GCI Equipper

Faith + Hope + Love = Healthy Church

These three remind us Jesus is the center of the center.

During my years in ministry, both as a pastor and a denominational leader, I’ve been exposed to a number of discipleship pathway slogans used to motivate and inspire us to healthy church. These include: Believe, Belong, Become; Inward, Outward, Upward; Cultivate, Plant, Reap; Win, Build, Equip. I am likely missing a couple. All of these pathways work in some cultures and ministry environments, while not working in other cultures and environments. Some come across as works-oriented; others as more faith based. We chose Faith, Hope and Love Avenues because they are scriptural and because they work in all cultures. Allow me to share some other reasons how Faith, Hope and Love lead us toward healthy church.

They are God-focused

Our faith is the faith(fulness) of Jesus, not faith in what we do or say. He is the author, perfecter and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). We are to fix our eyes on him, the author of Hebrews tells us. Paul reminds us to live by faith in the Son of God, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). To have faith in Jesus is to trust him, to believe what he says and that he will do what he says he will do. He is the one who said he would build his church. So we look to him and how we participate in what he is doing. Our faith avenue centers on Jesus.

Jesus is our hope. He is the one who will complete the work he started in us. He is the hope by which we are saved. He is our hope for forgiveness, redemption, justification, sanctification and eternal life. He is the reason and focus of our worship. He is the reason we come to church as part of his body. Our hope avenue centers on Jesus.

Jesus is love. The new commandment he gave us is to love as he loves us. This love for one another is what distinguishes us as disciples of Jesus—participants of the great commission of sharing this love with others and making disciples. We love others because we see them as God’s beloved children—many of whom do not know they have an Abba/Father who loves them and wants to be in relationship with them. We welcome people in our worship services in the hope they grow in that relationship with Christ and we celebrate as he changes their hearts and lives. Our love avenue is centered on Jesus.

They are interconnected

Paul said, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). While Paul made a clear distinction showing love is the greatest, he did not imply faith, hope and love are not interconnected. We cannot have faith without hope, hope without love, love without faith. How can we have faith in Jesus if he is not our hope? How can we hope in him if we don’t trust in his love for us? How can we love him if we don’t trust him and have faith in him? Faith, hope and love work together in our individual lives and in the life of the church.

The three avenues of GCI congregation work together toward healthy church. Because we strive to love others as Jesus loves us, we begin to see others differently. As Paul said to the church in Corinth:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. (2 Corinthians 5:14-16 NRSV)

Christ’s love urges us to share our faith, our hope and our love with others. Love for others motivates us to engage our church neighborhood (Love avenue), realizing they are God’s beloved and need to be in relationship with him. We invite others to join us in worship (Hope avenue) where they are welcomed and made to feel at home in a safe environment where they freely participate in worship. We provide discipleship pathways (Faith avenue) where they can grow in faith and knowledge and where they can grow deeper in relationship with a small group of others.

They connect us internationally

As I mentioned in the beginning, some of our discipleship pathway slogans don’t work internationally. Because language is important—especially as we strive to be more culturally aware—we use Faith, Hope, and Love because they are biblically based and universally understood words we can use to describe how we approach healthy church. What a blessing it is to have GCI congregations all over the world using the same language and working toward the same goal of healthy church.

Faith, hope and love are not just words that make up a nice slogan—they point to Jesus as the center of the center, they are the foundation of everything we do, and they connect us as Grace Communion International.

As we participate with Jesus and focus on faith, hope and love, we will more clearly see what it means to be a healthy church.

Focusing on the center of the center,

Rick Shallenberger

The GCI Worship Calendar: Celebrating His Story

By John McLean, Director of ACCM

The GCI Worship Calendar is designed to focus our worship and attention directly on Jesus – his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the giving of the promised Comforter.

Each one of us has our own personal story. Our stories are—naturally!—very important to us. Our birth, growth, adulthood. Our achievements, our challenges, difficulties. And in its own way each story is unique, to be cherished and valued.

And yet…

Each of us knows in the depths of our being that if our brief span of life is all there is – if that’s it, “signifying nothing” as Shakespeare put it—our personal story can be frustratingly futile. Like the grass of the field, we wither and fade. And the dark side of only individual stories can be the default to loneliness, separation, even the fragmentation of society.

A major step in the right direction is when we see that our story exists only in the context of others—that “my story” makes more sense when we consider “our story.” We are relational beings: child, parent, husband, wife, sibling, friend, colleague. Our story helps make sense of and gives meaning to my story.

And yet…

We know there is still something missing. And indeed, there can even be a dark side to “our story”: us-versus-them, the stigmatizing of the “other” who is outside our group, tribe, state, country.

Just as well there is the Big Story, the greatest of all stories—which makes sense of all our personal and collective stories. It is no less than “His Story” (history!)—the majestic, cosmic story of God, revealed in his Son, Jesus Christ. Christians call this the gospel, the good news. It’s the good news of a God who creates and wants to share his love and fellowship with us. It’s the incredibly good news of Jesus coming to earth, breaking into our physical dimensions of time and space, to be one of us, to redeem us, to invite us into this eternal relationship of love and grace.

In Jesus, we see the human face of God. In Jesus, we see the love of God made manifest. Through Jesus, we have faith and hope, and we are included in God’s love. That’s worth celebrating! And so the GCI Worship Calendar is designed to focus our worship and attention directly on Jesus—his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the giving of the promised Comforter.

This story is told in the four Gospels and the eternal consequences are examined there and throughout all of the New Testament. In the Old Testament, we see evidence of God’s saving work, of his faithfulness, and the preparation for Jesus’ coming, the spelling out of the need of mankind for a Savior. We see evidence that only by grace can salvation be accomplished.

In Jesus, we see the fulfillment of all that was promised. We see the reality of the divine come to live among us. The shadows are consumed by the reality of who Jesus is and all that he does. He gives meaning to all our stories and, by so doing, gives hope for all humanity for all time.

As much as they were dismayed by his crucifixion, the early disciples were even more stunned by the resurrection and ascension of their friend and teacher. They recognized that something unique had happened. Not just another event in the history of events, but THE event that changes and transforms all the other events. This event was so earth-shattering, it heralded a new creation, a new way of seeing the world, a new way of thinking, a new way or worshipping, celebrating and living.

Something new had been ushered into the world. It was so exciting, so mind-expanding, so joyful and amazing, that it needed to be celebrated. This was a deep well that could never be exhausted. It was the story—his story—that could never be surpassed. It was a story that had personal, community and indeed cosmic dimensions. Jesus was the new and now inevitable focus of worship.

And so the GCI Worship Calendar each year keeps us focused on the story of Jesus, our Savior. The foundation is his remarkable resurrection. All four Gospels make the point of telling us the women went to the tomb on Sunday morning and discovered it empty. And so the story founded on the reality of his resurrection: “He is risen.” It’s not just about a good moral teacher. It’s about God among us, changing the story completely.

The gospel story tells us about Jesus’ birth—a vulnerable baby—yet born to save the world; he is good news for all mankind. That’s worth celebrating! The GCI Worship Christian calendar walks us through major events and major moments of teaching in Jesus’ life and ministry. It takes us in preparation for his crucifixion, his redeeming death, and subsequent resurrection and ascension. And then on to his promise, and delivery, of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, and the creation of the church. All these elements, and more, focus on Jesus and give us hope. No wonder church is meant to be a beacon of hope in the world as we point people to Jesus.

Each year the calendar takes us to these realities at the center of our worship. We learn best by doing. Actually forming our worship around these compass points, all of which keep our focus on Jesus, orients our lives, our stories, to the greatest story ever, the gospel story. In our worship, time and eternity intersect—in Jesus. He is life, truth, love and belonging.

One writer recently lamented that the West is losing its identity because it has lost sight of any overarching narrative that makes sense of all the competing narratives that demand our attention. Even theologian Tom Wright has lamented the tendency to lose sight of the Big Story, and be kidnapped by competing secondary stories, of the Christian church.

We make sense of all our stories as we tell and retell the magnificent life-changing story of Jesus. Celebrating the GCI Worship Calendar is an important and joyful way for us to keep directly focused on Jesus—the center of the center.

A Good Website – What’s Stopping You?

By Bret Miller, GCI IT Manager

The number one way many people find a church to visit is by searching on the internet. This means investing time in developing a good website is vital.

A good website should tell people about the church. What’s a church service like? Where is it? When is it? If I have questions, who can I contact? But that’s not all; people are also influenced by how professional your website looks, whether the people look friendly, and whether they think they’ll feel at home.

If your church has a website, when did you last look at it? Taking time to review your website periodically helps keep it both accurate and current. Ask yourself some questions as you view your website: If this was my first impression of this church, does it seem friendly? Does the website tell me what I would want to know before visiting the church? Would I want to attend the church based on the website alone? If you aren’t sure, then it’s probably time to think about a change.

What if your church doesn’t have a website and doesn’t have anyone who can make one? Well, GCI provides a template website service (formerly, “microsite”) that can get your church online simply by asking. We’ve taken the time to create this because we feel every GCI church should be able to have a good website, even if the congregation is small. We provide a GCI-branded, professional and contemporary website that describes an average GCI church including friendly pictures. Just email support@gci.org to get started.

That’s just the beginning. Once we get you set up, take time to read the text and edit it to reflect your church more accurately. Take time to upload a smiling picture of the pastor or leader in the Contact Us section. Make sure the time and location are correct and fix them in online.gci.org if they’re not.

I know some of you are more ambitious and will want more than we currently provide in our template service. All I can say is we plan to add features to it and improve it over time. So if you find yourself saying, “I’d love to use this, but it’s just missing…” then please email support@gci.org and let us know what you are looking for. Knowing what you want to use will help us prioritize which features get added first.

Sermon for March 1, 2020

Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7 • Psalm 32:1-11 • Romans 5:12-19 • Matthew 4:1-11

The theme for this week is “The do’s and don’ts of love.” In Genesis 2, God tells Adam and Eve about the Tree of Life, and in Genesis 3, Satan misleads Eve, twisting God’s words. In Psalm 32, David shares how it is when we live out of sync with God’s love and how our valuable connection to God draws us back into love. According to Romans 5, Adam’s living out of alignment with God’s love is all resolved by Jesus. Our sermon outline, “How Love Doesn’t Work,” is based on Matthew 4, where Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness contrasts the devil’s temptations (i.e., how love doesn’t work) with Jesus’s responses (i.e., how love does work).


How Love Doesn’t Work

Matthew 4:1-11

If you were alive in 1970, you might remember the movie Love Story, which starred the actors Ryan O’Neill and Ali McGraw. There was a famous quote from the movie that says, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Now if you’ve been married or in love for any length of time, you probably know this quote is far from true. With human nature, the exact opposite is true: Love often means having to say you’re sorry.

Today marks the first Sunday of what we refer to in our GCI Worship calendar as Easter Preparation. (For more on the difference between Easter Preparation and Lent, watch for our March 2020 issue of Equipper.)

Let’s look at the biblical background of this season to help us understand what this season in the GCI Worship calendar is about.

The 40-day period of Easter Preparation is based on replicating Jesus’ time in the wilderness, the 40 days of fasting right before he began his ministry, and during which he was tempted by the enemy. While some seem to believe Jesus had to “work something up” in order to battle the devil, or that he had to fast in order to have the strength to battle the enemy, the truth is, Jesus was preparing for ministry by spending time with his Father, solidifying his desire to follow the Father’s will. During this time of preparation, the enemy tempted Jesus to do things his way.

Let’s recall that Jesus went into the desert right after being confirmed by the Father. Remember his baptism? “A voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” Jesus went into the desert full of assurance and desiring to get closer to God and his will. This is the purpose of fasting, not to get God to do something for us, but to get closer to him so we can see and follow his will.

Easter Preparation is a season of learning more about who Jesus is, who he is in us and who we are in him, what his love means and how we better participate with him. It’s a season of spending time with Jesus—the One who saves us because he loves us. The wilderness story shows how love­ works and how love doesn’t work.

Let’s read the text:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. During that time the devil came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city, Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’” Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’” Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. “I will give it all to you,” he said, “if you will kneel down and worship me.” “Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him. “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” Then the devil went away, and angels came and took care of Jesus. (Matthew 4:1-11 NLT)

We can notice how love doesn’t work by looking at how Satan approaches Jesus in three different ways and how Jesus responds:

  • In verse 3, Satan says if you’re hungry, turn these stones into food. Jesus is very hungry after not eating or drinking for 40 days and 40 nights, and Satan is pointing out the problem and telling Jesus to fix the problem himself. How often, when we are faced with a problem, do we think it is all up to us? We know we are sinners in need of a Savior so we repent and try harder. We fast, we study, we pray, we work harder, and we still sin. We eventually learn it’s not about what we do, it’s about who we know, or better stated, who knows us. It’s about Jesus’ forgiveness and love for us that motivates us to change. It’s because we are loved and cared for. We see this in Jesus’ instructive response to the enemy: he emphasizes his connection to the Father. He knows that his physical needs will be taken care of at the proper time. We could summarize his response as Being loved means I am cared for.

 In verses 4-6, Satan says to Jesus if you are really God’s Son, you can throw yourself off a high tower, and God will send his angels to save you. He’s telling Jesus to make the Father prove his love for the Son. Jesus points out that testing love is not how love works. We could summarize his response as Being loved means I must respond to that love by showing respect.

  • In verse 9, Satan says if you worship me, I’ll give you all the world’s kingdoms. He’s making love a transaction here, and that’s not how love works. We could summarize Jesus’s response as Being loved means I am more interested in giving than getting.


  • Recognize you are loved and cared for and know that you are never alone. While there are sometimes positive steps or actions we can take to move out of a difficult situation, some situations are not ours to fix (especially when it involves others and their personal choices). We need to recognize and trust in God’s loving care for us and for others rather than thinking we must solve everything ourselves.
  • Show respect to those who love you by taking care of yourself and allowing others to take care of themselves (i.e., have autonomy over their lives). We show respect to those who love us by appreciating their love and by not making ourselves difficult for them to love.
  • Rather than trying to get love, seek to give it, and give it lavishly. Be more interested in giving than receiving.

Satan’s encounter with Jesus in the desert shows us how love doesn’t work. Satan’s warped view of love makes it a “Me first” test and transaction. Jesus shows us that when we’re loved by God, we know we are cared for, we respectfully rest in that care without requiring special signs, and we’re more focused on giving love than getting it because our cups are overflowing with a strong assurance of our place in God’s heart.

Knowing we are loved is essential as we prepare ourselves for Easter.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life:

  • What do you think it means to have a connection with God?
  • Share a time you thought God wasn’t right by your side and later you saw how he was working in you or in others around you.
  • Share a time you have felt God’s gentle nudges guiding you in a right decision.

From the sermon:

  • Have you ever participated in a fast or some sort of special activity for Easter Preparation or Lent? If so, please share your activity and how you found it meaningful. If you haven’t, consider sharing your thoughts about what type of reflective activity might be meaningful to you. What ritual or discipline might serve as a devotional?
  • Have you ever faced a situation where you felt compelled to fix it (like “telling stones to become bread”), even if you knew it was beyond your control? If so, share how you managed to move toward resting in God’s care and provision for you.
  • Psalm 32 talks about God’s instruction and how being in tune with it is like the bond between a horse and rider when the rider doesn’t have to rely on the bit and bridle to control the horse. Can you think of a time when you felt in tune with God’s wisdom like that in dealing with life’s circumstances?

Why do you think that for us to be willing to give love, we first must know we are loved, especially by God? How do you see the connection between vulnerability and love affecting our ability to express love?

Sermon for March 8, 2020

Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121:1-8 • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 • John 3:1-17

The theme for this week is “I will show you.” In Genesis 12, God asks Abram to walk away from all he knew into a land where he would show Abram how amazing the future will be. In Psalm 121, the poet is encouraging himself that God will show him his provision, protection and love if he steps out in faith. In Romans 4, Paul shows us God’s overarching plan to connect Abraham’s faith with our own as Christ followers. In John 3, Jesus confronts Nicodemus with the fact that the rabbi doesn’t already know the truth about God; it must be shown to him.

Nicodemus—Who Came at Night

John 3:1-17 ESV

Nicodemus was a good guy. I think it’s important to know that. Nicodemus was ethical, trustworthy, highly religious, fiercely intellectual and knew his Old Testament better than any of us ever will. You dreamed your daughter would marry someone like Nicodemus.

He was well-connected and served on the ruling council. So he wasn’t just in the religious institutions, but also the local government. He’d done the world a lot of good.

He’d also seen guys kind of like Jesus before. They appeared once in a while, whipped the people into a froth, and gained a following. If these rebel leaders made trouble for Rome and didn’t calm down, they had a way of ending up on the crosses outside of town.

These miracles that Jesus did? Well, those were hard to explain, but… he’d figure something out. Nicodemus couldn’t watch it again: the disappointed people, the swift maintenance of Roman power and the young revolutionary bleeding out on a stake.

He was on his way to talk face-to-face with this firebrand to see if they could find common ground and come to some kind of peaceable solution. No more bloodshed, please.

What can we learn from our friend Nicodemus—this good, reasonable man who just wants to keep the peace? What can we learn from this late-night conversation?

Let’s look at three things in the arc of Nicodemus’s story of meeting and knowing Jesus. Let’s look at this progression through the traditional parts of a story.

—Act one: exposition—his first approach to Jesus

—Act two: rising action—what does Jesus talk with him about?

—Act three: resolution—we get one more glimpse of Nicodemus near the end of the Gospel. Is he a different man?

First act—exposition—introducing characters.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night. (John 3:1 ESV)

Here’s the exposition on Nicodemus. We’ve already talked about him being a good man, an upstanding man. He’s also in local politics. He’s a diplomat and essentially he’s going out as envoy to try to get this movement to stop before people get hurt.

The setting is always important in John’s Gospel. Darkness is the symbol of confusion, misunderstanding and sin. John includes this detail here to show us that Nicodemus is misunderstanding and lost—trying to fit Jesus into an old paradigm. Contrast this with the woman at the well in the next chapter who meets Jesus at high noon.

Notice what Nicodemus says:

Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:2-3 ESV)

Nicodemus approaches Jesus like anyone would in this situation. This isn’t undue, smarmy flattery—it’s standard protocol. He’s approaching Jesus like any nervous city official would: “I just want to say I have the utmost respect for you, but…”

The problem, of course, is that Jesus isn’t standard. He’s not interested in finding some common ground and keeping the delicate peace in place.

He’s completing the story of God’s work with Israel, and by that right, all of humanity.

Jesus’ first move is to turn the dial all the way up on the conversation—this is not protocol, and no amount of law-keeping and tradition will take you as far as you need to go. You need to be born again. You don’t need medication and physical therapy; you need a transplant. You don’t need to course correct, you need to start over.

Pause here. When you hear the phrase “born again,” especially in American culture, what do you think of? Dramatic conversion stories of drug addicts and criminals finding their way? Someone immoral, ne’er-do-well, living in dysfunction and chaos who finally finds order? Or do we think of radically secular people coming to believe in something?

Nicodemus fits none of those notions! He is one of the most moral, religious, upstanding, intellectual, tax-paying citizens you’ll ever meet, and yet Jesus tells him he needs to be born again. He needs to start over. The answer is not within you, it comes from outside.

This brings us from exposition to act two—rising action.

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 ESV)

This phrase “born again” is a favorite label for describing Christians. But it’s actually a pun. There’s a double meaning in the original language—born again/born from above. It seems that Nicodemus misses this on the first go-round— you mean my mom has to give birth to me again?!

Jesus utilizes this double meaning to say you have to be born from above. True knowledge of God is from God—it’s not something you can attain through study and hard work or through your heritage—all things that Nicodemus has tried.

Jesus even refers to a story whose central action is looking up. In Numbers 21, there’s a strange story of poisonous snakes biting the Israelites. Moses made a bronze serpent, put it on a pole and everyone who looked up at it was healed. Jesus refers to this:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15 ESV)

The poisoned people had to look up, outside of themselves. Just as the connection between healing and looking at a piece of metal on a pole was mysterious, so our healing that comes through the cross is mysterious. And yet it’s what we need. The poison of sin is too powerful, and it’s nothing we can heal on our own.

Jesus refers to another Old Testament passage in verse 5:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5 ESV)

The phrase “water and the Spirit” refers to places like Isaiah 44:3:

For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. (ESV)

The metaphor of water—bringing back the growth of Eden to the desert—is used over and over of God’s presence.

It also refers to passages like:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:25-26, ESV)

As the Spirit hovered over the waters in the creation story, so we must be recreated by God in Christ. The Law, which Nicodemus knows so well, was meant to prefigure Christ. Now that Jesus has come, the work of the Law is complete and the new heart and new Spirit is available to everyone who “looks up.”

Act Three—resolution

After this conversation, Nicodemus kind of disappears. He appears briefly in John 7 to speak a line and then vanishes until the end.

Resolution is the closing act in which the tension of the story resolves. The hero rides off into the sunset. The guy gets the girl. Harry meets Sally.

In the story arc of Nicodemus, we’ve seen a well-heeled official meet with a rebel and essentially get a theological dressing down. Again, contrast this story with the next one over—the woman at the well. This is Jesus’ longest recorded conversation, and he spent it with a cultural and social “nobody.” His conversation with Nicodemus is confrontational and short. His next conversation, with a Roman centurion, is one blunt line that includes a command.

Jesus isn’t good at winning friends and influencing people in authority! He meets with a cultural-religious figure and confronts him. He meets with a military leader and dismisses him. Then he spends all his time with this forgotten Samaritan woman at the well. We see his true heart for the lost and lonely.

But what about Nicodemus? What about this diplomat rabbi who came to Jesus by night? We essentially don’t see him again until his resolution, when Jesus dies.

Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. (John 19:39 ESV)

Here we see Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus dressing the body of Jesus. This was the work of women and slaves—not men and definitely not men of influence. We see a glimpse of Nicodemus’s resolution. He stands freer than ever of all his cultural baggage, even able to carry the label of the one who “came by night.”

He can rest and stand free. His identity is in Christ, even though he doesn’t understand all that means in the moment, but he’s beginning to see that release and true joy. He came out at first at night, probably trying his best to protect his reputation. The last time we see him is publicly doing the work of those considered the lowest in that society.

So what’s your story? What will be your exposition, rising action and resolution?

For many of us, our exposition is like Nicodemus. He was generally a good guy—plays Parks and Rec softball, has a strong handshake, raises good kids.

But then Jesus comes along and messes all that up. No matter what the ground of our lives looks like, he turns the soil, he pulls up the old, tired roots.

In Act Two—the rising action—he tells us that even we need to be born again. Life as we know it seems to ring hollow and the old sins—even the “everyday” boring ones—offer less and less satisfaction. You start to see the people around you, even your rivals and enemies, as three-dimensional human beings.

You are being born again, from above.

For the writer of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton, it meant that he had to leave the slave trade—he couldn’t do it anymore. For Chuck Colson, Washington insider involved in Watergate, to be born from above was to leave that life and use his gifts for ministry. So many of us can point to these moments where something… just… happened and life was never the same.

This is where the conflict of the story is for Nicodemus. Jesus came with a new birth, not a political revolution, not military victory. He didn’t come to call everyone back to the Law again, but to tell them the kingdom was already here.

And what will be your resolution? How will the tension in your story resolve?

For Nicodemus, it was the joyful freedom to do work that was “beneath” him to honor his friend. For John the Baptist, it was stepping to the side knowing that he had prepared the way. For Peter, it was taking on the role of a clear-headed leader after he’d followed his wild moods his whole life and thought with his gut.

They were forever changed after meeting with Jesus.

Exposition, rising action, resolution. No doubt we will go through this story arc many times in our adventure with Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life:

  • In Speaking of Life, we talked about how Jesus seems to “shrug off” his chances to talk to people in power (a rabbi and a Roman official) to spend all his time with someone people would think of as unimportant – the woman at the well. This is Jesus’ longest conversation. Do we see this love of Jesus in him taking three disciples up the mountain of Transfiguration? What does that tell us about him?
  • Why is it so easy to forget those who Jesus remembers? How can we change our lives to see like he does?

From the sermon:

  • Have you ever thought of the arc of your story of meeting and getting to know Jesus? Share when you first met Jesus.
  • Act one—exposition: Share something in your life you initially felt God was “messing up,” only to realize later it was something you needed.
  • Act two—the rising action: What has Jesus risen in your life that needed to change? How do you see others differently now that he is in you?
  • Act three—resolution: Share something in your life that “just happened” and your life has never been the same. How has your life changed since you started participating with Jesus?

Sermon for March 15, 2020

Exodus 17:1-7 • Psalm 95:1-11 • Romans 5:1-11 • John 4:5-42

This week’s theme is God’s overflowing love. In Exodus, the Israelites demand water from Moses while quarrelling and testing the Lord at Massah and Meribah. Yet, God provides for their thirst with water flowing from a rock. Psalm 95 invites us to listen to God’s voice with soft hearts that respond in worship and praise. In Romans, we find that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” The sermon from John 4 presents Jesus as God’s provision for living water given to an outcast woman of Samaria. Her thirst is quenched as she responds by letting God’s love flow out to others in witness.

A Well Quenched Thirst

John 4:5-42 (NRSV)

Are you satisfied?

Before we get into our text, I want you to let that question sink in. Are you satisfied? This can be a deep question of reflection when taken seriously. Unfortunately, when we are busy chasing the next thing that we think will satisfy us, we never slow down enough to answer the question. Of course, our searching for the next best thing pretty much tells us the answer, doesn’t it? But let’s ask it again.

Are you satisfied? We’re not talking about a sense of satisfaction in the moment that passes with the next unsatisfactory experience. We are asking whether we are satisfied in a deep, meaningful way that saturates our whole life. A satisfaction that doesn’t change even when our circumstances are less than satisfactory. A satisfaction that is not dependent upon external circumstances or relationships, like our job or marriage, family, church, government or community, but rather a satisfaction in the deepest center of our heart and soul. Are you satisfied at your very core? I want this question to linger in our minds and hearts as we listen to the story of the woman at the well found in John 4.

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us. “Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:5-42 NRSV)

The story does not give us satisfactory answers to many of the questions we may have of it. John is nondescript for many of the details and we are left with some ambiguous ideas of what was behind the scenes of the narrative. In fact, we are not even given the names of any of the characters in the story except Jesus. This does a couple of things for us. First, we are invited to attach our name to the nameless characters in the story—namely, the Samaritan woman. Can you identify with her story? Second, Jesus stands out as the only person in the story whose identity is firmly grounded. He is seen at rest at the well. Everyone else is in a swirl of anxious activity. By omitting the names of the other people in the story, John can point us to what he wants us to primarily see. Jesus is the one who quenches our thirst. He’s the only one in the story who can satisfy.

As we wrestle with the question of whether we are satisfied or not, we may identify with the woman in the story who seems to be routinely and repetitiously searching for satisfaction but never finding it. The woman has many questions. Her questions all revolve around knowing who Jesus is. Jesus also directs the woman to this very question by saying, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

At this point, we will want to add another question to our original one. Who is Jesus? There is something about seeing Jesus at rest by the well that draws our attention. Notice, he doesn’t even have a water bucket with him. Though tired from his journey, he seems content, relaxed and at peace even in the heat of the day. Have you been around someone during a stressful situation or during a chaotic time who didn’t seem fazed by what’s going on? Everyone else is losing their heads, but this person seems to have it together. It raises the question, who is this person and why are they not freaking out like everyone else? So, we ask again. Are you satisfied? And, who is this man named Jesus?

Let’s meet this nameless woman whose only identity marker is that she is a Samaritan. She comes into the story at high noon in the heat of the day coming to the well for water. And she is alone. Both details tell us that something is not quite right in her life. Her time of arrival would be an anomaly, as most women would go together to the well at a time in the day when it was cooler. And why is the woman making this trip alone? It is possible she was not welcomed among others and was trying to avoid social contact. With her history of husbands later revealed in the story, it’s likely that moral barriers have been erected between her and her community. The story starts to let us know that this woman is not only thirsty for water, her life of searching for satisfaction has left her parched and empty. Sounds like she would identify with the lyrics of Johnny Lee’s song, “Looking for Love”

“… I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places,

Lookin’ for love in too many faces,

Searchin’ their eyes and lookin’ for traces

Of what I’m dreamin’ of…”

Then she meets Jesus.

Let’s look at the first impression Jesus makes on the Samaritan woman.

First, Jesus is also alone. He is “tired out by his journey” and he is also thirsty. Looks like the woman and Jesus have a bit in common. The apostle John teases us in this description with the solidarity Jesus has with the weakness and frailty of sinful humanity. He can identify with the woman’s journey and ours. He is not standing aloof, swinging in a hammock sipping on a cocktail. He meets her at the well, sharing in her thirst and loneliness.

If we weren’t so familiar with this story, we may easily think this is the beginning of a budding romance story. The setting couldn’t be better. John lets us know the backdrop of the scene by telling us that this well was “Jacob’s well.” That may escape our notice as an unnecessary detail, but for the original readers it would, as we sometimes say, “set the mood.” Jacob’s well was where he first met his future wife Rachel. Moses also met his future wife Zipporah at a well. You start to get the picture. But there is one problem that stands in the way of their compatibility. She is a Samaritan and he is a high-standing Jew. John doesn’t want us to miss this fact as he interrupts his story to tell us, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” It’s Romeo and Juliet all over again.

Then Jesus does the unspeakable by speaking to the Samaritan woman. Not only would Jews normally avoid Samaritans, but Jewish men certainly were not to be seen speaking with a woman alone, especially a Samaritan woman with questionable moral standing. John interrupts his story again, this time to let us know that the disciples were nowhere around. Convenient. But Jesus breaks down all the barriers between him and the woman—gender, racial and moral status. Jesus asks the woman for a drink. Again, with the “romantic” setting of “Jacob’s well” it would not be a far-fetched idea for the woman to wonder what Jesus’ intentions are. So, she wants to know why he, a Jew, would ask such a favor from her, a Samaritan woman.

We may want to pause for a moment and ask the same question. Why would Jesus ask the woman for a drink? After all, she is thirsty and worn out. Why add the burden for her to provide water for another? Jesus is not one to burden another. If he asks her a question, it is for her good, not to her ruin. Here is something to consider. By asking her for a drink he has invited her to change her orientation to focus on another rather than herself. Have you ever been so down and out, self-absorbed in your own misery that you continue to spiral down? One way out of this spiral is to be interrupted by the need of another. Have you ever felt you had little strength for yourself only to be renewed and recharged by expending energy for someone else? It tends to work that way. Jesus’ request may be his work in her to move her beyond a downward self-focused spiral and into a life-giving other orientation. He is inviting her to be a blessing to another.

Now back to our story. Jesus makes his intentions clear by bringing up her marital history. Turns out she had 5 husbands and is living with a man that is not her husband. Nothing like a good inappropriate question to kill the moment. But by doing so Jesus takes their conversation in a completely different direction. Now the woman recognizes Jesus as a prophet and not a future husband.

So, she redirects her questions around issues of worship. She may welcome a change of subject at this point anyway. The woman in her history of marriages and in her questions about where to worship has a focus on externals. She seems to be seeking her satisfaction with the external circumstances in her life. Jesus wants her to see that her satisfaction does not rest on the externals but on the internal. He uses the image before them of water to make this point: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” John later in chapter 17 defines eternal life for us. “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” At the deepest center of our being we are made for relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit, a knowing and being known within the being of God. Outside of this reality all other pursuits end in repeated disappointment, and our thirst remains.

Through their discussion about worship, Jesus takes the opportunity to reveal to this woman his true identity. He is the long-awaited Messiah. The woman’s question about who this man is has now been answered. And in having this answer, she also seems to have found an answer to our other question. Are you satisfied? Finally, in her long journey of searching, she has joyfully found a resounding “yes” to that question. She is satisfied in Jesus.

John includes a tiny detail in the story that tells its own story. The woman leaves her water jar at the well with Jesus. She is now returning to her community, the very community that has shunned her. And her water jar is not coming with her. She will probably be letting go of some other dead weights in her life once she gets home. She seems to have had her thirst quenched, setting her free from her repeated attempts of filling herself. She has let go of her desire to draw her own satisfaction from the externals and instead, becomes a blessing to others. Not only has she given Jesus a bucket in which to get a drink, but she joins him in his mission of evangelizing Samaria. She is no longer focused on herself. She has water welling up in her that is now overflowing to others.

We see in Jesus’ interchange with his disciples about food that he is also drawing from this deeper well. Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” Then he explains that this food “is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” The woman and Jesus are sharing the same meal, drawing from the same well. They are filled with “living water” and sent on the same mission. Her search is over. Her satisfaction secured.

Living in this relationship, the woman is now accepted back into her community as they listen to her words and respond to her testimony. Jesus has broken through the barriers for this woman and makes her a blessing to her community.

Many other points can be gleaned from this multifaceted story, but one focus rises clearly to the forefront. Jesus and his shared life with the Father does not disappoint. As we place our trust in this relationship instead of the external facets of our life, we will find in Jesus a well-quenched thirst.

May God’s gracious gift of his very life fill your hearts and souls with the deep satisfaction found only in him.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The Speaking of Life video uses the story of “Granny’s Lake” as a metaphor. What additional thoughts came to your mind from this metaphor? Can you relate to times when your life was like an empty crater? Can you think of times where Jesus filled the emptiness with living waters?
  • How did the question, “Are you satisfied?” first strike you? Did you later think differently about how to answer this question? If you are willing, share how you answer this question today.
  • The question was posed as to why Jesus asked the woman for a drink. One reason the sermon gave was to reorient the woman to focus on another instead of herself. What did you think of this answer? Can you think of other possible reasons Jesus asked her for water?
  • What did you think of Jesus exposing the fact that the woman had five husbands was not currently married? What does this tell us about God’s love for us when it comes to the sin in our lives? How does God deal with our secret lives of “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places”?
  • The Samaritan woman leaves her bucket at the well with Jesus when she returns to her community. The sermon highlighted this as a picture of the woman leaving behind her attempts to fill herself with life. Can you think of other “buckets” she may need to leave with Jesus? Can you think of “buckets” in your own life that you would like to leave at the well with Jesus?

Sermon for March 22, 2020

1 Samuel 16:1-13 • Psalm 23:1-6 • Ephesians 5:8-14 • John 9:1-41

The theme this week is seeing by God’s light. In 1 Samuel 16, God tells Samuel to see with God’s eyes and vision as Samuel goes to anoint the new king – to look beyond the outward appearance of a man like Saul. In Psalm 23, the poet talks about walking by God’s light even in the greatest darkness. In Ephesians 5, Paul encourages this fledgling faith community to walk in the light of Christ rather than their old darkness. Our sermon, Jesus and the Invisible Man, is based on John 9. Jesus brings metaphor and concrete reality together by declaring himself to be the light, then giving light to the eyes of the man born blind.

Jesus and the Invisible Man

John 9:1-41 ESV

The Gospel reading this week is especially long. If your fellowship is used to having a Gospel reading, have someone read this passage before you start the sermon. Otherwise, it will be referenced and summarized throughout the sermon and people can follow along in their own Bibles.

We’ve all experienced “invisible” people in our lives. People we don’t bear any ill will toward, or dislike, but people we and most of society disregard. The teenage cashier at the coffee shop, the homeless man asleep on the park bench, the person in the next seat on the bus.

It’s not that we are selfish and disregarding, it’s just that society, as it rolls along, ignores those who are inconvenient and pushes them aside. They become part of the scenery.

In Jesus’ day, people with disabilities like the man born blind in John 9 were part of this invisible category. They were completely dependent on the kindness of the society around them—there were no social services or other support systems. They would beg at the gates and the synagogue, wherever people were gathered.

Folks back then were so worried about their own survival that it was difficult to help the invisible people. They did—in some ways better than we do—but survival for a person with a disability was brutal and meager.

With this context in mind, our passage today throws emotional punches from the start. Turn with me to John 9.

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. (John 9:1 ESV)

Jesus “saw” him. Jesus stops in his very important and increasingly dangerous journey to “see” an invisible person. The contrast is even more stark when we think that this man, who could never see, was seen by the Lord.

What follows is one of the most confusing he said/she said scenarios of Jesus’ career. First, Jesus sees and heals the man with mud he made from his own spit. Then Jesus tells him to wash in a nearby pool and then he takes off.

The locals see the guy and realize he’s the one who was born blind and now he can see. They ask him over and over what happened, and he tells them. They ask him where Jesus is, and he says he doesn’t know.

They bring the recently blind man to the Pharisees to make sense of it, which spurs a theological debate among them. How can someone who doesn’t follow our traditions be from God? How can someone who is not from God do stuff like this?

They demand the exasperated recently blind man tell them what happened, and he essentially says: “I don’t know how it worked, I don’t even know who the guy was really, but I know I can see!!!”

They ask his parents what’s going on and they jump out of the conversation quickly so they won’t get in trouble. They come at him again and then cast him out of the synagogue which is basically like cutting him out of the community.

Jesus finds the man and reveals who he is to him in a one-on-one conversation.

Read this fast enough and it sounds like a slapstick comedy with characters running back and forth across the screen.

  • aren’t you the blind guy?
  • Who did this to you?
  • I’m not sure—I don’t know!
  • Is that your son? We don’t want to get involved!
  • We’re confused!
  • So are we!

The story of “Jesus and the Invisible Man” tells us a lot about Jesus. Not just the unsettling and bizarre occurrence of a miracle, but also his heart as he interacts with one of the invisible people in society.

Three points today as we ask the most important question. We don’t first ask: how does this apply to us? We ask: how does this apply to God, then how do we apply ourselves to that reality?

Three points then in applying ourselves this reality:

  • Jesus sees us.
  • Jesus draws us into his story
  • Jesus finds us

Jesus sees us

We’ve talked about the amazing opening line of the story:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. (John 9:1 ESV)

All through Scripture, we see God drawn to the outsider, the ones society doesn’t see. Jesus’ birth is announced to redneck ranch hands and foreign pagans. The first missionaries Jesus appoints are a demon-possessed man with a mental illness and the woman at the well—a relationship addict who’s a member of a cult.

Since the very beginning, God sees those we don’t. In Genesis 16, we see Abraham’s servant Hagar on the run in the desert, pregnant and alone. She’s visited by the angel of the Lord who comforts her and promises her a legacy. She praises God and calls Him “El Roi”—the God who sees me.

El Roi—the God who sees. The God who seeks out the banished in the desert and the forgotten by the side of the road.

This is a painful contrast to the Pharisees, who later only take notice of the man because something’s wrong. They pay attention to him only when something’s out of place and their delicate balance of power and ritual is thrown off. They don’t realize that Jesus is about to blow it all up.

Are there invisible people in your life? How would it change things for the better, how would it reflect the kingdom, if you started seeing them? I don’t mean tossing gospel tracts on the table for your waiter, I mean paying agenda-free attention to that person—seeing them like Jesus does.

Jesus puts us into his story

And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2-3 ESV)

This was some of the theological speculation of the time. People believed that disability was caused by the parents’ sin, and perhaps even by the baby sinning in the womb. Even though the book of Job—whose basic message is that suffering is NOT a result of sin—was central to this community, they still believed this. So, the disciples’ question: “who caused this suffering?” was a normal question.

Jesus disrupts this kind of small theological thinking. He says that this man’s suffering is somehow part of the greater story. That this invisible man is part of God’s great work in the world.

Is that a point-blank answer to the problem of suffering? No, I don’t believe so. But Jesus is saying that this man’s suffering is neither meaningless, nor is it this man’s fault. Resurrection will be found even in the darkness of this man’s life, and his story has disrupted narrow, legalistic thinking about who God is.

Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). (John 9:6-7 ESV)

Here Jesus disrupts the story again with one of his signature habits, especially in this part of the Gospel of John. He’s going against their understanding of the Sabbath. First, he makes a paste out of mud and spit, which was against the rules about working on the Sabbath. He also performs a healing, which was also against the rules.

The Sabbath wasn’t something they’d just come up with or a suggestion they tried their best to live by. A few generations before Jesus, the Jewish community was persecuted for keeping their rituals. People—recent ancestors of these people talking to Jesus—had died because they kept the Sabbath. In Jesus’ time, keeping the ritual was a matter of religious and ethnic identity.

What Jesus reminds them of (reminds us all of) is that the incoming of the kingdom trumps keeping rituals. Healing someone, helping the vulnerable – these are more important than the minutia of keeping rituals. The ritual is supposed to point toward the healing, not the other way around.

Before he’s even healed, this man has become part of the big story of Jesus: pointing us to our need not for more teaching, not for more rules and rituals, but for a complete change of heart.

So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9:7 ESV)

Now, come with me in a helicopter for a moment and we’ll look at how all this fits into the greater story of John. Through the first half of the book, Jesus is constantly disrupting the story and getting in trouble. He keeps showing up at symbolic occasions and in symbolic places and saying that all of it points to him.

He cleanses the temple and then declares that he is the temple—the true place where heaven and earth meet, which will rise up three days after they destroy it. He goes to the sacred well of Jacob and declares that he is the living water. At the Passover feast time, he creates a miraculous meal for thousands and then claims to be the bread. At the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrating the deliverance of Israel, he claims to be the water from the rock in the desert.

Jesus is interacting with metaphors all through here, disrupting and reforming them around himself. He keeps telling the people that the rituals they have are just a shadow of the things to come—himself.

If we take our helicopter back down into this story, we can see some of the details in a new way. Jesus continues his metaphor here, bringing his metaphors of water, bread and temple to a climax.

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9:4-7 ESV)

Jesus is the figurative light of the world that brought light to this man’s vision. These rituals and customs only point to the reality that is to come, and now that reality is here. Jesus brought metaphor and reality together.

The light that gave light. The life that gave life. The resurrection who was physically, bodily resurrected.

Jesus draws this nobody into his story. He gives sight to the invisible man and brings him into the vision (to mix metaphors a bit). In one odd encounter, Jesus brings his greater story into play, disrupting the story of unhealthy culture worship, exclusion of those with special needs, narrow theology and finally exploding the story of physical reality by healing blindness.

Jesus draws us into his transformative story of the whole world, no matter how insignificant we may think we are.

Jesus finds us

This encounter takes a strange turn. Jesus exits the stage immediately. The people are completely confused about the blind guy they probably saw every day suddenly walking around blinking in the sun. The guy’s parents get involved, and then immediately jump out of the conversation because they don’t want to get banished from the synagogue.

Getting “thrown out of the synagogue” meant they were pushed out of the center of community life. They would be whispered about and excluded from the cultural center. This was devastating. They threw out followers of Jesus because it meant they were no longer under Jewish protection. The Roman powers left the Jewish community alone, at least for their religious observance, but the Christians didn’t have this protection. This left the new believing community unguarded.

So now this man is without a home. Even his own parents distanced themselves from him because of what happened. Yet over and over we hear the same thing from him: “Ummm…. I don’t know how it all worked or who exactly that was, but now I can see!” Whatever happened, it worked!

I think of that sometimes when it comes to mechanics of how faith works. Knowledge is very important, but it will only get us so far—there’s still much that’s a mystery about how the gospel works. But it does! Lives are healed, people are transformed, even though the exact details of it are above our ability.

If we had to understand something fully before we believe it works, none of us would breathe or speak or even walk. We still only scratch the surface of understanding these things. That’s part of the message of this story—the disciples, the Pharisees, the locals all try to put a grid over what happened and understand it and they can’t. They can only behold it. The blind man is the only one who gets it: “Whatever happened, I can see now!”

But Jesus finds us.

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. (John 9:35-38 ESV)

Jesus, the one who sees him, now goes to find him. Jesus finds the invisible man – the one no one else thought of as useful, who was considered a burden. Even after the coldness of his parents who left him out on his own because they feared the cultural machine, Jesus finds him. And in this exchange, we see one of few interactions where Jesus explicitly addresses his identity and accepts worship.

Here we have one of the few converts (at least that we have record of) that are made by Jesus in person. Again, he skipped over the government officials and cultural rock stars and military heroes to choose outsiders like this.

So this man was without a family and a home and now he’s part of the family of God, welcomed by Jesus himself.

Jesus sees you.

Jesus Includes you in his story.

Jesus finds you.

Let him find you today and make you part of the great story of redemption that started before the beginning of time. He doesn’t need you but he wants you. You’re never invisible to Jesus.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life: “Do You Believe in the Son of Man?”

Watch video, or read: Daniel 7:13-14

  • We see Jesus call himself the “Son of Man” nearly 80 times in the New Testament – it was his favorite title for himself. This refers to the enigmatic, end-of-the-world figure in Daniel 7. In knowing Jesus, we know someone who is our friend and comforter and at the same time, the enthroned prince of the universe. How do we keep that balance in approaching Jesus? How does that change our perception of him?
  • This imagery is another “already but not yet” image in the Bible. Jesus is already enthroned at the right hand of the Father, but the kingdom is not yet fully realized. How can we live in the “already but not yet” part of theological history?

Questions from sermon: “Jesus and the Invisible Man”

Read John 9:1-41 (or the leader could sum it up because it’s a long passage)

  • We talked about how Jesus “saw” the man born blind (verse 1). He was nearly invisible in that culture – a dependent nuisance who was mostly disregarded. It becomes all the more meaningful that Jesus “saw” him. Do you feel like Jesus “sees” you? How does it change your life to know you’re seen by him?
  • Jesus also puts us into a new story. He disrupts the cultural story by healing and working on the Sabbath because of the greater story of God’s healing behind it all. He draws this “invisible man” into the story. Do you feel like Jesus has done this for you? Has he ever drawn you into something he’s doing in the world that was greater and larger than you ever thought possible?
  • Jesus finds us. Jesus finds the man in verse 35 after this strange exchange, after the man had been exiled from the community. What does it mean to be found by Jesus? What has that meant in your life – to be adopted into God’s family?
  • Bringing these two things together, we see the Prince of the Universe walking into the everyday, irritating situations of being human. Helpless people, stubborn tradition, family strife – stuff that’s all-too-familiar comes up right here. Yet Jesus acknowledges that it’s all part of the story, even of the galactic and mind-bending story of God’s work in the universe. Do we think of our lives this way? Do we think of ourselves as we are—adopted sons and daughters of God?

Sermon for March 29, 2020

Ezekiel 37:1-14 • Psalm 130:1-8 • Romans 8:6-11 • John 11:1-45

This week’s theme is Rising from the Depths. In Ezekiel we join the prophet in the valley to discover that God can restore life even when dry bones are all that remains. Psalm 130 articulates a prayer where one can cry to the Lord out of the depths of sin while waiting on him in hope. In Romans, the mind set on the Spirit is raised to righteousness life from the death of sinful flesh. The sermon from John 11 points us to Jesus during our grief over great loss. We find comfort in the depths of sorrow with renewed hope in Jesus who comes to us, calling us into his raised life with the Father in the Spirit.

Waiting & Weeping

John 11:1-45 (NRSV)

Read, or have someone read, the text prior to the sermon.

This story in John begins by letting us know the close relationship Jesus had with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Lazarus is seriously ill, so his sisters send a message to Jesus counting on their relationship with Jesus to bring the miracle worker to their aid. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

Have you ever sent a message to Jesus like that? You have known the Lord for some time and have developed a close relationship. You know Jesus loves you and you have had experiences in the past that tell you that he will be faithful to you in the future. Then something awful happens. Your company talks of downsizing. You or a loved one gets cancer. Or maybe there are pregnancy complications. I’m sure you have your own list of adversities that have turned your world upside down. Maybe you are in the middle of one now! During these times, we may send a message to Jesus. We may add to our prayers the reminder to Jesus that, “I know you love me… so, please come quickly.” Can you identify with how Mary and Martha must have felt after sending that message only to get no reply day after day? I don’t think it’s too hard to put ourselves in their sandals. There are times we pray sincere, heartfelt prayers to Jesus, knowing he loves us, knowing he’s aware of what’s going on, only to be answered with silence. You pray… nothing changes.

We may also react to Jesus’ response to receiving the message. Jesus said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” At first, we may think, “Oh good! Everything is going to turn out just fine.” But then we discover, as Mary and Martha did, that it doesn’t turn out just fine—at least from our perspective. In fact, it turns very much to the worse. Your company decides to let you go. The cancer turns terminal. The baby is lost. Lazarus dies. Then we are left alone with our thoughts and agonizing questions. Is Jesus out of touch? Did he not know the situation was serious? How does this add one whit to God’s glory? Maybe he doesn’t love me after all. We find ourselves alone with our tears.

It may be good at this point to let you in on how John is using this story. John in his Gospel account has a keen interest in showing us how Jesus, as the Son of God, reveals the Father and provides eternal life. This story of Lazarus is John’s last stop in a series of miraculous stories that serve as “signs” for his readers. There are seven signs in all, and each serves in filling out Jesus’ self-revelation. Each sign reveals a little more of who Jesus is and what his mission is in the world. As we encounter these “signs” in John’s Gospel we come to know who Jesus is and who his Father is. In this way, we are called to grow in our faith and once again place our trust in him. John uses the story of Jesus raising Lazarus as the 7th and final “sign” that ultimately culminates in the religious authorities crucifying him. So, John has paradoxically told the story of Jesus bringing life to Lazarus which will end up leading to Jesus’ death. There’s more going on in the story than Jesus restoring one man to his family.

When Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, we are reminded that Jesus “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” The next verse surprises us as Jesus intentionally decides to wait for “two more days.” Our trust in the Father’s love for us is often challenged when we feel he has left us waiting and weeping. But it is always his love that governs his actions. When Jesus decides to “go back to Judea” the disciples try to discourage him for fear of the religious authorities. But Jesus knows he is walking in the light of his Father’s will and he will not be deterred. He tells them “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” His disciples think he is talking about natural sleep but Jesus tells them “plainly” that Lazarus has died.

When receiving Jesus’ words, we also need Jesus to inform us of the meaning behind those words. Relying on our natural, plausible and logical thinking may lead us to misinterpret what Jesus is saying to us. This can be an important reminder for us as we study Scripture. How often do we come to Scripture looking for answers to our problems? We read the Bible and then interpret it according to our own way of thinking. But when we come to Scripture, like the passage we are looking at today, we are not reading it to confirm what we think we already know. We want to hear what Jesus is saying to us in his written word. As we listen to him, we may have to rethink the way we once understood things.

When Jesus finally arrives, he finds that Lazarus has been dead four days. Ancient Jewish belief held that the spirit of a dead person would hover around the body for three days. During that time it is still possible for resuscitation. After four days all hope is lost.

Jesus arrives and finds Lazarus four days dead and beyond help, just as he finds all humanity. We may find ourselves identifying with Lazarus’ state in our own lives. Job losses, broken relationships, moral failures, humiliating circumstances and other experiences can leave us feeling four days dead, beyond all hope. Ever been there? It’s hard to get up in the morning when you feel four days dead. Maybe you feel you have failed just one time too many and are now beyond the reach of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Perhaps you have shut down and tuned out because you don’t have anything left in you. You are done. You gave it your best. But at the end of the day, you are four days dead and flat on your back. Is John trying to tell us that Jesus can show up late and work a miracle even when we are four days dead? Well, that would be some glorious news for sure.

Martha meets Jesus on his arrival, and she is struggling with her belief in Jesus. Jesus works to move her beyond placing her comfort in theological presuppositions to placing her comfort and trust in him by telling her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” As she expresses a deeper belief in him, she “went back and called her sister Mary.” She lets Mary know that Jesus has arrived and is looking for her.

Notice how Martha learns a little more about Jesus through this ordeal. Jesus has moved her further in her relationship with him to where she does not find her hope in a far distant day of “the resurrection on the last day” but has found hope in the present knowing that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” who is present with her today. She makes a profound statement of faith when she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It’s after she comes to this depth of knowing Jesus that she runs off to tell her sister Mary. The more we come to know Jesus for who he is, the more we will want to tell others. Also, the better we see Jesus, the better our witness of him will be. Martha doesn’t tell Mary that she needs to “find Jesus.” What does Mary need to hear? She needs to hear that Jesus “is here and is calling for [her].”

Perhaps you need to hear that today. If you are feeling four days dead or buried under a weight of grief, the Lord is not waiting for you to track him down. He is already here, and he is calling for you. Have you ever experienced the lift of hearing that someone is calling for you? (Unless, of course, the person calling you is a parent and they use your full name. Then you know you are in trouble.) It feels good to be wanted and searched out. How many in our broken world would respond as Mary did if they heard that Jesus was calling for them? Mary responds by immediately going to him.

In the interchange between Mary and Jesus, we witness Jesus being “deeply moved in spirit.” This deep agony is summed up in the two simple words, “Jesus wept.” These two words, which are the shortest scripture in our English translations, have garnered much contemplation over why Jesus was sorrowful. It may seem odd that he would mourn over a dead man that he was about to raise to life. But taking John’s aim of revelation into account, I think we can see that Jesus’ tears stream from his solidarity with humanity. Jesus didn’t come to be distant and detached from us. He enters our very suffering. The tears he cries are our tears.

Jesus in this story is Jesus comforting his friends. He did not protect himself from experiencing the great losses we experience in life. He did not let himself be spared of the deep grief that comes from losing close friends and family. Every tear we cry we can know that Jesus cries with us. He is our great comforter. Jesus cries our tears for the purpose of wiping those tears away. He doesn’t feel sorry for us but rather he joins our sorrow in order to heal us and bring us into his joy. In our moments of great loss, we still may have to wait for the arrival of the Lord who seems to have stayed away a little too long. But this story can remind us that Jesus is with us. The Father is with us. The Spirit is here to comfort us. We do not weep alone. When we mourn and weep, we are expressing a love for something lost. We are saying that what has happened is wrong and it shouldn’t be. Grieving death is affirming life. Then surely, the one who is Life, would be the one who grieves the most deeply. In fact, he grieves deep enough to get under all that is lost, to plunge to the utter depths of all death and decay so he can lift it up in his resurrection life.

Jesus moved beyond the tears to the tomb. Unlike the Jews who thought they were going with Mary to the tomb to mourn, Jesus goes to the tomb to restore. John gives us a picture of the events that will take place after this story. Jesus will again go to the tomb, but it will be his own. On Easter he wipes away every tear.

John records Jesus raising Lazarus as a sign of Easter morning when Jesus is resurrected. Did you catch how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? He calls him. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus is the Word from the Father that calls us to new life in him. Just as he called for Mary and just as he called forth Lazarus, Jesus is still calling today. He is calling to you right now. Can you hear him? Lazarus, even four days dead, was able to hear his name from the lips of Jesus and responds by coming out of the tomb.

As Lazarus comes from the tomb still in burial clothes, Jesus tells the onlookers to “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” As we see that our brothers and sisters are alive in Christ, we can then participate in setting them free in that reality. Lazarus had indeed been raised from the dead, but remaining in grave clothes would prevent him from living it out.

As we approach Holy Week and the upcoming Easter celebration, may we embrace the reality that Jesus, in his death and resurrection, has set us free to live in him. Many may need a brother or sister to help see this reality and walk in it. As we live in our broken world, we can join Jesus in his tears for his lost creation. We can share the good news that Jesus has come and he is calling us to himself. May we go tell others who are still waiting and weeping.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The Speaking of Life video equated the shortest verse, “Jesus wept” as that “one wee drop” that contain great wealth. What treasures do you see in the tears of Jesus?
  • Can you relate to how Martha and Mary must have felt when Jesus was “late” in answering their message for help? Can you think of times when you felt Jesus had left you “waiting and weeping”? What do you think about Jesus “lingering” during these times of urgency?
  • Do you have any stories where you felt you were “four-days dead” yet God raised you? How does Jesus waiting “two more days” in the story help us live in hope when we feel we are beyond hope?
  • What are your thoughts on why Jesus “wept” even though he knew he was about to raise Lazarus back to life?
  • Discuss your thoughts on how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead by saying “Lazarus, come out!”
  • Can you think of ways a person who has been raised in Christ may need some brothers and sisters to help remove the burial clothes? What might this look like in your church? What implications does this image tell you about discipling new believers?