Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Wilderness Sanctuary: Mark 1:9-15 - First Sunday in Lent

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news."
It was beautiful…

Photo courtesy of dan /
This past Tuesday, Elizabeth baked me a blueberry pie—which had to be one of the best pies I’ve ever tasted.  Truly, it was “paradise on a plate.”

After eating my second slice, I began asking myself, “is this my last taste of sweets until Easter?”

I’ve always given up something for Lent, even though we Lutherans live under no such ecclesiastical mandate.  So I’m thinking to myself, “Does Jesus want me to do this?”  “Shouldn’t I be happy to give up sweets for Lent since Jesus gave his life for me?”  Or, “shouldn’t I enjoy my freedom from having to prove myself worthy before God by doing something like this?”

But what’s Lent going to be about then, if I just live out the normal routine?

Lent (as we know it) comes from Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.  It all begins with Jesus’ baptism.  The voice tells Jesus (and he alone) that he’s God’s Son.  Immediately afterwards, the Holy Spirit drives him out into the wilderness, where he’s alone—facing the elements, the wild animals, and the temptations of Satan.  But Jesus makes it safely through…

After the wilderness, Jesus proclaims the coming of God’s reign and invites God’s people into the kingdom.  Trouble is, his mission field will ultimately prove to be far more threatening even than the wilderness…  It certainly was for John the Baptist, who’s now in prison.

As we’ll see in Mark’s Gospel, it’s not easy being God’s Son.  God therefore uses the wilderness for good!  In the wilderness, God proves faithful to Jesus.  He protects him against all the threats.  Jesus’ relationship with His Father is strengthened so that he can live out his God-given identity and ultimately bear his cross for the sake of all.

Jesus goes to the wilderness because he needs to be there.

So does this mean that when we find ourselves in awful, threatening times and places that God wants us to be there?  Well, not exactly.  It’s easy to think of pains and temptations as wilderness experiences, but Jesus’ wilderness experience is something quite a bit different…

Ever since the fourth century, Christians have been deliberately going into the wilderness as a place of pilgrimage, seeking a greater connection with God. 

Strangely enough, this all began during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine who declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  In a lot of ways, this was one of the greatest miracles to hit the church since the resurrection.  Christians would no longer be ostracized and persecuted!  The Christian faith would soon work its way into just about every aspect of social, political, and economic life!  It would go on to become the world’s biggest religion (which it still is today!)

But a few Christians didn’t find this entirely positive.  Without the persecutions and daily struggles of following Jesus, they feared they would grow complacent in their faith.  They feared succumbing to the same sins of greed and pride that the pagans had committed before.  Life had become so good they feared losing their dependence on God.

So they fled to the wilderness to experience the presence of God more fully, without the distractions and temptations of the world they’d come to know.  They were like “Ancient Amish.”

That’s the kind of wilderness that we all need—a holy space in our lives where we can experience God and be formed in faith and identity as God’s child.  This is important because of the way the world is.  Not only is their pain and suffering, there’s evil.  Satan has filled this world with temptations, all of which serve to drive a wedge between you and God, and build you up at the expense of your neighbor.  How does the world say you live the good life?  “Get more!  Be more!  Do more!”  There’s been no other time in history quite like the present where we can be stuffed with so much that ultimately will leave us so empty…

We’re under siege with trials, and temptations; doubts and distractions.  This is why we need a wide-open wilderness space in our lives, where we can rest and experience a beautiful, daily communion with living Christ.  It all begins by asking God to reveal to us (1) the things we count as essential for our happiness; (2) the things we strive most to control; and (3) the things that cause us the greatest fear.  Taken together, all of these can literally suffocate the life of Christ right out of us.  But it is in these vast, empty spaces that Christ brings us new life. 

We follow Christ throughout these forty days to die to all these things.  And from the dust and ashes of our present situation, God raises us up into a brand new existence:
·         Knowing and believing we are beloved
·         Trusting the God we see at work in our lives
·         Forgiving sins and sinners
·         Belonging to each other in Christ
·         Serving and healing as Christ lives in you.
The wilderness doesn’t have to be a scary place—but a sanctuary of prayer, of worship, and peace.  It’s a rich exchange to be emptied of all the junk of life to truly live in and through Jesus Christ.

Isn’t this what we all need this Lent?  A greater and stronger connection with God.  This is why Jesus carries his cross—so you can be emptied of all that creates only death, and filled with the Spirit who gives us life.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Getting Real: Luke 18:9-14 ~ Ash Wednesday

Photo courtesy of Simon Howden
Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.' 13 The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!' 14 I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14 NRSV)

The latest from the world of loony lawsuits:

A family in the town of Fayetteville, NY is being sued by the homeowners’ association of their community for parking their 2014 Ford pickup truck in their own driveway.  According to the complaint, the resident is violating its "restrictive covenant" that permits only "private, passenger-type, pleasure automobiles"—which his truck is not, even though it is his own personal vehicle and not associated with a business of any kind.

I don't know what it is about people, but we love to look down on other people.  We’re always on the lookout for other people’s flaws—and then we use those flaws as proof of our superiority.  Sin is all about pride-- and it's never difficult to be proud.

Jesus' parable presents a not-too-unthinkable example of this happening one day at the temple...

Two men show up to pray: one a Pharisee, and the other a Tax collector.

Now here was a place full of boundary lines separating the holy from the profane...  You may remember this: the Holy of Holies was off limits to all but the High Priest, and only once per year.  The Inner Sanctuary was reserved only for Jewish men.  Then there was a court for Jewish women-- and one for Gentiles.  Anyone who dared to cross these boundaries did so at the risk of their lives.

So there's little doubt that everyone would have been extremely conscious of this-- particularly the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Just listen to how the Pharisee prays:

"God, I thank you that I'm not a low-life like this tax collector.  I fast!  I tithe!"

I can just imagine him, walking into the temple dressed in his fancy robes and remembering all his "righteous" deeds; seeing the tax collector and all the other low-lifes "below him." 

The tax collector's deeds and his public reputation afford him no such moral stature.  He knows where he stands.  All he can do is beg for God's mercy. 

But the surprise in this parable is where God stands...  The Pharisee came before God asking for nothing but a congratulatory handshake from on high-- and he'll get none, because that's not what God does.  Holiness is not something any human being can achieve.  All people are sinners-- and if anyone's going to be called righteous, it's not going to be by their own doing!  Righteousness has to come from God.  It must be a gift of grace.  There's no way around it.

Therefore, the tax collector, who begs for mercy, will receive mercy.

The Lenten journey we begin tonight is a time for us to get real about ourselves because we're not unlike both of these men.  Sin is sin-- and we're guilty of the Pharisee's pride and the tax collector's abuse of his neighbor.  We're sinful and we are mortal.  But Lent isn't about beating ourselves up for forty days. 

Jesus recognizes our desperate situation.  He knows that we're all beggars.  But he doesn't turn anyone away.  Jesus becomes the Savior we need him to be.  He chooses to die because we die.  He chooses to take our sin onto himself and die a sinner's death.  He chooses to give us his righteousness as a gift.  We therefore journey to the cross to die to the sin that drives a wedge between us and God and that brings so much harm on our neighbor.  We die with Christ to be made alive in Christ. 

This is the very heart of the Gospel. 

The work of Lent is then so much more than just a personal rituals of confession and devotion.  We're invited to live out these magnificent promises in relationships.  Our lives will be dramatically changed as we quit looking at others and calling them "insiders" our "outsiders;" "good" and "evil."  We have been given the grace to work miracles-- and one of the greatest miracles is for ordinary people like you and me to go out and meeting the broken, the lonely, and the outcast and testify, through our acts of mercy on their behalf, that they matter to God. 

This is a time for us to get real about ourselves—but we follow Jesus to his cross so that he may get real about who he is for us.  He accepts us as we are.  He raises us up from the dust and ashes of our sin and makes us alive with joy to go and heal this world.  He claims us into a life that can endure all of the trials and troubles of life—and that will endure forevermore.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Out of Scarcity, Abundance: Matthew 14:13-33 - Bible Study blog for February 12

Last night, we studied what has to be the third most familiar story of the Gospels (with Christmas and Easter being the two most familiar): the feeding of the 5,000.

The story follows the brutal execution of John the Baptist at the behest of Herod the Tetrarch.  News reaches Jesus and the crowds, who are, of course, devastated.  Jesus gets into a boat and travels to a lonely place by himself.  The crowds, on the other hand, long to be with Jesus—and wait for him until he comes ashore.  This event powerfully reveals the humanity of Jesus—that he needed time to be alone to pray, to grieve, and to rest. 

We can certainly identify the need for private time to be in the presence of God, free of distractions, obligations, and even people, vying for our attention.  But the crowds reflect another deep human need: the need to be with Jesus, and the need for the company of others.  Depending on our personalities, we need to experience the connection with Jesus that comes both from quiet, alone time—and time in the presence of others.

When Jesus returns, he spends much of the day ministering to the crowds until late in the day.  Soon, the disciples express their concern to Jesus that the hour is late and that there is no food.  “They need not leave,” Jesus replies.  “YOU give them something to eat.”

Sometimes, we will see a situation of need and lift in prayer—and Jesus’ answer will be to send us to be the answer.  We’ll say “impossible,” just as they do.  There’s not enough money.  There’s not enough time.  There’s not enough resources.  There’s too many people and too much need.

But the miracle of the story begins in the unnamed person(s), perhaps the disciples, but maybe someone in the crowds, who commit their meager supply of food into the hands of Jesus.  That faith and generosity becomes adequate to feed the vast crowd that numbers 5,000 men (besides women and children)!  There’s twelve basketfuls of food left over.  Jesus has answered their pleas in a big way.

A life of discipleship will always be a struggle against the problem of scarcity.  We’re commanded to trust in Jesus when we see more reasons to doubt than believe.  We’re invited to give generously of time, talent, and treasure when we never seem to have enough without giving some away.  Jesus sends us out into the world to make disciples in a time when more and more people are distancing themselves from organized religion.  When Jesus says, “follow me,” it’s natural to see only our shortcomings, our weaknesses, our fears, and our failures. 

But the power of God is not limited be the problem of scarcity, as we see in the feeding story.  When we take what we have and commit it to the Lord, God can accomplish far more than we ever could if we kept these things to ourselves.  We can make a positive impact on people without even realizing it.  We can bear witness to our faith without literally dragging someone to church.  We can discover the joy that comes in giving and sharing, as opposed to the ongoing anxiety about never having enough.

Scarcity will always be a challenge when following Jesus—but all things are possible with God.  Faith is all about trusting Jesus in the face of scarcity—and watching as God brings forth an abundance of grace, mercy, and provision.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Christ Comes Down: Mark 9:2-8 - Transfiguration Sunday

Photo courtesy of papajia2008 /
I absolutely despise air travel.  If it weren’t for the sheer speed and convenience of it, I’d never set foot on an airplane again.

Why?  Because the more budget-conscious you are, the more the airline feels entitled to treat you like cattle.  They cram you into a tiny seat in the back of the plane, with barely enough room even to yawn.  Naturally, you’re the last to get off the plane—but you’re also the last the board it if you didn’t pay for priority boarding.

There’s no place like a commercial jet where you can feel so low while flying so high…

First class, on the other hand, is the glory life, right?  You’re on top of the plane and on top of the world.  There’s a reason why we love to climb mountains, and why you’ll pay top dollar for a Mt. Washington property overlooking Pittsburgh or “a deluxe apartment in the sky.” 

Being on top is more than just success; it’s rising above the struggle and hurly burly of the world below.   It is the ascent to glory.

Peter, James, and John knew this the day Jesus took them up to a mountaintop—and they saw Jesus radiating with the glory of God, as he spoke with Moses and Elijah who’d miraculously appeared out of nowhere.  In this moment, there’s no room for doubt that Jesus truly was the Messiah they’d been waiting for.  And it created the very reasonable expectation that Jesus would be returning to the world below as a conquering king who’d destroy the brutal Roman regime and restore Israel to its glory of old. This was the start of something big.

Then comes the voice from heaven: “This is my Beloved Son.  Listen to him!”  And then it’s all over!  Jesus leads them back down into a world that was pretty much the same as it was before, save for one thing: Jesus told them before, and he’ll be telling them again—that he is going to die.  Following Jesus is no glory ride to the high life.

And from a common-sense perspective, that makes no sense.  We often speak of faith as “rising above” all the pains and struggles of life—which would be fine and good if faith drove all our problems away.  But it doesn’t.  Sometimes, faith only adds to the confusion and disillusionment that comes a major trauma in our life.  We ask God, “why?”  “What’s going to happen?”  But we don’t get any answers.

But the Transfiguration event teaches us one of the most important truths about who Jesus is: he is God, leaving behind the power and glory of the mountaintop and his dazzling-white laundry to come into the depths of our human experience.  Jesus goes down to bring light into our darkness.

And what does he do in our darkness?

·         He forgives sins and sinners—including his executioners

·         He becomes one with the poor and forgotten

·         He showers the sick and dying with compassionate mercy

·         He overturns injustice and oppression to create peace

·         He gives us life for the sake of all.

We come into the light of Jesus by doing exactly what the voice from heaven tells the disciples to do: we listen to Jesus.  His Gospel illuminates the darkness of our reality so that we can see Christ by faith.  Yet we don’t just see with our ears.  We see with our whole bodies as his life washes over us in baptism.  We see with our mouths as we eat and drink his body and blood.  We see him in the hands, feet, and faces of ourselves and one another as draws us together as one body to heal this broken and weary world.

Granted, we will have mountaintop experiences in our lives when we see Jesus in miraculous acts that defy all other explanation.  But we’ll spend most of our lives in the depths.  We don’t have to call pain and suffering “good,” but it is in them that God’s amazing grace firmly takes hold.  God is glorified as Christ delivers us from the darkness.

Wednesday, we begin the forty-day journey of Lent.  “Lent” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “springtime,” to be a time of planting and growth.  (This is almost ironic, considering the fact that we carry such a bleak perception of the season.)  But in order for there to be growth, there must be light.  That light is Jesus, coming into the darkest places of our lives to turn us from sin and form us into his faith, hope, and love.  We can live in freedom from fear to death, evil, and all the pains of life—because when they strike, Jesus will bring us his resurrection.  That’s where the power of Christ bursts forth: cross and tomb.  It is from those very depths that we will rise by the grace of God, from death into life.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mysteries of Mercy ~ Mark 1:29-39 ~ Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Image courtesy of dan /
In my office is a small book entitled Healed of Cancer.  The author is Dodie Osteen.  (If the name sounds familiar, she is the mother of famed preacher Joel Osteen.)  It all begins back in 1981 with an emergency room visit that stretches to three weeks in the hospital—and ends with Dodie being diagnosed with metastatic cancer of the liver.  The only treatment option was chemotherapy, but the odds of success were remote.  So she declined the treatments and went home.  She was told she’d be dead within a few weeks.

But Dodie tried with all her might to live a normal life.  She envisioned herself being well again and going on to live a long and full life.  Over and over again, she recited numerous Scriptures about healing.  She and her family prayed constantly, until one day, her husband commanded the spirit of cancer to leave.  From that point on, she felt a tremendous burden lifted from her, even as the physical pain remained.  She went on to write letters to persons she believed she’d offended over the years, asking for forgiveness.  She prayed for others in need.

Eventually, the cancer left her—and she’s still alive today.

This is an incredible story—not unlike the healing story we hear today from Mark.   People come to Jesus from all over, and they’re cured.  The following day, the people are searching frantically for Jesus.

Trouble was, Jesus snuck out of town early that morning—surely disappointing vast numbers of people who desperately needed him and a cure for their diseases.

That disappointment is surely familiar to us, is it not?  You see Jesus miraculously healing other people—or you remember a miracle from your own past—but this time, nothing

All you asked of Jesus was a cure for yourself or for someone you love.  Nothing selfish; nothing worldly; just a simple cure.  It’s not asking too much, is it?

So what’s going on here?  What kind of Savior disappoints people who need him?

Trouble is, when Jesus doesn’t give you that miracle, he’s leaving the door wide open for the devil to come in, pointing the finger of accusation against you: “you don’t have enough faith.”  “You’re not good enough.”  “You’re being punished” (but you don’t know what for).

But with one hand accusing you, the devil’s other accuses Jesus: “he’s not real!”  “He doesn’t love you!”

Putting together all this spiritual pain on top of the physical and emotional pain of sickness and need, and it adds up to hell on earth.

Sadly, there is no greater mystery in the life of the Christian than the reason why some get miracles and others don’t.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  If God is love, then why is there hunger and war and human suffering?  If you find the answers, let me know.  I haven’t found them yet.

But there’s something else Jesus does: he prays.  Jesus knew he was leaving behind disappointed people who needed him desperately.  He moves on to other towns because the need is so great. Knowing Jesus to be compassionate and merciful, it’s not going out on a limb to believe that Jesus prayed for those who would be disappointed in him. 

That’s what Jesus does for you when you’re the one disappointed in him: he prays for you.  He intercedes to his Father on your behalf.  And you are invited into that conversation.  You can be bold to ask God for a cure.  But there’s so much more to this conversation than just private prayer.

Scripture is God’s Word to us—and it is our most effective weapon against the devil’s lies.  The Holy Spirit uses the Scriptures to lead you in the truth of who God is and what God desires for you and for the hurting world.  The Scriptures bind us in relationship to God and each other.  This is why it’s so important to read it, study it, discuss and teach it.  Amid all the fears and doubts, God speaks truth.

God also gives us the Sacraments.  Water, wine, and bread together with the Word bind us to God. 

Finally, because we are baptized, the Holy Spirit makes us as Christ to each other.  “Being church” means that we pray as one Body.  We cry out together on each other’s behalf; we lay on hands.  And we serve.  One of God’s quickest answers to prayers is to inspire us to listen and encourage and share and support—because Jesus is never far away when you see him in someone else.  If you’re baptized, you already possess gifts that heal. 

We come into the conversation between Jesus and his Father so that the mysteries of God’s mercy would give way to faith to behold and be cared for by Jesus Christ.  For we know that Jesus is merciful, though we do not always know how he will be merciful.  But a promise is a promise: Jesus listens to and God answers prayer.  Very often, faith is following Jesus through the fog of disappointment and mystery until you see the truth of God’s amazing grace to you. 

How God will be merciful will always be a ministry.  But it is a certainty that God will be merciful.  It is from this promise that we have the hope to move on.


Osteen, Dodie. Healed of Cancer. Houston: John Osteen Publications, 1986.



Sunday, February 1, 2015

Jesus In Your Shoes ~ Hebrews 2:14-18 ~ Liturgy for Healing

Photo courtesy of goldsaint /
During our final year of seminary, Elizabeth took a job as a dietary aide at a hospital.  When she was hired, the hospital was launching a “concierge” meal service, which allowed patients to order whatever food they wanted, whenever they wanted it—and have it delivered like room service.  If you wanted a burger and fries for breakfast, they’d make it for you! 

But this idea of “concierge meal service” is part of a recent trend in hospitals to make patients feel less like they’re in the hospital and more like they’re staying a nice hotel, which isn’t a bad thing!  If you’re laid up sick, sometimes the best medicine is your favorite food!

But there’s no concierge in the world that can take an illness away.

When you’re diagnosed with a serious illness, or a loved one dies, everything in your world is affected.  There’s no sense of normalcy anymore—except the pain.  This awful thing busts into your life without your permission.  It assaults you in your weakest and most vulnerable moments.  Life becomes a day-to-day struggle to wrestle your existence back from the pain, and press on against that which is constantly dragging you down.

And you feel so alone. 

Nobody knows what it’s like to be walking in your shoes.  Well-meaning people may say they understand, but they don’t.  The one-liners and clich├ęs don’t help either.  “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”  Those aren’t encouraging words!  They only make you feel guilty when your strength is failing and you wonder how you’re going to go on…

But listen to what the Bible says:

“Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Nobody knows the trouble you’ve seen; but Jesus does. 

Truth is, Jesus, even though he was without sin, experienced every possible human experience of pain.  He was born in dire poverty.  He was homeless.  He had family troubles (at one point, his own family said “he’s out of his mind!”)  He knew hunger; he knew isolation; he knew temptation; he knew grief.  He was betrayed by one of his own disciples. And the rest ran away so that he died alone. 

Jesus was crucified in a place called “the Skull…”  Think about that—the worst place in the world, where he died the worst possible death there could be.  At the cross, all the forces of evil were nailed into his feet, hands, and side. 

This means that no matter what you’re going through, Jesus has walked in your shoes.  He knows what it’s like.   But Jesus gives you more than just his sympathy.

At your baptism, you are baptized into Jesus—but Jesus is also baptized into you.  He is born into you and lives within you through faith.  Jesus walks in your shoes. 

What for?  To listen to your prayers and intercede to his Father on your behalf.  To give you strength to withstand the assaults and temptations of the devil.  To liberate you from the power of fear and doubt…  To cleanse you of your sin and make you new, every day. 

Because Jesus lives in you, the Father looks after and takes care of you as he does his Son. 

So when sickness, death, and the troubles of strike and you suffer a direct hit, you will endure because Jesus endured the cross.  When you stand at death’s door, and we all will, Jesus will walk through it with you—and one day, you’re going to walk right out of the tomb to life everlasting.

Jesus walks in your shoes.

Today, we are calling forth the living Christ to reveal himself to us and to those for whom we come before him as intercessors.  With Jesus crucified and resurrected, living and loving both by day and night, we are not going to surrender to hopelessness and helplessness.  We are calling Christ to come alive through our prayers; through the laying on of hands; through our words and deeds of compassion and mercy.

We can’t raise the dead or knock illnesses out of people like they do on TV—but that does not mean that we do not possess gifts of healing.  It all begins in prayer: we intercede on behalf of one another—and through that prayer, the Spirit will empower us to words and actions that accomplish God’s healing!  Prayer happens to be one of the best things you can do for someone—and its power is multiplied when two or more gather and pray together. 

Jesus is walking in all our shoes—but because we are a church, our own shoes are not the only ones we’re going to see.  We’re going to see a whole myriad of shoes on the feet of the ones who bring the love and compassion of our Lord Jesus.