide to class casually carrying on conversations, Brian struggled with every step that he needed to take. Brian’s speech was such that he could be difficult to understand. Tasks such as using his hands to eat which are routine for us, were quite difficult for Brian. Yet Brian had a passion as he confessed his faith that was second to none amongst the students at Luther Seminary. The thing about Brian is he could have very easily seen the world in a totally different way. He could go through his days angry at God for his burden, yet Brian found a sense of purpose in his affliction. Today, Brian is a Pastor at a church in Nebraska helping his synod with issues relating to disability. This all leads us to ask the question “Could God have a purpose in Brian’s Cerebral Palsy?”
Today’s Gospel lesson from John 9 provides insight to this issue. This is one of my favorite gospel stories as it speaks to the reality of God’s role in human suffering.
The Disciples encounter a man who had been born blind. The Disciples then proceed to ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This type of thinking wasn’t really new associating individual sin with human suffering. In the Book of Job as Job loses his possessions, his children, and ultimately his health. Job reflected to his friends by asking “How could God act in such a way towards me?” All Job’s friends could fathom about Job’s situation was that Job’s afflictions must have been the result of some sin that Job had failed to confess.
As the Disciples ask Jesus “Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” The question is very interesting because it is naturally assumed that someone’s sin produced their suffering, the Disciples don’t even fathom asking Jesus whether this way of looking at the world is right. Nor, do the Disciples dare to ask whether one’s suffering is a permanent condition.
Jesus’ response to the Disciples most important of religious questions as to why this man was born blind was both simple and direct as he proclaimed “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed within him.”
This answer was quite interesting. An interesting thing about this Gospel story is unlike Jesus’ other famous healings such as the blind man Bartimeaus, or the Woman who had been bleeding for 12 years.
The Blind Man’s eventual healing is not associated with the Blind Man’s faith in the Blind Man doesn’t become a believer until the end of the story. As for the Blind Man’s Parents they were afraid of associating Jesus with their son’s healing for fear of being dismissed by their own neighbors.
So unlike Brian, who would give great testimonials regarding God’s work in his life because of his suffering, the Blind Man hadn’t gone through life in any sort of similar experience, the Blind Man would have previously viewed his blindness as nothing more than a curse brought forth by an unjust God.
So what was this work of God that Jesus proclaimed would be displayed within the Man born blind? This leads us to a big question this morning to consider in “How could God work a man’s blindness for good as Jesus proclaims happens here?”
Dr. Peter Kreeft who is a Catholic Philosopher summed it up thusly “Life without suffering would produce nothing but Spoiled Brats or Tyrants?” For example, when I was in college, I spent summers selling carpet at Menards on the East side of Saint Paul. For any of you that have ever worked with the public, especially in retail, you tend to encounter some difficult people. Yet what I remember from working those summers at Menards is the one group of people that I liked dealing with more than any others were the Hmongs.
For the Hmong’s history has been defined by suffering. As soon as the United States pulled out of Vietnam, the Hmong who had fought alongside the United States in the War saw enemy communist governments take over in their homelands of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The Hmong spent the resulting years being heavily persecuted as a result of their previous resistance. The Hmong were forced from their land and into refugee camps with barely a roof over their head and no possessions to their name. The Hmong, then immigrated to this country in large numbers. Some of my co-workers at Menards didn’t like dealing with the Hmong because of the difficulty they would have communicating in their non-native language. But in all my dealings with the Hmong from college summers to Seminary Cross-Cultural experiences to Substitute Teaching, I always had a tremendous respect for the way that the Hmong treated others. Many of the Hmong have experienced things in their lifetime that we couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Perhaps this explains why so many Hmong have converted to Christianity upon immigrating to the United States because they precisely understand the afflictions that from which we must be resurrected.
Yet as we consider these topics today we must remember the words from the Book of James that “God is not the author of evil”. God looked over all his creation and declared it to be “good”. So what brings forth such hardship?
Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the church’s most significant thinkers described evil as coming into the world in one of two forms. The first form being Moral Evil, which is evil caused by human beings against each other, for Moral Evil would be the Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler types of evil. This would be the type of evil that I would describe as being unable to take place apart from dark spiritual forces influencing it.
The second type of evil would be Natural Evil. Natural Evil strikes at us with no root cause in the form of cancer, birth defects such as blindness, Cerebral Palsy along with all sorts of undesired outcomes that affect our lives. Augustine and Luther believe that Natural Evil was not caused by the sins of any specific person such as the man born blind or his parents, but rather Natural Evil is caused by the entire human condition. Such evil cannot be blamed for the sins of one man, but rather must be blamed on the Sin of which we’re all guilty.
Yet we’re left to wonder if God is not the cause of all this, then why doesn’t he stop it?
For the question about “Why does God bestow upon us afflictions from the trivial of me not being 6 foot 4 to the important such as why this man was born blind for God’s own purposes were asked by Job as he pondered the loss of his possessions, his children, and his health.
Job is the only person in human history to ask God directly “Why did you allow me to suffer?” The interesting thing about God’s answer to Job is that Job is never given a direct answer to Job’s question. The reason for this is because Job couldn’t quite possibly have comprehended a direct answer. Job’s understanding along with our own of how the universe might work together, pales in comparison to God’s understanding of the same topic.
For it’s easy to look at situations like the Malaysian Plane Crash and wonder how a loving God can allow such tragedy. Yet it’s worth pointing out that this could be the means by which God chooses to bring his children into his presence. This could also be the means which serves as a reminder for many of the frailty of life and the need for answers that lie outside of us.
When God seeks to answer Job’s questions all he does is point him towards his care for all of creation, God seeks to remind Job that he was chosen as his child before even the foundation of the world. We will go through life with plenty of open questions. Yet we point towards the one thing that we do know about God with certainty was made known in the Resurrection. The Resurrection is where God assures Man that the grave has been triumphed over, things are promised to remain not the way that they have always been.
Those who encountered the man who had been born blind after receiving his sight, did not know what to make of him, they didn’t want to believe it was truly him! People couldn’t grasp the possibility of such a miracle. The Pharisees (the Religious Authorities) were most skeptical of all refusing to believe that if someone was really of God that they would heal on the Sabbath. The Blind Man came not to care that other folks considered him to be a liar because of his claims of sight. The Blind Man had received something far more important, he came to see the truth of God revealed before his very eyes. He had received the gift of faith and salvation. Amen
 John 9:2
 John 9:2
 Sloyan, Gerald S. John. John Knox Press. Atlanta.1988 taken from Robert Hoch in a March 30,2014 Commentary on Working Preacher.com
 John 9:3
 Kreeft, Peter and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Intervarsity Press. Downer’s Grove, Il, 2003.
 James 1:15
 Genesis 1:31
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The year was 1996. The most famous preacher in the world Billy Graham was coming to Minneapolis to speak at the Metrodome for five straight nights. A man, who had met with every President since Harry Truman, a man who had popular television specials, Billy Graham coming to Minneapolis was the equivalent for the Protestants of the Pope visiting.
My Dad and I went down to the first night of the Crusade. Speakers gave personal testimonies of how their faith had changed their lives. George Beverly Shea sang “How Great Thou Art”. Graham then began to preach. Hearing Graham speak as a sixteen year old, boy, I could see why he was considered America’s greatest preacher. Billy Graham had a great speaking voice; you could listen to Billy Graham read the phone book and enjoy it. Billy Graham would tell antidotes and famous musicians regarding how even they felt empty in their lives that something was missing. Graham’s message was simple and scriptural. I can’t help not to look up to Billy Graham even today for how he puts a sermon together.
The Metrodome was hanging on every word that Billy Graham said with an intensity rarely captured in that building by either the Twins or the Vikings. Billy Graham started to speak about the Ten Commandments; he asked if we had broken any of them, because if we have, then we are standing before God like a prisoner awaiting our execution on death row.
Graham then began to hit people with the good stuff of God’s love for humanity. How each and every one of the 70,000 people there in Minneapolis wants to get to heaven. Yet there is only one way to get to heaven. Graham stressed how being baptized and confirmed wasn’t enough. Billy Graham tried to emphasize the believers uncertainty that they don’t know if they will live another day, so tonight was the night to get their faith right.
Graham emphasized there was only one way to be sure that we were going to be saved. We need to receive Jesus by faith and dedicate our whole lives to him. Graham was then going to present the sold-out Metrodome with a wonderful opportunity; they could come forward that night to do all these things. Half the audience moves forward to the front at this point as “Just as I Am” plays in the background. People were swept up by the moment.
My Dad and I go forward as Graham had exposed insecurity with our faith that it wasn’t what it should be. We talk to one of the Billy Graham Counselors who was a nice lady from the Saint Cloud Area, who wants to know what type of decision we’re going to make on that night. Whether we were brand new believers (which didn’t make sense considering we were both in church every Sunday) or whether we wanted to rededicate our lives to Jesus? Rededication or recommitment seemed to be the ticket for us. Stoke the spiritual inner-fire inside us with what seems to be missing.
Graham’s whole ministry was based on the premises that to be saved that we needed to be born again. This statement is certainly Biblical. Graham’s whole ministry put being born again in terms of our moral and religious level of commitment and dedication.
Yet, as time went on, I began to question some of the things that Graham said to me, on that night. Shortly after I figured that I needed to rededicate my life to Jesus. I was talking to a girl I went to school with that we will call Emily. Emily was talking about her religious walk when she made the statement that she has had to rededicate her life, several times after getting saved.
Emily’s statements didn’t make much sense to me as Emily was in church (every Wednesday and Sunday), Emily didn’t use foul language, and Emily didn’t smoke, drink, or sleep around. Emily probably didn’t watch R-Rated movies or listen to popular music. Emily didn’t do anything that good Christian girls weren’t supposed to do. Yet Emily would continually keep encountering brick walls where she felt that her faith wasn’t good enough. As I heard Emily speak about how she was continually not sure whether she was born-again, and if Emily couldn’t’ meet such lofty standards, maybe we don’t think about the meaning of what it meant to be “born-again” quite right.
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from John 3. It’s a story of Jesus and a man named Nicodemus who has a discussion regarding the meaning of being “born again”, a discussion regarding the reality of our personal spiritual transformation.
The key to understanding this passage is to understand the background of Nicodemus before he encountered Jesus. Nicodemus was no Atheist. Nicodemus was no moral delinquent. Nicodemus was one of the most religious men of the day that he lived. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin (the very religious body that would eventually convict Jesus of blaspheme sentencing him to death). The Pharisees were no religious softies, they constantly railed against the evil influences of how Greek Culture had crept into Israel. The Pharisees considered themselves to be the hardliners, the purists, the ultra-traditionalists, and the spiritual heirs of Moses. The Pharisees today would be denouncing the influences of Hollywood, and popular culture as being the cause of all society’s problems.
Jesus during his conversation with Nicodemus admits that Nicodemus was a renowned teacher of religion in his own right. Nicodemus knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards. Nicodemus was a paragon of virtue and knowledge, yet he came to Jesus as spiritually blind. Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he is intrigued after hearing about one of Jesus’ miracles. Nicodemus knew something from his own life was missing.
Yet as Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus about being born-again, Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. Nicodemus couldn’t understand “How can anyone be born after growing old?” Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and re-born? What Nicodemus failed to understand was the nature of our gospel.
Nicodemus had heard that Jesus could turn water into wine; he heard that he could open the eyes of the blind; he heard that he could make the lame to walk, yet Nicodemus didn’t believe a type of spiritual transformation was possible that he hadn’t already undergone. Nicodemus couldn’t believe as one of the most religious men of his day, how far into the muck of life that God could reach to bring forth salvation.
This week a famous religious figure named Fred Phelps died. Fred Phelps was a Pastor of The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS. Westboro Baptist Church was famous for picketing events such as Military Funerals, Gay Pride Parades, and various political gatherings. Phelps would loudly proclaim that any bad event that happened in America was a result of God’s disapproval of homosexuality. Phelps was one of the least popular individuals in the entire country for a variety of reasons. People celebrated at his death, they proclaimed that they would soon dance on his grave.
Yet when such language enters into our popular discourse this showcases how few of us really understand the meaning of being “born again”. Fred Phelps did not represent the best in organized religion. Fred Phelps openly celebrated God’s judgment, rather than hoping for God’s grace. Fred Phelps took occasions where people needed to be pointed towards the cross, and Fred Phelps proclaimed Death and Hell as the final word.
Yet we should never celebrate any man’s death, no matter how much we dislike them for any man’s death should serve as a reminder of what we ultimately deserve. When we stand on our self-righteous soap boxes and wish another man’s eternal man suffering, then we have truly failed to understand what it means to be born-again.
What being “born again” means is that Christ came to the place of our very death the lowest moment of our existence, and sought to take us to the place of re-birth. Whenever we wish for another man to rot in hell, we realize that we are ultimately no better than how low he sunk. We fail to recognize the vulnerable Children of God that our God might dare to save. Any fool can proclaim judgment upon other people, yet it takes someone being born again to really understand grace.
The struggle over what it meant to be born-again is one that Martin Luther struggled with for many years of his life. Luther looked in the mirror, and saw no differently than my sixteen year old self or Emily, all the ways that they failed to measure up to God in their daily existence. Yet Luther ultimately realized something very important about his faith that he expressed in the Catechism when he said.
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith”.
Luther realized that his re-birth wasn’t about his actions in any way, any shape, or any form. The best translation of our passage from John 3 isn’t to say that Nicodemus was told that he must be born again; rather that Nicodemus was told that he must be born from above. This interprets the Nicodemus story in a whole new way. Luther realized that his salvation was not dependent a level of spiritual achievement that his weak and sinful nature ultimately did not possess.
My point this morning is not to bash Billy Graham. Billy Graham has clearly presented the Gospel to hundreds and thousands of people. What I will say is why I don’t like to describe myself as being born again because of all that goes with it. Born Again Christianity today is defined by what you do, rather than what God does within you.
The thing about Nicodemus is his problem was not lack of religious motivation. Nicodemus rather couldn’t believe that God could actually turn him young all over again. Nicodemus couldn’t grasp that we have a God who took one of the greatest persecutors of the church in Saul of Tarsus and blinded him on the Road to Damascus making him the church’s greatest evangelist. Saul was totally unaware of the spiritual transformation that was capable of hitting him until the moment that it happened. Nicodemus couldn’t grasp that we are as capable of choosing the time for our spiritual rebirth as we are choosing the time that we are physically born.
The hardest thing for a believer is to believe that he believes. Because of our weak and sinful nature, we will always struggle with our own sense of self-doubt. Satan exploits us in these moments, to convince us that our faith is insufficient, that we’re truly not born from above. The problem with getting swept up in the grand religious fervor of the moment like a Billy Graham crusade is that today’s religious experiences often encounter tomorrow’s reality (the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh).
The key emphasis in Lutheranism is not our personal commitment to Christ; it’s rather the depth of Christ’s love and commitment for us.
Nicodemus’ story has a nice ending. In the 19th chapter of John after Jesus died, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimetha in preparing Jesus’ corpse for burial. The fact that Nicodemus would be so much importance in Jesus’ burial that one needed to go through death to be brought back to life shows that Nicodemus finally did get the meaning of being born from above.
Being born from above is a symbol of a powerful miracle that takes place when faith is created inside us in spite of our every urge to resist it. The scriptures describe this just like Billy Graham says as standing before God dead in our sins, yet as the Apostle Paul says in the waters of Baptism we are given the Holy Spirit and given new life.
This can happen as an infant, or it can happen later in life upon hearing a powerful preacher like Billy Graham. Yet rest assured it is not our decision, it is not dependent upon our ability to transform ourselves, it is not dependent on our standing over and against our neighbor, and it is only dependent on being “born from above” as a result of God’s wonderful healing grace. Amen
 John 3:10
 John 3:4
 Luther’s explanation to the Apostles Creed found in the Small Catechism.
 Ephesians 2:1
 Titus 3:5-7
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The following story is inspired by Pastor Teber Hill whose legacy I hope to appreciate in some, small way today along with our Gospel lesson from John the 4th Chapter. This story is a retelling of how the story of the Woman at the Well in the town of Sychar might look if it were to take place today.
I want to tell you the story of a church not unlike one that you know that sat in a small, sleepy Minnesota town named Sundsvold.
A woman named Shelley had recently moved to town. Shelley was a single mom with an 8 year old son named Tucker. Shelley came to Sundsvold as a way to escape her past. Shelley had been previously married to Tucker’s Dad Craig who worked as an over the road truck driver.
Shelley had met Craig in High School and Shelley was really taken in by Craig. Yet once Tucker was born, and being awaken at 3 in the morning became a common occurrence, Craig started to grow distant by spending more time on the road. Craig claimed it was for the money, but Shelley started to suspect something else was at work.
Shelley’s heart was broken as she eventually discovered that Craig was cheating on her when he was away from home. Shelley met other men after Craig left her life, men that she wanted to believe could actually love her, but once these men got what they wanted from Shelley then the phone calls stopped coming, and the men would quietly drift from Shelley and Tucker’s life.
Shelley was not raised in a real religious home. Her parents weren’t into what they deemed to be “god-stuff”. Shelley had only been to the occasional church service with her grandparents on Christmas or Easter.
Yet when Shelley moved to Sundsvold, Shelley wanted a fresh start for herself and Tucker. Shelley was fearful for Tucker’s future. Shelley dreaded more than anything that Tucker would end up like her in life.
Right down the block from where Shelley lived was Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church. Shelley didn’t know the difference between a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Baptist, or a Catholic.
Shelley saw that there seemed to be a lot of kids around Saint Martin’s Sunday school every week. So Shelley decided that she wanted Tucker to join Saint Martin’s Sunday school program. Shelley decided that she should also get involved down at Saint Martin’s.
Shelley was nervous about all this to be sure. Shelley didn’t really think that she would fit in. Most of the people who Shelley knew well weren’t really all that religious. All Shelley remembered from the few church services that she did attend was not being quite sure when to stand up and sit down.
Shelley decided that she wanted to put herself out there. Shelley didn’t know how the church crowd would respond to her as a single mom. Shelley ultimately decided to show up at Saint Martin’s because through all the issues in her life the pain, the trouble, the mistakes, and the heartache what she had been doing wasn’t working. Shelley was started to be convinced that nobody in the world really knew her, that anybody possessed the ability to really understand what Shelley was struggling with on a day to day basis.
So as Shelley stopped by Saint Martin’s one day, she saw a sign that read “Sunday School Teachers Needed”.
Shelley had never attended Sunday school as a child, she really had very little idea what Tucker might be learning, so Shelley figured if she signed up to teach Sunday school it could be beneficial for both her and Tucker.
Saint Martin’s Board of Education sat down one day to plan the upcoming school year. The Board was made up mostly of young mothers full of energy and new ideas. These woman had husbands with good jobs and well-behaved, honor roll students for kids. These were the type of young mothers that any church would love to have involved.
The one exception to the Board was an old lady named Emily who sat alone and quietly in the corner. Emily had been on the Board of Education for years and years. She had been the Sunday School Superintendent of Saint Martin’s for decades. Everyone would have just preferred that Emily stepped down from the board years ago. Emily would often be forgetful with projects, and was starting to have a struggle taking care of even herself.
Emily knew the scriptures like the back of her hands, yet the other women on the Board thought that Emily was incapable of understanding how today’s kids learn with all their tech gadgets as they thought Emily to be living in the past.
As the Board of Education met that August night they looked down at the names of signed up teachers where they saw Shelley’s. No one in the room really knew Shelley all that well. They had seen Shelley around town. Shelley on account of her youth and good looks seemed to be popular with the men around Sundsvold. Yet seeing Shelley around you would think she was anything but polished. Shelley’s breath would smell of cigarettes. Shelley’s wardrobe wasn’t always stylish or neat. Shelley’s job working as an aide down at the local nursing home barely allowed her to live check to check with Tucker.
The women on the Board of Education didn’t know if Shelley teaching would be a good idea. They feared what the people of Sundsvold would think about Saint Martin’s if they knew that this Shelley lady was teaching, only for Shelley to stumble home from the Bar some night with a sleazy gentleman.
Emily had tended not to say much at these meetings, as she felt her input would often go ignored. Yet as the Board of Education was discussing how they could allow Shelley to teach, Emily felt compelled to speak up.
Emily didn’t have any idea who this Shelley woman was that the women were describing, yet Emily knew that Jesus’ whole ministry was centered on reaching outsiders.
Jesus’ whole ministry was based on going outside the bounds of the type of people who were going to make good Sunday school teachers. Jesus reached out to sinful women like the woman caught in adultery in John 8, he reached out to the lepers that had been cut off from society, and he reached out to the Tax Collectors like Zaccaheaus who were hated by society.
Emily did not want to condemn Shelley, because she knew that Jesus had a very similar encounter in the Christian Gospels with a Woman at the Well in a town called Sychar.
The thing that really stood out to Emily about the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well from the town of Sychar was that Jesus loved that woman in the midst of her great sinfulness and made her the biggest priority of his outreach once he encountered her.
Emily then asked the Board of Ed. what Jesus might do if she came across this Shelley?
Emily pointed out that Jesus would seek to free her, forgive her, and ultimately change her existence. Jesus would have offered Shelley living water from which she could receive nowhere else.
Emily knew and admitted that there were probably things in Shelley’s past that could have justified her fellow board members in being harsh with Shelley, yet she knew this wouldn’t have been Jesus’ approach.
Emily knew that what they were going to discuss that night at the Board of Education was much more important then what other people might think of Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church, Emily was rather fighting for the soul and character of Saint Martin’s which was the soul of the Gospel.
Emily pointed out at that meeting that:
A church that doesn’t risk being embarrassed really isn’t much of a church at all. How she would rather that Saint Martin’s gets burned by being too gracious to those in the community, to be the type of church that gives out money even when they know they might not be paid back, rather then the type of church who is completely jaded by the possibility of God’s grace coming through to other people.
Taking in Shelley as a Sunday School Teacher could lead to a Scandal, no different then Jesus asking a Samaritan woman for a drink could lead to a scandal.
Yet Jesus had been a much higher priority then caring what people might say as he interacted with the Jews’ natural enemies. Jesus instead cared about offering living water to the most hurting of individuals.
Shelley was going to be wanted by Saint Martin’s because Jesus would have reached out to Shelley were she was at this point in her life, not where the religious crowd thought she should be. Jesus would have promised to Shelley the type of water that would leave her never thirsty again.
The reason why the story of the woman at the well in the town called Sychar was so important to Emily is because the Sychar Woman’s story is the story of most of us. The reason this story of the woman at the well is included in John’s Gospel is because John knew that living water could be offered in not only the midst of the Woman at the Well’s pain, not only in the midst of Shelley’s pain, but rather all of our pain.
As the rest of the woman on the Board of Education heard Emily speak they knew that Emily had won the argument. As they heard Emily speak, they were reminded about all of the things in their own life that they feared being exposed in the light of the day. They then understood that Shelley was really no different from any of them.
Shelley ended up teaching Sunday school that year and the year after then the year after that. Shelley and Tucker would start attending church more frequently, and eventually get baptized together. Shelley came to believe that the “living water” of forgiveness of which Jesus spoke was really for her.
The women who were initially skeptical of having Shelley teach Sunday school were changed overtime in their perspective. Shelley was outgoing, funny, and the kids loved having her as their teacher. Shelley was eventually taken in by Saint Martin’s as one of their own. This meant the world to Shelley. Shelley would come to become as valuable as any member of Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church.
Shelley ran in a different circle then the typical church crowd. Shelley started talking to her co-workers about her faith and what a change it led to in her life. Shelley had morphed from someone who knew very little about the church to its most effective evangelist. What made Shelley so effective was that she had come to Saint Martin’s from within the midst of a deep burden helping her relate to others that were going through their own issues.
As Shelley became more involved in Saint Martin’s, she started reaching out to other people in the pews. People who were going through more in their life then they care to admit to their fellow church members or their Pastor. People would open up to Shelley like nobody else, because Shelley got those people because she had been where they were.
Shelley had no religious training. Shelley’s life had been transformed. The Living Water that she had received from Saint Martin’s had opened her eyes, and began to heal her wounds.
Shelley had only walked through Saint Martin’s doors because her life up to that point had been so screwed up; she wanted something better for Tucker.
Yet in the midst of all the brokenness of the Board of Education, Shelley had received grace. Shelley had received this word of grace at the very moment when she most needed it. This led to Shelley having an enthusiasm about her faith that was so rare it almost became contagious. Many people would come to believe because of Shelley.
As for Emily, she would not be long for this world. Emily worried greatly about the future of Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church. Perhaps that was why she spoke so forcefully in Shelley’s defense. Emily and Shelley had never met before that Board of Education meeting. Yet they soon met and became fast friends. Shelley looking up to Emily’s grace, and knowledge and Emily being taken in by Shelley’s youthful energy and empathy. Saint Martin’s was richly blessed because God had led both Emily and Shelley into their midst.
Perhaps you know a town like Sundsvold. Perhaps you know a church like Saint Martin’s. Perhaps you know a lady like Shelley. Yet what you don’t know is where living water might spring, just as it sprung up for the Woman at the Well of Sychar. Amen
Pastor Stew Carlson
These are all Sunday sermon's written by Pastor Stew.