19 Pentecost 2012
Mark 10: 2-16
“Let the Children Come, Let Thy Kingdom Come”
Pastor Chris Enstad
Brothers and sisters, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Let the children come to me”
Children have been elevated nowadays to the point that adults almost worship childhood in unhealthy ways. One only needs to turn on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to get at that idea. Children have such a high status in our culture and society today that it is often hard for us to remember that it was not that long ago that children had absolutely no status in society at all. There was a time not long ago that children had to work at hard jobs, daylight saving time was instituted to allow children, in part, to get home from school in time to help in the fields, children were to be seen and not heard.
That is the culture into which Jesus is speaking today. The culture where children were an annoyance, where they had a status less than human, where they were a distraction and drag on families until they were old enough to contribute to the chores and the family purse.
Jesus was receiving children that were being brought to him by the people but the disciples found it to be a distraction. They rebuked the crowds. But Jesus, when he saw that, was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”
Let the children come to me; do not hinder them.
Jesus invited the least and the lost and the lowly into his presence elevating their status by lowering his to be with them just as he lowered his divine status to come and live with us in the first place.
In a culture that is so hung up on status and power it is a telling thing to watch how our Lord and Savior acts with those who have been relegated to the outside of society by their status. Children, women, non-Israelites, all were treated as less than human but then Jesus comes along and not only gives women the right to divorce but then commands his disciples to let the children come to him for to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever does not receive the kingdom like a child cannot enter it.
That phrase has caused a lot of problem in Christianity throughout history, maybe not as much trouble as it should have caused, but problems nonetheless. You see we can intellectually acknowledged what it means to receive the kingdom of God like a child. Oh, sure, we just need to remember that faith is simple and no matter how many questions we might have about God we should just suck it up and act like a pure unpadded uncynical little child.
But when the phrase is translated using a better work for “like” from the Greek word, “hos” we get another truth altogether:
Whoever does not receive the kingdom as a child cannot enter it.
Whoever does not receive the kingdom as a child cannot enter it.
Ahh, you see, where we always like to make these Gospel teachings about us, more often than not Jesus turns those expectations on their head and makes us think more about God and the kingdom of heaven.
For just as children were relegated to the sidelines of society with no status or regard, so is the kingdom of heaven. If we cannot get over the fact that our God has chosen to act in the simple way of sending his Son to die on a cross, and that the kingdom of God will enter into our lives and world with little regard, little status, and little for people to get excited about, if we cannot wrap our brains and our hearts around that truth then we will not enter into that kingdom.
God comes to us in the form of the opposite. The opposite of just about everything we could ever expect. He comes to us in the form of a prisoner, someone we would rather put away and forget about for thirty years, he comes to us in the form of the homeless, the hungry, the ultimate outsider, asking us for our hand and our blessing. My brothers and sisters, if we cannot figure out how to lay our hands on the least and the lost and the lowly, then how can we ever fathom the truth of the kingdom of God, and how will we ever enter it?
Ask yourselves in this coming week where the outsiders are in your lives? Where have you come across the least and the lost, how have you withheld your blessing and attention from someone or something that seems beneath your time and energy?
And then give thanks to God that he has not done the same thing to you and to me for while we were outside God sent his Son to die for you and for me. Let us share that blessing with those in our own lives beginning today and in all the days to come.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Remarks on our 90th Anniversary
When a congregation turns 90 there is usually an existential question that usually goes unasked, but it is one that Elim has, in many forms, been answering for these last few years... is this congregation going to age gracefully or fitfully?
Church experts have studied growth and decline patterns in church organizations and they have discovered an interesting but very important fact: churches experience their highest rates of growth in their first 10 years of existence and then after they turn 110 years old.
Why might that be? Well, the first ten years of growth are easy because everyone is playing on the same team... they are often not only the music team but also the ushers, the bulletin producers, they are usually renting a building so there are no internal fights about that, etc. etc. After a church matures it often falls into patterns of work with certain people holding the reins and those reins seldom changing. They can quickly become a closed world very indifferent to outsiders or those who do not fit the picture of who built the church in the first place and why... but after 110 years growth starts happening again? Why? Because all of those who would dig in their heels against change or innovation have gone and that has created space for new leadership and ideas to emerge.
Churches that embrace change early in their maturity are those who choose to age graciously, those who refuse to accept the issues that come with old age, and we know people like this as well, age fitfully. The aging itself, you will notice, never stops.
If Elim continues along its present track you will see that this church and its leadership have chose to age gracefully. We are excited about the possibilities that exist within the walls of our church and in our community. We are exploring what it means to be Christian without letting our denominational walls hinder us with our Pentecostal and non-denominational African American church communities who worship in the building. We are building strong bridges with the Laotian immigrant church as we celebrate our common theological roots and look for ways to do more things together including the possibility of bringing our two congregations together on Sunday mornings.
We are building two local partnerships with Lakeview Elementary School and the Good Samaritan Specialty Health Communities not in an effort to expand our ranks but it is what good neighbors do, we help each other to be ourselves.
Our council is building a frame through which we will take all that we are; our mission (what we believe we are called to be doing in this unique place)), our values (why we are doing it) , and use them to not only form a strategy for our future, but a system that will allow us to be accountable to each other for more than just numbers. We are becoming convinced that God is calling Elim to put together a picture of what an Elimite looks like and how they act and how they understand themselves in the world not just on Sunday but for each day of the week. We will be able to define what makes our church unique and why someone would want to be a part of it. That’s exciting because we will be able to tell each other and our neighbors just where it is we believe God is calling us as a congregation and we will be able to articulate how we are going to get there together.
And for all of this we have to pause and remember that this is not just a birthday party it is a gratitude party. I am thankful for all who have come before me in the pastoral office, I am thankful for each of you who form the real backbone of our church community and I am thankful for each current and former member who added whoever they were and whoever God was calling them to be to the great recipe called Elim Lutheran Church of Robbinsdale.
May God grant to this church at least another 90 years of fruitbearing branches at the Oasis on 40th and Broadway.
6 Pentecost 2012
Mark 6: 1-13
Pastor Chris Enstad
Brothers and sisters I bring you grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I give thanks for each and every one of you who are gathered here this morning. The mere fact that you are here at all is a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit who called you here today. Indeed, we proclaim a faith that is given to us as a gift, even to the point of finding ourselves here, gathered in this sanctuary, worshipping God.
But maybe you don’t think it took a miracle. Maybe most of you are thinking to yourself, I don’t see where the Holy Spirit was in my alarm going off and me dragging myself out of bed, into the shower and into my church clothes this morning. Or maybe it was the sharp elbows of your wife or your mother who got you into the car and got you into this building today. It wasn’t the Holy Spirit Pastor, it was my mom, it was my alarm, it was my dad saying, “you will go to church or else”. Or maybe it is just what you have been doing for sixty or seventy or ninety years, it’s like clockwork eventually those old habits of going to church on Sunday morning.
But our faith tells us that something else happens when the people of God find themselves gathered into a place like this singing hymns, praying for ourselves and others, listening to the proclamation of God’s word. Our faith tells us that it is not just the mundane habit of life that brought you here this morning, but it was the Holy Spirit who has called us together to worship God in the faith that that very Spirit has given to us as a gift.
But more and more people are falling away from having the institution of church being a part of their lives. Not only are 2/3 of our neighbors non-believers but another 25% of those who were in the faith as youth have now left the church.
Ask someone why they have left the church and you get all sorts of answers: it’s full of hypocrites, those in charge have abused their power or used their power to harm children and others, all the church cares about is itself not me, the message doesn’t mean anything to my life and my problems.
Then go and ask someone who does not believe why they do not take the question of faith more seriously and you will also get a whole bevy of responses: Christians are hypocrites, I don’t like what I see Christians saying about social issues on TV, all they want is my money, the Bible doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t work for my scientific mind, or the best is, “well, some Christian knocked on my door and said I would go to hell unless I joined their church!” Great. Our PR department is not the best at winning people over for Christ.
People don’t trust institutions like the church because they don’t trust that the church has their best interests in mind. They see us coming a mile away and whether we have a chance to even declare: no, we’re not THOSE kinds of Christians, well, their argument is made for them.
Jesus runs into much the same problem when he arrives back in his hometown of Nazareth. Here he has healing people left and right and preaching the coming kingdom of God but he gets back to his hometown and what happens? “Wait a minute,” the townsfolk say, “Isn’t this guy Joe and Mary’s kid? Didn’t we watch him grow up and aren’t those his brothers and these his sisters? Who is this guy to be claiming all these great things? This is just Jesus.”’
And Jesus marveled at their unbelief. He healed a couple people, Scripture tells us, and then moved on teaching in the villages.
Later he called his disciples and commissioned them to go out two by two spreading his message taking nothing with them but the clothes on their back. They would be utterly dependent on those to whom they were preaching and if their message was not received what were they to do? Shake the dust from the shoes and move on. Not put together a campaign chest and take over the airwaves trying to show how mighty their message was, not yell and kick and scream if people would not hear them, just shake the dust and move on, knowing that in the end everyone is accountable to God whether they know it or not.
That is the position that the church is called to take, even in this age of uncertainty. This church, you see, is not ours, it is God’s. It only exists because the spirit brought you here to this corner. If you go somewhere else to worship God, the building may stand but it would only be a building.
And while we are an institution, yes, we are not like any other institution on earth because we exist not for ourselves but for the sake of those who have yet to hear the saving Good News of God! We mistakenly puff up our chests and pound on them when we are offended by someone or something but our true posture in the world must be one of humility, of being on our knees in prayer not just for those who have yet to hear God’s saving Word but for all of the barriers we, as a church, have put up to keep people who might not be like us away from God’s word, we must confess our sins and ask for forgiveness each and every day.
And then we move on, and we proclaim God’s word again and again and again.
Remember that even Jesus’ own people had trouble wrapping their heads around the truth that this hometown boy was the Messiah of God, but, in the end, Jesus did not have to win the argument or score a point, no, in the end he took his message of freedom and peace to the cross and he died. All of humanity rejected his message, but the open tomb of Easter morning was heaven’s response. We said, “No” but God has said, “yes.”
That freeing word is the word that we are called to carry forth from this place today. It is the Word that the World is thirsty to hear. And, in the end, may our feet find themselves more and more dusty.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Gospel: John 15: 1-11
Today’s Gospel text follows on the heals of the message that Glenndy Ose brought to us last Sunday. Last Sunday Glenndy spoke of Jesus as the Great Shepherd of the Sheep an image we quite like to have until we recall that, hey, Jesus is calling us sheep. All we do is just kind of stand there and let Jesus do all the work. To which I respond: exactly.
This morning we hear Jesus refer to himself as the vine and to us as branches. Another quite intriguing picture of who Jesus Christ is but again, kind of a disheartening image for someone who wants to know what it is they need to do to get into heaven.
Each of our girls developed their independent gene in similar ways and they both made those developments known to us in their use of language. For one of them it was they word, “Self”. If we tried to do something for her she would snatch whatever it was out of our hands with the words, “self self!”. Likewise our other daughter notified us of her independence by grabbing the spoon or whatever we were trying to do for her with the words, “Oni me, oni me!”
Those traits continue in each of us as we grow and develop as adults. We are a people who are proud of the things we accomplish for ourselves. We pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and soldier on making our way through life to each his own.
The news has had quite a few stories on the decline of the mainline church and the rise of the mega non-denominational church. Why is this happening one radio commentator wanted to know? One young woman phoned in and said, “I go to such and such church because their message is relevant to my life and is filled with good advice. The sermons teach me how to be a better spouse, a better Christian, and a better person.”
We like to have a checklist of things we have to do so that we can then be assured of our place in God’s presence.
But then these little vignettes pop up in Scripture and it turns everything that we want to do on our head, instead it is showing us what it is God is doing to bring us together and to give us life. We just sit there in the sheepfold or stay clinging to the vine. No branch gets to exclude any other branch, it’s not our job, God does the pruning and tending to His garden.
Our job, if it can be called that, is to abide in Christ. In the movie the Big Lebowski the character played by Jeff Bridges was called simply, “The Dude” and the dude was known for one thing and one thing only... the Dude Abides. The dude was always around and always would be. The dude stays the dude even when everything else around him was going crazy.
So when Christ is talking about the branches abiding in the vine is he using the same definition as the dude? I think so. We cannot win our salvation by doing checklists of good works, our salvation was won for us by Christ, our good shepherd, our vine.
We, in turn, have been grafted into Christ by virtue of our baptism, we have become part of the vine. It is our job to make sure we stay that way, thus, while good works are not our salvation, making sure we stay near Christ is. Like any living thing our faith our relationship with Christ needs to be nourished to stay alive, thus, when we come to church, study God’s word, find fellowship with other people on their life’s journey’s, we find ourselves drawing our life and our light from the true vine, Jesus Christ. But, when we do not we find ourselves soon lost and dried out, ready to be thrown on the fire. When I get into conversations about faith with seekers or with those who just aren’t sure about the whole God thing yet I like to explain our my spirituality, my faith, is like having an extra gear waiting for when the going gets rough. People of faith have been proven to be more resilient to life’s curve balls because we know when confronted by these things that we are not alone. It is not up to us alone to walk through this life. We have each other, and more importantly, we have our true vine, jesus Christ.
3 Easter 2012
Luke 24: 36b-48
Pastor Chris Enstad
Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Brothers and sisters, I bring you grace and peace in the name of our Risen Lord and Savior,
Jesus Christ. Amen.
“While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”
What an amazing statement by Luke. “While in their joy they were disbelieving and wondering.”
In truth, those could be the words stamped on the outside of just about any Christian congregation could they not? Oh, I know that there are plenty of Christians walking around feigning certainty but, usually I find that that certainty is really a smokescreen for uncertainty. Indeed, often times the louder a Christian shouts at an unbeliever or questioner about the faith, the more often you have to wonder what they have that the rest of us don’t. Christ appeared in the flesh only between the Resurrection and the Ascension, so, unless you have Jesus locked away in your basement then you are in the same boat as the rest of us.
We possess a very real but a very fragile faith. Faith in and of itself is a gift given to us by the God who created us. But, in giving us that gift, God entrusts it to some very human humans, frail, easily distracted, sinful, judgmental, and capricious.
I have had friends in the faith who have had awful things happen to them or to someone they love, get lost in that most scariest of questions, “If there is a God, why would he let something so awful happen to me or to that person?”
I also have friends who have so many crazy things going on in their lives that they seek a Christian faith that is unchanging, unshifting, uncompromising. Both of those extremes, unfortunately, miss out on the living breathing gift of the fragile but real faith granted to us by the God who created us and loved us.
Elim: A people of joy who still, at times, disbelieve or wonder about this whole God thing. I wonder if a church put that phrase on the outside of the door if more people might not darken the doors. A church is all too often seen by those who are questioning, those who perhaps are in active states of disbelief, they are often seen as clubs for those who have it all down pat when, in fact, if folks out there knew that, “Hey, we have questions too,” might they not join us in our journey as a church?
“While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”.
You know, I wonder about this whole thing all the time. Who is this Christ that we claim has risen from the dead and what in the world does it have to do with us?
We say that we meet Jesus when we walk in the doors of this place. Pr. Theim referred to the sign that is in the pulpit up here “That we would see Jesus”. Well, if I’m doing my job and Pr. Marcia is doing hers and Pastor Theim is doing his, and we are meeting Christ in the flesh when we walk in here... what is keeping us from sharing that amazing news with all of the souls walking past the doors of this place.
The last verse you heard in the Gospel text this morning says, “You are witnesses of these things.”…….You are witnesses of these things.
But, man oh man, don’t we wish we could just be witnesses and not have to testify to what we have seen? We don’t want to be seen as being too pushy or too in your face like some other kind of Christian that we see on TV or on the street corner. But, we can testify to the wonder of the resurrection in many other ways.
Being a believer gives us the story to tell. It gives us the path to walk. It gives us our way forward.
Elim is taking great steps in faith did you know that? I don’t think we have all grasped the significance of four congregations worshipping together in the same building. Do you know what kind of seed it is that God has planted?
Pr. Theim preached on Easter Sunday. Some folks questioned that decision, others got it. The way ahead for our congregation will not look or sound like the Elim of 40 years ago. This afternoon a team made up of the pastors and 4 lay people from Lao Lutheran and Elim will gather around a meal to begin dreaming of new ways to expand our relationship with each other. The opportunities are really and truly amazing.
But tell me this: What do you think might happen to us when we move beyond a landlord/renter relationship with Monument of Faith or All God’s Children churches? One is a Pentecostal denomination, the other is non-denominational, what kinds of new ways of being Elim might happen when we take those next steps?
And, what about new ministry opportunities in our community that are making themselves known to us? We are actively putting together outreach teams for Lakeview Elementary School and Good Samaritan Speciality Health Community. Please, let me or Shirley know if you would be a part of those teams.
Or, how about our soon to be made, agreement with the Red Cross to become a disaster response location or with Families Moving Forward as they seek to increase the number of places homeless families can stay for a week at a time. Or, North Memorial as they dream with us about ways we can serve as a health care outpost for them?
The opportunities for us to make a positive structural impact on our community are amazing.
But, the question I have been holding out to our leadership is the same one I am holding out to you:
“What can Elim do uniquely better than the 1,000 other congregations in our area? And why are we doing it?”
A pastor friend of mine put that question in an even more powerful manner: “If Elim were to cease to exist tomorrow would anyone in our city notice?”
I pray the answer to that last question would be, “Yes.” My answer to the first two questions is from our scripture this morning: “Because we have witnessed the resurrected Jesus Christ, we have received the promise of salvation we have been commissioned today to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations.”
We are called to get over the fact that we are at once a people of joy and disbelief and are a people called to witness to our city, our families, and our world what an amazing thing God has done.
I asked our council last week to think about what kind of newspaper headlines might be written about Elim in three years time. We had several pretty awesome submissions. Let me share mine with you, and mind you, this is just visioning so, don’t get too freaked out:
The headline reads: “93 year old congregations closes its doors and reopens as The Oasis Church. Come and see a multi-cultural, multi-denominational church as it works for transformation in the Robbinsdale area. Come and experience the Oasis, a cup of cold water for your life’s journey.”
If you thought having the Laotian pastor preaching on Easter was pretty far out, just hold on to your socks.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen, indeed!
Is making the rounds of the internet. I think it is a tremendous teaching tool for companies, entrepreneurs, and congregations.
The lessons I take away from a story like this in regards to church life go like this:
1. Do what you are called to do as a church. Don't look around wondering if you're doing it right, just get moving and figure out the details as you go. Many congregations are stuck in "talk" mode and don't ever get to "do" mode. Caine just started doing it, and he made it his young life's mission to staff that arcade... that's what we're called to do for the Gospel Good News!
2. Find your congregation's square root button. It slips by so fast you might miss it but did you notice that Caine uses square roots to determine the validity of the fun pass? What's your cool button at your church? Or did yours fall off years ago and no one has thought to clue it back on? The highest functioning congregations are the ones having fun doing what they're doing.
3. It's ok to be proud of something you and your church have done. We often, as congregations and leaders, don't like to wear our "Caine's Arcade" shirt to school because we're afraid someone will make fun of us. In the church world we are reknown for eating our most promising young leaders because of the scorn heaped on them for trying something new and breaking established traditions. The last words out of Caine's mouth in the film credits are, "I'm proud." I think God says the same thing when we forget about the critics and the naysayers and just get to work doing what He has called us to do as congregations. Celebrate the victories!
Good Friday 2012
Meditation on the Cross
“It is Finished”
And so this is what it has come to… in the end this day is about the news of a death is it not?
And after these last years of war and death and famine with the nightly news showing us picture after picture of what human beings are capable of doing to each other do we really need to be confronted by one more casualty of human sin and brokenness?
This evening, here in this place, we are gathered in order to contemplate the crucifixion of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We gather to contemplate and to see what it is that we have done to this innocent man, this teacher, this friend to the friendless and comforter to the afflicted.
Together we contemplate this cross and the body that hangs upon it. Does this scene depress you? Does it scare you? Or does it give you hope?
“It is finished.” These are the words uttered by Jesus in his last breath on the cross. We don’t often pause to think about what these words mean for God or for us. “It is finished.” What is it? And how is it finished?
What we are confronted with this evening is not a picture of how our worldly wisdom defines success, it is not a picture of how our individualistic culture defines leadership and it is certainly not how the American version of Christianity defines salvation is it? A successful man knows how to manipulate the political process and can hob-knob with the elders and the politicians to get what he wants. A true leader knows how to fight evil and combat the forces of darkness does he not? A true savior shields us with his strength and defends us with his might. A true Christian would not have stuck out of the crowd enough to get killed for his views.
But we will contemplate this cross and the body that hangs upon it. We cannot run, we cannot hide, we cannot pretend that something else happened to our Lord and Savior.
When you look upon this cross what do you think about? Do you perhaps understand with your head but not your hearts? Do you seek to distance yourself from the reality of Jesus’ suffering and death as though it were some act that happened too long ago to affect us?
Can we dare to pretend that we do not know this young man? Will we deny Jesus Christ? Will we deny that it is through suffering and death that we were won from suffering and death?
You know this man, brothers and sisters, you know him intimately. You were there when he was born in a manger to an unwed mother who held him tenderly in swaddling clothes do you remember that? You were there, remember, when he was baptized in the River Jordan? You were there and watched his ministry to the outcast, the helpless, the excluded… you have seen the miracles he performed bringing the dead to life, feeding the masses, changing water into wine.
Listen to what I am saying to you, you know this man, brothers and sisters… and he knows you. Tonight we can no longer pretend that the crucifixion was a distant act in a distant time in a distant land. When we look at this cross this evening we must be reminded that the sons and daughters of God are being killed every day… they are killed in war, they are killed by hate, and they are killed in prisons both with and without walls. Every time the status quo is threatened to be upset it happens, again and again.
Remember tonight that it wasn’t Jesus’ enemies that did him in; it was his friends. Remember tonight that it was not unbelief and lack of order that killed this man but it was the religious authorities working in conjunction with a very well oiled Roman government that nailed him to the cross.
As we meditate on the cross… a pilgrim church gathered around the hill at Golgotha do you see yourself there? In his crucifixion and death, Jesus Christ draws us all to himself… each and every one of us. In his body hanging on this cross do you see yourself looking back? In Jesus Christ, our perfect mirror, we are confronted by our own sin and suffering.
We are reminded that when confronted by evil God fought back not with evil but with longsuffering love. We are reminded that in Jesus’ love for the world we must confront our own hardness of heart, in Jesus’ ministry to the sick and the poor and the hungry we must be confronted by our own hoarding of wealth, our endless pursuit of honors and glory, our striking out at those who might hurt us in the name of protecting what we have. We are reminded that this body hanging on the cross is someone we know… it is us.
In drawing us to himself on the cross Jesus Christ draws all of who we are… our entire sinful selves. What of you will be left on this cross this evening? Contemplate that. This is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world… including yours. What are they?
Know in your heart that just as sure as Jesus was nailed to this cross 2000 years ago so he is nailed to the cross each and every day in our transgressions against God and each other. When we are confronted by the pure light his body reflects back at us our instinct is to hide from him or smash him into nothingness. Every time we choose to stand with the strong against the weak, every time we keep our mouth shut in the presence of injustice and inequity we nail him to this tree.
Contemplate this cross this evening brothers and sisters and ask yourself what you see reflected back at you. Do not turn away, make yourself look… you cannot get away from this tree today though you may choose to ignore it the rest of the year… look at what lengths God will go through to win you back for himself. Do not run, do not hide.
I stand here to proclaim to you that tonight Christ draws you to him, he takes all of your sins on himself, and he gasps one last word… “It is finished” It is accomplished… leave your sins on this cross tonight brothers and sisters for they have no more power over you… they are done… we are done… we now belong to God, we now belong to one another.
Thanks be to God.
4 Lent 2012
John 3: 14-21
Pastor Chris Enstad
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
These are the most famous of the famous texts in the Bible is it not? It appears on bumper stickers and billboards, in end zones and painted on athletes faces.
John 3: 16 is often called the “Gospel in a nutshell”. I, however, would have to disagree. Yes, this verse is important and, yes, if we were to ever memorize any of our Bible at all I would want this to be at the top of the list of required verses.
However, the context in which these words appear is just as or even more important for us to know.
For instance, to whom is Jesus speaking? Do you remember?
He is speaking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Remember that Nicodemus came to Jesus Christ at night, a very important thing for John who was ever concerned with the things of the light and the things of the dark, with good and evil, with insiders and outsiders.
Recall that in its early days Christianity was not the dominant religion of society or culture, indeed it was a persecuted system of beliefs. When John wrote his Gospel there were small communities of Christians and they were living cut off from friends and family for rejecting the faith of Israel. But within the synagogue there were secret believers, those who had come to faith in Jesus Christ but were afraid of confessing that faith so they they too would not be expelled from the synagogue and also cut off from their families.
So, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus in the dark and confesses that he knows that Jess is a teacher who has come from God for no one could do those signs apart from the presence of God.
And Jesus begins to teach Nicodemus using metaphors that helped paint a picture not just of faith but of life in God. He used common words to paint a picture of an uncommon occurence, that is, having faith the God was here in the flesh and moving amongst his people, who, John tells us, knew him not.
But Nicodemus knew. Or he thought he did.
No one could do these things apart from God, Nicodemus says.
And teaches proceeds to teach him about going to heaven after being born from above.
One must be born again from the Spirit. Nicodemus could not grasp this new, radical understanding of conversion and absolution. How can I be born again?
Jesus turns him back on his own knowledge, hey, buddy, you are a teacher of Israel how can you not understand these things. I am testifying to you and you aren’t receiving me.
Here, how about this one:
And then Jesus takes Nicodemus back into one of what a friend of mine calls a “deep track” of Scripture. A story that people knew but probably didn’t do much with.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
And then Jesus goes on: Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The community of believers that John was writing to was small. Though these versus are often now used by a strident and over confident Christianity in a way of forcing people to believe, the community that read and heard these words was weak, small and at constant danger of disappearance all together. Hear those words in that context and they take on a whole new meaning.
Now we think to our Lord, Jesus Christ, as the serpent on the stick that we heard from Numbers this morning and we will examine more closely on Wednesday at our midweek services. And then we know that these verses in John are not about us, they are about Jesus. He is teaching Nicodemus, and us, not just about our faith but about himself and why he had to die.
The people in the wilderness of Numbers are us. We are a sinful humanity by nature. When confronted with a choice we will more often then not choose our own needs over and against the needs of our neighbors. When the people of Israel were in the wilderness they complained about the food and God sent the serpents to kill the people. We too are in the wilderness of sin, a wilderness that can and has overwhelmed either ourselves or those we know and love.
And then Jesus compares himself to the brazen serpent. This was not a serpent made out of Gold, it was worth little to nothing. How could something like a serpent on a stick save the people, they must have pulled their hair out figuring that out.
Likewise, how could Jesus Christ, a man beaten, whipped, and and killed be the savior of the whole world?
And, Jesus tells Nicodemus, and us, he must be lifted up. And we, too, prepare ourselves in Lent for the crucifixion of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This man whom we love and adore must be put to death on a cross put to death by the humanity he came to save. That is why our faith, especially in the Lutheran church, is not a faith of glory but a faith that is delivered to us from this symbol of death. It is a theology not of glory but a theology of the cross.
So when the waves threaten to overturn you, when life is poisoning you or those you love, let us pause and look to the cross. Look to Christ. The whole entire world but tell you that you are worthless, that you cannot accomplish much, and that all that you have done is for naught, but it is from the cross that Christ preaches to you today, you are worth this much, that God loves you so much that he sent me to die for you. For you.
Let us find ourselves gathered always as a community around the foot of the cross looking to it for our faith, our hope, and as the essence of the love we share with each other and our world.
Thanks be to God.