4th Sunday in Lent
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who is responsible. Amen
Who is responsible?
This question is rarely asked
after something good happens.
A parent walks into a room
to find children standing in the midst
of a disarray of couch cushions and a broken lamp,
“who is responsible?” They ask,
as small eyes suddenly find something very interesting
about that corner of the ceiling
“Who is responsible?”
A manager cries out
after getting off the phone with an unhappy client,
gazes avert in this situation as well
“Who is responsible?”
The people cry
out after a storm leads to a flood,
“was it the poor construction of the barriers?
Was it government neglect?
Was it God?”
God tends to take a lot of the blame for things,
it used to be and maybe still is in some cases
that natural disasters were referred to as “Acts of God” on insurance forms.
As I said,
the question who is responsible?
Rarely follows something good
And the answer,
at least the answer provided by those asked
is usually “someone else”
We see this today in our first reading.
The Israelites are tired of wandering in the wilderness,
they are getting impatient,
because they are impatient they think they are suffering
“why have you brought us out of Egypt into the wilderness where there is no food?
To die? Oh and we hate this miserable food” they whine,
even though God gives them food each morning,
and when they complained about the lack of variety in the manna
God added quails to the menu,
and when they complained that the water was bitter,
God made the water sweet,
now it seems like they are complaining about God’s saving actions in the Exodus
and it is too much,
and we are told that God sends poisonous serpents among the people
and many people die.
Who is responsible?
God for sending the serpents?
Or the people for all their complaining?
As it turns out,
The people realize
that the snakes are the consequence of their actions
and they repent,
they come to Moses and confess:
“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you,
pray to the Lord to take the serpents away from us.”
So Moses prays to the Lord
and God has a decision to make,
the snakes were the consequence
for the people’s actions,
does God remove the consequence like the people ask?
In the end
God does not remove the serpents
from among the people,
being sorry for an action
does not make the consequences of the action go away,
but God does give the people a way out,
God tells Moses to make a serpent out of bronze,
put it on a pole
and place it in the middle of the camp.
When someone is bit by one of the serpents
all they have to do
is look at the bronze serpent
and they will live
God is gracious to the people
and finds a way through the consequences of their sin
to give them life.
The gospel of John
understands God’s actions in Jesus
through the story of the bronze serpent.
In the course of our lives
we do things that turn us away from God
and as a consequence
our relationship with God is broken,
like the Israelites
we realize what we have done,
we repent and confess our sin.
And like with the serpents in the wilderness,
God does not take away the consequences of our actions
but works through them
and gives us a way forward to new life,
Jesus lifted on the cross.
This is the good news that we share with the world
we share it using the section of John
that we read today.
how many times have you seen that verse
on signs at sporting events,
scrawled as graffiti or on billboards by the road
and though it proclaims good news
John 3:16 has become shorthand
for the idea that unless you believe in Jesus
you’re going to hell.
Frankly, I’ve never understood this evangelistic strategy
using God’s ultimate act of love
to inspire fear that leads to someone “accepting Jesus as their personal savior”
According to this perspective
the one who is responsible for your salvation
and this is a choice
that you’re making
not for right now
but for the future,
your eternal future,
heaven or hell
the choice is yours,
you’re responsible, what are you going to do?
The trouble is as humans
we can’t seem to stop sinning
and separating ourselves from God.
Even when we try as hard as we can
In fact, God knows that it is impossible for us
to do and say all the right things
that would lead to being in the presence of God,
of bridging the gap between human and divine,
so God takes care of it all for us.
God works through Christ to make us alive,
and through Christ brings us into the presence of God as a gift,
A gift that is given right now, in this life.
Jesus says a little later in the gospel of John
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”
And considering all the healing and teaching
feeding and forgiving Jesus did among his followers and the crowds
it’s safe to say that Jesus meant abundant life now, as well as later.
This is the grace of God,
That God wants the same quality of life for all creation,
abundant life lived in the presence of God
and God offers this life to all, freely,
as Paul says in Ephesians:
“4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Who is responsible?
(here is one of those rare positive moments for this question)
who is responsible for salvation?
God is the one who is responsible,
God is the one who works through the brokenness and failings of humanity and the world
to make abundant life possible,
and not only possible but a reality.
and it becomes a reality in our life
when we trust the promise
and begin to live in the presence of God
and even this trust, this faith is a gift of God
who continually reaches out to us,
turning us toward life.
Give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good,
for God’s mercy endures forever. Amen
2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who makes all things possible, Amen.
Throughout our readings this week,
God seems to be promising the impossible,
and not only promising
but expecting humans to both trust
and participate in bringing the promise to fruition.
God gets some mixed results from the humans.
God promises Abraham and Sarah,
well past childbearing years,
that they will be ancestors to a multitude of nations
and they trust God,
well kind of,
Paul in Romans makes it sound like Abraham was perfect
and yes Abraham had great faith,
he and Sarah also tried to take things into their own hands
to make the promise of God happen on their own terms
using and abusing Hagar along the way.
Jesus tells the disciples what is going to happen to him,
he promises that in the coming days
the Son of Man will undergo great suffering,
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed, and after three days rise again,
Peter doesn’t even try to believe this,
he goes straight to thinking a demon has possessed Jesus
and tries an exorcism,
Peter means well
so imagine his shock
at Jesus rebuking him right back
and then going on to lay out the requirements for following Jesus,
taking up a cross,
Sounds like an impossible list to me,
so why even try?
When I start thinking like that
I remember something a wise professor in college told me.
Professor Freiert was at the end of a very long career in teaching and was revered by students, you did not want to disappoint Professor Freiert. I was headed toward seminary and wanted to get my Greek requirement done in undergrad but to get to biblical Greek, which is a much easier form of the language, you first had to take ancient Greek for two semesters, he had us translating Plato. I was also writing my senior religion thesis at the time so I was a bit stressed out and I failed a test in Greek and wound up in Professor Freiert’s office, there may have been some tears,
in the course of our conversation
he told me this:
“There is nothing worth doing that isn’t worth failing at.”
That was gospel to me in the moment,
and obviously it made quite an impression.
His point to me
was that even seemingly impossible things
are worth attempting,
in fact it’s the most difficult challenges
that are often the most rewarding, most worth pursuing,
challenges like say,
taking up a cross and following Jesus.
God is well aware of the frailties and failings of humans,
they are why Jesus, as Paul says
“was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification”
there is no way that we on our own
can make ourselves perfect before God,
so God stepped in
and through Jesus made the impossible a reality
and gave it to us as a gift,
this is the grace of God.
Now it would be easy at this point to just say
‘great, God’s got it taken care of, I don’t have to do anything’
and this too would be wrong,
God doesn’t expect us to be perfect
but God does expect us to try.
because God in the wisdom of God
is working with humans to bring about the Kingdom of God,
and God knows that this is going to be a process
Notice how Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples what’s going to happen,
“he begins to teach them what must happen”
the way that God is going to work through the messiah
is a lesson the disciples will have to learn,
it’s not something they know already
something that will come easily,
it is something they have to be taught,
a lesson to be learned over and over again,
in fact they will have to first unlearn
what they’ve been taught about the messiah
before they can comprehend Jesus’ teaching.
The disciples have grown up
being taught that the messiah
will be a powerful political and military figure
who will gather up the downtrodden and dispersed Israelites
and lead them in a military revolution
to overthrow their Roman oppressors
and take back autonomy and sovereignty for the people.
Which is just about the opposite
of what Jesus proposes will happen,
that the messiah will be rejected by the people they’ve come to save
and be killed by the oppressors.
The rising on the third day thing just doesn’t make sense.
So it’s no wonder Peter initially rejects Jesus’ teaching
we react the same way
when someone tries to teach us something
contrary to what we’ve been taught our whole lives,
our immediate impulse is the reject both the message
and the messenger as crazy
But if what we have been taught our whole lives
is contrary to the way of God,
God will keep sending messengers,
keep teaching until the message is understood and lived out,
sometimes that takes a long time in human years,
an example in the United States
is our history with slavery,
people were taught that they had a right to buy and sell people from Africa
and their descendants,
a teaching contrary to the way of God,
even though God and the Bible were at times used to justify slavery,
and when the message of God
had spread enough that some people were ready to stop enslaving people
there were others who fought a war to maintain that teaching,
and even after the war was lost
the teaching that the former slaves
marked by the color of their skin
were still less than
and though it has become less prevalent
it still persists today,
and God is still sending messengers,
God will continue to teach until the lesson is learned.
Peter rejects Jesus’ initial lesson,
rebukes Jesus for his teaching
and in return Jesus rebukes Peter
“Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
It seems like a harsh response
but what Peter is proposing is tempting,
from the human perspective
it makes sense to avoid suffering at all cost,
but that is not the divine way,
the divine way is to go through suffering
to the new life on the other side,
the divine way is the way followers of Jesus go,
confronting the pain of the world
and the teachings that have created it,
facing the violent rejection of the world
for the sake of new life,
new life that seems impossible
except that God has promised it.
This is what we are called to as followers of Jesus,
and it is so impossible
that we will fail at it,
we will try
but then the pain will be too much
or our mind will slip back to human things
and God will rebuke us,
show us where we’ve gone wrong,
and then God will forgive us,
teach us the lesson once again
promising us the impossible
and invite us to try again
at the worthy task of living the divine way
and the new life that follows.
We experience how this works in the season of Lent,
we are invited into a season of fasting and spiritual disciplines,
perhaps we give something up,
or propose to pray more
or go to church every Wednesday
and despite our best intentions,
we sleep in instead of praying,
we eat that chocolate we said we wouldn’t
or the reason we don’t drink that soda
has more to do with wanting to lose those five pounds than Jesus,
in short we fail,
and Easter comes anyway,
God makes it possible
and invites us to share in the joy and new life.
If new life seems impossible right now,
God promised. Amen
1st Sunday in Lent
1 Peter 3:18-22
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who has been through the wilderness Amen.
Welcome to Lent,
the season in the church year
when we confront the truth
that life is not always easy,
that hardships, trials and death will come our way
we once again experience the presence of God throughout,
God who goes with us
and in the end has the last say,
and the last word is “life”.
Now the first part is not too difficult for us,
we know very well the times of suffering life brings our way,
but the second part,
having faith in the resurrection work of God
is more difficult,
the good news is that it is something we can learn to do
with the help of God and practice
we see this in our psalm for this morning
where the psalmist proclaims great trust in God
and asks for forgiveness and teaching in the ways of the Lord:
Show me your ways, O Lord and teach me your paths
Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long
Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting.
Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
remember me according to your steadfast love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.
You are gracious and upright, O Lord; therefore you teach sinners in your way.
Faith, trust in God, can grow with practice,
and our training ground is the church calendar,
more than just a way of marking time
it is also a training regime for life,
designed to work out our faith in all situations,
so that we are prepared when we face them in the course of our life.
in Advent we practice waiting,
in the time after epiphany we practice looking for God revealed,
in Lent we practice wilderness times,
in Easter we practice celebrating new life,
at Pentecost we pause to notice what the Holy Spirit is doing
and then spend a long time practicing living out the call of the spirit as disciples of Christ,
and then the whole thing starts over.
As we enter Lent
we recognize that this year lent is not a drill,
we are in the midst of a wilderness journey,
one that started about a year ago with reports of a new virus,
that soon drove us away from the comfort of familiarity
on a long twisting journey through many hardships and unknowns,
it’s path we’re tired of taking
and one we have no choice but to follow through to the otherside,
so more than ever this year
we are ready to hear the good news of lent,
we long for the wisdom for wilderness journeys lent has to offer,
show us your ways O Lord and teach us your paths.
Today the path takes us to the promises of God,
promises that God makes and marks with a sign
promises we are to hold on to
because no matter what happens or what it may feel like,
God keeps the promises God makes.
Our promise for today
is that we are beloved by God,
and the sign is water,
that most common and necessary of elements
that has the power to give and destroy life,
this promise and sign are combined together in baptism,
a promise and sign that will carry us through wilderness times,
which we see with Jesus in our gospel for today.
Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan river
and just as he comes up out of the water
the heavens are torn open
and he hears the voice of God say
“You are my Son; the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
That’s quite an experience and proclamation,
but it seems like Jesus doesn’t have much time to savor it
because Mark tells us that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
Mark is a writer of few words
but there’s a lot packed into these two sentences.
First the spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness,
Jesus did not decide that he could use a nice long spiritual retreat,
no, forces beyond himself push him
and he finds himself in the wilderness.
In the Bible and in our lives
most wilderness experiences start this way
where one moment we’re loved and affirmed
and in the very next the bottom seems to have dropped out
and we find ourselves in strange, unfamiliar and unfriendly territory,
whether it’s a global pandemic,
the end of a relationship, facing illness or unemployment
all of a sudden we look around and our world has changed and not for the better.
Jesus has this experience
And Mark tells us that “He was in the wilderness forty days”
forty in the Bible is shorthand for a long time,
a time so long that it seems that it will never end
even through God promises that it will end,
But there’s more,
if it were just a long time it would be tiresome but perhaps not so bad,
but not only is Jesus in the wilderness for forty days,
during that time he is tempted by Satan; the accuser,
the one whose job it is to call into question the promises of God.
“So God called you Son, huh?
Are you sure you heard that right?
If you’re the Son of God, then how did you end up here?
If God is so pleased with you, then what are you doing in the wilderness?
Are you sure you’re beloved? Maybe you should test God just to make sure, just a little test, that way you’ll know for sure…”
The endless string of doubts and questions
that run through your head in the midst of a wilderness time?
That is the temptation of Satan
Jesus is out in the wilderness for a long time,
satan is tempting him,
and there’s more,
there are wild beasts out there too,
more than the temptation of satan there is real danger in wilderness times
A reality the must be dealt with in addition to everything else
and if this seems like a whole lot,
Maybe too much,
it is, but Mark has one more detail to add,
“and the angels waited on him”
angels are in the wilderness as well,
messengers of God’s love and care,
even if we don’t notice them,
there are always angels in our wilderness times
God is always present,
working through these times
That have a way of defining us,
in fact they almost seem necessary for growth,
now to be clear I don’t think God desires extreme wilderness times for us,
God doesn’t want to hurt us,
but it also seems to be a fact of life
that we will experience wilderness times
and God doesn’t let those times go to waste,
God uses them to shape and mold us into more of the beloved children
that God has created us to be.
Jesus makes it through the wilderness,
he’s confronted Satan, and doubts,
he’s affirmed his identity as beloved child of God
and now he is ready to begin his ministry.
When John is arrested
sending his followers into their own wilderness,
it is time for Jesus to step up and proclaim the good news of God
and begin his next journey,
the one to the cross,
the journey through death into new life.
In our baptisms,
named by God as beloved,
we are joined to Jesus’ journey through death to new life,
and in this joining
God promises that whatever we face in life
we face with Jesus who has already traveled the path
and that the last world will be God’s
and it will always be life.
This is the promise onto which we hold
Proclaiming with the psalmist
“To you O Lord I lift up my soul
My God, I put my trust in you.”
Thanks to Debbie Thomas
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.