GCI Equipper

An Easter Preparation Challenge

In a world full of social and political division, we are not called to take sides and thus be part of the division. Easter Preparation season reminds us we are called to be centered in Jesus and to point others to him.

The Easter Preparation message is simple—Jesus saves. Social justice doesn’t save, political affiliation doesn’t save, leaders don’t save, pastors don’t save—only Jesus saves. It isn’t that we should not pay attention to these other things, and we are not saying these other things are not important, but the noise and polarization should not cloud out Jesus and become our new center of focus. Easter Preparation is a time for recentering on Jesus—who he is, what he did, what he is doing, and what he is going to do.

Let’s be honest. During the past year Facebook and other social media platforms have been the medium for many well-meaning Christians to share their opinions about all kinds of topics in our hope to influence people to a particular way of thinking. I’ve seen well-meaning Christians write about every conspiracy theory imaginable. I can read why masks are good, and why they have no value and are just another means to control the population. I can read about the blessing of a Covid vaccine, and why the vaccine is a means by a corrupt few to change our DNA. I can read political posts that range from why our previous U.S. president was God’s chosen to how pastors should apologize for even encouraging people to pray for him, to how our new president is now the answer to our nation’s troubles.

What breaks my heart is how easy it is for Christians (myself included) to fall into the trap of thinking the issues in the world are more important than preaching about Christ and him crucified. Yes, I include myself because I admit I’ve read more of these posts than I should, I’ve commented on more than I should, and I’ve not taken advantage of opportunities to stand up for Jesus. This includes standing for Jesus when I see the name of Jesus used to justify wrong behavior or mistreating others.

Standing up for Jesus in the midst of all the political and social angst is not a popular stand. I even read posts criticizing Christians for praying, rather than protesting. Isn’t prayer our go to? Shouldn’t prayer and asking God to lead us be the foundation of our participation with Father, Son and Spirit? Shouldn’t we be praying in the midst of standing for what Jesus stands for? I recently read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and was moved once again at his conviction to stand for what Jesus stood for—equality for all, and always under the umbrella of nonviolence.

Here are a few observations about Jesus that might help us in this season to prepare for Easter.

Jesus was passionate for God and for people, not for society, politics or our own interpretation of justice. I can’t help but think of what Jesus did when he saw the temple—the house of God—being used for things other than developing a relationship with God. He held nothing back when he saw offenses toward God. He went in the temple and turned over the tables of the money changers, reminding all who would hear that the temple was to be called a house of prayer. Healthy churches are houses of prayer—a place free from political or social division and rancor. We are passionate for all of God’s people and we stand up and let others know this—regardless of how others judge us or even persecute us.

Jesus lived in the world but did not involve himself with the divisions, causes and social systems of the world. In contrast, he taught people about God’s social system, which includes loving and accepting all others. His primary message about the kingdom was telling the Jews that Gentile lives matter too. He suffered the consequences of bringing a message of light to a darkened world—it killed him. Healthy churches are cross-generational and cross-cultural havens of acceptance for all—where all are accepted, loved, included and treated as brothers and sisters of Jesus. In a healthy church we stand up when we see others persecuted against or not treated as equals. When differences occur, we acknowledge that godly men and women can have different opinions, and we listen to each other and learn from each other in a spirit of love.

Jesus came as a Prince of Peace. The Jews wanted him to overthrow Roman rule, but he told them to pay taxes. They wanted a king on a white horse, but he rode a donkey. They wanted a change in their government and their systems, but he taught a change of heart. Healthy churches are houses of peace, where our central focus is on Jesus and on how we can share his love and his life with others. We are peacemakers because the Prince of Peace lives in us. This doesn’t mean apathy; it means we stand for the peace of all. When others are being mistreated, we stand for them—again, even if it means we suffer the consequences.

What is the Easter Preparation challenge? To stand for Jesus.

  • To acknowledge what is going on in current events, and to remind our churches that what we preach is Jesus and him crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23-24; 2:2). This means we preach the gospel of the kingdom of God and the message that all are forgiven, loved, equal, and included.
  • To preach that the social injustices we see are the result of people not putting their trust and faith in Jesus and preaching that the difference we make is by loving people as Jesus did (John 13:34-35). This goes beyond just preaching—it means standing for those Jesus stood for, and died for.
  • To remind our churches to be hospitals for sinners, and to remind all that within the walls of the church there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, Republican or Democrat. All are the beloved children of the father (Galatian 3:28).
  • To center and recenter everything we do as a church around the gospel of Christ. To acknowledge he is the center of all things and it is in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
  • We were chosen to represent Jesus only (Ephesians 1:11).

    Rick Shallenberger

May we use this season of Easter Preparation to stand for Jesus.

Accepting the challenge to recenter,
Rick Shallenberger

The Tombs of Easter Preparation

By Cara Garrity, Development Coordinator

Easter preparation is the 40-day (plus Sundays) season preceding Easter in the GCI worship calendar when we corporately acknowledge that Jesus is saving. During this season we seek to open ourselves to more fully appreciate our deep need for Jesus as we nurture a posture to receive the overflowing graces of Good Friday and Easter.

For some, this season may bring to mind somber traditions of fasting and sacrifice, shame and scorn, striving and suffering, or worst of all, no coffee! For this reason, many of us may be particularly hesitant about this liturgical season.

But what if this season is about more than sentiments of suffering, feelings of unworthiness, or acts of arbitrary self-sacrifice?

The resurrection of Jesus changes everything. In Jesus’ resurrection we encounter humanity’s great hope—the good news that makes sense of the past, gives peace for the present and provides hope for the future. By leading us to encounter our need for Jesus, Easter preparation prepares us to receive the good news of our risen Lord anew each liturgical year.

Opening ourselves to an appreciation of our deep need for Jesus is a humbling experience. The Gospel accounts are full of examples of those who came before Jesus in humble recognition of their deep need. There is one account in particular that I want to explore to illuminate the Easter preparation season.

In Mark 5:1-20, Jesus encounters a man with an impure spirit that was beyond the help of human effort. No one was able to save him, or even to ease his suffering. He lived his life in the tombs amongst the dead. Upon meeting Jesus, the impure spirits knew they had finally met the only one who could save the man they had seized. After a seemingly unusual exchange between Jesus and these spirits (that is a discussion for another day) we read that the man is found “dressed and in his right mind.” Beyond the help of human hands, this man was saved by Jesus alone.

I believe that in this account we encounter the heart of Easter preparation. In more ways than we care to admit, we are beyond the help of human effort. While we may not find ourselves in the exact predicament as this man, apart from Jesus we are also the ones who live our lives in the tombs. We are in deep need of Jesus and he is the only one who can save us.

The somber recognition that we are like this man from the tombs, beyond the help of human hands, in desperate need of Jesus’ saving grace, is part of Easter preparation. But the true wonder of Easter preparation is to recognize that Jesus meets this man right where he was—in the tombs. Jesus meets this man in his most desperate state and gives him new life.

Easter preparation is the time when we acknowledge that resurrection life comes only beyond the tomb, both Christ’s tomb and our own. By the power and leading of the Holy Spirit, we acknowledge the tombs of our own lives, confronting the things of our lives that lead only to death, as well as the ways in which we live as though we were dead, and we focus on our desperate need for newness of life in Jesus Christ.

It is easy to misuse this season in a way that turns our focus inward towards either shame and scorn for ourselves and all humanity because of our helplessness, or towards efforts to make ourselves worthy by trying to earn our salvation because of a fear or hatred of our helpless state. This is not the heart of Easter preparation. It is true that by our own efforts we and all humanity are helpless to save ourselves. Thank God that in Jesus Christ we are not abandoned to this state. In the depth of our helplessness, God found us worth saving, so we do well to surrender self-hatred as well as idolatrous belief that we can earn our own salvation by good Christian behavior as we encounter our need for Jesus this Easter preparation season.

Because of who Jesus is, we can boldly encounter our deep need for him in confidence that it is his good will and pleasure to meet our need. During Easter preparation we can meet him in the tombs of our own lives, the places of our deepest desperation and need for a Savior, confident that Easter is coming, and indeed has already come. When we allow Jesus to meet us in the places of death in our own life, we will find ourselves prepared to receive more fully the overflowing graces of Easter because we have encountered intimately our need for resurrection life. In recognizing our own tombs, Jesus’ resurrection becomes more than just a nice sentiment or Christian doctrine, but our great and only hope.

Fellow believers, my prayer this Easter season is that we would allow Jesus to meet us in our own tombs confident that he is our risen King who is eager to share his resurrection life with us. I pray that the Spirit would embolden us to appreciate our desperate need for Jesus in preparation to receive the answer to our desperate state on Resurrection Sunday.

Practically speaking, what does it look like to meet Jesus in the tombs of your life and acknowledge your deep need for him this Easter preparation season? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Read one of the Gospel accounts with a connect (small) group. As you read, identify with those who express their desperate need for Jesus and pay attention to how Jesus responds to their need for him. (or join our GCI Facebook Community in our Gospel Reading Challenge, as we read through the gospels in March)
  • Practice the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence paying attention to the tombs in your life that Jesus is seeking to meet you in.
  • Journal without fear about your deep need for Jesus.
  • Start a praise journal recording all the times Jesus has met you in your own tomb and shared his resurrection life with you.
  • Practice spiritual disciplines of simplicity, decrease, or fasting for the purpose of increasing your awareness of your deep need for Jesus (rather than out of self-scorn or self-effort).
  • Practice a daily or weekly examen to reflect on God’s presence and the ways he responds to your need for him.
  • When you fail and when you succeed, take a moment to praise God that it is not by your own efforts that you are saved. Tell him you need him in failure and in success.

Take Up Your Cross. What?

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-37) 

By Randy Bloom, Vice-Chair Board of Directors

Faith Forward is our 2021 slogan, which focuses on the Faith Avenue of healthy church life. During this year we will focus on the “making disciples” aspect of the church’s purpose as it participates in Jesus’ life among people. Helping people become and grow as Jesus’ disciples entails helping them not only learn about Jesus but helping them mature as his followers—participating in the life of Jesus in every aspect of their lives.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often found his words about being his disciple in Mark 8:34 a bit, well, disturbing. His words disturb the comfort and peace I have as a follower of Jesus. Jesus said his disciples “must deny themselves and take up their cross” and follow him. Jesus is talking about his followers being willing to bear grievous burdens as he has, as they experience life in him, even to the point of loss of life.

From a fundamentally human perspective, if I’m honest with myself (and I don’t think I’m alone in this), the idea of “taking up my cross” is not something I’m readily inclined to do. It is a daunting and, dare I say, frightening concept. Especially if doing so has any similarities with the way Jesus took up his cross. I am not made for such things. But more about this later.

Years ago, I read Life of the Beloved, by Henri J. M. Nouwen. He wrote about what it means to be the beloved of God, which is what we are as Jesus’ disciples. He uses the action of Jesus at his last supper, sharing the bread of communion with his disciples, as a way of helping us grasp the fullness of life we share with Jesus as his beloved disciples. Nouwen speaks of us as “the bread” that is taken, blessed, broken and given. He wrote about how we tend to love the idea of being “taken”, i.e. chosen, selected, by God, as his beloved people. We certainly revel in the idea of being blessed by God, don’t we? And being “given” by God, that is being given to the world as emissaries of his love, grace and truth, is also very appealing. But what about the “broken” part? That’s something that often gets overlooked as we celebrate the love and joy of communion. That’s the tough part of it all. Who likes the idea of being broken?

I tie being “broken” with taking up our cross. It isn’t easy. All too often this aspect of discipleship gets glossed over or tossed out (unintentionally) as a platitude. I’d like to be real about it. As I say, the idea of being “broken” with/for Jesus, taking up my cross, sounds more than a bit scary. How could it play out in real life for me? I have read many accounts of people suffering untold pain and horror as Christians. I’ve sat at the bedside of countless victims of deadly disease and accidents, trying to help them “bear their crosses.” I’ve stood at too many gravesides alongside broken grieving families. I’ve ministered to families dealing with crippling financial burdens and broken marriage and family issues.

And I can vividly recall instances in my own life when I experienced brokenness and “cross carrying.” I’m not in a hurry to relive the experiences and frankly I’m not anxious for new ones.

Yet this is what Jesus said we would experience as his disciples. We could expect it. He even indicates “cross carrying” is something we should be willing to do. What do we do with this?

Well, I do not believe we have to go looking for trouble. Plenty will come our way in the due course of life. But what we can do is remember some things when the cross-carrying/brokenness experiences come along. We can remember:

  • The passages I’ve referred to (and many others) affirm God’s love for us above all. We are his beloved. No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do to ourselves, no matter what we do to others, God always loves us.
  • Jesus is with us in all our experiences. He has lived through them and knows what it is like to be broken and to carry the ultimate cross. He understands the pain we are enduring. He knows how hard it is for us and he ensures we do not live the experience alone.
  • There is redemption in all our sufferings. We learn from them. We grow deeper into Christ, experiencing more of his life because we are sharing in his sufferings as he shares in ours.

As I said earlier, I’m not made for carrying crosses or being broken. But I have to remember that Jesus was “made” for it (Hebrews 2:9-10). And it is in him that I can deal with whatever comes my way. My life isn’t my own. I live and breathe and have my being in him—and so do you. My life and yours is his. And that is why you and I can bear whatever cross we have with faith and hope. Because of him we are and always will be his disciples. As you carry your cross, remember: though you may not carry it well, and there will be many times you do not, you are never separated from God or out of favor with him. You will never carry your cross alone. He carries it for you as he carries it with you. That is why he says that this is what you will do as his disciple.

Faith Forward Mentoring

One of our GCI prayers is that every pastor and ministry leader is intentionally mentoring and equipping a disciple of Jesus.

Rick Shallenberger

By Rick Shallenberger, U.S. North Central Regional Director

I have been blessed to have a few good mentors in my life. My desire to become a pastor began when I was 16 years old and was the result of my relationship with my mentor/pastor George Affeldt. I became a writer because another mentor, Dexter Faulkner, reached out to me and taught me how to express myself through writing. When I went into ministry my mentor/supervisor Bob Taylor was instrumental in helping me see that the most important part of pastoring was loving the members. John Halford became a mentor when I became his pastor. He encouraged me to embrace leadership opportunities and to learn to see things from different perspectives. Each one of these mentors played a role in helping me be a better disciple. Their example greatly influences how I mentor others.

A lesson I’ve learned through being mentored and mentoring others is that mentoring should never be separate from discipleship, and discipleship should never be separate from mentoring. Don’t just gloss over those words. We often make discipleship this ominous concept that we feel inadequate to participate in. After all, what qualifies me to help someone else become a Christ follower, when I struggle to be the disciple I want to be? And herein lies the problem; discipleship is not about mentoring someone to be like me—it is about mentoring someone to be a disciple and to participate with what Jesus is doing. Discipling is always pointing to Jesus.

The mentors I mentioned above all spoke truth into my life and continually pointed me to Jesus. They saw things in me I didn’t clearly see, and they often pointed to the gifts and talents God had given me. They encouraged me to use those gifts and talents in service to God—participating with Jesus, rather than trying to do things on my own. They supported me in my dreams and aspirations. But they also brought challenge. Some of the truth spoken into my life was tough to hear—often called tough love—as they pointed out unhealthy habits or showed how I didn’t handle a situation as well as I could have. They taught me how to see things from a different perspective—to start seeing each person as a beloved son or daughter of our Father, to understand each person has a story that makes them who they are. And each one of my mentors shared a powerful truth about mentoring—they learned just as much from me as I learned from them.

That’s what relationship is all about—learning from each other, helping each other be the best disciple of Jesus we can be. Here is an important truth about mentoring: it starts with relationship. I don’t believe any of the mentors I mentioned picked me out of a lineup and decided to mentor me. Rather, through relationship they chose to take a mentoring role. That’s not to say it is inappropriate to choose someone to mentor; I’ve had other mentors who began our relationship in a mentoring role. I have great respect for them as well. Throughout my ministry, I have been blessed to be a mentor for others; some I’ve mentored through an already established relationship; others I chose to mentor. So let me ask you a question. Who has God placed in your life to mentor?

Following are some signs of healthy church mentoring.

  • Mentoring always points to Jesus.
  • Every leader in your congregation is intentionally mentoring someone.
  • Mentoring is not age-specific, but there is intentionality about mentoring younger members for leadership.
  • Mentoring isn’t as much about teaching as it is about sharing life.

Mentoring includes an expectation to learn as much as you teach.

The ABC’s of Healthy Mentoring   

 

 

By Anthony Mullins, U.S. Southeast Regional Director

 

Always affirm God’s love for the person you are mentoring.

Build a relationship as if you are going to know them for the rest of your life.

Consistent availability. If they find you’re consistently unavailable, they’ll look elsewhere.

Disciple them by demonstrating the gospel in word and deed.

Encourage them. You never know what the Lord will unleash with a single word of affirmation and encouragement.

Family (learn to see the person you are mentoring more and more in his/her family context).

Go to activities and events that matter to the person you are mentoring.

Help them interpret what is going on in the world in light of Jesus Christ.

Invest in one or two people. Do for one what you want to do for everyone.

Jesus is their Lord and loves them more than you do. You don’t need to solve all their problems.

Keep your word.

Listen sincerely (don’t be leaning towards “the next thing” – they will pick up on it).

Mind the gap. What needs exist your mentee’s life where you can serve and make a difference?

Notice their achievements.

Open your home to them.  Relationships are forged in the inner sanctuary of the home.

Partner in prayer with the Holy Spirit. He’s already at work in your mentee. Ask him to show the way.

Quit your stinkin’ thinkin’ that you are not “enough” to be a mentor. Be yourself…it’s enough.

Remember the names of people your mentee cares about and seek to meet them. It takes a village.

Show up! And keep showing up.

Talk about what they are interested in without overwhelming them with questions (share your story, too).

Utilize small group ministry. Smaller group interaction and relationship with them during the week is gold.

Vital mission process: Invite. There’s power in the personal invitation. Come and see.

Wishing someone would ask you to be their mentor doesn’t always make it happen. It takes intentional invitation.

X-pert. Become an expert about their lives; their dreams, hopes, concerns, areas of needed growth.

You don’t need to add new appointments to your schedule. Invite them to join you in what you are already doing.

Zealous in prayer for them always!

Contextualizing Jesus

Youth Vision

Jesus was a master storyteller. He communicated profound truths using images easily recognizable to his audience. He was able to make his message relevant and immediately applicable. A good example is found in Luke 13:

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Luke 13:20-21)

Given his profession as a carpenter and the roles of men and women in his day, Jesus probably did not make a lot of bread. However, he knew enough about making bread to speak about it in detail, and he was able to use it to make a point about the kingdom. The kingdom, unnoticed and under the surface, would spread into all the world and change it. His story was likely easily understood by his audience, and perhaps the next time one of them made bread, she thought about the Kingdom of God. Not long after Jesus spoke these words, he was crucified, and the Jerusalem church was persecuted. I am sure many reflected on this story and were comforted to know that the kingdom would not be stopped.

Jesus was able to communicate both relevantly and practically because he deeply understood his audience and what they needed in order to live for him. When thinking about children and youth ministry, we should follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus, God, and the Gospel story need to be contextualized for young people so the messages are memorable and relevant. Here are three tips to help us:

  1. Understand youth culture

As much as we can, we should try to understand the people, (virtual) places, and things to which our young people are giving their attention. How do they communicate with each other and what words do they use? We should not try to imitate youth culture; that is a recipe for embarrassment! However, understanding their world can make them feel like you see them, and you care. We can use our understanding of youth culture to engage their sacred imagination. We can make the Bible come alive by reframing the story into their cultural context, like Jesus did with the parables.

  1. Understand their social, emotional, and cognitive development

As human beings grow, we go through different developmental stages. Our brains typically continue to grow and change until we reach the age of 25. At each stage, our brains cause us to behave a bit differently and have different capabilities. Knowing how our brains work will help us make sure our content is appropriately engaging and challenging. My friend and predecessor, Ted Johnston, graciously shared a helpful table that summarizes the social, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual capabilities of young people at each developmental stage.

  1. Understand the expectations put upon our youth

For many young people, their lives are dominated by school, sports, and other extracurricular activities. Instead of speaking about Jesus in the abstract, we should apply the teachings of Christ in such a way as to help our young people deal with the expectations put upon them. For instance, we can teach young people the spiritual discipline of meditation to help them relax before a difficult exam. Or we could use the story of Esther to talk about how challenging it is to follow Christ when others around us do not. Jesus is both spiritual and practical, and our ministry should be as well.

Our young people should see Jesus as their God and the Bible as their story. Let us follow Jesus’ example and help make the Gospel story come alive all around them.

Dishon Mills, US Generations Ministry Coordinator

Gospel Reverb – Extravagant Love w/ Charles Taylor

Extravagant Love w/ Charles Taylor

Video Transcript

Extravagant Love with Charles Taylor Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins, and guest, Charles Taylor, unpack these lectionary passages: March 7 John 2:13-22 (NRSV) “ Jesus Cleanses the Temple” (6:05) March 14 John 3:14-21 (NRSV) “Lifted Up” (17:32) March 21 John 12:20-33 (NRSV) “Losing and Dying” (30:04) March 28 Mark 14:1-15:47 (NRSV) “Extravagant Love” (43:49) If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Extravagant Love with Charles Taylor

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins, and guest, Charles Taylor, unpack these lectionary passages:

March 7
John 2:13-22 (NRSV) “ Jesus Cleanses the Temple”
(6:05)

March 14
John 3:14-21 (NRSV) “Lifted Up”
(17:32)

March 21
John 12:20-33 (NRSV) “Losing and Dying”
(30:04)

March 28
Mark 14:1-15:47 (NRSV) “Extravagant Love”
(43:49)

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot.
And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Connect Groups w/ Heber Ticas

Connect Groups w/ Heber Ticas

Video Transcript

“As pastors, we need to recruit, and we need to develop- before we launch anyone into any ministry. So, if I’m a pastor that I don’t have a Faith Avenue Champion, and I’m looking for someone to start my Connect Groups, or to get it going in the Faith Avenue. The first thing I would do is to start praying, recruiting, and whoever I think the Lord is leading me to, I would take an inventory of gifts…I wouldn’t want someone leading something they haven’t experienced before. So,  I would invite this person to join me in a small group, and to take them through the Apprentice Square.” – Heber Ticas, GCI Superintendent of Latin American churches
Main Points:
  • What is the role of the Faith Avenue in bringing healthy rhythms to a church? (7:06)
  • When launching a new connect group, what should the Faith Avenue Champion and group facilitator consider as priorities? (10:39)
  • What are some practical steps for creating a discipleship pathway to connect new members to Connect Groups? (30:02)
  • What are the differences of a Bible Study and Connect Group? (33:53)
  • What if a church has not yet launched the Faith Avenue – describe the type of person who would be a good candidate for the Faith Avenue Champion and what they should considering in building the Avenue team. (43:10)

In this episode, host Anthony Mullins interviews Heber Ticas. Heber is a church planter and pastor while also serving as the GCI Superintendent of Latin American churches. Together they discuss connect group ministry, what we are starting to call Connect Groups in GCI, and how vibrant, healthy Connect Groups support the overall Healthy Church Vision.

“As pastors, we need to recruit, and we need to develop- before we launch anyone into any ministry. So, if I’m a pastor that I don’t have a Faith Avenue Champion, and I’m looking for someone to start my Connect Groups, or to get it going in the Faith Avenue. The first thing I would do is to start praying, recruiting, and whoever I think the Lord is leading me to, I would take an inventory of gifts…I wouldn’t want someone leading something they haven’t experienced before. So,  I would invite this person to join me in a small group, and to take them through the Apprentice Square.”
– Heber Ticas, GCI Superintendent of Latin American churches

Main Points:

  • What is the role of the Faith Avenue in bringing healthy rhythms to a church? (7:06)
  • When launching a new connect group, what should the Faith Avenue Champion and group facilitator consider as priorities? (10:39)
  • What are some practical steps for creating a discipleship pathway to connect new members to Connect Groups? (30:02)
  • What are the differences of a Bible Study and Connect Group? (33:53)
  • What if a church has not yet launched the Faith Avenue – describe the type of person who would be a good candidate for the Faith Avenue Champion and what they should considering in building the Avenue team. (43:10)

Sermon for March 7, 2021

Speaking of Life 3015 | The Opposite Game

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3015 | The Opposite Game Michelle Fleming I used to be a teacher, and one technique I learned that helped kids understand antonyms was the “Opposite Game.” The game involved using flashcards with words like “hot,” and the first student to answer with an appropriate opposite, like “cold,” would get a point. The idea was that by helping students understand what a word was not, they would better understand what the original word means. In the Bible, the writers sometimes use opposite examples called contrasts, exaggerations called hyperbole, and other literary techniques to make their point. The apostle Paul used “The Opposite Game” in his first letter to the Corinthians to help them understand what God’s wisdom is not—so they could grow in their awareness of what God’s wisdom truly is. Paul begins by pointing out how the idea of Christ on the Cross seems silly to those who aren’t interested in pursuing a relationship with God, but to those who are interested, the Cross portrays the love of God for all humanity. He writes, For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 1 Corinthians 1:21 (NRSV) One translator said God was turning conventional wisdom on its head in order to expose so-called experts as crackpots. In other words—opposites. Paul continues using opposites to show how God’s way is completely different—“opposite”—to the way humanity thinks.  He points out that the Jews were looking for miracles and the Greeks were searching for wisdom in the philosophy of the day. To both groups, the idea of self-sacrificing love on the Cross was not only the opposite of a miracle, it was absurd. Paul shows how God’s way of love, evidenced by Christ on the Cross, helps us think beyond our limited human scope: but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1:24-25 (ESV) Human beings tend to put God in a box—one that looks like what our human wisdom dictates as reasonable and prudent. God’s love for humanity is the opposite of reasonable and prudent. It is lavish, excessive, and strong—even as it is self-sacrificing. Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that the truth of God’s being was the opposite of humanity’s typical way of loving and living. Learning about opposites helps kids understand the meanings of words more fully. Human love is often finite and self-seeking, but God’s love is infinite and self-sacrificing. Considering how God’s way of moving in the world contrasts with our own helps us understand how deeply we are loved. We are safe in the certainty that God’s “opposite” kind of love will never let us down or let us go. God’s love, evidenced by Christ on the Cross, is stronger and deeper than anything you can ever imagine. I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 19:1-14 · Exodus 20:1-17 · 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 · John 2:13-22

The theme for this week is God’s priority is people, which contrasts with our typical human tendency to misunderstand what’s important. Our call to worship Psalm shows how God is communicating what’s important through nature. Exodus 20 features the Ten Commandments, offering wisdom about putting relationships with God and people first. 1 Corinthians contrasts how the truth of God, being seen in the cross of Christ, is the opposite of the way we move through the world. John, which is our sermon text, shows how Jesus displayed in the temple and in his own body that God is accessible to all.

The Location Is You

John 2:13-22

You may have heard the real-estate mantra “Location, location, location.” It means that where a home is located affects its value. Even if you have a really nice home, if it is located on a busy street you might have difficulty selling it because of the high traffic flow.

How does location affect us in other ways? We try to choose a nice place to live, the nicest we can afford, because the environment around us matters. Research from the University of Minnesota shows that our home and work environment can influence our moods and even impact our ability to take action.

For the Jews in Jesus’s day, the location of their worship was important. The temple was where they would worship God through specific rituals and offerings. Jesus also worshipped at the temple, taking part in the rituals and offerings. Until the one time that he didn’t. Let’s read about that:

Read John 2:13-22, NRSV

What can we observe about the text?

  • By cleansing the temple of the money changers and the people selling the cattle, sheep, and doves, Jesus stopped the corrupt practices associated with taking advantage of people bringing in animal sacrifices as part of their worship. The money changers were making worship more difficult by inserting themselves between the people and worshipping God. They were imposing their own rules and requirements and taking advantage of people. They had turned the temple into a trade market.
  • Jesus said in verse 19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” While they assumed he was referring to the physical temple, he was referring to his body (v. 21). We could take this as a prophecy of his resurrection, as the disciples did (v. 22), and it is, but we must also realize that Jesus isn’t just talking about his body being a future temple, but a temple already.
  • We see in John 1:14 that the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. The Son of God entered a new temple—a human body. Through this human body, Jesus is showing a new intersection where God and humanity meet, one that wasn’t dependent on location.
  • This human body (Jesus’s body)—where humanity and God met—shows us how much God values human bodies. Our embodied experience is our way of being in the world, and as we seek to integrate the truth of our being (who God says we are in Christ—loved, treasured, held) with our way of being (how we move in the world), we also become temples—places of intersection where the divine and human meet. Paul makes this point in his letters to the churches in Corinth and Ephesus.

Application:

  • Recognize that Jesus wants to clear out anything that keeps the way we move in the world from reflecting the truth of who we are in Christ. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), and just as Jesus cleared the temple of anything that was preventing full, unobstructed worship for all people, so he also wants to cleanse us of anything that keeps the way we live our lives from matching the truth of who we are: beloved, valued, worthy. What limiting beliefs keep you from believing you are treasured by God?
  • Value yourself and others as temples of God. No longer are we tied to worshipping at a set location, as if God could be confined to one spot. Instead, as we move in the world, we are never separate from the Holy Spirit. We are so valued by God that the temple has become us. Consider the beauty and the care that was taken in the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 36) and Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6). While these were symbolic of God’s presence, Jesus embodied flesh to show that God wants to dwell in and with us, not in a building. People are valuable, made in God’s image, and filled with God’s Spirit.

Location is everything in real estate. It also is important in our spiritual lives when we realize that no matter where we find ourselves, God is there. Where we worship together, God is with us. When we have to be separate because of a pandemic or other issue, God is still with us. Whether we can be together in person or on Zoom or other social media, we are evidencing the presence of God with humanity. As we love and care for one another, we show love and care for the temples of God.

For reference:

https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/enhance-your-wellbeing/environment/your-personal-environment/how-does-your-personal-environment-impa#:~:text=Your%20home%20and%20work%20environment,behavior%20and%20motivation%20to%20act.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • In the Speaking of Life video, it talks about how God’s ways are often “opposite” to the ways our human world works. Can you think of some ways that this is true? What examples come to mind that illustrate a difference between how God views people and how people view other people?
  • Access to worship was not always available in Jesus’s day. For example, most Jews would only travel to the temple during the holy days in the spring or fall. Women were not permitted to worship except in certain areas of the temple, and their monthly cycles also kept them isolated from worship activities. How does Jesus as the new temple broaden our ideas of access to worship? In other words, if location is no longer important, then how are our daily lives a part of worship?
  • Have you considered that your daily routine, your job, and your care of your family constitute worship because of the Holy Spirit dwelling in you? If so, how do you approach these day-to-day activities?
  • Many people struggle with embracing their place as God’s beloved child. If one of your children questioned their value or their worth to God, how would you explain to them their preciousness in God’s sight?

Sermon for March 14, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3016 | The Sacred Irony

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3016 | The Sacred Irony Greg Williams A memory scripture from my youth is a familiar verse to many. In fact, it’s a gold standard for kids memorizing scripture in Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible School.  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV) This verse is one of the anthem cries of our faith, especially in the evangelical protestant tradition. We are saved by grace, not by good works or good nature or good attitudes, or whatever plea we make on our own behalf. Salvation is the gift of God. But look at the next verse: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10 (ESV) Did Paul just do a 180° here? He was talking about how salvation is the gift of grace, not works, and then in the next breath, he’s talking about how God has prepared good works for us beforehand to adopt as our lifestyle. Is this a contradiction? Not at all. It is important to know that Paul isn’t talking about “good works” as some way to merit God’s favor or “earn” our way into heaven. And there is no discussion in this passage of somehow keeping God happy. The verses before make it clear that our identity in Christ is sealed and delivered. Paul is talking about life, and by “life” I mean real life, full life, spirit-filled life, which the New Testament writers called “zoe.” This is eternal life, and it begins today, right now, in Christ. It also deepens and broadens as we experience Christ by joining him in his work in the world—the “good works” that Paul is talking about. This is the key. The best life is knowing Christ and walking with him—participating with him in his good works. This is the sacred irony of freedom through obedience; experiencing fullness by giving everything back to him. Jesus saved us, but he doesn’t just wait for us to meet him after death. He leads us, by the Spirit, to serving and loving and giving and we meet him every day and join him in the daily good works he has prepared for us. I am Greg Williams, Speaking of the fullness of Life.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 • Numbers 21:4-9 • Ephesians 2:1-10 • John 3:14-21

The theme for this week is born from above. The call to worship Psalm is the anthem of God’s redeemed people, saved only by his mercy because of who he is. Numbers 21 talks about the bronze serpent that Moses made in the desert. When the people looked at it, they were mysteriously healed from snakebites. They had to look for help from outside themselves and receive a healing they could never earn. Ephesians 2 describes the mechanics of how we are saved by God’s grace, not our own merit or worth, but because of his grace to call us into true life with himself. John 3 tells us about being “born from above” (or “born again”, the phrase means both things) by God’s Spirit, not working or evolving our way into God’s grace, but looking up for help.

Jesus in Conversation

John 3:14-21 ESV

Read John 3:14-21 ESV

Before we begin unpacking today’s text, let’s get a context. The average modern person speaks over 860 million words in a lifetime. That includes everything from baring your heart to your best friend to ordering fast food. We talk our way through life—there’s nothing more human than conversation, and it’s the daily traffic of our existence.

Among those hundreds of millions of words, there are pivotal conversations. There are some moments you’ll never forget—your first conversation with your spouse, your last talk with a parent who died, the first time your kids asked about a particular topic. Conversations tell us a lot about others and tell others a lot about us. In many ways, our exchanges make us who we are. Jesus’ conversations tell us a lot about him.

He has three important conversations in this first part of John—each telling us something different about him, but all giving clearer indications about what his kingdom was going to be. There are some interesting observations in these three conversations:

  • Three different people from different walks of life
    • Nicodemus – a Jewish leader
    • An unnamed Samaritan woman at a well
    • A Roman official
  • Three different conversational styles
    • First is almost confrontational, but also prophetic.
    • Second is the longest recorded one-on-one conversation of Jesus.
    • Third is short, almost dismissive.
  • Different times/locations
    • Nicodemus meets Jesus at night (night is one of John’s symbols for sin and confusion). This meeting seems to have taken place in Jerusalem.
    • Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at noon in a town of Samaria.
    • The official comes to Cana in Galilee to meet Jesus.
  • Three different parts of society
    • Nicodemus represents the current religious power
    • The woman represents the poor and broken
    • The official represents the military power

These conversations tell us a bit about who Jesus is and what his kingdom means. They tell us Jesus is not exclusive to one people group. (Later we see he was teaching us that all are included.) Here is where the last shall be first, the humble get the seats of honor, and the broken are healed and not forgotten.

John and the Gospel writers often used individual conversations as a device to speak to an entire people group and show how Jesus related to that group. There’s an old cliché about storytelling: “If you want people to read what you’ve written, don’t write about Man, write about a man.” That principle is at work in here.

Our focus today is on part of that first conversation. The first part of chapter 3 tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews. In other words, he was a prime example of an “important” person in the Jewish community. He was connected to the religious-political elite and would have been a great networking link for Jesus. If Jesus wanted to win friends and influence people, Nicodemus would be on the short list.

Nicodemus comes because he is intrigued with what Jesus is teaching. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God…” Jesus seems to interrupt him by telling him he must be born again. He then expounds the point by speaking of the mystery of the spiritual life.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8 ESV)

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that you need the invasive work of God to know God, and no amount of good works or good traditions or faith in yourself will get you there.

Nicodemus responds by saying, “How can these things be?”

Jesus responds with today’s text, which begins with a reference to a story Nicodemus was familiar with.

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)

As Nicodemus is pondering these words, Jesus shares what has become (perhaps) the most famous scripture of all time.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)

The message is that God himself entered the story; the Author walked into the narrative because we needed outside help. At least in the U.S., this is the favorite Bible verse written on signs at football games or tattooed on someone’s bicep. John 3:16-17 speaks to our universal need that this can’t be all there is. We are made for another world, some deeper reality than what we just see and touch, and yearn for in our hearts. John 3:16-19 gives us that elevator pitch of the gospel—a short, compact version of the problem, the solution, and the action to be taken.

And note that Jesus doesn’t just refer to the incarnation here—he also refers to his death. God gave his Son to humanity, and in being “lifted up,” the Son of Man gave the ultimate gift.

The encounter with Nicodemus ends with two verses that some feel are difficult to understand at first, but they fit well within the context and the overall story of John:

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:20-21 ESV)

Light is a major theme for John, whether it’s physical or spiritual. Here Jesus talks about the fact that we in ourselves can’t take the terrible exposure of God’s light on our actions and our hearts. His light exposes the fungus of egotism and the cobwebs of self-focus around everything we do, even the good things.

And the upshot of it is that when we really encounter God, we realize that even our best isn’t good enough, and that we need him to work his light through us to the world. Every non-self-interested thing we do, every loving word we speak, every act of true kindness we do comes from him, not from us. It is, as the King James renders verse 21, “wrought in God.” Done by God for God’s glory, which is the only way we are truly fulfilled and live in true freedom.

“So that it may clearly be seen…” We need to be born again, and when we are, we can rejoice that the good in us is a gift from God. Nicodemus comes out of a tired, power-hungry religious structure that was flea-bitten by egos and in-fighting. Jesus tells him to walk away, that we all need a savior, and our only chance is rebirth. We don’t need more traditions, more good works— we need stronger medicine.

This reality frees us. We can walk away from our need for recognition and rejoice that God has brought us into the sacred work of bringing his kingdom into the world. Think of the great quote from an 18th-century missionary, Nikolaus Zinzendorf, “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” Do you see the freedom in that? Our voracious egos wait around to be noticed, our addiction is to center stage, and here is Jesus telling us, “All that’s good in you came from God, don’t look for credit. Instead rejoice. Your father is pleased with you.”

The end of this dialogue sticks out like a question mark. It’s unresolved and jagged. It’s Jesus essentially taking control of the conversation, deflecting every angle Nicodemus might come up with. Jesus breaks through it all, saying, “You need to start over, everything needs to be replaced. So what will it be?”

This isn’t the end of Nicodemus. We have one hopeful image at the end of Jesus’ life. Two men in hushed voices carry the body of their friend and the air is soon sweet with perfume:

After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40 ESV)

This is our parting image of Nicodemus, years later. He and another aristocrat, Joseph of Arimathea, are preparing the body of Jesus for burial. They are doing slaves’ work. Members of these ruling classes would never prepare a body! That was slaves’ work, far beneath them.

But what we’re seeing is two men who have been freed from the sickened power structures of their society. They are able to walk away from privilege and do this humble work. They are beginning to understand that true life doesn’t come from power and status, it comes from outside. They are being born from above.

Three points to put in your pocket today:

  • Conversations with Jesus—Which one of these conversations sounds more like you? The aristocrat interested in keeping the peace and his career intact? The Roman official trying to get things done, secure in his power? Or the woman at the well, aware of her own need and brokenness?
  • Born from above—Are we trying to live in our own strength? Are we trying to save ourselves? We need that outside help, we need that birth from above, to fully release us from our self-addiction. Otherwise we live under the cruelest ruler in the universe, ourselves. Only Christ can free us.
  • Nicodemus prepares the body—Do we see the freedom of Nicodemus, in public, doing the work of the slaves? Put it this way: If you appeared in the beginning of the Gospel and then reappeared years later, what would be that final picture of you? Would it show you living in the freedom the Nicodemus found?

Jesus will take you. Whether you come to him under cover of night for fear of what people think, you meet him hot and tired about your daily business, or you come to him on behalf of someone else, like the Roman official with his ill son. So many conversations with Jesus seem to start almost accidentally, and then that conversation becomes pivotal, and changes everything.

Contrast these for a moment to your own conversations. Do we give that time and attention, like Jesus did, to those who “don’t matter” and remind them that God has made them matter because he came? Do we take notice of those the world forgot, and make sure they get the good news of the gospel? Are we working in the light so that the works of Jesus can be clearly seen?

For God so loved the world, he gave us his Son. This is the message we share. Let’s be about sharing it.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Sermon—“Jesus in Conversation”
  • Can you remember a pivotal conversation in your life? Maybe a conversation that exposed who you were and changed your life?
  • We talked about the comparison of the conversations between three people and Jesus in these chapters of John: Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and the Roman official. Each conversation tells us more about who Jesus is. Which of these characters do you feel like in your life right now?
    • Nicodemus—Trying to preserve the status quo, baffled by Jesus
    • Woman at the well—Broken, but open to Jesus as the savior she needs.
    • Roman official—Meeting with Jesus almost by accident, part of the current power establishment, uncertain what to make of this wonder-worker.
  • One theme through this conversation is being born from above/born again. What does that mean to you? How do we know when we are “born from above”? Is that a one-time thing or an ongoing process?
Questions for SPOL—“The Sacred Irony”
  • Do you see this “sacred irony” in how we reach true life by dying to ourselves? How we reach freedom by obedience? How does that work out in everyday life?
  • Paul says we aren’t saved by our works and yet talks in the next breath about how God has prepared “good works” for us to take part in. What’s the deal?
Quote to ponder: A gust of wind happened to whistle down the chimney at that point, making the dying embers burst into flame, and Jesus said being born again was like that. It wasn't something you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something that happened, for God's sake. "How can this be?" Nicodemus asked (John 3:9), and that's when Jesus really got going.~~Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures

Sermon for March 21, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3017 | See the Manager

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3017 | See the Manager Jeff Broadnax Have you ever had a sour experience in a restaurant or retail store that prompted you to say, “I want to see the manager”? Maybe you felt the server was out of line or perhaps you had a disagreement at the return desk. When we say, “I want to see the manager,” we are appealing to a higher authority to settle our problem. We have had enough, and we want to be satisfied. Been there? Reflect with me for a moment on that experience. When we say, “I want to see the manager,” we don’t really mean that we want to see the manager. What we are really saying is “I want to see things go my way” or “I want to see my complaint settled in my favor.” We mean to be satisfied. We most likely have never met the manager or know anything about her. Now, consider this. Do we treat Jesus like the manager of a store when our experience turns sour? Is our desire to “see Jesus” really a desire in our heart to get our own way? When we are honest with ourselves, I think we would have to admit there are many times our desire to “see Jesus” is really our desire to get our way, on our terms. It’s OK to confess that. The Lord already knows, and he knows how to change our hearts. In fact, that’s one of the reasons Jesus was sent to us. He came so we could indeed “see” him by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in seeing him come to know him and his Father who sent him. That’s why we can pray with boldness this prayer recorded by David who went from seeking his own way to desiring to see and be transformed by God: desired to see and be transformed by God: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”  Psalm 51:10-12 (NRSV) When we really “see Jesus” and see his Father which he reveals by the Spirit, we find that the desires of our heart are satisfied or at least settled in him. We come to want to “see Jesus” because he, and the revelation of his Father, is beautiful to behold. This is when our desire grows to want to know him personally for who he is and not as a means to get our own way. May our Father give you eyes to see how he is working even in your sour experiences and fill you with joy as you walk with Jesus. I’m Jeff Broadnax, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 51:1-12 • Jeremiah 31:31-34 • Hebrews 5:5-10 • John 12:20-33

This week’s theme is the glory of salvation. The call to worship Psalm links confession and repentance to God’s saving renewal. The Old Testament text in Jeremiah is a direct announcement of salvation with an explicit reference to the new covenant where hearts are transformed. The reading from Hebrews highlights Jesus choosing not to glorify himself but being appointed to suffer for the sake of salvation for all who believe in him. The Gospel text looks forward to Jesus’ death, where the Father is glorified in saving his creation through his Son.

We Would Like to See Jesus

John 12:20-33 (NRSV)

Our text today comes on the last week before we enter Holy Week—the final week of Easter Preparation when we recount Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and where his passion and death come to a head. This presents us today with a turning point where we can look back on all we have learned through our preparation season for Easter while also looking ahead to the climax of Good Friday and the Easter Resurrection.

The passage chosen for today is also a turning point in John’s Gospel. John has structured his narrative with two main sections divided between Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing and Jesus’ final days of ministry involving his death and resurrection. Chapters 11 and 12 serve as a hinge section of these two movements. This section includes the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and the Sanhedrin setting out to kill Jesus, the giver of life. The turning point of John’s Gospel is a matter of life and death.

In the passage for today, we are met with the response of some Greeks after Jesus enters Jerusalem.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. (John 12:20-22 NRSV)

By including “some Greeks among those who went up to worship,” John has expanded the implications of Jesus’ life and death to the whole world. These Greeks may have been what were referred to as proselytes, or non-Jewish people who were interested in the Jewish faith. Or they may have simply been Greeks passing through or visiting Jerusalem. These particular Greeks were searching for meaning. They were not Jews and therefore would only have been allowed in the Court of the Gentiles at the Temple. This designates them as the “rest of the world” in John’s telling of the account. Jews and “the rest of the world” are involved in the turning point of Jesus’ life and death ministry that leads to the resurrection. After “a large crowd” come to see Jesus enter the city with the expectation that he would save the Jews from Roman rule as their new King, we are told that the Greeks, or “the rest of the world,” also “would like to see Jesus.”

At this point, maybe we should stop and ask, “Why?” Why do the Greeks want to see Jesus? Along with that question we should ask ourselves the same question. Why do we want to see Jesus? We are not told in the text why the Greeks wanted to see Jesus and we may not always know exactly what personally draws us to him. But it is probably safe to say that in most cases the Greeks wanted to see Jesus for much the same reason the Jews did. The Jews wanted to see Jesus set them free, save them and usher in the life they have always wanted. The Jews were searching for a Messiah who would deliver them from their current bondage and suffering. When the Greeks saw the excitement and expectations of the Jews, perhaps they were reminded that they too have their own shackles and sorrows they would love to be delivered from. As we come to the story, we also bring our own bag of bondage and suffering.

The Greeks may not have been able to identify with the Jews’ particular situation under Roman rule anymore that we can, but we all have our own experience of struggle that sends us searching for relief. Is Jesus the answer? Can he deliver us? Will he bring me the life I want? These questions drive us to want “to see Jesus.” We want to see a Jesus who will ride into town and fix all that is wrong, set things straight and restore our world the way we think it should be. In short, we want to see a miracle and we want to see it now. We want to see Jesus.

Do you see the impersonal nature of this search to see Jesus? Like the Greeks, we may “request” to see Jesus but it’s not Jesus we really want to see. It’s what we think he can do for us. Jesus is a means to an end. The way John tells the story carries this impersonal tone. First, the Greeks do not go to Jesus directly but to Philip, a disciple with a Greek name who is from Bethsaida, a Greek-Jewish town. These Greeks seem to want to stay in their comfort zone as much as possible in seeing Jesus. Philip responds by telling Andrew, another disciple with a Greek name from the same town. Philip seems to have picked up on the sensitivity of these gentiles and puts one more step of distance between them and Jesus by going to Andrew next. Philip and Andrew are engaging in a “seeker sensitive” approach to bringing others to Jesus.

How about our own desires to “see Jesus?” Do we really want to see Jesus for who he is, or are we wanting to see if Jesus can restore our comfort zones? Can you relate to the “Speaking of Life” video? Do we treat Jesus like the manager of a retail store that we only want to see when things don’t go our way? Often in our search to see Jesus we find that what we really want is to see ourselves getting our way on our terms. But, before we throw the Greeks and ourselves to the curb for self-serving intentions, notice how Jesus responds to the Greeks’ request:

Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. (John 12:23-26 NRSV)

Jesus replies to their request with an odd little farming analogy about a wheat kernel that falls to the ground and “dies.” He follows this up with some paradoxical talk about losing your life to save it. Probably not exactly the response we would expect from our request to see Jesus. But Jesus has the cross firmly fixed in his mind. He is in Jerusalem and knows that very shortly he is going to be delivered up. He will die, be buried, rise and then ascend back to the Father. Jesus is not going to be around much longer to be “seen.”

With the use of a wheat kernel, Jesus has predicted that the restored life he is bringing will be accomplished through the paradoxical means of death. And like a kernel of wheat planted in the ground, this mysterious work will go unnoticed. We will not “see” it.

Have you ever planted a seed in the ground? If so, you probably can recount how the seed almost disappears after it hits the ground. It is hard to see as it camouflages in the dirt, especially a little brown wheat kernel. If we come looking to see Jesus riding in on a white stallion to set us up just the way we have decided it should be, we may be looking for a wheat kernel in the dirt. Don’t expect to see it. But the seed has been planted nonetheless. Only this seed will come up after its own kind. It will not break the dirt bearing the fruit we demand of it. It will come up looking like the resurrected Jesus, the ruler of his Father’s kingdom, on his Father’s terms and with his Father’s timing. And all this is God’s grace and mercy to us and all the world.

Jesus doesn’t turn the Greeks or us away for self-serving intentions. Rather, he reveals himself to us as the Life, Way and Truth who invites us to “see” and know him and his Father in the Spirit of their perfect relationship of love. You might say, “Jesus makes it personal.” No middleman for comfort’s sake, and no seeing from a distance.

Let’s read the last two verses again:

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. (John 12:25-26 NRSV)

Jesus then goes on to talk about losing one’s life to save it and a life of serving and following Jesus. This is the means of apprehending the restorative work he has accomplished. By faith, not by sight. We can take comfort today as we look around and see so much unrest and pain. We see evidence all around us that we live in a broken world full of death. But we don’t live by sight. We live by faith. Jesus has reconciled the world. He has restored and redeemed all creation. He has made all things new. And all this has been accomplished in Jesus Christ. We can’t always see it, but we can believe it. So, as we experience our own daily deaths by way of pain, loss, disappointment, discouragement, depression, and whatever else may be on our list of sorrows, we can take comfort and find peace in the fact that it is in and through these things that Jesus is mysteriously working to bring about new life.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. (John 12:27-30 NRSV)

Take note of the voice from heaven that says, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again,” in response to Jesus’ request to “glorify your name.” There are a couple of interpretations to this voice that Jesus said was for our benefit, not his. One possible reference being made here is the raising of Lazarus as the first instance of glory and the raising of Jesus as the second. In both of these we see that the Father is glorified in the restoration of humanity. John 11:40 records Jesus as saying in regard to Lazarus’ resurrection, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” When Jesus is resurrected, we see the restoration of not just one human but of all humanity. In this the Son glorifies the Father.

The second interpretation to consider is seeing, “I have glorified it” as referring to the life of Jesus. The incarnation of the Son, living his life in human flesh, serves to restore and redeem humanity. The statement, “and will glorify it again” can be a reference to the death of Jesus that was about to take place. Both the life and death of Jesus serve to restore all mankind.

Either interpretation helps us see that the Father is glorified in our restoration. This is of great benefit indeed for us to hear that what brings the Father glory is our restoration and healing. He is more for our deliverance and healing than we are. He knows how tight the shackles of bondage we are enslaved in really are. He knows the root of our suffering and he has plunged the depths of our sorrow. He doesn’t settle for our shallow request. He provides in himself the very life we are created for. In him there is true freedom, peace and joy far beyond our wildest imaginations.

The passage concludes with a statement about judgment.

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:31-33 NRSV)

We see that the judgment of the world involves a “driving out and a drawing in.” The first Adam listened to the serpent in the garden, resulting in he and Eve being driven out. Jesus, as the second Adam, listens faithfully to his Father and the “prince of this world” is driven out. Verse 32 provides the restoration or the “drawing in” that Jesus accomplishes through his death: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” When he said this, he predicted how he would die. And like the wheat kernel that falls to the ground, he will spring all humanity upward in a restored and resurrected life in him.

What is important here is to see that our true humanity is found not in ourselves but in Jesus. What needs to be driven out of us is our self-reliance and self-centeredness. We cannot be like a sulking child who refuses to come out of his room in defiance to his Father. That would only lead to a loss of freedom to live in the other parts of the home as part of the family. He has imprisoned himself in his own self-determined reality. It’s only when this sinful rebellion is driven out of us that we can enter into the full home of the Father that Jesus has drawn us into. And even this is by God’s grace. It is his glory to make us fully human, to live as children of the Father, just as Jesus lives as the Father’s beloved Son.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The Speaking of Life video used the analogy of saying “I want to see the manager” as a way of saying we want to see Jesus, when we actually want to see Jesus as a means to an end. Can you share ways we treat Jesus as a “means to an end” in our lives?
  • What did you think of the statement from the video that the Father will never say, “It’s not personal, it’s only business”?
  • The sermon presented this Sunday of Easter preparation as a “turning point” where we can look back on what we have learned during this season while looking forward to Good Friday and Easter. Is there anything you can share as you make this reflection?
  • Were you surprised in the text to see that the Greeks wanted “to see Jesus”? Can you think of examples today of “Greeks” or the “world” who are seeking to see Jesus?
  • The text states that the Greeks made their request to Philip, who had a Greek name and was from a Greek/Jewish town and also that Philip took the request to Andrew, who also had a Greek name, from the same town. The sermon said this was an “impersonal” way of seeing Jesus where the sensitivities of the seekers were given higher priority than a personal encounter with Jesus. Can you think of ways we might do this today? Have your own “sensitivities” or preferences prevented you from personally seeing Jesus? Discuss this dynamic.
  • How did the statement “the Father is glorified in our restoration” strike you? Have you ever thought of the Father’s glory being displayed in his grace and mercy to us? What are other ways we may think of the Father’s glory? Positive or negative?

Sermon for March 28, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3018 | Coronation of Thorns

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3018 | Coronation of Thorns Greg Williams The crown of thorns is perhaps the best-known image in the Christian tradition other than the cross itself. Jewelry, church decorations, and art imagery all carry the familiar image of the barbed circle that was on Jesus’ head as he was paraded through Jerusalem and then nailed to a cross. It’s so common, we sometimes don’t think about it. But just this one detail of description teaches us a bit more about Jesus. The first time we see thorns in scripture is in the tragic declaration of the curse after Adam and Eve brought sin into the world: Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. Genesis 3:17-18 (ESV) It’s clear that thorns were part of the curse. Continuing throughout the Old Testament, we see thorns and thistles often representing sin and the people forsaking God. “Thorns will be in their tents,” says Hosea. “They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns,” Jeremiah proclaims. Isaiah declares, “briars and thorns will come up.” In contrast to this, when God is present and the people walk with him, streams appear in the desert and the promises always involve growth, flowers, and abundance. But back to Jesus. Back to the soldiers putting a purple robe on him and giving him a grisly coronation of thorns. It is just prior to his death that Jesus is lifted up under the sign of king. This is his enthronement. The very moment of his humiliating death was his victory, and the Kingdom was declared as he screamed his last. He took our pain and loss and sin into himself, and in death, the crowning result of sin was undone. The thorns, the enduring symbol of the desolation of sin, became instead the crown of Jesus the king. He turned shame into glory. Then he told us to live every day in this upside-down kingdom, where the last shall be first, the weak are the strong and the thorns become crowns. What does it mean to live in that existence, not only as a far-off promise of a blissful afterlife but of the transforming reality of the world that he has overcome? It is a freedom to live life in his fullness, to participate in his victory, to look at the crown of thorns as a reminder that Jesus is King. I am Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 31:9-16 • Isaiah 50:4-9 • Philippians 2:5-11 • Mark 14:1-15:47

The theme for this week is emptying ourselves and filling with trust. Our call to worship Psalm is the lament of someone whose soul is “wasting away,” but chooses to put his hope in the God who can be trusted. Isaiah 50 is the cry of the prophet who speaks his message despite opposition and trusts God to care for him. Philippians 2 describes Jesus’ self-emptying of his status and right as the Son to humble himself out of obedience to the Father. Our sermon discusses Mark 14-15, the story of Jesus emptying himself to death on a cross, prefigured by the woman who emptied the perfume in his anointing.

A Senseless Act of Beauty

Mark 14-15 ESV

Let’s start with a story. Skilled author and memoirist Ian Morgan Cron described his interactions with a professor he idolized in school. This pipe-smoking, Scotch-soaked academic had written some award-winning fiction during his career, and he took Ian and a few other lucky students out to see his writing cabin behind his New England home. All his great works had been written there.

Ian describes the scene:

…a chair, a plain table with an ancient typewriter on it, a thesaurus, a picture of his dog Jack, and a decanter filled with an amber liquid. A short stack of firewood sat next to the black stove. He had worked in that cabin for fifty years.

The students stood there in awe, trying to catch a glimpse of the keys this great literature was typed on. At one point, an ambitious and clueless student loudly asked a question and broke the sacred moment.

The professor, in a cloud of pipe smoke, strode over to the student and said, with dreadful calm: “Sometimes it’s wiser to reverence than to parse.”

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Ian goes on to talk about the faith he discovered in his early twenties. He describes his frustration with the heady, bookish types that were always trying to argue the case for faith—to “parse” God into logic tables and airtight syllogisms.

…it was thin gruel to me. I didn’t want to parse God—I wanted to be swept up in his glory. I didn’t want to understand the Holy One; I wanted to be consumed in his oceanic love.

 Like the professor who told them not to comment, but just to stand in the sacred moment, Ian described his growing love for God as something beyond words. We can all think of these moments—seeing a great spectacle of nature, meeting the love of our life, seeing our child born—around which any words sound like distracting noise. Any commentary we might blurt out at such a moment seems to tarnish it—a distraction from the unspeakable holiness of what’s happening.

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. (Mark 14:3 ESV)

Our reading today gives us such a moment. This woman, without a word that we have recorded, and basically out of thin air, appears and anoints Jesus. The perfume fills the room, so strong it stings their eyes, and there are no words for that moment.

We are coming up toward Jesus’ crucifixion and death—called his “Passion” in many church traditions. Most of the Gospels describe the life of Jesus in the first two-thirds or so of the writing, and then spend the entire last third on the last week of his earthly life. They grind down to a crawl for the last moments, and not a word is out of place.

Mark sets this story in what some commentators call a “Markan sandwich.” Two stories are set to either side of another story so that the three of them comment on each other. On one side of this story we have the plot to kill Jesus forming. The Pharisees and other leaders discuss what might be the best moment to do away with this challenging Messiah figure. On the other side of the story, Judas goes to the halls of power to strike his infamous deal to betray Jesus.

So on either side of this woman’s emotional, intuitive, gorgeous moment, we have the calculating machinations of those trying to keep power and or gain power. We have men, the only gender taken seriously at that time in history, entirely missing the point of what is going on. In the middle of it all comes this unnamed woman who performs this act of beauty—the only fitting response to Jesus.

All the Gospels contain a version of this story, some of them with more description of the woman. We don’t know if this happened more than once or if the Gospel writers saw the story differently. But let’s zero in on the way Mark tells it.

Jesus had an amazing ability to stop everything when something mattered the most—to call the loud music of the story to an absolute halt in a moment. He spins around and says, “Who touched me?” when the woman touches the hem of his garment. He accepts the absurd offering of a simple lunch from a boy, which he then multiplies to feed thousands. He stops everything to let children crawl all over him even though the public is waiting.

Here he stops as this mysterious woman comes out of nowhere to dump a year’s worth of wages on his head.

Are we willing we stop like that? Do we know how to stop and listen in the helter-skelter of the day to listen to a child tell a pointless story? To be present with an elderly person who has trouble hearing? To ask our spouse about their day before immediately talking about our own? These are small things; they are sacred things.

…and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. (Mark 14:3 ESV)

She broke the flask itself, meaning it would be used all in that moment. There wasn’t going to be anything left, just the oil and the smell hanging in the air for that moment until the wind blew it away.

Have you ever tried to re-cork a bottle of champagne? If you can even find the cork after it flies through the room, it’s expanded so much that it can’t fit back into the bottle. And that’s the idea. Champagne, expensive $300 a bottle champagne, is meant to be consumed entirely when it’s opened. You want to be sure the occasion calls for it, because there’s no going back.

Forgive me if I jump ahead a few verses to Jesus’ response to the situation.

She has done a beautiful thing to me. (Mark 14:6 ESV)

Even this phrase sticks out like the exchange itself. A beautiful thing. Beauty is one of those anomalies in life—we can all recognize it, we all have a certain thirst for it, and yet it serves no “purpose.” Beauty doesn’t get us prey or defend us from predators, it serves no advantage. Yet it’s part of being human, and a part that those who don’t believe in God can never quite explain away.

Beauty is this moment that breaks this context, that skips the needle out of the groove and kicks the story off its rails. Out of nowhere, there’s this woman; out of nowhere, there’s this sudden extravagance.

Do we worship like this?  Do we pour out all we have before Jesus—our hearts and souls? Even when it might make other people, even ourselves, uncomfortable?

C.S. Lewis, in “Letters to an American Lady,” writes:

The precious alabaster box which one must break over the Holy Feet is one’s heart. Easier said than done. And the contents become perfume only when it is broken. While they are safe inside they are more like sewage.

And that is the story here. While Judas is guarding whatever agenda he had, and lining his pockets, his soul is being lost. While the leaders plot and scheme to keep their power, their souls go bad. Only this woman, unnamed and almost irrational, gets it. And the perfume only becomes perfume when it’s outside of the bottle it came in.

The disciples are also on an adventure in missing the point:

There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. (Mark 14:4-5 ESV)

They are just coming up on Passover, which was a central festival to the Jewish faith. During that time, giving to the poor would have increased—it was the thing to do at Passover.

This also seems like they are starting to understand—or at least think they understand—what Jesus was about. He served the poor, and he called them to always remember the poor. They are stepping in to say they get what Jesus is up to, and this is how he’d want it. They even go so far as to give the exact amount—300 denarii, which is roughly a year’s wages.

And here is where they miss the point.

But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” (Mark 14:6-8 ESV)

Yes, serving the poor is vital to what it means to bring in the kingdom. We hold up the broken, we speak for those who are voiceless, we work hard to see equality and justice in the world. But that’s not the entire picture.

In that context as well, the prophets and sages would have called them back to obedience. To serve the poor and bring God’s love to the broken, isn’t that what Jesus wants done?

Again, that’s not the entire picture. That’s a much more palatable picture, especially in our modern scientific times. Jesus as the great moral exemplar, the social reformer—note all these strange thorny questions of him dying and rising, of him being somehow God and somehow human at the same time.

And Jesus’ answer doesn’t let them—or us—go in that direction. Yes, the kingdom is all about changing society and healing the broken, but we can’t separate that from Jesus, the son of God and son of a woman, the King of the universe. The disciples jumping to talk about the “practical” uses for that money is a bit like the freshman jumping at the professor to ask his question—“sometimes it’s wiser to reverence than to parse.”

The moment is sacred. The story is beautiful and strange and beyond our tiny words and tiny minds to wrap itself around. Do you describe a summer night studded with stars by bringing out a graph and calculator? Do you stop the London symphony so you can whistle a tune? Do you doodle on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel? Never!

All you can do in those moments is wonder. And that’s what this unnamed woman gets in this moment. She didn’t have a theology degree; she didn’t understand all the ins and outs of what Jesus was up to. She just knew she needed to abandon herself in that moment and let her heart pour out in front of him.

…she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. (Mark 14:8 ESV)

Such a beautiful connection! Maybe she and Jesus both made sense of this at the same moment. This moment fit into the story somehow, but it’s not fully articulated until right then. She anoints Jesus’s body, but he’s not dead yet. For one, he will die as a tortured criminal and there won’t be the time and space to anoint him. But the other reality is that his body simply won’t be there when the ladies come to anoint him later on.

And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. (Mark 14:9 ESV)

And the story closes. The unnamed woman will have her story told over and over when the gospel is preached. And that has come true, of course. A character without even a name, at least in Mark’s telling, is always mentioned as part of the story.

Because she stopped everything for a moment. She brought everyone out of the worry, suspicion, anxiety of the moment to see the larger picture, even unknowingly. Jesus isn’t just a social reformer or another prophet to scold Israel. Rather, he’s the ultimate end of all of this, the grand conclusion of the human story itself. And the only proper reaction to that is wordless, nameless worship.

So what do we take home from this nameless lady with the oily shards around her feet, surrounded by a roomful of confused people? It’s risky and tarnishing to do too much commentary, but we can take home a few ideas.

  • Abandoned – She has a great abandon in her worship. She lets herself go and “has done what she could” (verse 8). Do we have abandon in the way we worship and in the way we follow Christ? Do we break the jar and pour it all out to him—our worries, needs, dreams, joys and pain? He wants it all. What are we holding back?
  • Beauty – See the beauty in this “unnecessary” moment, as the disciples call it, this “waste.” Can we see the multi-valent, multi-dimensional beauty of life that Jesus wants us to see? Only in him can we truly hold life with an open hand to let its beauty bloom.
  • The poor you will always have with you, you will not always have me – Yes, Jesus was a great reformer of society, a prophet, a great high priest, a great friend and a dynamic leader, but he was something more. Let’s not forget that in our modern efforts to make the gospel therapeutic or inspirational or comforting. It is all those things, but it is also the utterly strange and wild story of God coming to earth in the guise of a first-century peasant who spoke with an accent and died like a criminal. He then came back in the even stranger story of a resurrected body that appeared and disappeared between worlds, and he reversed death itself. It is indeed, a strange and beautiful story, and it’s the only one that works.

So, this Sunday is also Liturgy of the Passion Sunday. It’s often accompanied by the longer reading from Mark of some of the last parts of Jesus’s life. Let’s read that passage now, Mark 14:1—15:47, without commentary or response. But simply read it and listen in sacred silence to this amazing story that makes all other stories make sense. Let’s hold this beautiful moment together.

Read the passage with your congregation or have chosen readers. Close simply with “Amen” or a closing song.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life: “A Coronation of Thorns”
  • Have you ever owned a piece of jewelry or art depicting the crown of thorns? What does the image bring up for you?
  • We talked about thorns as a theme in the Bible starting with the curse of Adam. Does that heighten the irony of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns?
  • Have you seen God reverse curses in your own life? Turn what you thought was loss and desolation into glory?
Questions for Sermon: “A Senseless Act of Beauty: Luke 14”
  • The sermon focused on the wordless act of the woman anointing Jesus. Have you ever been present at a moment that can’t be put into words? As if any commentary would tarnish that moment and doesn’t even come close?
  • What do you think of verse 7? Jesus drew a kind of distinction between serving the poor and serving him. Did he mean we should forget about the poor?
  • Is it difficult, like this woman, to pour out our hearts in worship? Why? Why do we hold back?
Quote to ponder: “The strong hands of God twisted the crown of thorns into a crown of glory; and in such hands we are safe.” ~~Charles Williams, author and theologian