Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday

Mark 16:1-8

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our LORD Jesus Christ.

Appropriately on this first day of April, the ending of Mark’s gospel reads like an April Fools’ Day joke.

The women who came from Galilee to Jerusalem with Jesus,
looked on from a distance at his crucifixion,
and watched as his body was laid in a tomb,
returned to the tomb very early in the morning,
taking burial spices with them. And there

“Surprise! He is not here.”

Instead of finding their Lord exactly where they expected, they found an empty tomb

And though they must have heard the young man’s blessed assurance, “Do not be afraid”, their surprise was mixed with the wonder and amazement of mystery, and then with terror and fear.

Entering the empty tomb is uncomfortable, at best.

In fact, it is so uncomfortable that scholars think early Christians added onto the Gospel writer’s account to create an ending that was more satisfactory.

Don’t we all want an Easter story that is wrapped with a pastel bow, filled with jubilation and has a happy ending?

Instead, Mark tells us the women fled and said nothing to anyone.

As uncomfortable as it is, the women’s response to the empty tomb creates a mirror in which we see ourselves. In our own experiences of following Jesus, most of us can name surprising and joyful highs and moments of wonder and awe, but also those times of disorientation, and places where we have felt only terror or fear.

The Good News is the empty tomb is not the end of the story. The young man tells the women that Jesus has gone before them to Galilee, where his ministry and their life of following Jesus began.

To see Jesus again we must look ahead.

This morning, we celebrate the miraculous news of the Resurrection with joyful songs and shouts of Alleluia, but this afternoon and tomorrow, or the next day, we’ll return to our own Galilees— the places where we come from,
or where we work and live, and in our everyday routines.

May we remember that
Jesus goes before us into our neighborhoods and city streets;
Jesus goes before us into our schools and college campuses;
Jesus goes before us into our offices and board rooms;
Jesus goes before us into hospitals and doctor’s offices;
and Jesus goes before us into the prisons and treatment centers.

This Easter the Gospel asks us to be willing to tell the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ even when the ending remains unwritten. It asks us to share the Resurrection hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), confident that God is working in our midst to accomplish his purposes all around us and ready to follow Him.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday

Mark 12:22-42

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our LORD Jesus Christ.

I don’t know about you but many of my favorite memories feature food. I often tell a story about my grandmother, who didn’t bake, except for meringues, but she always had pantry shelves filled with Pepperidge Farm cookies. I remember too, as a child, going to my friend’s Polish Catholic parish where we ate cabbage rolls, potatoes and sweet pastries. I remember Sunday brunch with hearts of palm and dinners where roast beast was carved at the table. I remember my mother’s paella and coq au vin and eating barbecue and Brunswick stew from Creedmoor. But these food memories aren’t just from childhood.

Two years ago, a group of folks here in Shelby created a community Thanksgiving meal.
Inviting people to come and eat,
they took donations of turkeys and side dishes, sweet tea and desserts;
they prayed before the meal to bless the gifts of food and presence that had been given;
they broke bread, opened chafing dishes of mashed potatoes and green beans, uncovered pie plates and tins of cookies;
and gave the bounty to the neighbors who gathered.

Somehow gathering around a table for a meal fills more than our bellies and nourishes our bodies; it contents our hearts and strengthens us for what lies ahead.

Tonight, on Maundy Thursday, named for the mandatum, or command, that Jesus gives his disciples in John’s Gospel “to love one another as I have loved you,” we inhabit another part of the story from the night of Jesus’ arrest — the meal. In John’s Gospel, it is not a Passover meal, but in the synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke – it is, and that’s significant because the Passover meal is not just about sated appetites, full bellies and nourished bodies; it is an act of remembering the mighty act of God’s salvation — God’s rescue —from death and slavery.

The people of Israel were enslaved by the king of Egypt, and when he would not free them, God promised judgment against the people there; the Israelites were told to mark their doorposts with the blood of a slaughtered lamb and the blood would be a sign of the covenant they had with God, and God would pass over their households and save them. (Exodus 12) After his own people suffered God’s judgment, Pharaoh let the Israelites go and they fled Egypt but throughout their journey to the Holy Land, God accompanied them.

In the same way, the meal we share at the Table every time we celebrate Holy Communion together remembers the mighty act of God’s salvation in our lives.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains, “The words ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you’ for the forgiveness of sins show us that the forgiveness of sin, life and salvation are given to us ….”[i] “The treasure is opened and placed …upon the table [for everyone.]”[ii]And he reminds us that it is not our eating and drinking that do it, but “the bread and wine set within God’s Word and bound to it.”[iii]

Daily, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. But, unfailingly, God rescues us, delivering us “from sin, death and the devil.”[iv]

Again, hear Martin Luther’s teaching, “There are so many hindrances and attacks of the devil and the world that we often grow weary and faint at times even stumble…the devil is a furious enemy;…when he cannot rout us by force, he sneaks and skulks at every turn, trying all kinds of tricks, and does not stop until he has finally worn us out….For times like these, …the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment. ”[v]

On this Maundy Thursday night, like the disciples often did, we want to deny what is going to happen to Jesus. We want to remember the scene the way Leonardo Da Vinci painted it: an upper room with a festive table overflowing with food and wine where Jesus and his disciples gathered. We want the garden to be filled with birds’ night song and the sweet aroma of fresh blooms, instead of the shouts of soldiers and the pungent smell of burial spices.

But tonight, especially, we cannot deny Jesus’ fate. Gathered here tonight, we are bearing witness not to a farewell party, but to the last meal of a condemned man, because we cannot get to the joy of Easter without first seeing Jesus stripped and mocked and finally, executed.

As darkness falls, we join the whole company of disciples around the world and across time who come to this Table, confessing our sin and naming our need for God, confident that God gives us “food for the soul [ that] nourishes and strengthens [us for what lies ahead.]”[vi]

Thanks be to God.

[i] Martin Luther, “Small Catechism,” Book of Concord. 362.
[ii] Martin Luther. “Large Catechism,” Book of Concord. 470.
[iii] ibid 467.
[iv] ibid 459
[v] ibid 469.
[vi] ibid

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday (March 25, 2018)

Mark 11:1-11

Today, at the beginning of Holy Week, we heard first about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then we heard the account of his execution just days later. Our human brokenness is realized in our Lord’s crucifixion when the same disciples who confessed Jesus as Lord ran away and hid after he was arrested.

We’ll visit the events of the Three Days – from the last Supper through Holy Saturday – later in the week during our worship on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but today I want us to stay a little longer with the crowds shouting Hosanna, crying out to Jesus to “save us.”

Marcus Borg, a theologian and scholar who wrote about the historical Jesus in a number of books including one titled The Last Week, described what was taking place that day. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the “festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from” Pharaoh who had enslaved the people of Israel centuries earlier.

The Roman governors of the region lived nearer to the Mediterranean coast, but they regularly traveled to Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals. Proceeding down the western Watershed Ridge, Pilate and the imperial army would have approached Jerusalem in a mighty procession with armored foot soldiers, the cavalry on horses, weapons, banners and all the sounds of a conquering army.[i]

According to Mark’s gospel, which was written in Rome, to Christians living in Rome, between 65 and 70 CE, Jesus approached from the opposite side of Jerusalem,
from the eastern Mount of Olives, riding into the city,
not on a stallion, but on a borrowed colt. Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Louisiana-Gulf Coast Synod notes, “Royalty arrives on a donkey in times of peace (Genesis 49:11, Judges 5:5, 10:4). [and it] arrives on a horse in times of war.”

For Roman citizens, familiar with the governors’ triumphant marches, Jesus’ arrival would have been a clear and obvious challenge to the status quo. Instead of riding high atop a warhorse, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, rides into town on a donkey, not as a conquering hero, but as a humble servant king.[ii] Instead of a lavish demonstration of human power and military might, Jesus displays the already (but not yet) present kingdom of God. The kingdom is not yet fulfilled because we still live in sin, but God is present in the midst of our suffering, in the midst of persistent injustices and unacceptable deaths.

Most of us have never lived under occupation, nor known the oppression that enslaved peoples have known. Few of us, including me, have even witnessed it first-hand. But Jerusalem was an occupied city, where Israelites lived under Hellenist Greeks until 164 BCE and then fell again in 63 BCE to Rome. The emperors were brutal and exploitative, and when there were revolts, whole cities burned and rebels were crucified en masse.[iii]

While it is ancient history for us, for Mark’s audience, those massacres would have been as familiar as the horrors of the Holocaust are to us today. In the midst of this destructive and disruptive violence and dis-ease, Jesus affirms that “God’s resolve for peace in human communities is unshakeable.”

As large as the crowds were on the road between the Mount of Olives and the City of David, they wouldn’t have included everyone. Some might have been obligated to attend the governor’s procession or been curious about the spectacle. And John’s gospel tells us, “[the Jewish religious leaders] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”[iv] That meant being rejected, exiled from worship and cut off from community. So, some people would have stayed away because they were afraid. The cost of choosing instead to follow Jesus was high.

Now as then, following Jesus means choosing another Way, one that isn’t rooted in fear or force but in the Good News of God’s saving power and life-giving grace. The Good News, as Pastor Bobby Wilkinson writes, “those who wield death … have no real standing against the One who wields the power of new life.”[v]

Entering into this Holy Week, we are invited to hear the gospel call to prayer and action for the sake of the world and to take the risk of following Jesus in plain sight, all the way to the cross.

Let us pray…
Hosanna, Lord God,
Thank you for Your Son Jesus who comes into the world and brings life to all of us who choose death;
Accompany us through this Holy Week that we would confess what we have failed to do and receive your forgiveness and mercy;
Lead us by Spirit to bring life and light into our community as witnesses to Your love.
Amen.

[i] Marcus Borg. The Last Week. 2-3.
[ii] “Passion/Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018.” https://bishopmike.com/, accessed 3/22/2018.
[iii] Borg, 14-15.
[iv] John 9:22
[v] https://robertwilliamsonjr.com/palm-sunday-time-trump/, accessed 3/23/2018.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Fifth Wednesday in Lent (March 21, 2018)

Isaiah 12

In Mark 12, when Jesus answers the scribe who asks, “What is the greatest commandment?” and repeats the words of the she-ma to his followers, he concludes with the command to “love the Lord with all your strength…..”

Remembering how Jacob wrestled at Peniel with an angel of the Lord, or how Joseph was thrown into a pit by his brothers or even how Jesus himself carried the weight of the cross to his own crucifixion, we might wonder how literally we should take his words. But as with the words from Psalm 19 that we just prayed, Jesus isn’t speaking of physical strength or even of character, but the strength – the power and resilience – given us by God and experienced in faith, and it is grounded in a witness of all of God’s might acts across history.

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet recalls the character and actions of the Lord our God who has acted throughout history to save God’s people. In the first eleven chapters, the prophet has been narrating Judah’s history and in the remaining chapters there will judgment and rebuke against the people of Israel, and eventually, an offering of hope restored to returning exiles.[i] But in chapter 12, Isaiah stops and offers his own doxology or hymn
of thanksgiving and praise.

For us the prophet’s words provide us with a turning point. Throughout Lent, we have been looking back at the covenant relationship that God has given us and our ancestors of faith before us; now in the last week of Lent, we are approaching Holy Week which will begin with Sunday’s liturgy of the palms, when we will stop and enter into Jerusalem with Jesus, accompanying him with waving palm branches and shouts of Hosanna, words that means “Save us.”.

Fittingly, Isaiah’s “own name means God of salvation.”[ii] Salvation is one of those words that stirs debate but generally, most of us can agree with the definition Old Testament professor Rolf Jacobson provides: “human salvation is from something bad, for something good, and is accomplished by God.”[iii] In Lutheranism, on the matter of salvation, everything depends on God.  Salvation is God’s free and unmerited gift to us.

In these two stanzas, the prophet recognizes that God desires relationship more than judgment, saying “for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away.” And then he echoes the words of Moses and the Israelites when they were delivered from the Red Sea:

The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him.[iv]
and then he describes God’s gifts of goodness and abundance as wellsprings.
In Lent we have been mirroring Jesus’ own forty days in the desert, fasting and praying. So where , like Jesus, and like the Israelites before him, do we now find our strength?
How much greater now is our own thirst for the things of God because we have fasted from impulses?
How fitting it is then that the prophet invites us to share in the joy of the unexpected and undeserved experience of God as we conclude this season where God has drawn us into closer relationship.

Let us pray.[v]
O Lord our God,
Show us your everlasting love that we may serve you from the obedience of our hearts.
Lead us in the way of your peace, that our souls may be restored.
Guide us in the way of the cross, that we might proclaim the strength of your love.
We pray in the name of Your Son Jesus,
Amen.

[i] Elizabeth Webb. Working Preacher Commentary.
[ii] Audrey West. Working Preacher Commentary.
[iii] Rolf A. Jacobson, Ed. Crazy Talk.
[iv] Exodus 15:2
[v] Adapted from Sundays and Seasons Midweek Lenten Series: You Shall Love the Lord Your God.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-33

All through Lent we’ve been studying covenant — witnessing how God established a divine relationship with all God’s people and how God’s promises were accompanied by signs as reminders of God’s abundant love and mercy, and our dependence on God alone.

There was the covenant with Noah, and then with Abram and then with Moses and the people of Israel. The Law was given in stone and broken; forgiveness was given and rejected, so now, after words of right judgment, now the prophet Jeremiah declares there will be a new covenant.

As before, the covenant is grounded in forgiveness but, this time, the prophet declares, it will be written on our hearts.

By grace, God writes over whatever pain or wounds we have suffered, even the ones that are self-inflicted or carry still in our sin-scarred hearts, and we are made new and whole.

For us as Christians we see this new covenant manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus that we see God make people whole, restore their relationships and return them to their families and communities. It is in Jesus that we see justice – the addressing of wrong actions – enacted, and we see man-made or contrived boundaries, barriers and categories broken down.

And that is why, as we approach Palm Sunday and Holy Week, the religious authorities were plotting to kill Jesus. But in the gospel text, it is also why Greeks were coming to the disciples, and asking, “We wish to see Jesus.”

It’s most likely that these Greeks were Gentiles, outsiders to the old covenant, and yet, here they were coming to see the Messiah, the Son of God who had come into the world.

“We wish to see Jesus.”

Once upon a time, those words were carved into pulpits, that we preachers would remember our task. But I think I’d like to see the words carved into the lintel and doorposts at the entrance to the sanctuary, so that all of us, as we leave here after worship, might remember that, for some, we are the only Jesus a person may meet.

The Evangelist tells us that Philip went to Andrew and then, together, they went to tell Jesus about the Greeks who had come, but after that, the gospel account takes a turn and we never even learn whether they got to see Jesus.

Maybe they only got to meet the disciples and see Jesus by hearing their stories of why they followed Jesus and watching what their journey looked like.

On Friday I had the opportunity to gather with chaplains and clergy at Hood Theological Seminary and hear one such story from a man who is now the brigadier general who leads the Army and Air National Guard Chaplain Corps.
Chaplain Chisolm told his story of growing up in Mississippi in a town where his daddy was the school superintendent, and, as he told his story, he told us about the man he called Brother Wallace, who lived next door to the church where he grew up, which was just across the street from his own house. That meant Brother Wallace was a witness to all the mischief he and his brothers and sisters got into, but Chaplain Chisolm said that, even in those years when as a teenager he didn’t think much about God or faith, Brother Wallace remained a constant presence in his life. Not cajoling or coercing or chastising him but just staying connected and interested.

At 18 Chisolm enlisted in the Air National Guard and, a few weeks after he graduated from high school, he moved farther away from home, and from his parents, than he had ever gone before, to Texas for basic training. The chaplain told the story of how there, in the old World War 2 barracks at Lackland Air Force Base, he heard God speak to him and as he wrestled with what that meant, he wrote a letter to Brother Wallace. He didn’t know what to do next, but he knew Brother Wallace was someone he could trust with his questions, and who could help him see God more clearly.

More than thirty years later, when Chisolm returned home for his father’s funeral, he was speaking again with Brother Wallace, and the older gentleman reached into his coat pocket and pulled out that letter written by the young recruit in a complex time of uncertainty.
“We wish to see Jesus.”

It is a plea that any one of us has probably made in our lifetimes, and that our neighbors, young and old, may only have answered in our openness to accompany them and listen to their stories;

in our “healing actions or attitudes that [affirm] that all people are created in the image of a loving God and, therefore, need and merit, respect and dignity;”[i]

or in our willingness to show up and be what Chaplain Chisolm called “a visible sign of the Holy” in a volatile and unpredictable world.

Let us pray.
Covenant God,
You see us for what we are, but in mercy You do not cast us aside. In your steadfast love you forgive us our sin.
May we bear carry your love and mercy into a hurting world in such a way that they will see You in our words and actions.
We pray in the name of Your Son Jesus,
Amen.

[i] Dr. Vergel Lattimore, Hood Theological Seminary.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fourth Wednesday in Lent

1 Kings 3:3-15

Tonight’s text is known as “Solomon’s prayer for wisdom.” But that doesn’t tell the whole story, who Solomon was or why he becomes associated with the wisdom books of the Song of Solomon, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

Solomon was one of the sons of King David and Bathsheba, the wife of the soldier Uriah whom David sent into battle to be killed. At the end of David’s life, his two oldest sons were either dead or missing and by tradition, his eldest surviving son, Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith, expected to succeed him on the throne and become Israel’s third king. But at the beginning of this book, we hear how Bathsheba intercedes on behalf of her son Solomon and then we have, essentially, an account of a turf war as Adonijah and Solomon vie for the throne.

Favored by his mother and the prophet Nathan and armed with his father’s blessing and military might, Solomon establishes his rule. And before his death, King David declares, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who today has granted one of my offspring to sit on my throne and permitted me to witness it.” (1 Kings 1:48)

When we learn more about Solomon, it becomes clear that, like his father, he too was imperfect, an example of both saint and sinner, capable of both evil and good. But here, what we see is a new king who has gone to Gibeon and offered ritual sacrifices, publicly demonstrating his obedience and loyalty to the god who has entrusted the monarchy to him.  And while he is there, God appears to Solomon in a dream.

As is often true in biblical stories, it’s helpful to remember the era where the story takes place and who its audience was. In the ancient world, dreams weren’t psychic phenomena to be interpreted by psychologists; instead they were understood as manifestations of a divine response, a Word from Yahweh. So when we hear that God spoke to Solomon in a dream, we are to recall the other dreamers we know in the Bible, like Jacob and Joseph in Genesis and Joseph and Paul in the New Testament.

In this dream, God says to Solomon, “Ask what I should give you." (1 Kings 3:5)

Can you imagine? How would you answer if you were offered anything you wanted? Would it be safety or security, esteem or affection, power or control? Or something material?

Offered the opportunity to ask for anything, Solomon doesn’t answer immediately, but his reticence isn’t indecision. First, he offers praise for God’s actions, and then he expresses humility and acknowledges his own ill-preparedness for the responsibilities of the throne. He doesn’t puff up with pride or make a show of his power and authority. He doesn’t pretend that he doesn’t need or want anything.

When he does answer, Solomon simply asks God to give him an “understanding mind.”

The word in Hebrew there is the word for “mind” or “will” or heart, and in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, the word is καρδία so some translations say he requested a “listening” or “discerning” heart.

Solomon isn’t focused on outward expressions of his kingship; he wants to be aligned with God’s guidance and purpose.

Teacher and author Ruth Haley Barton describes discernment as “the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and the activity of God — both in the ordinary moments and in the larger decisions of our lives.”[i] Solomon doesn’t desire an academic or intellectual, post-Enlightenment wisdom; instead he is asking God for the knowledge of “What would you have me do?”

In Mark 12, when Jesus answers the scribe who asks, “What is the greatest commandment?” he repeats the words of the she-ma, telling his followers to “love the Lord with all your mind…..” He isn’t asking, as atheists charge, that we leave our minds at the door. Instead, he is asking that we align ourselves with God’s purposes, that we orient ourselves to God instead of allowing our egos to edge God out.

In the Lord’s Prayer when we petition, “Your will be done on earth as in heaven” we are surrendering to God, confessing that we are dependent on God and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about wise action and help  us embody God’s love in the world.

We are asking God to work through us as we are called into a life of discernment where we follow the wisdom of Solomon expressed in Proverbs 9: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10 NIV)

Equipped with holy wisdom, we are called to go out into the world like Solomon and ask, “Lord, what would you have me do?”

Let us pray.[ii]
O Lord our God,
Show us your everlasting love that we may serve you from the obedience of our hearts.
Lead us in the way of your peace, that our souls may be restored.
Guide us in the way of the cross, that we might proclaim the strength of your love.
We pray in the name of Your Son Jesus,
Amen.

[i] “Discernment: The Heart of Spiritual Leadership,” Ruth Haley Barton. http://www.transformingcenter.org/2012/05/discernment-the-heart-of-spiritual-leadership/ , accessed 3/14/2018.
[ii] Adapted from Sundays and Seasons Midweek Lenten Series: You Shall Love the Lord Your God.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Have you ever overheard part of a conversation, and realized you didn’t know what people were talking about or what had already been said?

Today’s gospel text is like that. The lectionary reading begins in the middle of a conversation. If you didn’t read the preceding verses in chapter 3, you don’t know who’s speaking. And if you haven’t read Numbers recently – and that probably describes most of us here today – you may not remember what was happening when “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.”

So, let’s begin with the story in Numbers. “The [fourth] book [in the Torah, or Pentateuch] tells the story of how Israel's exodus generation entered the desert where most of them died away in faithlessness and disobedience, and how the next generation emerged, prepared to claim the promise of a new land.”[i]

After Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, they wandered in the wilderness for many years. The story that is referenced in John’s gospel happened after the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother who had accompanied him out of Egypt.

Remember how the people of Israel began grumbling and complaining, and God answered their complaint by giving them manna to eat?

Well, now here they are, grumbling and complaining again.
The text says they “became impatient” and “spoke against God and against Moses.”  Old Testament scholar Dennis Olson describes them as “drag[ging] out the same laundry list of complaints about dying in the wilderness, yearning to go back to Egypt, the lack of food and water, and the monotony of the manna.” It’s like a video clip that gets caught buffering and cannot play to the end, or an audio track that plays endlessly on repeat.
Nothing could satisfy them.

What happens next is surprising. The text says, “The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many…died.”

It’s surprising because what is described is God’s judgment falling upon a people.

We like to think of judgment as something that happens to “other people” but in Numbers, it’s clear God delivers judgment upon God’s own people.

Facing the reality of God’s judgment, the people offer a confession, but simultaneously, they ask Moses to pray that God would remove the serpents from their midst.

Instead, God tells Moses to make a serpent and place it on a pole and instructs him that anyone who gets bitten will be able to look up at the serpent on the pole and live.  From that time forward until King Hezekiah destroyed it during his temple reform in the eighth century BCE because it had become a false idol, the serpent on the stick was called Nehushtan and the people of Israel kept it with them as a sign of God’s life-giving covenant.

When we hear the story referenced in the gospel text, it turns out that Jesus is the one speaking. The Pharisee Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night time and is asking him questions about what he is teaching and the signs that he has performed.

Recalling the sign of salvation that God had provided to the people of Israel all those centuries before, Jesus tells Nicodemus “so must the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (v. 14-15)

And then, just as God’s people suffered judgment in the Numbers passage, Jesus says in v. 19, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people have loved darkness more than light because their deeds were evil.”

Both the author of Numbers and the evangelist John are speaking to the community.

Remember how Jesus answered the scribe who asked which of the commandments was greatest?

Jesus said, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Mark 12:29-31)

For the Israelites wandering in the desert, their sin wasn’t that they complained; their sin was failing to believe the God of Israel, the Lord our God, was going to deliver them. And, they were so curved in on themselves and coiled tightly like snakes themselves that they couldn’t even recognize their own sin!

In Jerusalem, Nicodemus and the other religious leaders and temple priests, likewise, didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God. They studied and followed the Levitical laws meticulously, believing they could achieve righteousness by their good works if they could remain ritually pure and blameless. Their sin was failing to believe God alone was their redeemer and deliverer. (Ps. 107)

God can handle our complaints and our fears and doubts; the Psalms are full of complaints and laments, anger and fear, but the psalmists always return to what they know about who God is and what God’s character and past promises and actions tell us.

What is sinful is the certitude that the Israelites and the Pharisees display and their disregard for what God has done.

In his Lectures on Romans, Martin Luther writes about our natural impulse to “deeply curve in on [ourselves].” That is the very definition of sin: bending everything, even God’s best gifts, toward ourselves for our own elevation, enjoyment and pleasure.[ii]

And, when we are looking inward toward our bellies, we cannot look up.

We cannot look up at the life-giving sign that heals,
and we cannot look up at the cross that triumphs over death.

And when we cannot look up, we die.


It is that simple and that startling.

God breathes life into us and commands us to live, and instead, as Eugene Peterson writes in his paraphrase of today’s passage from Ephesians, we “[fill our] lungs with polluted unbelief, and then [exhale] disobedience.”

Thankfully God doesn’t leave us there. God who knows us and loves us, and has established a life-giving covenant with us, equips us to live an abundant life in the fullness of relationship in faith in Christ.

It’s ours, if only we will stop navel-gazing and look up.

Let us pray.
Lord our God,
heal our brokenness that we would see your gift of life;
God of judgment,
lift up our eyes that we would recognize Your presence in our lives in all circumstances;
Redeeming God,
Strengthen us to live as Your faithful people in a world that loves darkness.
We pray in the name of your crucified and risen Son, Jesus Christ,
Amen.

[i] “Numbers.” Luther Seminary, EnterTheBible.org.
[ii] Lectures on Romans. Luther’s Works, Vol. 25.