7 Mile

Luke 24:13-35

Today is the third Sunday of Easter, and yet our text is still stuck on that first Easter Sunday. Last week we had to jump around a bit because Jesus showed up at the disciple’s home and then came back again a week later. But notice that today’s text is from “that same day.” It is evening on Easter Sunday when “two of them” were going from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We know nothing about these people, other than that one is named Cleopas and they seem to have been followers of Jesus. There were likely in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, and now they were heading back home. They may have been husband and wife, they may have been roommates. All we know for sure is that they were very aware of what happened that weekend to their leader, Jesus, and they were also very disappointed.

As they walk back to Emmaus, they are talking about the events that took place in Jerusalem when who shows up out of the blue? It’s Jesus. But they don’t know that it is Jesus because he apparently hides his identity from them. And the hidden Jesus essentially asks them, “What cha talking about?”

At first they say, “Duh, what else would we be talking about! They continue, “About Jesus of Nazareth…He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people…they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

I think that those are some of the saddest words, not only in the New Testament, but in the English language. “We had hoped…”

Past tense. That hope is now gone.

We had hoped that this time rehab would be able to make a difference. We had hoped that she would finish high school. We had hoped that this time he would be able to keep his job. We had hoped that this time the little stick would turn pink. We had hoped that she would get better. We had hoped that he would be a different kind of leader.

If you can’t sympathize with these two travelers on the way to Emmaus, then you’re simply not living. We all understand disappointment. We all know what it is like to have our hopes dashed against the rocks of reality.

These two walkers also knew that the story didn’t end there. They knew that some women found the tomb to be empty that morning, and some of the disciples were able to confirm that the tomb was empty. The women even claimed that an angel told them that Jesus had been risen from the dead.

But, really. Who believes those women? If we back up a few verses to verse 11, we find the disciples’ response, “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

That’s the nice way to put it. Some translations call it the “women’s idle talk.” The Greek word used there is “leros,” which is really a PG-13 word that can suggest that the women were delirious, or that what they spoke was bull hooey.

What’s Jesus doing here on the road to Emmaus? He could have just shown up like he did with the disciples locked in the Upper Room, but this is a teachable moment. So before he goes right into it, he needs to understand where these travelers are. What do they know, how much do they comprehend.

This is just good teaching. My daughter will start kindergarten next year, and this week we are going in for an assessment. They want to know if she can count, recognize letters, and remember basic facts. You can’t just start a 5-year-old off with advanced algebra, and you don’t need to start with the ABC’s if they can already read. If you want to be an effective teacher, you start by seeing how much someone already knows and you build upon that knowledge and you build upon their experiences, making frequent references back to what is already known.

Now notice what Jesus does. He doesn’t have to start at page one, teaching these men about God creating heaven and earth, the fall of humanity, and so on. But what he does is to go back to the texts that these men already knew and give them a new interpretation. And it isn’t as if he says, “Everything you ever thought you knew is wrong.” He simply points them in a different direction. We are told that he specifically went back to Moses and the Prophets to show how they spoke about the messiah and how the messiah had to suffer and die. In verse 27, “[Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

I called this sermon “7 Mile,” which is a reference to the distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus, as we learn in Luke 24:13, and also a reminder of a 2002 movie called “8 Mile.” 8 Mile is that story of a young man who grew up in a part of Detroit known as 8 Mile. This is an economically impoverished part of a city that has had a difficult couple of decades. 8 Mile is the roughest of the rough city of Detroit. Drugs, alcohol, single-parent and abusive families seem to be the norm.

Echoing the words of the travelers on the road to Emmaus, the people of 8 Mile had hoped that things would turn out differently.

But in 8 Mile, the lead actor, an aspiring rap artist played by one Marshall Mathers, uses his experiences to craft his music. As the movie nears its end, Mather’s character, who goes by the name “Rabbit,” enters a rap battle.

In this battle, Rabbit names the things in his life that have formed him into the person he is. He owns his experiences, his failures and his successes. The deadbeat dad, the alcoholic mom, the poverty, the neglect. All of these things have been preparing him for this one moment. For this one opportunity. And he can either run from it, or seize it. So he seizes it, and wins the battle.

I’m not endorsing this movie; it isn’t what I would call a “Christian movie.” But the story seems helpful. It was only when Rabbit took the time to look back at all of these formative experiences that he was able to see a bigger picture. And on the 7 Mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Jesus invited the two travelers to reach back and see how all of the formative experiences of Israel have been pointing to something else. They have been pointing to him.

Let’s jump ahead a bit, in Luke 24:44, Jesus is talking to his disciples after our event on the road to Emmaus and he says, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

When Jewish people talk about the Law or Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms, this is a way of referring to their Holy Scriptures. They didn’t just call them the Old Testament. So Jesus is saying that there are references to him throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Now look at John 5:39, where Jesus is having his own rap battle with the religious leaders, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.”

And in verse 46, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” Go back and dig through our Scriptures and you will find that they all point to Jesus.

I know that I can be pretty critical of the first followers of Jesus. The disciples spent three years with him and they never seem to get it. Other believers see him, hear him, and experience his ministry in person, and they don’t seem to get it either. And this is one of those times when I’m tempted to just say, “Duh.” As in, “Duh, of course Jesus had to suffer, die, and be raised again.”

But these scriptures are not always as straight forward as we would like them to be. Consider Isaiah 7:14, a verse that you are probably all familiar with: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Obviously, who is this passage talking about? This is Jesus! I know that, you know that. Do you know who didn’t know that? The Israelites. In fact, this passage referred to something and someone else altogether. In fact, if you read many of the prophesies that Jesus fulfills in the Gospels, especially the book of Matthew, you will find that Matthew seems to cherry pick a bit. He takes verses out of context, applying totally unrelated stories to the birth of Jesus.

But here is what Matthew and the other writers are saying: in the light of the resurrection, these stories, these prophesies, they now have a new purpose. They now have a new meaning.

One of the problems that we fall into when we look at the Bible toady, particularly what we call the Old Testament, is that we view it as a collection of unrelated stories. There’s the story of the Fall, the story of David and Goliath, the story of the Exile. But rather than looking at the Bible as a collection of independent stories, what if we read it as one story, where each book, each story, builds upon previous stories and previous books? And all of these stories and all of these books are pointing us to the central figure and event of Jesus breaking into the world! Yes, these stories have meanings of their own, just like the passage that I read from Isaiah had a meaning of its own. But when we read them all together, as one grand narrative, then we can see that they have one central purpose: to point to Jesus. Even some of the really bad things that happen in Scripture point us to Jesus.

Let’s go back to the movie 8 Mile again. I wouldn’t say that God caused the bad things that happened to Rabbit. God didn’t cause his father to leave or his mother to drink heavily. God didn’t cause his family to live in poverty. But all of these things pointed him in a direction that led up to the pinnacle of the movie. And you don’t see that if you look at each individual story. You have to look at the big picture to find new meaning in it all.

I don’t think God caused Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. I don’t think God caused the Israelites to worship the Golden Calf. But now in light of the resurrection of Jesus, we can see how God used those events to point to Jesus. Where humanity failed, Jesus was faithful.

So I wonder, how does the resurrection of Jesus make us rethink the events of our lives? Again, I’m not claiming that God caused bad things that happened in our lives, but that God can give them new meaning.

So you lost your job, or you recently went through a difficult divorce. On this side of things, can you ask how God might work through this? How might you be able to better minister to someone else? One of the most-respected recovery models out there is seen in organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, where recovering addicts are helped by other recovering addicts. Again, I’m not saying that God caused these things to happen. But how might God use them, use you, to point toward resurrection?

Notice that this is not the end of the story. We don’t stop with Jesus explaining how the Old Testament needs to understood through his life and death. As the travelers arrive at Emmaus, they encourage Jesus to stay with them as their guest. They offer hospitality to this stranger. Again, remember that they do not yet know who this person is.

They sit down together for a meal, which is an extreme act of welcome and acceptance. Jesus, the guest, offers a blessing upon the food, presents his traveling companions with some bread, and they finally see him for who he really is. And just like that, Jesus disappears.

Here I find one of my favorite verses in the Bible, right after “He stinketh.” Verse 32, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Notice that Jesus could teach them lessons, quote scripture and explain it to them at length. They probably had about a two-hour journey/conversation from Jerusalem to Emmaus where Jesus taught them many things. But they only really saw Jesus in a shared meal.

My friends, we have all experienced moments like these travelers when we say “We had hoped…” On this side of hope, we will experience disappointment. But with the help of others, even sitting down for a shared meal can become an eye-opening experience. How are these moments pointing us to Jesus? How can we know him better?

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The Missouri of Disciples

John 20:19-31


Happy Holy Humor Sunday! This is an old tradition that seems to be picking up again as Christians celebrate the second Sunday of Easter by telling jokes. The idea is that on Easter, or Resurrection Sunday, Jesus played a huge joke on death, sin, the devil, and evil. Maybe next year we can dedicate an entire sermon to joke telling.

As I mentioned, today is the second Sunday of Easter. According to the Liturgical Church Year, Easter is not just a single day, but a season that lasts 50 days, bringing us right up to Pentecost. I think this is actually a better and more helpful way to think about Easter as well. We know the story of Easter: Jesus was raised from the dead, the women found the empty tomb and told the disciples. Some disciples ran to see for themselves, others waited back at their rented room. We don’t know what they believed or how much they understood. It seems to have been an ongoing process of understanding.

To look at Easter as the period from Easter Sunday through Pentecost is a way of recognizing that for the disciples and other followers of Jesus, there wasn’t an instance on that first Sunday were everyone just kind of looked at each other and said collectively, “Ahh, now I get it!” No, this was a process, and it took something as significant as Pentecost for them to wrap their minds around what had just happened.

So if it took the disciples 50 days to understand the resurrection, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if it takes us a little bit longer to wrap our minds around this difficult subject!

Our scripture for today picks up right were last week’s left off, on the evening of that first Easter Sunday. The disciples have enjoyed a big Easter supper, they’ve sang “Up From the Grave He Arose,” and they have hid and found all of their Easter Eggs. No, most of them are together in a room, possibly still the same upper room that they rented to celebrate the Passover meal, and they have the door barricaded. They are trying to keep safe from a very intimidating group of people: the Jewish leaders.

The disciples are afraid of the Jewish leaders because they know that they may be next. They had Jesus killed on Friday, Saturday was their Sabbath—because, you know, we try to keep the religious killings to a minimum on the Sabbath—and now it is Sunday. The disciples are jumping at every noise in the alley, every knock at the door.

Maybe this is why Jesus shows up in the middle of the room, rather than trying to get in the front door. The disciples aren’t going to open the door for anyone, and do you really think they are going to fall for the whole, “But it’s me, Jesus!” trick? But it is Jesus, and he just shows up in the middle of the group and says, “Peace be with you!”

We are told that Jesus shows them the scars on his hands and the hole in his side where he was pierced by the spear. At this, we are told the disciples are overjoyed. This isn’t some lookalike, or even some spirit returning to them from the other side. This is Jesus standing before them in the flesh and blood. He is the living, breathing Messiah that they have been following for the last three years.

And we know that he is breathing, because John tells us that Jesus breathed on them. And Jesus said, “Tell me the truth, does my breath stink? I have been dead awhile.” No, he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

All of that is great! These disciples have seen the Lord and they are starting to put it all together. Except for one thing: Thomas wasn’t home. He stepped out for some reason, and he missed Jesus’ visit! Thomas thinks they are pulling his leg, they are misleading him, just joshing around. And Thomas says in verse 25, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

So Thomas gets a nickname: we call him “Doubting Thomas.” I feel bad for Thomas, one mistake and he is labeled for the rest of his life. If you think about it, we don’t call Peter Denying Peter; Judas isn’t called Betraying Judas. So why do we almost always think of Thomas as Doubting Thomas?

I think we like to emphasize Thomas’ failures because it makes us feel like less of a failure when we doubt. I’ll probably never betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver or deny even knowing Jesus to save my own skin. But do I doubt? Absolutely. And it turns out that I’m in good company.

Notice that even before Thomas was given the nickname “Doubting Thomas,” he had another nickname. Verse 24 tells us that Thomas is also called “Didymus,” which is a way cooler nickname that Doubting Thomas. Didymus is Greek for “twin.” There are a lot of guesses out there as to why Thomas was called “The Twin.” Some say that Thomas and Jesus looked a lot alike, which is why Judas had to point out which one was Jesus to the Roman guards. Others suggest that maybe he just was a twin and had a doppelganger running around town.

I like a different approach (though I also admit that it is less likely). When John refers to Thomas as the twin, John is calling Thomas his twin. Not in appearance, but his twin in the faith. I think that when John calls Thomas the twin, he does so because Thomas is his twin in that he too has his doubts.

There are surely people out there who do not have their doubts, and I say God bless you. Perhaps you have grown up hearing about Jesus and it just always made sense to you. If that’s the case, I’m a little jealous because I’m more in line with Thomas, I’m his theological twin.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt the resurrection, and I don’t doubt God’s existence. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have my fair share of questions.

NT scholar David Lose suggests that we take the time here to pass out 3×5 cards and invite you to write on them your questions, your doubts, and collect these and read them. Everyone can take a card, and write on it your questions about the Christian faith. You might not quite call it a doubt, but questions about life and why the world is the way it is are appropriate. David warned us to expect everything from “Why did God create mosquitos?” to “Why did God let my wife die from cancer?” Whatever question or questions you have, whatever doubts you are dealing with, are fair game. If you don’t want to have them shared aloud, please either don’t put the card back in the basket or draw an X across the face of the card. The point isn’t to criticize you for your doubts, because most of us have doubts or questions. The point is to give you space to ask the difficult questions that you are dealing with and I will respect those questions by not giving an easy answer.

Some of you may be asking why I am lifting Thomas, Doubting Thomas, up as an example for us all today. Consider where our text goes after Thomas reveals his initial doubt. We fast forward one week, and we find the disciples, including Thomas, gathered in the same house. The door is still locked, Jesus appears again, and Jesus says the same thing, “Peace be with you!” But then Jesus turns to Thomas and he says to him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

First of all, does Jesus seem upset that Thomas had his doubts? No, we have no reason to think that Jesus was upset at all. Jesus gets it, he had suffered from a condition that few people come back from: death. And the one person that Thomas had seen bring someone back from the dead was now dead himself. So no, Jesus understands why Thomas would doubt.

Second, Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds and even put his hand inside of Jesus’ cut side. This suggests and intimacy between Jesus and Thomas. I think of when we cut our fingers or scrape our knees, we don’t just let anyone look at our wounds or touch our ouchies. My children will sometimes hurt their selves and refuse to let me take a look at them. They want their mother. So not only is Jesus not mad at Thomas, he shows trust and confidence in Thomas.

But the most important thing that I can find in this entire story is Thomas’ response. In verse 28 Thomas proclaims that Jesus is, “My Lord and my God!” There are other times in the New Testament where professions of faith in Jesus are made, but it is Thomas, Doubting Thomas, who first proclaims that Jesus is not only Lord, but also God.

Thomas, Doubting Thomas, seems to have a clearer understanding of who Jesus is than any of the other disciples.

Let’s take some time here to read a few of the doubts that you have written down on your note cards. And rather than criticizing people for their doubts, and rather than trying to answer these challenging questions, when I finish reading a card, I just want you all to treat the person like they sneezed and say, “Bless you.”

I’ve called Thomas the “Missouri of Disciples.” Missouri is known as the “Show Me State,” though the origins of that name are debated. Some claim that it came from a member of the House of Representatives from Missouri that gave a speech where he claimed that “frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.” Others have said that the phrase comes from a coal miners’ strike where workers were brought in from other states, and when the foreman was explaining the work that needed to be done, he told one of his workers, “This one’s from Missouri, so you can’t just explain it to him. You’ll have to show him how to do it.”

Either way, I think that it is okay to be a Missouri Christian. When we have our doubts, when we have our questions, we cry out to God, “Show me!”

How many of us have ever gone to a pastor, a teacher, or another person who we respected in the church, shared with them our struggles, and had them say something like, “Oh, you can’t ask those questions!” For some people, that’s enough reason to stop believing in God altogether!

No, for those who question why does God allow bad things to happen, I encourage you to be like Thomas, and say, “Show me, God!” For those who don’t understand the Trinity, pray, “Show me, God!” For those who don’t understand why terrorism and wars seem to be so prevalent in our world today, don’t stop believing in God, pray that God shows you more.

But don’t stop there, because it requires something of you as well. God will show you more, but you may need to read a book, study your Bible, and spend some time in prayer. Our High School Sunday School class is digging through the Bible and looking at violent images of God in the Old Testament and asking how this aligns with the “love your enemies” Jesus of the New Testament. That’s hard work, and this process may not be pleasant. You may have to adjust the way that you understand God and your relationship to the rest of the world. I’ve had to change my understanding of God from a genie in a lamp to something a little less Aladdin-y. But in my search, I’ve found a loving, just, righteous God, who may not look like previous versions of God, but is still Biblical and fits much better with my reality.

And I’m not done asking questions. I’m not done crying out, “Show me, God!” I’m not done being a Missouri Christian.

Remember that doubt is not the opposite of faith. In fact, I would say that asking those difficult questions that we have been keeping to ourselves will cause us to dig deeper. Jesus didn’t criticize Thomas for asking for some more evidence, and Thomas seemed to understand Jesus’ role and identity better than anyone else.

In moments of doubt, in moments of questioning, be a Missouri Christian. Dig deeper, get closer, and cry out, “Show me, God!”

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The Cross of Redemption

Matthew 28:1-10

There’s something about a musical that draws me in. I’m not gifted in any way when it comes to the fine arts, so don’t expect to see me headlining any show requiring singing, dancing, or painting. But I enjoy watching talented people do these things.

One of the musicals that I enjoy watching is “West Side Story.” This musical is really a 1950’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” So if you know one story line, you pretty well know the other as well.

West Side Story is a tale of forbidden love that crosses the boundary between two rival street gangs in New York. There is the Jets, a group of young men from blue-collar backgrounds, and then there are the Sharks, made up of men of Puerto Rican descent. These two groups battle for power, they battle for respect. I believe that this was the first movie ever made where it became acceptable for fights to be settled by entering into a dance competition. And yes, one of the reasons that I enjoy West Side Story is because you often see tough guys pirouetting across the screen and clicking their heels and shouts of “Mambo!” can be understood as a challenge.

So there are two clear groups: the Sharks and the Jets. It is us and them. The white people and the Puerto Ricans. But then one day, Tony, a former Jet and best friend to Riff, the leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria. Now let’s be honest, how many of us sing “I feel pretty” each morning while brushing our hair to give ourselves a confidence boost? Maria is pretty–pretty much off limits because she is Puerto Rican, and she is the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.

As the love between Tony and Maria grows, so too does the division between the Sharks and the Jets. They plan a rumble, a fight in the street, which worries both Tony and Maria because these people are their friends, these people are their families. Just as the rumble begins, Tony runs into the middle of it all to try to stop it. Bernardo and Riff pull out switchblade knives and Tony tries to prevent either of them from getting hurt, but Bernardo kills Riff, Tony’s best friend. In a fit of furry, Tony grabs a knife and kills Bernardo. Tony kills Maria’s brother.

As Tony and Maria plan their escape, the Sharks plan their retaliation. A lie gets back to Tony that Maria has been killed by Chino, the new leader of the Sharks. Tony then faces Chino and is shot as Maria watches.

If this story sounds familiar, even if you have never seen West Side Story, that’s probably because it is a very common story. Turn on the television set on a Saturday morning, and every superhero cartoon is based on this concept. The bad guys do something bad, the good guys come in and do something back to them. The bad guys try to retaliate, but the good guys stop them and all the world is safe again.

This is the story that plays out in politics, war, sporting events, and every bad relationship out there. I’m not just talking about killing, but getting people back in general. There is them and there is us. They do something to us, we do something to them to make it right again. This is what Bible Scholar Walter Wink calls “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.”

A myth is a story that may or may not be true that gives shape to a community and its beliefs. Redemption is a word that should not be unfamiliar to us as Christians. There are usually two definitions given to the word redemption. 1. the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil. And 2. the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt. The first, more common understanding of redemption comes out of the traditional second definition.

The second definition fits our actions when we have a gift card from a restaurant. The restaurant pays us back with food in exchange for the gift card and we are even. The restaurant’s debt has been redeemed. Things are made right. So when we as Christians talk about being redeemed, we are saying that God has essentially bought us back and cleared our debt. God has made things right.

The myth of redemptive retaliation says that if someone hurts you, offends you, or even embarrasses you, there is only one way to make things right: you must get them back. It is even biblical: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!

The myth of redemptive retaliation just isn’t true. You can’t make things right by hurting someone in an equal way. If someone steals from you, you don’t make things right by stealing back from them. Even if you are even financially, you’ve still lost something. You’ve lost trust. You’ve lost honor. If someone says something bad about you, you don’t make things right by saying something bad about them. If your spouse cheats on you, you don’t make things right by cheating on them. As Tony found out in West Side Story, if someone kills your best friend, you don’t make things right by killing them.

One of Jesus’ friends tried that. When the Roman soldiers showed up with their swords drawn, ready to arrest Jesus, Peter pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of a soldier. Jesus turns to Peter and tells him, “Put away your sword. For all who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

This could be perceived as a sign of weakness, but that’s not what’s going on. Jesus said he could call down 12 legions of angels to defend him. And that’s what you would expect if you were operating within a system that believed in redemptive violence. But rather than return violence for violence, what does Jesus do?

He heals the soldier. He heals the man who was trying to arrest him.

Real redemption doesn’t come from getting someone back. Real redemption doesn’t come from doing unto others exactly what they did unto you. Real redemption comes through forgiveness.

Recall that some of Jesus’ last words on the cross were words of forgiveness. Here he is, experiencing the worse violence possible, death on a cross. He is publically humiliated, stripped down and bared for all the word to see. And in his last breath, he calls out, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

As people acted violently against Jesus, he forgave them. Not because he was weak and couldn’t do anything about it. No, Jesus was breaking the myth of redemptive violence, ending the cycle of violence.

Yet on that Good Friday, it seemed as if violence, hatred, anger, and sin had one the day. And the day after that. In fact, early on the third day, it seemed as if all hope was lost. In their condition of despair, two women go to Jesus’ tomb, not sure if it is all really over or not. And when they arrive they hear a large rumble and the find an angel sitting upon a stone that has been rolled away from the opening of the tomb. They also find two very scared guards, but they aren’t really a part of the story.

The angel speaks to them in Matthew 28:5-6, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”

Just as he said, duh! I believe Jesus actually says three times in Matthew’s Gospel that he had to die and rise again. But this is understandable, we are a slow sort, we humans. We are slow to pick up on the teachings of Jesus, and we are slow to follow his actions. We still think that redemption comes from getting even with someone.

But from the cross to the resurrection, those with eyes to see and ears to hear realize something else altogether. We can only redeem our relationships, we can only be made right with others, if we forgive. And we can only be made right if we are forgiven. The cross is the means by which we are redeemed by God and set right with him. He has bought us, saved us, and made things right. The empty tomb is a sign that true redemption is more powerful than retaliation.

Surely, if anyone had reason to retaliate, it would be God. We have sinned, we have gone our own way. And on the cross God said the only way to make things right is to forgive you, because redemption is more powerful than retaliation.

So on that first Easter Sunday, I’m not surprised that Jesus repeats the words “Don’t be afraid” several times. First of all, who wouldn’t be afraid to see a person walking around after you had seen him killed and buried? And who wouldn’t be afraid after they had disserted their leader and allowed him to be tortured? By all means, Jesus should be justified in taking out his aggression on these “former” disciples of his.

No, he says, “Don’t be afraid.” Redemption is more powerful than retaliation. And redemption comes through forgiveness.

For all the sins we’ve committed, all the shortcomings in our lives, surely God could make us pay. But my friends, the tomb is empty, just like Jesus said it would be. Jesus doesn’t get even by doing back to us what we did to him. He gets even by forgiving us. Redemptive violence, redemptive stealing, redemptive cheating, redemptive whatever, they are all just myths. Real redemption comes through a cross. Real redemption comes from forgiveness.


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From King to the Cross

Isaiah 50:4-9

Matthew 26:14-25

Spring is finally upon us. Okay, we had a few cooler days this week, but we also enjoyed some temperatures in the mid 70’s, so I’m a happy camper. I even had the opportunity to mow my yard this week. And yes, I enjoy mowing in April, but I’ll admit that story will likely change by July.

The warmer temperatures have also meant that I have had the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite outdoor activities. No, I’m not talking about sports, biking, or hiking. I’m talking about grilling. Think about it, grilling combines fire and meat. Who doesn’t like that combination? I may not be all that handy in the kitchen, but send me outside with some raw meat and vegetables and all at once I become Julia Child.

Two summers ago our family made a big switch in the world of outdoor cooking. I grew up with and have never known anything other than grilling with propane. Turn a few valves, push a button, and instant heat. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. But there is just something about cooking over charcoal. Charcoal gives food a smoky, earthy taste that compliments most food.

So I fire up the charcoal grill this spring, lighting the coals in a charcoal chimney, and allowing them to burn down until they get that nice ashy look. I spread out charcoals and allow them to heat up the grill as I prepare to create some culinary masterpiece. I put the cast iron grate back on the grill directly over the charcoals. Then, knowing that the grate would probably be a bit sticky, I reach for my nonstick cooking spray. I keep this spray right next to my grill in a little Rubbermaid storage building where I also house my lawnmower and other automotive accessories. I grab the cooking spray, shake it a few times, take off the cap, place my finger on the spray nozzle, and prepare to discharge the contents onto the grilling surface. It was then that I looked closely at the can and realized that I had not grabbed the cooking spray, but had instead grabbed something that looked a lot like the cooking spray. I grabbed a can of starting fluid; ether.

That simple and understandable mistake could have changed everything. Rather than enjoying a smoked pork shoulder, I might have suffered from a smoked pastor shoulder…and the rest of my arm! A simple case of mistaken identity, or more accurately, mistaken purpose, could have led to a major issue and disappointment.

What I want to do today is walk through the story of Palm Sunday and Holy Week again, a story that you have probably all heard many times. And I hope to remind us all how quickly things heated up in Jerusalem, and how a misunderstanding led to betrayal, denial, and disappointment.

The story of Palm Sunday is recorded in all four of the Gospels, so we cannot ignore this text. There is something important here! And it becomes quite clear that Jesus is trying to make a statement. Jesus is walking toward Jerusalem and he sends two of his disciples ahead to get a donkey who is tied along with her offspring so that Jesus could ride into town. And of course, we know that he then rode into town on a donkey, or maybe a colt, or maybe a foal of a donkey. The translation is a little choppy, and Matthew’s account almost makes it sound like Jesus rode in on two different animals, kind of like Aquaman rode two dolphins.

There is a good reason for why this isn’t as clear as we would like it to be. Remember that the Gospels are interpreting a passage from the Old Testament, where the prophet Zechariah uses Hebrew parallelism to make a point, and it doesn’t quite translate smoothly from Hebrew into Greek and then into English. Here is the quote from Matthew 11:5: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The presence of the foal, the baby donkey, isn’t to suggest that Jesus rode on both. But as some have said, it makes the contrast all the more significant between what is expected and what is reality. A king is expected to ride into town on a great steed, a magnificent horse, powerful and intimidating. But Jesus rides in on a donkey. A female donkey with a nursing foal.

Now let me ask you, do you think that this was intentional? Was Jesus trying to make a statement by riding in on a donkey? I think so! Where else do we read that Jesus rode an animal? I don’t that all at once he just got too tired to walk. I can’t go another step, you guys. Go get me a donkey to ride. No, Jesus knew that prophesy from Zechariah, and he was making a statement about who he is. Jesus is the king about whom Zechariah foretold. Not your typical king, but a king nonetheless.

Jesus clearly knew what he was doing and who he was claiming to be. But how did the people interpret this donkey ride into Jerusalem? Did all this go over their heads? Well, Jesus had entered Jerusalem a number of times before, probably several times a year for the religious festivities. I don’t think he ever was welcomed in this way! They see him riding in on a donkey as a statement, and the respond appropriately.

We read that the people laid their cloaks down as Jesus rode by. This is an act of respect for the one who was passing by. The waved palm branches, which were used as a sign of victory and triumph. Before the Romans had overtaken Jerusalem, the Hebrew people issued their own coins with pictures of palm branches on them. Palm branches were also used as a part of the annual Festival of Booths. The people would wave palm branches as they recited Psalm 118:25-26, “Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

And what do the people say as Jesus enters Jerusalem? In Matthew 21:9 we read, “The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”

Hosanna means “Save us!”

Jesus knows what he is doing. The people know what they are doing. They are welcoming their king. Remember, this happens during the Passover Feast, when the Jewish people remembered God delivering them out of Egypt. Now, it would seem, God was about to lead them out of captivity once again. This time, God would deliver them from the Romans.

Today we would say that the Jewish people had the wrong understanding of Jesus’s role as king. But regardless of how they understood his role then, or how we understand it today, it was clear that those who waved palm branches, laid down their cloaks, and shouted “Hosanna in the highest” understood Jesus to be a king, a descendant of King David.

This brings me to the challenge of Holy Week. We come to church on Sunday and we hear these Hosannas, we wave our Palm Branches, and then we come back one week later to find an empty tomb and shouts of “He is risen.” Indeed, the empty tomb is reason to celebrate! But we miss so much when we go directly from Palm Sunday to Easter.

Close to 1/3 of Mark is dedicated to Holy Week. John spends eight chapters talking about this seven-day period. But what always amazes me is not only how much happens during Holy Week, but how much the people change. And they change, in large part, because of the actions of Jesus.

The first thing this king does when he gets to town is cleanses the temple. Later he talks about tearing it down and raising it again in three days. The people heard this as blasphemy, and many start to turn against him! He was seen as a threat to the religious system and he was seen as a threat to the Romans. So in less than one week, we go from a group yelling “Hosanna” to a group yelling “Crucify him!”

We don’t know if the same people who welcomed Jesus into town on Palm Sunday were the same who gathered and called for his crucifixion. But what we find in today’s lesson is how quickly people can turn away from Jesus.

It was Judas, one of Jesus’s 12 disciples, who went to the chief priests and offered to turn over Jesus. He approached them and offered to turn over Jesus. Peter, James, and John, three of Jesus’s closest disciples, his inner circle of disciples, couldn’t be counted on to pray with him without falling asleep. I can connect with this one. But Peter would even deny knowing Jesus three times later that night just to save his own skin. All of the disciples, except maybe John, run, scatter, and hide when Jesus is arrested.

So why do some many of Jesus’s followers turn their backs on him, perhaps even going as far as to deny knowing him, perhaps even going so far as to betray him? How do you go from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him” in less than one week?

I think it all comes down to expectations.

If you begin with expectations of what a king should look like or what a king should do, you will very likely be disappointed with Jesus. But instead, what if we let Jesus show us what a king should look like?

In Jesus we find a king that will leave 99 behind to go find one who is lost. In Jesus we find a king who spends time with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. In Jesus we find a king who loves his enemies and prays for those who persecute him. In Jesus we find a king who washes the feet of his followers, even the one who would betray him. In Jesus we find a king who restores the one who denies even knowing him and gives him the keys to heaven. In Jesus we find a king who did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but instead humbled himself, becoming a servant, obedient even to the point of death. Death on a cross.

If you have been disappointed by the kind of king Jesus is, perhaps that is because we take our cues on how a king should be from others rather than listening to Jesus when he tells us the kind of king he is.

Like Judas, Peter, and so many others, our wrong expectations can lead to disappointment. Misunderstanding Jesus can be like grabbing the wrong can and spraying the contents onto hot coals: it can blow up in your face, leaving you hurt, leaving you disappointed.

As we move from Palm Sunday to Easter, let us not move to quickly from “Hosanna” to “He is risen!” Let us slow down this week to focus on the King revealed in the scriptures, for if we move too quickly, we may find ourselves tempted to cry out “Crucify him” ourselves.

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Dry Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14, NIV

John 11:1-45

I don’t think I’m a control freak, though my wife may disagree. I just like to know what is going on so that I can plan ahead. Give me a little heads up so I can plan accordingly.

That’s why the last week or so of my life has been a little stressful for me.

First of all, thanks to everyone who helped make our visit from the Eastern Mennonite High School Touring Choir go so well. We had about 125 people in our small church, filling every pew, spilling over into the fellowship hall. We parked people up at the middle school, we brought in extra food, and I have heard nothing but words of gratitude and praise for our church.

But now it is confession time: that was extremely stressful for me. We did not know how many people to expect. We didn’t know where we would put everyone for worship or the meal. Something as simple as taking an offering requires that we think on our feet and respond quickly. Decisions must be made that will affect the entire worship experience! That’s why my stress levels were elevated!

At least I could relax after that experience, right? Our children were on spring break this past week, so we planned a few outings with them. They had never been to see the monuments in Washington, DC, and all Hadley wanted for her birthday was to go to a hotel with a swimming pool. So we combined those activities for an overnight trip to the nation’s capital.

Being the planner that I am, I booked a hotel with an indoor pool. I printed off maps of the DC mall, and planned visits to the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial, to name a few.

What I failed to do was to account for the extra traffic that was in the area for the annual cherry blossom festival. Let’s just say that parking was an issue. And how was I supposed to know that the hotel pool didn’t open until 10:00?

Let’s just say that for this fellow who likes to plan ahead, who likes to know every step that he is going to make in advance, that this has been a stressful week.

Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time to reflect upon sacrifices, death, and mortality. It can admittedly feel a bit depressing. Yet this week’s texts aren’t just about death, they are about resurrection. These texts are about new life coming from death. And though it isn’t always easy to see it in the middle of death and suffering, in today’s text we are reminded that death does not have the last word. We get a taste of a mini resurrection in the middle of our stress, frustration, and we are reminded that it will all work out in the end.

Our first text for this morning comes to us from the book of Ezekiel. If I asked you to name a story from Ezekiel, the valley of the dry bones would probably be the most popular one. This is perhaps because we know the song about “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.”

God takes Ezekiel, perhaps through a vision, to a valley filled with dry bones. Many have suggested that these were the bones of the Israelites who tried to defend the Promised Land when they were overtaken in the battle that led up to the Babylonian Exile. The valley is filled with bones, and we are told that they were very dry. They were very dead.

God speaks to Ezekiel in verse 3, “He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’” The NRSV says “mortal” rather than son of man. Each translation has its issues and strengths, and I prefer the literal Hebrew. God calls Ezekiel “bin Adam,” son of Adam. If you are familiar with CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, the human beings are referred to as “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve.” The point is that Ezekiel is just a human being, but by calling him a son of Adam, we are taken back to the creation narrative where God breathed life into a lump of clay.

Son of Adam, can these bones, these very dry, dead bones live? Ezekiel replies, “You alone know, Lord.” This is Ezekiel saying, “No they cannot” on the inside, but also not wanting to say that anything is impossible for God. Remember that this is before the Israelites had an official theology on resurrection. So Ezekiel isn’t thinking, “Sure, one day at the resurrection, they will live again.” The question is can God do what is impossible. Can God take these very dry bones and put them back together again right here and now.

Now notice that God does not just do it. God could have given life to these bones, but instead God tells Ezekiel to get involved. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones that God will breathe new life into them, that God will attach ligaments and vessels and skin.

But Ezekiel isn’t just to prophesy to the dry bones. He is to prophesy to the breath. You know, because it isn’t weird enough to talk to bones, now to he has to speak to the breath. Come breath, breathe into these dry bones that they may live.

Yes, that is very weird. But then you remember that the same words in Hebrew and Greek are used to refer to breath, wind, and spirit. Just as God breathed his very life spirit into the lump of clay that would become Adam, now God’s spirit was entering these lifeless bones at the direction of a son of Adam. There would be new life in that which appeared to be too far gone to save.

And we are told that these bones are Israel.

Israel, God’s chosen people. In the middle of the Babylonian Exile, it looked like Israel was too far gone to be saved. But God promised to breathe new life, new spirit, into these dry bones.

Let’s make some take-home points from this story. 1. In hopeless situations, God can still act. 2. God often acts through human beings, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. 3. This must be a Spirit-led initiative.

While our OT text seems to lack any human emotion, we see just the opposite in our text from John’s gospel. I didn’t have our worship leader read all of this text, but notice how Jesus is informed about Lazarus’s sickness in verse 3, “So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’”

Jesus has a strong interest in the wellbeing of Lazarus and his family. Lazarus’s sister, Mary, is the one who anointed Jesus’s feet and wiped it with her hair. He frequently stopped by their house to visit with this beloved family. So when Jesus gets word that Lazarus is sick…he waits a couple of days and then goes to him.

When Jesus finally gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Everyone is sad, crying, weeping. Some blame is placed on Jesus. If only he had acted sooner, Lazarus would still be alive. And Jesus weeps, too.

It seems so strange that Jesus wept. Everything in this chapter points toward Jesus knowing what was going to happen. It wasn’t a surprise that Lazarus died and Jesus knew that he would bring him back to life. So why did he weep?

Maybe he knew that Lazarus would have to endure suffering again here on earth. Maybe his eyes were just watering because, as the King James Version reminds us, after Lazarus spent four days in the tomb, “He stinketh.” But I think that the most likely reason for Jesus’s show of emotion was because he felt for the sisters. This was an act of empathy. They had lost a loved one, they were hurting, and Jesus hurt for them.

Let’s look for a few take-home points from this story as well. 1. Jesus didn’t do things when others wanted him to do them. But that didn’t mean he didn’t love and care for them, or that he didn’t have a plan. 2. Jesus knew that he would bring new life to Lazarus, but he also understood that in the current reality, there is suffering. 3. In that current reality, Jesus suffers along with humanity.

So let’s start to make sense out of all of this and put it into our contemporary context. It seems like at least once every year I have to preach a sermon on the state of the church. It has been a very hard year for Virginia Mennonite Conference. We currently have two pastors whose ministerial credentials are suspended for very different reasons, and I consider both of these men to be my friends. As some of you may know, I have some leadership responsibilities in our conference. It is my prayer that nobody here ever has to learn what it feels like to be a part of an organization that has taken away the ministerial credentials of one of your friends.

At our Winter Delegate Session in February, we officially released one church who requested to break off affiliation with our conference because they saw us as being too liberal, particularly on issues relating to the LGBTQ community. Since that meeting we have received letters stating the intention of two different congregations to withdraw from our conference because we are too conservative on issues relating to the LGBTQ community. I usually joke that if you are offending people on both sides that you are probably in a pretty good place.

But I can’t joke about this. It hurts too much.

Do you recall how I said earlier that I find it really stressful to not be able to plan for the future? Well, I would take the stress of not knowing how many visitors we will have, or not being able to find a parking spot, over not knowing if there will be a thing called the church in the near future. Remember, the church is my employer. The church is my social circle. The church is my home. And I love the church dearly.

So I look out on the church, the broader church universal, and I ask God, “Can these dry bones live?” Because right now, I think it stinketh.

Let’s look at those take-home points again, first from Ezekiel. 1.1. In hopeless situations, God can still act. And 1.2. God often acts through human beings. 1.3. This must be a Spirit-led initiative. 1.3.

And from John: 2.1. Jesus doesn’t always do things when we want him to, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love us and have a plan. 2.2. Though he knew what he would do, Jesus also understood that the reality of the day included suffering. And 2.3. In this current reality, Jesus suffers with us.

My friends, I do not know what the future of the church holds, but I know who will hold the church in the future. And that’s good enough for me. When Ezekiel looked out at the dry bones, God said that they were Israel, and that God would breathe new life into them. And I believe that God will breathe new life into the church as well.

No matter how badly we may stinketh.

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We Thirst

Exodus 17:1-7

John 4:5-26

Throughout Lent we are working with the worship materials in a magazine called “Leader.” Leader is produced by MennoMedia, and the editors go around to various conferences and invite creative people to give input for worship services.

For instance, each week during Lent, the writers of the Leader material have suggested that the preacher offer a tangible item that will assist the congregation in the process of worship. Two weeks ago I gave you all Reece’s Peanut butter eggs. This week, I offer you all your own bottle of water. But last week, I decided to skip the tangible portion of our worship service. You see, last week’s story included the call of Abraham, and the text tells us that Abraham built an altar out of stone when God called him. The worship resources suggested that we give you all stones.

I’m not making that mistake again. I learned my lesson when I gave you all rotten fruit and vegetables before a sermon a few years back.

I’m told that you can only go three days without water. Between 60-66% of your body is made up of water, and it is necessary for many of your bodily functions. Without water, there is no life. Not just human life, no life at all. About 71% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, so you might think that it really shouldn’t be too hard to find. But in some climates and some areas of the world, water is really difficult to come by. Especially clean, drinkable water.

Time and time again, the writers of the Bible use water as a metaphor for how we thirst for God. We know something is missing. We know that this isn’t the way that the world is supposed to be. Deep down, we know that something better is possible. So on this third Sunday of Lent, we will explore this common, universal experience of thirst.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, we find the story of the Israelites wandering through the wilderness. Dry. Hot. Thirsty. I can just hear the children, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” At least they had water back in Egypt, where they were kept as slaves. They begin to accuse Moses of leading them out there to die. Not only them, but their children and their livestock. This, it would seem, was a bad idea.

Nobody thought to fill up their Nalgene water bottle before they left. In fact, they left in such a hurry, they couldn’t even wait for bread to rise. And now they are questioning their decision to leave.

While I can be pretty critical, I also understand where the Israelites are coming from. They are thirsty. They are worried about their children. A bad life back in Egypt is better than no life in the desert! So Moses goes to God in prayer, and God tells him to use his staff and make a spring of water burst forth from one of the most unexpected places. A rock. I assume that God asks Moses to hit the rock because this is just further proof that God is there with them. Yeah, if he hit the ground and water came up, it could be coincidence. Kind of like when Jed Clampett was shooting at some food, and up from the ground come a bubblin’ crude. Oil, that is.

Nope, this is God’s doing. And later, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says that that rock is Christ. Jesus is the one who satisfies our deepest longing. He is the rock. He is the very thing that we most deeply thirst for, and he is the foundation. So build your house on the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Our New Testament text for this morning is a big one. I’m told that this is the longest story in the Bible, or at least in the New Testament, taking almost the entire chapter to tell.

We find Jesus traveling through Samaria in the middle of the day. It is hot, and he is thirsty. So he does what anyone would do. He asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water.

But notice that as he tells this story, John makes sure to include information to remind his readers that Jews and Samaritans did not get along. Verse 9 says, “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)”

In case you didn’t pick up on it from the Samaritan woman’s response, John adds the parenthetical statement that Jews don’t associate with Samaritans.

Obviously, the Jews and Samaritans don’t get along because they are just too different. They come from a different family, a different place, and worship a different God. Right? No, actually, they are quite similar.

The Samaritans trace their ancestry back to Israel as well. Notice what the Samaritan woman says in verse 12, “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jacob, also known as Israel, is their forefather. The Samaritans trace their lineage back to Ephraim and Manasseh. They are the descendants of Joseph, the guy with the coat of many colors.

The Samaritans were a part of what is commonly known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Northern Kingdom fell in 722 BC to the Assyrians. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh appear to have married Assyrians and continued to occupy the territory together.

Look at what this woman says. She believes in the Prophets. She believes that God will send the Messiah. I’m sure that there are plenty of differences, but I don’t think that the differences between the Jews and Samaritans was really that significant. They seem pretty similar to me. What seems to be the biggest difference between the groups is which mountain, and therefore which temple, is the right one.

The Samaritans and the Jews don’t get along, but it isn’t because they are so very different. It is because they are so similar, with a few minor differences.

I’m finding a lot to connect with here. It seems to be easier for me to connect with people who are vastly different from me than people who are similar, but yet just different enough. I can sit down and have a good conversation with an atheist or a person from a different religious group and be quite comfortable. My secular humanist friend and I talk about music, food, culture, sports, and politics. But heaven forbid I chat it up with a Baptist or a Methodist! They don’t give any credibility to the Christus Victor atonement theory!

Jesus says it isn’t about some mountain or city. We worship God in spirit and truth. And when the woman asks Jesus about the messiah, he tells her, You’re looking at him. Or literally, he says, “I am,” which any good Jew or Samaritan would recognize as the response that God gave to Moses from the burning bush.

Who thirsts? Everyone. That seems to be the point. This isn’t just a Jewish thing, and it isn’t a Samaritan thing. It is a human thing.

Let’s dig deeper. What else do we know about this woman? Jesus mentions to her that she has had five husbands and the man that she is living with now is not her husband. Too often we assume that this woman is a prostitute, but there is nothing in this text to support that. It is possible that she has married men who have died and their brothers have married her in an attempt to provide offspring. This is called the Levirate tradition, and it was practiced among the Samaritans as well as the Jews. And let’s be honest, if five previous husbands had died, and you were the sixth in line, you might be a little hesitant to make it official, too. We don’t know her story, but Jesus does. And he doesn’t seem to condemn her for it.

We also know that she was at the well at noon, the hottest time of the day. It would have been common for the women of a city to go to the well early in the morning, before it got too hot, because water is really heavy. Notice that nobody else is around. It is possible that for whatever reason, this woman was an outcast in her own community. The other women did not make her feel comfortable or welcome. So rather than working together in a communal and social way, this woman chose to go to the well at noon when she assumed she wouldn’t have to interact with others.

Now consider the way John sets this story up and remember that one story would have flowed directly into the next. Last week we looked at the previous chapter, John 3, which includes the story of a respected Pharisee named Nicodemus who comes to Jesus at night.

Compare that story to this one: Nicodemus is a Pharisee, respected and admired by many. The woman at the well is a Samaritan, despised by the Jews and rejected as a heretic. Nicodemus is an educated man, who studied the Torah and taught it to others. The woman is a woman, second class in her society just because of her gender. Nicodemus comes at night, the woman comes at noon. And though he uses different metaphors to connect to Nicodemus and the woman at the well, in both stories, Jesus offers eternal life.

Who thirsts? Not just Jews. Not just Gentiles. Not just the old, or the young, or the somewhere-in-betweens. Everyone thirsts, by literally and metaphorically. When you see that this world is not as it could be, as it should be, you thirst. And the Samaritan woman realized that Jesus would quench her thirst.

So the woman keeps this bottled up insider her. No, Jesus sends her back to the city to tell others. She, a marginalized woman, is sent to the city where she tells the people what she saw. John will go on to tell his readers that she left her water jars there as she hurried back to the city.

So many parallels to what we find in John 1, when Jesus calls his first disciples. When Andrew meets Jesus, he goes and tells his brother Simon, “I have found the Messiah.” Then Jesus meets Philip, who then runs to tell Nathaniel, “We have found the one Moses wrote about!” And these men leave behind their nets.

Whether it is a water jug or a fishing net, when these people meet Jesus, they drop everything and go to tell others. Whether we are fishermen, Pharisees, or Samaritans, we thirst. We all need Jesus.

So just what do we learn from these interactions? Blogger Melissa Bane Sevier reminds us, “Don’t be afraid to ask for the things that support life. Don’t be afraid to share the things that give life.”

Jesus asked for water and he offered living water. Crossing over boundaries of gender, religion, nationality, and social status, Jesus reached out when he needed something, and offered what someone else really needed.

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New Beginnings

Genesis 12:1-4

John 3:1-17

Last week, after I preached on a pretty well-known passage, someone asked me if I found it difficult to preach on a text that is so familiar. I admitted that the familiarity of a well-known passage can make it difficult to say something new. Even more challenging is to try to say something different about a passage when people have very strong beliefs about what a text means! So if I had a challenge last week, I’m up against a wall this week!

John 3:16 is probably the best-known passage in the Christian Bible. It was likely the first verse we all learned growing up, and I bet many of us could still quote it in the KJV. (I’m still not sure what a begotten son is, though.) You don’t even need to be a Christian to know John 3:16; all you have to do is watch professional sports and you’ll see the guy with a rainbow wig holding a John 3:16 sign in the crowd.

So in an effort to say something new today, I’m not going to focus on verse 16 today, but instead, I want to look at Nicodemus and Abram, whom I’ll just call Abraham for simplicity’s sake. I hope to show how God is calling us to new beginnings.

The first 11 chapters of Genesis are filled with human failure. Adam and Eve get kicked out of Eden. There is a great flood that we are told is the result of people’s wickedness. And in chapter 11, the people try to build a tower that reaches to heaven so that they could all live together, but God wants them to spread out around the world and put down roots in various nations.

God keeps trying to work with humanity, and we keep failing. Then God approaches one man, Abraham, and promises him that he will be a great nation. God tells Abraham, “I will bless you and you will be a blessing.” There’s just one thing that Abraham has to do.

Go. Abraham needs to go.

In verse 1, God says, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” God doesn’t first present Abraham with an outline of how he will be used over the next five years. There is no map. There is not talk of how he will earn a living. God just tells Abraham to leave his family, his country, his land, and go to a place to be named later.

I have the upmost respect for missionaries who leave behind family, friends, homes, and jobs to serve in a different location. Take that up one more notch and imagine you are leaving all that behind and you don’t know where you will be going or serving. And let’s be honest, I bet Abraham had a difficult time raising support without a plan in hand.

Just what do we know about Abraham? We know that he was a perfect man, upright and without flaw. Wait, no. This is the guy who, out of fear, told a powerful leader that his wife was his sister and offered her to a powerful leader not once, but twice. You know, because if it worked the first time… This is the guy who sent his firstborn child and his mistress out into the wilderness without food and water when his wife got jealous.

Abraham wasn’t perfect. Abraham was faithful. And that’s what he is remembered for.

Abraham was blessed, and he was to be a blessing to others. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew that he would be a blessing to his new neighbors. This seems to be a central teaching in our religious system. Wherever you go, be a blessing.

I hope that like Abraham, we can all be a blessing to others. Some are sent to new lands, like Virginia, or England. Others are called to be a blessing right where they are. Blessing not only our friends, but also our enemies. That’s right. This idea of blessing those around us isn’t just an Old Testament teaching that we can put behind us because we are under the grace of God through Jesus Christ! Jesus takes it up a notch and reminds us to be a blessing to everyone around us, even our enemies.

I’m not sure what it always looks like to be a blessing to our neighbors, but I can usually spot the opposite. In the last few weeks a number of Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized, with hundreds of headstones knocked over and some shattered. This week a Sikh man was shot outside of Seattle and told to go back to his country. Remember that Abraham wasn’t just told to be a blessing to those who were a part of his religious group. Especially because he was the first and only Hebrew at this time! No, instead we are called to be a blessing to everyone. Even the people we don’t like. Even the people who don’t like us.

But Abraham isn’t the only one that we find stepping out in faith in our text today. In our Gospel reading we find the story of a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus during the night, maybe because he was trying to not be seen by other Jewish leaders, maybe because that was the most convenient time of day. We can’t say. But Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Notice that there is no question in that quotation. Maybe Nicodemus’s voice went up at the end? Either way, Jesus responds to Nicodemus’s confession of faith by answering a question that was never asked, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Our Christian culture is saturated with talk of being born again, and you can find many interpretations of what this means. As I understand the phrase, it means to experience the world in a new and unique way. When we choose to follow Jesus, we experience everything in a new way. We see things with new eyes. That means we no longer see people as individuals we can exploit and use for our own gain, but as image bearers of God. That means you no longer see the beauty of creation and take it for granted, but instead you appreciate the creativity of God’s work. You hear differently, too. The cries of a baby are a reminder of the gift of life. The tweets of a bird and the whinny of a horse are reminders of the diversity of life. And the taste of chocolate is a reminder that there is a God who is good and that he loves us.

To be born again means that we experience the world again for the first time, just like a child who knew nothing of the world outside of its mother’s womb. This is the world that God so loved that he sent his only son. Believe in him, and you will experience the goodness of this world forever. Only it will be better. Remember, we can’t stop at verse 16. We need 17 as well, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Jesus didn’t just come to this world to say that it is all bad. There is no talk of total depravity. When we are born again, we see the work that God has done and is doing in this world. And that work includes the redemption of human beings through Jesus Christ.

What I want us all to take notice of here is that this isn’t something that Jesus is on the fence about. He doesn’t say, “Oh, I could go either way.” How does he first respond to Nicodemus’s (non) question? He says, “Very truly I tell you,” or “I tell you the truth.” If you prefer the KJV, it is “Verily, verily, I say unto thee.”

The word that Jesus uses there is actually a Hebrew word. Perhaps for emphasis, John records Jesus’s first two words in Hebrew and then writes the rest in Greek. And the Hebrew word that Jesus uses is one you may have heard before. It is the Hebrew word, “amen.”

That’s right, amen. The same word that we use to close our prayers and the same word you all yell out when I make a good point. And we find this Hebrew word in our Greek New Testament several times. 28 times it is used at the end of doxologies and benedictions to close out a prayer. Amen literally means to confirm something as true, or when we close a prayer, it is often a request that God allows something to come to be true. Amen means, “May it be so.” It is an affirmation of truthfulness.

But there is something unique about the way that Jesus uses this word. No other person in the Bible does what Jesus does. Jesus begins his statement with amen. And he says it not once, but twice. Verse six begins, “Amen, amen…”

Jesus is trying to focus his listener’s attention on what he is about to say. He isn’t joking around. Pay attention, everyone. This is a big one! I’m about to drop some truth on you.

And that truth is that you need to see the world through new eyes. You need to hear the world through new ears. You need to experience the world through a new sense of touch, taste, and smell. You must be born again and see that God is at work right here and now to redeem this world and the people in it. And that begins, Jesus says, when you believe in him.

Both Nicodemus and Abraham are called to begin again. Abraham is called to a new country, Nicodemus is called to begin again right where he is. When we begin again, we see things differently.

But our experiences of new beginnings isn’t simply for our own good. Recall that we are to be a blessing, wherever we go. Blessing our neighbors, blessing our enemies. Helping them to see the beauty of the world that God is redeeming through Jesus Christ. And this isn’t done the say way at all times.

Sometimes we bless people through the words we say. Sometimes we bless people through our actions. Regardless of our approach, we help others see, taste, smell, hear, and feel the world in a new way.

For instance, two weeks ago, a group from this church went to a new, foreign land, a place God would show them. A place called West Virginia. They went to help rebuild houses that had been destroyed in the floods of last summer. I’ve heard stories of compassion, stories of faith. Stories of love. One story included a young man who made the two-hour trip to West Virginia by motorcycle. I’m sure it was a beautiful drive, but on the last day a big rain and wind storm was hitting the region hard, and the young man didn’t think he could make it back home safely. The mountain man whose house the young man had been working on said, “You just load that motorcycle on my pickup. I’ll take you home and it won’t cost you a dern thing!”

I wonder, who saw the world anew? Who was blessed?

When I spoke with one of our men who went on this trip, I asked him about his experience of helping these Appalachian Americans who were left without anything but the clothes on their backs. He told me, “I was blessed.”

Here is the great paradox: God blesses us to be a blessing. And often times we are blessed in return. Often times we see the world through new eyes. Often times, we too are born again.

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