3/29/2015 Sermon: I Am Jesus #5 – “I Am the Resurrection and the Life”

palms (2)For the last four weeks, we’ve been looking at the Gospel of John and listening to Jesus say, “I am.”  Two words, three letters, the simplest sentence that anyone can say, and we remember that when God spoke to Moses on the mountaintop, God told Moses to let the people know that this is his name.  “I AM.”  When Jesus uses those two words, he’s not exactly being subtle.  Only God can use that name.

We’ve heard Jesus say I am the Bread of Life; I am the Good Shepherd.  I am the Light of the World.  I am the Vine.

Sometimes, along the way, he does things to show who he is.  When he says he is the Bread of Life, he feeds 5,000 people.  When he says he is the Light of the World, he opens the eyes of a blind man.  But there is always a deeper meaning.  He could give someone bread, but he knows we have a deeper hunger, an emptiness inside that he would like to fill.  He could heal someone’s eyes, but they don’t “see” until they believe in him.

Palestine rider
Palestine, near Jericho. CN – 2011

Most of us know the story about Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem just before Passover.  People treated him like a king and threw palm branches on the road in front of him.  He was a hero, but as we start gathering to watch the parade, I’m not really sure that we can feel the tension in the air.  It’s been building for several weeks.  Jesus has done a lot of good and made a lot of enemies.  Everyone knows this.  His disciples have been trying to talk him out of making this trip.  They are afraid.  But not only does Jesus head for Jerusalem, he tells his people exactly what’s about to happen.

 Mark 10:32  They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

When he talks about that “rise again” part, they have no idea what he’s saying.  So, the way John tells the story, Jesus showed them what was about to happen.

As they get closer to the suburbs of Jerusalem, Jesus gets word that a close friend named Lazarus had become sick and died before he arrived.  In fact, as un-Jesus-like as it sounds, Jesus stayed away and let him die.  He had a bigger plan.  His people are about to get a clear picture of what Jesus means when he says, “the Son of Man will rise from the dead.” He says I AM the resurrection and the life, he’s about to show them what resurrection means.  We walk with Jesus into Bethany…

John 11:17-27.  When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

Maybe you’ve been part of a small group of people getting to know each other and been asked this question:  “If you had one wish, what would it be?”  Everybody answers and someone has to say, “I’d wish for more wishes!”  More wishes would take care of all those things we don’t know to wish for yet.

We want more future.  We want more life.  For most of us, as rough as life gets sometimes, we really don’t want life to end.  So we keep wondering, “Is there another life or not?  Is there more after death?”

God says, “You bet!  In fact, there’s more to the life you’re living now!”  And God really hopes we watch carefully what happens with Lazarus, and especially what happens with Jesus in the next couple of weeks.  God’s telling us, “If you believe in Jesus, you’re not far behind.”  We’re talking about resurrection, which is the point.  It’s why we are here.  Jesus wasn’t just a great teacher and healer; he’s alive.  Faith in the living Jesus gives us life right now and makes death irrelevant.  It’s why we are here.  He is why we are here.  The living Jesus is why we are here.  He moves into the core of us when we believe.  The Apostle Paul said to his friends in Corinth…

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.  (1 Corinthians 15:13) 

This story about Lazarus happens on what you could call “Palm Sunday Eve.”  Jesus spends a few days in Bethany, then heads for Jerusalem.  The situation was full of tension from before the moment he walked into town. Knowing more about that will help you understand that the crucifixion of Jesus was not a random act of violence.  The enemies of Jesus know what they will do and Jesus knows what they will do.  Not only does Jesus have enemies, even many of his friends are unhappy.  At the beginning of this story, they are really upset, and that’s worse.

You see, it’s the relationship Jesus has with the family of Lazarus that gives the story its raw emotion.  The main difference between Lazarus and the other people Jesus heals is that Lazarus was one of Jesus’ best friends, not an anonymous person.  So when he gets sick, why does Jesus wait?  At this point in the gospel, it’s obvious that Jesus can heal him instantly, but Jesus waits two days in a place that’s less than an hour’s walk away.  And he stays away.

When Jesus finally gets to Bethany, he’s got three problems. First, Lazarus has been dead four days. The Jews thought the spirit stayed with the body for three days, but then as the body began to decay, the spirit left and life was gone. Lazarus had been buried for four days – he was truly dead.  You can tell just by standing close enough to the opening of the tomb.

Secondly, now there were many Jerusalem Jews in this place mourning with the family – these were the enemies of Jesus. It was dangerous for Jesus to be this close to Jerusalem and word was sure to get out to the authorities that Jesus was here.

And, third, the sisters of Lazarus are confused and even angry with Jesus. They’ve had four days to think about it.  Jesus, Son of God, where are you?  At least he had the decency to show up, so they’re getting over it, but the emotion is getting to Jesus too.  When he saw where his friend was buried (maybe you know the shortest verse in the Bible – John 11:35): Jesus wept.

You can go there too, you know.  The town of Bethany is a real place and on one of the side-streets is a cave entrance with a sign over the doorway that reads, “The Tomb of Lazarus” in several languages. It’s a small place and there’s apparently no other ancient cave-tomb nearby, so this may actually be what the sign says it is.

It seems to be a natural cave, and the tomb itself is actually 30 or 40 feet below the doorway, way down below street level.  When Jesus yells, it’s probably because Lazarus is way down in this tomb.  Way down in the darkness.

LAZARUS!  COME OUT!  But he is so far down there…

LAZARUS! COME OUT!  Jesus’ friends, and everybody else are thinking he’s lost his mind because it probably took some time, at least a few minutes, for him to get to the opening. Jesus is waiting, everyone is waiting, looking at Jesus, and then, Lazarus crawls out of the tomb.  There he is.  What can you say?  Either Jesus is “I AM” or, if you are a religious leader, you just lost control of the crowd and he has to go.

If you have your NRSV Bible open, you can see what leads up to Palm Sunday just by the section titles:

The Death of Lazarus

Jesus the Resurrection and the Life

Jesus Weeps

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

The Plot to Kill Jesus

You could say that Jesus died because he brought life.  As Jesus gets on the donkey to ride into town, you can sense that the situation is a powder-keg.  And you can see that this was a little preview of the life that God gives us.

Cemetery 5Death and tombs make no difference to God.  Death is a just a point in the road on the way to being with God for those who believe.  You can have resurrection before your body dies.  If you believe, God can give you life.  And you can be dead without dying.  I think you know what I mean.  Things can happen in your life that make your soul die.  You know you need a resurrection and only God can do it.

That voice you hear off in the distance is Jesus calling your name.  And you believe.  You start to feel life come into your soul, and God makes you alive.  And without faith, without the kind of hope God gives, people are dead. People in AA know all about this, all about having a soul that needs resurrection, but they aren’t the only ones.

Maybe you’ve been hearing the news about the German airline pilot who apparently crashed the airliner he was flying with 149 other people onboard. I only mention this because I know it’s possible to be in such a dark hole, you can come to a point where you think there is no hope and no possibility of hope.  Life can be so overwhelming.  If you are in that place, I can only encourage you to talk it through with someone you trust and know that God is able to make new possibilities.

True story:  Some years ago I went to a funeral service for a person who had committed suicide.  This was the pastor of a United Church of Christ church from another town, and I had only met him a few times.  I’d like to think that most of the time, there is a way to turn a funeral service into a celebration of life.  But not this time.

Family and church members were really struggling.  Pastors and members of other churches came to sit with them.  It was Good Friday for everybody in the spiritual sense.  Do you know what I mean?

One of the people who spoke was a deacon of the church, and he had one of the shortest and best sermons I think I have ever heard.   This deacon was the person who was called to the police station to pick up this man’s personal effects.  Among the things the police had collected at the scene was a bible.  The reason they had taken it was that it had been left open and it had fresh pen marks in it. A verse had been underlined and the verse that had been marked was Romans 7:15, which says this:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (Romans 7:15)

This underlining was the only hand-written mark in the whole book, and the police sergeant said to this deacon, “We (police) have been reading this and re-reading it.  I want you to see what happens when you turn the page.  We thought you should see this.”

It had been marked with the kind of pen that bleeds through thin paper, and when he turned the page, there was a verse underlined on the other side.  And it said this:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.  (Romans 8:11)

The sergeant said, “Whoever reads that first verse needs to turn the page.”

This week, can you do that?  Can you turn the page?  Have the faith to turn the page; let God show you what’s on the other side.  Good Friday is around us all the time.  But that’s not where we live when we trust in Christ.  Jesus did not stay in the tomb.  He’s alive and Easter’s coming.  Believe it.  Let God give you life.  The world needs us.

There are so many ways to be in a tomb. The hope and the power and the healing of Christ isn’t held hostage to any of these things.

That voice we hear comes from somebody who has seen the worst the human race has to offer and overcome it.  He’s been in a tomb himself.

LAZARUS, COME OUT!  We can have the life we need so much right now.  We can say “yes” to God now.  We can believe now.  The love and power of God is not somehow reserved for people when they die, you can believe now, and it’s today that counts.

Prayer

God, we confess that we have sometimes thought that the road we’re on is a dead end.  But we hear the voice of Jesus calling to us and we know there is more.  We know that there is hope, we know that there is something more to life than what we see, and we know that it’s because of you.  Teach us to live each day as a special gift so that we see the beauty of small things, feel the love of family, and hear the songs in the trees.  Open our hearts and minds to the possibility of new life.  Help us understand our need for you and the power of your resurrection.  Bring us out of our tombs, out of our wilderness, each of us, and live through us. We give ourselves to you.  Amen.

3/22/2015 Sermon: I Am Jesus #4 – “I Am the Vine”

GrapesThis week, we’re continuing to look at the Gospel of John and paying special attention to some of the many times when Jesus says, “I am.”  He’s really trying to drive home a point. Over and over again, Jesus says, “I AM.”  And we remember that this is God’s name.  When Moses asked God how God wanted to be known (God, show me your ID!), God said, simply tell people that “I AM.”  (Exodus 3)

We’ve heard Jesus say I am the Bread of Life; I am the Good Shepherd.  I am the Light of the World.  This morning, Jesus says, “I am the Vine.”  Let’s figure out what he’s trying to say…

John 15:1-11.  ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes* to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed*by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become* my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 

Abide (stay, cling to, live with) to experience the completeness of God’s love, so that your joy is complete.  Bear fruit.  But on the way to fruit, there is pruning.  There was a lot in that passage!

Nichols home, Medina, Ohio.  c. 1966
Nichols home, Medina, Ohio. c. 1966

One of the memories I cling to from my childhood in Ohio has to do with the vegetable garden next to our house (it’s under the leaves in the bottom right of that picture).  It was a big garden (to me; about a half-acre) and during the summer, when it was lunch time, my mother would say, “Why don’t you go out to the garden and find yourself something.”  And we would go out and find a tomato or two, or some green beans and we’d eat them right there.  In the late summer, there were grapes on those vines.

It’s been a long time since I’ve known somebody with a garden like that.  There are fewer and fewer people with home gardens.  But to understand some of the things Jesus talks about in the gospels, it’s really helpful to know a few agricultural things.

Site of the ancient town of Capernaum, the area where Jesus (traditionally) gave the Sermon on the Mount, fed 5,000, etc.  CN - 2011.
Site of the ancient town of Capernaum, the area where Jesus (traditionally) gave the Sermon on the Mount, fed 5,000, etc. The vineyard at the bottom of the photo may not have been there at that time, but there were certainly vineyards nearby.  CN – 2011.

Jesus like to use word pictures people understand, so he talks about wheat, fig trees, sheep, and fields and vineyards. That’s a vineyard right next to the Sea of Galilee near the traditional spot where he fed 5,000 people.  He talks to people who know about having to make a living from their crops and animals.  He is a carpenter from a small village in the countryside.  He is one of them.  Because he lives amongst farmers, maybe you can imagine the things he had to make as a carpenter, like yokes, or maybe plows.  I think he would have felt right at home in Lancaster County, PA!

Now, all their lives, these folks have heard God described in many ways: powerful, conquering, watching, punishing; fair and just, but also kind of angry and ruthless.  A God who needs sacrifices.  And maybe you’ve sometimes thought of God that way.  Maybe you’ve lived your life trying to make God happy, because you think God is unhappy.  With you.  And you’ve looked for ways to make sacrifices to the God who seems angry with you.

And then Jesus comes along.  By the things he says and does, we begin to see a different side of God: dealing with sin by taking it on himself and healing the sinner; conquering death by rising from the dead; a God who comes to live among the people and understand them.  A God who knows how to love the deepest kind of love.

DSC_3828
Vineyard worker, Stellenbosch, South Africa. 2012 – CN.

You heard Jesus say, “I am the true vine and my father is the vine-grower.  (John 15:1)  Or as another version RSV says, “a vinedresser.”  A grower of grapes.  Fruit for making… wine.  There are three things that happen in God’s vineyard: Pruning, abiding, and bearing fruit.

Pruning.  The Greek word John uses for pruning (kaphero) also means “to clean,” so when verse 3 says “3You have already been cleansed*by the word that I have spoken to you,” Jesus is saying that it’s his word that prunes us.

Pruning is cutting back your plants and trees, so that the branches that produce the flowers or fruit you want have more of the resources they need.  You cut off the branches that don’t produce fruit.  If it’s a garden you’re talking about, it means pulling the weeds. His word gives direction, so regular time with God’s word is allows God to work with your spiritual self and make you clean.

Back in Ohio, my grandfather had been the county extension agent.  That was his service to the country during WW1.  If you were a farmer, and you had trouble growing certain crops, or if you needed advice about agricultural things, he was the one to see.  He had the best vegetable garden you ever saw.  You name it, he could grow it.

Not long before he died, Kathy and I invited my grandmother and him over to our house.  He was not well and he didn’t leave town much.  It was the first and only time he ever came over an it meant a lot to me.

Now, at the time, we had a garden ourselves.  We would get it planted in the spring and early summer, but then we’d go on a vacation, school would start (Kathy and I were both teachers) and I would kind of forget about it.

It was September when my grandfather came over, and it was pretty hard to tell what was a crop and what wasn’t, the weeds were so thick.  That night we didn’t have any time to pull weeds, so I just ran a lawn mower between the rows and hoped he wouldn’t look too closely.  But he did.  And he just smiled and said, “Ever heard of a thing called a hoe?”  We had a good laugh.

In the late summer, we were just too busy.  And we never had a very good garden.  There were too many weeds choking the life out of the good things in the garden.  It seems simple enough.  If you care about your garden, if you want your garden to produce good things to eat, you  have to pull the weeds.  During the whole growing season.  Constantly.

Everybody had their own weeds and dead branches.  Habits, attitudes, certain kinds of relationships.  The stuff that chokes the life out of you – or maybe the people around you.  You know what I’m talking about.

DSC_3826Pruning is what God does with the churches and people God loves. Pruning, weeding.  Sometimes God gets out the hoe and gets to working on the stuff you’ve been thinking or the way you’ve been living.  It’s a process. We’d like to get straight to the fruit, but it takes time.  And pruning.  Weeding.

But is this a pleasant experience for the branches?  Hardly. God means business.  In our lives, God uses the Holy Spirit – personal conviction and other people – to cut, to weed, to remove whatever it is that keeps us from reaching our potential.  So there are times in our lives and in the life of the church when we hurt.  Pruning hurts.  But this plant (the church) does more than heal from the pruning; it bears fruit.

In order for the fruit of God to grow, the weeds have to be destroyed.  The vine need to be pruned back.  It takes wisdom to recognize when this is happening.  Jesus feels the need to tell his people to hang in there, especially when hard things are happening.  Our job is to stay in the vine.  To stay connected to Christ and to each other through Christ.  We need to “abide.”

Abiding.  John uses this word (Greek = meno) nine times in this passage.  It means to remain, to live with, to stay with the ship, so to speak, but in a much deeper way.  It is talking with, instead of talking to.  It is knowing, instead of just knowing about.  It is feeling, instead of just touching.  It is deep relationship.

How do we abide in the vine?   According to Jesus that’s simple.  Follow his commands.  What does he command?  Love him and love each other “as he has loved us” (v. 12).  A deep, caring love.  A sacrificial love that forces us to give ourselves to others.  A love which, unfortunately, we don’t work very hard at most of the time.

So it’s not so simple.  It’s not our nature to love like that.  We hardly know our neighbors, and it’s easy to think of all the things that keep us from getting together.  We work at not depending on each other.

God is telling us to abide with Jesus and with each other, but it just doesn’t feel right to need other people like that; to be dependent.  That is what the church is called to be: a group of people connected by faith in God, who work at growing their relationships with each other.  We each have gifts that other people need.

grapesStrange thing about the branches on this vine: they have a choice about staying on the vine.  And they might not stay. Those that do are pruned so that they can bear more fruit.

Bearing fruit.  In the Gospel of John bearing fruit means obeying Jesus’ laws of love.  Watching out for each other, caring for each other, getting involved.  God prunes (cuts and manages) so that we can abide (stay with and grow in relationship, become disciples), and bear fruit (make an impact outside of ourselves) that looks like joy and love flowing out of us and into others.  And it doesn’t feel good all the time.

To close, I’ve got some questions…

Have you ever found yourself attached to a fake vine?  It happens.  How did you know?

What fruit have you produced as a result of being connected to  Jesus?  I’ll bet you’ve had some.

What steps can you take to become more connected to Jesus?  As a parent?  As a student?  As a church member?

grape harvesting

Prayer

God, we thank you for the family you have gathered here.  Through this family, you are working in each of our lives.  Help us all to find a way to play a part in the ministry you are doing.  Make us conscious of the fact that our relationship with others gathered here could be deeper. We are your branches; you are creating awesome fruit in us.  Give us a true sense of us, not just a collection of individuals.

Let love flow through us, and an honest desire to love.  May your Spirit find a home in our hearts in real ways that change us into the people we should be.  Help our friends and family to truly see you in us.

Open our hearts, Jesus, to love you more and let your love go spilling out of us in ways we never expected. In your name we pray. Amen.

4/15/2015 Sermon: I AM Jesus #3: “I Am the Light of the World”

cropped-DSC_78681.jpgThis month, we’re looking at the Gospel of John and paying special attention to the places where Jesus says, “I am.”  Over and over again, Jesus says, “I AM.”

And yes, John wants us to make the connection with Moses standing near a burning bush, being given a mission to go save the Hebrew people by a God who calls himself “I AM.”

We’ve heard Jesus say I am the Bread of Life; I am your bread of life; I am better than the junky spiritual snack food you’ve been addicted to.  Believe in me and be spiritually filled.

We heard him say I am the Good Shepherd.  I am your Good Shepherd.  He knows you, loves you, and gives his life for you.

In the next few weeks, we’ll hear him say  I am the Vine and I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Today, Jesus says I AM the Light of the World.

John 8:12-19.  Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ 13Then the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.’ 14Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15You judge by human standards; I judge no one.16Yet even if I do judge, my judgement is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. 17In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. 18I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.’ 19Then they said to him, ‘Where is your Father?’ Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’

In your lifetime, have you ever had issues with light?  In other words, were/are you afraid of the dark?  Were you one of those kids who needed a nightlight when you were very young?  There’s nothing wrong with that.  You can’t see in the dark, so it’s only natural to be at least a little fearful when the lights go out.

When Kathy and I were first married, like many of you (I suspect!), we couldn’t afford to spend much on vacations, so in those first years, we camped with a borrowed tent and drove my Datsun pickup on those trips.  She remembers those years fondly (not really!).  On one trip, we were staying in a campground in New England somewhere for the night.  Pitched our tent amongst the tall trees, and it was very romantic.  We ate dinner at the picnic table out of the cooler we’d brought.  The sun went down and we fell asleep.  It was when one of us needed to make a trip “up the trail” in the middle of the night that we realized we didn’t have a flashlight.  It may have been before flashlights were invented.  And under the trees, it was utterly and completely dark in that part of the campground.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place outside that was as dark as that.  It was a problem and I don’t think we ever went tent-camping again.  Together, anyway.

Darkness is okay sometimes, but when the lights go out, most of us need at least a little bit of light.  We have nightlights in several places around our house. You only have to stub your toe a few times to make that happen!  I think you get what Jesus is trying to get across when Jesus stands up in a crowd and calls out, “I am the light of the world.”

If you feel like you’ve been in a dark place, our maybe just under a cloud, it might help you to hear Jesus call that out.  I am the light; I am your light.

So far, we’ve heard him say…  I am your bread.  I am your shepherd.  I am your light.  He’s asking for faith.  Believe in him; he’s going to feed you, and care for you, and guide you out of the dark place.

Model of the Second Temple. Jerusalem, 1989 - CN.
Model of the Second Temple. Jerusalem, 1989 – CN. This is a representation of the Temple Jesus knew.

When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” you probably picked up that Jesus was in the middle of an argument with some religious folks, and they were called Pharisees.  It’s like a scene from a movie.  Try to put yourself in that place….

The story goes that Jesus was in Jerusalem for a festival and he was standing near this building – the Jewish Temple (above).  Every evening during the seven days of that festival, four huge golden candelabra were lit in the Temple courtyard and young women would do a torch dance on the temple steps.  The light from the lamps and the light from the torches would reflect off the bronze door of the Temple and light up the courtyard so that it was almost as bright as day.

Then early in the morning, the bronze door would be opened and a priest would come out just as the sun was rising over the Mount of Olives.  Deliberately turning his back on the rising sun and facing the Temple and the Holy of Holies, he would say, “Our fathers… worshipped the sun toward the east, but, as for us, our eyes are turned toward the Lord.” It was during this feast, and in this courtyard, that Jesus stood up and said, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.”

He said I AM.  I am the light of the world.  Who gets to say that?  Nobody gets to say that but God.  These religious folks were so offended, that by the time Jesus was done talking, they had picked up rocks to throw at him, but he managed to get away (John 8:59).

They had not misunderstood.  They heard him say that he had come to be their Messiah, their savior.  When he says this, it messes everything up for them.  They have a system, they’ve got rules, they’ve got a really great religion.  And Jesus is Jewish; but he came to bring to bring the presence of God to everybody. The Messiah comes for everyone?

The hardest part of that for them to hear may have been that he came to be the light of the world.  You heard this last week – he came to be everybody’s savior; he’s everybody’s Messiah.  The shepherd had sheep that were not from this flock and wants to include them  (John 10:16).  He’s your Messiah.  He came for you and me.  He doesn’t belong to just one group, and religion can’t contain him.

When I was talking about our dark night of camping, I’ll bet you were thinking of your own story of stumbling around in the dark somewhere.  That’s a great metaphor for a lot of things: darkness.  It can mean cluelessness. Or evil.  Or nothingness – when everything was dark, God said let there be light, and it was good. (Genesis 1:1-5)

But John has an interesting perspective on the darkness that Jesus steps into.  Among the very first words he uses to describe Jesus, he says…

…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  (John 1:4)

He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  (John 1:11)

Maybe that helps the argument make more sense.  Especially when Jesus says,

If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’

20150113_173635Knowing him is the key for us.  He is both the light and the light-switch.  What is the darkness?  I know you know; there are many kinds, but what we’re talking about here is religion without Jesus. I’m talking about religious structure without loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength  and your neighbor as yourself.  I’m talking about inward-looking religion instead of outward looking faith that embraces the world God wants to save. I know that might be hard for some folks to hear, but ceremony and ritual by itself can never shine the kind of light that God needs to have blazing away, especially now.

Who is this?  This is the same person who can say, let there be light, and light happens.  If you know him, you know his Father.  If you know him, you know God.  You know I AM.  And that makes many things possible.

You’ve heard him say I am the bread;  I will feed you.  I am your Good Shepherd; I will care for you.  When he says I am the Light of the World, he needs that light to be reflected.

In the only other place in scripture where Jesus talks about the light of the world, he talks about us.  He talks about you.  He talks about me.  Say it with me…

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5:14-16)

You are the light of the world!  (Matthew 5:14) By ourselves, we are little candles in the darkness and that’s awesome, but together, we are like a massive searchlight that shines into the blackness and helps us see where we need to go, what we need to do, and who’s in trouble that needs help.  We each have the privilege of being a part in that.  We can talk about what your part might be.  We are the light that helps other people see God.

Have you ever stepped out on a stage with a spotlight on you?  Maybe at a graduation?  It’s a little nerve-wracking.  Many people really don’t like it and it takes some getting used to.  That light – it exposes you!  Maybe you heard that voice in the audience – “That’s my kid.  And I could not be more proud!”  That was God.

 Prayer

Calm our spirits, Lord.  Help us to listen to you and see you with our hearts.  We thank you for the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, and for our relationship with you through your Son Jesus.  Help us to follow him and listen to him, to have greater faith in him.  Help us to see ourselves and the world in the light that comes from him.  Give us light to see all the good things you have done for us and the good things we can do for you.

It seems, Lord, no matter how hard we work and how hard we plan, there is always something we didn’t plan on, and not enough time to go around.  Forgive us, Lord, for letting our worries get in the way of our gratitude.  The light of Jesus shines a spotlight on our weaknesses and shortcomings.  Lord, wherever there is darkness in us, shine your light.

God, we sit here in comfort and security this morning, while many people you love are starving, in pain, or living in fear.  We know that feeling guilty for our comfort does not help the needs of others, so, Lord, we want you to show us opportunities for us to help, serve, and heal others.  We pray for those who are sick, for those who have lost someone, for those who are concerned about someone.  Give them peace.  Heal their hearts, minds, and bodies.

Most of all Lord, help us be your light. Show us what needs to be done so that our families, our community, and our world will turn to you. Amen.

3/8/2015 Sermon: I Am Jesus #2 – “I Am the Good Shepherd”

This month, we’re looking at the Gospel of John and paying special attention to the places where Jesus says, “I am.”  Over and over again, Jesus says, “I AM.”  It’s a direct connection to the conversation Moses had with God when they met at the burning bush (Exodus 3).  I AM is God.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says “I am” repeatedly, and in ways he wants us to think about him.  I am the Bread of Life.  I am the Light of the World.  I am the Vine.  I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Over and over again, he says I AM.  These are just a few of the times that Jesus uses those words to describe himself.  Today, Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd.

Shepherd in Palestine, 2011 - CN.
Shepherd in Palestine, 2011 – CN.

This is one of the most visual word pictures Jesus gives.  It’s so easy to imagine, unless you’ve never seen sheep!  They were everywhere in Palestine in his time (during his earthly life) and before his time, and still are.  The earliest paintings of Christ show him as a young shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders. Christians in the developing world might be getting more out of this passage than we do.  The Heifer Project has given away thousands of sheep around the world because they’re so useful for wool and as food.

John 10:11-18.  ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

If you get nothing else from that passage, there are a few things that are really important to take home this morning.  First, what makes this Good Shepherd so good is his love for the sheep.  His love is all-consuming.  His love for you and me is so strong, so deep, and so unwavering that he will give his life.  He lays down his life for the sheep.  That’s his mission as a shepherd.  If it were any other shepherd, you might think that’s a little crazy, but I hope you heard him say that he would take his life up again, so it’s a little picture of what’s about to happen in a few weeks.

Sheep w lambsSheep and shepherds are something that the people around Jesus totally get.  At the same time, he is the Lamb of God (John 1), sacrificed for the sins of the people, and the Good Shepherd who gives up his life for the sheep.

copy-cropped-DSC_9857.jpg

Secondly, this Shepherd is looking out over the landscape to include the sheep nobody wants.  Jesus wants everybody in this flock.  It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve been.  In his time, Jesus came as the Messiah, the Savior, of the Jewish people, but he makes it clear – he came to be the Good Shepherd for everybody.  He calls out to everybody – “Come let me care for you; I know what you need!  I’m your shepherd!”

West Bank, Palestine.  CN - 2011.
West Bank, Palestine. CN – 2011.

Once upon a time, in the church I was serving, I gave a sermon about sheep and all of us being a flock and I put a photo of a flock of sheep on the cover of the bulletin with a scripture about sheep (I don’t remember which; there are so many to choose from, right?).  I’d taken that picture at a farm down the street from the church.

A few days later I had a visit from a church member who wanted me to know how offended she was by that picture.  I have to admit, I was a little shocked.  Nice, peaceful-looking sheep grazing in a pasture.  It might not have been one of my better photos, but I’d never had someone take issue with a bulletin cover like that. But I think that in her own way, she was on to something. I think she understood the implication!

It takes a certain amount of humility to admit that you might be a sheep that needs a shepherd.  Maybe a lot of humility.  Think about it.

Sheep don’t score very highly on animal intelligence tests.  Sheep have a reputation of being stupid and helpless.  Other animals have great instincts, or memories, or natural abilities, but sheep can’t find their own pastures or drinking water.  They are clueless.  Sheep can’t defend themselves when they are in danger.  They aren’t fast enough to run from enemies, and they don’t have fangs, or claws, or horns to fight with. They are totally vulnerable to wild animals and thieves.

I can’t think of any compliments that are connected to sheep.  You are such a great sheep!  Doesn’t really work, does it.  The only little bit of instinct sheep might have is to stay in a flock, because there’s safety in numbers – and that’s where the shepherd is.

So, it’s really unflattering.  We like to think of ourselves as independent, self- sufficient, even immortal people who can take care of our own needs and solve our own problems.  We believe we are invincible.  But this shepherd knows us, how weak and vulnerable we really are.  He knows how much we need him.  He knows us.

I know my own and my own know me…  (John 10:14)

I think that’s both kind of frightening and comforting at the same time. It’s frightening because of all the secrets of our lives. We are pretty well able to keep secrets from family and friends and co-workers, but to think that Jesus knows us through and through — better than we know ourselves—that there is nothing hidden from him—is in many ways a very frightening thing.

He knows us: the thoughts of our hearts, the real motives for the apparent good things that we do, all of the ways we’ve found to cut corners in life. In all of these things Jesus sees right through us.

But there is another side to this kind of knowing. Jesus also knows our needs, our pains, our hurts, our highs and our lows. If you have come to worship this morning carrying some sort of burden, if you have come holding on to some sort of deep sorrow or regret, if you have come facing some hard decision that nobody else understands, if there are things in your life that appear difficult or impossible to you today, you need to know that Jesus knows. The good news of Jesus Christ begins with the knowledge that he knows us inside-out, completely, and totally.  And he wants you in the flock.  And me.  He knows you. He’s calling your name.  “I AM your Good Shepherd.”

Hiking
Hiking the “Abrahamic Trail” in the West Bank, Palestine. CN – 2011.

About four years ago, at about this time of year, I had the extraordinary opportunity to hike through the West Bank of Palestine with a small group of people.   About 100 miles over 10 days.  We walked mostly through countryside places and stayed in small villages.  On a couple f nights, we slept in big tents and our hosts were Bedouins.  I know that a lot of the Middle East gets a bad rap, but this was a safe place and I never felt in danger.  It was a beautiful, interesting place.

We were walking along and I began to realize that we couldn’t go very far without seeing sheep or goats with a shepherd.

As we walked, I had this one question that I really needed an answer to. So I asked our Muslim hiking guide, “There’s a story in the Bible about a shepherd that will leave 99 sheep and go off looking for one that’s lost; would a shepherd do that?”  (Matthew 18:12-13)

Palestinian Shepherd
Another Palestinian shepherd in the West Bank, Palestine. Yes, that’s a cell phone he holds in his left hand! CN – 2011.

What makes it a little odd (in my mind!) is not only that the shepherd does that, but that the shepherd in that story has so many sheep.  You hardly ever see a flock that big.  And he goes off looking for one.  Does that make sense?

And as we watched that shepherd, the guide said, “It doesn’t matter how big the flock is; every sheep is valuable.  These shepherds are not rich people; they are very poor; they need every one of those sheep.  The flock will stay together if the shepherd goes off for a while.  It’s the only thing they know how to do!  If a sheep gets lost or separated somehow, the shepherd will definitely go searching for it.”

Now think about that Good Shepherd.  Do you have a sense that God watches over you?   Do you feel like you’re guided and protected?

I think one of the best ways to speak to God as your Shepherd is to use the 23rd Psalm.  It starts with us talking about God, about the Good Shepherd.  Say it with me…

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures;  he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.  He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 

Now we’ll start talking to God, our Good Shepherd.  He’s walking with us through the worst parts of life…

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. 

And in those dark places, where it seems everything and everyone has turned against you…

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 

You need to trust that in the end, God has your future worked out.  He’s calling your name.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,  and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Prayer

God we thank you for your love and care for us; help us to follow our Shepherd.  Help us to hear his voice.  Help us to trust him.  Help us not be so strong- willed that we refuse to listen.  Give us eyes to see the things he is trying to show us about ourselves and our world.  Help us to care for other sheep, friends and neighbors, outcasts and strangers.  People we might think of as black sheep.  Forgive our own stubbornness and self-centeredness. We thank you for this opportunity to worship you and grow stronger as your people in our relationship with you and with each other.

3/1/2015 Sermon: I Am Jesus #1 – “I Am the Bread”

I have to confess that I would have loved to have gotten a little glimpse of the earthy life of Jesus.  I don’t think it represents a lack of faith; maybe you feel that way too.  Just a little glimpse.  It must have been amazing.  In all the gospel stories about Jesus, people were asking, “Who is this?” Jesus, can you show us some ID?  And of all the gospel stories, John shows us the ID of Jesus.  In this gospel, over and over again, Jesus says, “I AM.”

I am the Bread of Life.  I am the Good Shepherd.  I am the Light of the World.  I am the Vine.  I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Over and over again, he says I AM.  These are just a few of the times that Jesus uses those words to describe himself.  It’s a hint.  And when he says this he wants us to make a connection.  It’s a flashback to something that happened on a mountain over a thousand years before when Moses met God and God sends him on a mission to save the Hebrew people:

Exodus 3:13 But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’

14God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” 

I am.  Moses, there is no other way to describe me.  I am.

The eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, looking southwest, very close to the traditional site of the Feeding of the 5,000.
The eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, looking southwest, very close to the traditional site of the Feeding of the 5,000.

So, now let’s flash forward to a lush, green hillside next to a lake, the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus and his disciples have just fed 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish donated by a local boy.  It was a miracle, or, a sign, that Jesus is someone to pay attention to.  Who is this?  Immediately after this, the disciples get into a boat to go to the other side of the lake and Jesus follows along a little later, walking on the water, which, of course, is another sign.  Who is this?

The next day, the crowd that ate all that food has gone looking for Jesus.  And they find him.  And they’re hungry again.

John 6:30-40.  So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’

20150306_134638God knows we think about food.  Eating is a function of life.  Jesus teaches us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” (Matthew) and he calls himself the Bread of Life for a reason.  We think a lot about food.  Some wise person told me years ago that when planning a group experience somewhere, whether it’s a mission trip or a retreat, if the food is good, almost everything else will fall into place.  I’ve found this to be very true.

To use the words of a study some of our women are doing, we were “made to crave.”

Our culture loves food in a way few people in history have loved food.  Many would say we love food too much.  I remember walking into a supermarket with a lady who was a refugee from the war in Bosnia 20 years ago.  She had come from a very hard place. Our church had sponsored her family and we needed to help her learn about buying food and eating in the United States.  She stood in front of the shelves and could barely speak, she was so overwhelmed by this enormous room full of food.

20150306_134935A while ago I found a list called “The Top Six Rules for Dieting.”

  1.  If you eat something and no one else sees it, it has no calories.
  2. If you drink a diet drink with a candy bar, the calories in the candy bar are canceled out by the diet drink.
  3. Food used for medicinal purposes NEVER counts, such as hot chocolate, toast, brandy and Sara Lee Cheesecake.
  4. Cookie pieces contain no calories. The process of breaking causes calorie drainage.
  5. Things licked off knives and spoons have no calories, provided you are in the process of preparing something. Examples are peanut butter on a knife while making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and ice cream on a spoon when making a sundae.
  6. For every time you thought about your favorite dessert, but didn’t eat it, subtract 25 calories.

That’s obviously a blatant attempt to rationalize eating things that aren’t necessarily good for you.  But I think we all could admit to some habit listed there.  Admit it; you’ve thought like that at some point.

The crowd that was fed on the hillside yesterday is looking for Jesus because they are thinking about food.  When Jesus turns a little bit of bread and the fish into a lot of bread and fish, these folks understand that they have just found a great source of free food.  Jesus could set up a roadside stand in this place.

But this is a quick fix for a temporary problem, and we tend to get stuck in our quick fixes.  We all can get stuck on things we  want to believe, or maybe just things we want.  This is the stuff that gets us through the moment without addressing deeper needs.  The crowd had to walk around part of the lake to find Jesus – maybe a 10-12 mile hike.  That crowd chasing Jesus can only see today.  “Sure God, I’ll believe.  What’s in it for me?  How about more bread?”  That fish was good.  How about some tilapia this time?  Maybe some tuna?  The crowd wants to know.  How can we get more of this free food?  What do we have to do? They stopped asking, “Who is this?”

So they are following, and they probably haven’t brought along any food.  Again.  Why?  They assume that Jesus will look at the situation in the appropriate way and respond as he should.  All they have to do, in their minds is, stick by Jesus and stay hungry.  He’s merciful.  He will feed them.  But in this story, he only fed the crowd once.  Even though they were begging for more, he only did it once.  What does it mean?  The need is much deeper than food.  Is bread what they need?  No, what they need is Jesus.  And that’s what, or whom, we need too.  Our relationship with him is what feeds us.

The bread and the fish were probably really great, but without Jesus, it’s junk food.  There’s a deeper need we all have.  I know you know this.  Bouncing from moment to moment, buying this, eating that, going here, wandering there, doing this, trying that.  There’s a void that needs to be filled. An aching emptiness.  Our spiritual selves need to be fed.

So, walking along with that crowd chasing Jesus, we think we need God to do more than another trick with food, to do one more favor for us.  The crowd doesn’t get that the guy who gave them this food is I AM.

At the center of who we are, we need Jesus.  We need daily faith in Christ.  We need to put Christ at the core of our lives.  We need I AM.  In our personal lives, in our family lives, in our church life, we’re willing to say, “Jesus, we are yours.”  Then asking, “What do you need us to do?  What do you need me to do to help everybody else get where we’re going?”

It can mean faith to do the new thing, whatever that is.  It can mean faith to wait.  It can mean faith to walk the new path.  At its core, it means being willing to walk with Christ to your Promised Land, because he is I AMHe has the power to make you into something new.

artisan breadHe is the good food that feeds our spiritual selves.  It takes a brave willingness to step in that direction, to tell him you believe.  Then it takes some discipline to eat like that – to live like that.  We have to learn not to settle for junk food, the stuff that tastes good right now, but tomorrow we don’t remember.  It means not setting for religion in your spiritual life.  What is spiritual junk food?  You have to decide what that is.  It could be anything that you accept as a substitute for Christ.  What is the good food?  Do you really need me to explain?  In your spiritual life, what are you settling for?

We’ve heard him say, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (6:35)  He’s looking for faith.  He’s looking for trust.  In the meantime, while we’re finding our way, God will still keep feeding us, God will still keep healing us, God may even make a path through the Red Sea for somebody.  But these things are only a sign that leads to faith.  In the end, God wants to know if we believe. God wants to know us, to have us.  God still wants to know if we believe in Jesus.

Prayer

At this point in the winter, life feels flat with no great highs and no great lows. It’s cold and icy outside, and that starts to infect our spirits.  We don’t even remember that we stopped hungering for you.  And then into our life-as-usual lives you send Jesus.  Open us up, O God, to the things we should learn from him.  Help us see what you see – a world in desperate need of peace.  Restless, unsatisfied hearts.  Help us learn from him the difference between being fulfilled and being happy.  Give us imagination and help us take a risk or two.  Let there be valleys, and let there be mountains.  Help us learn what the cross means.  Help us learn what the resurrection of your son Jesus means to each of us.  All we are and all we have we give to you.  Amen.